This Is Ian Book's Stage

Photo: © Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

About 51 weeks ago, the 4-0 Stanford Cardinal (7) came to South Bend to visit Touchdown Jesus and the 4-0 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (8). The Irish had lost to the Cardinal for the past three seasons, but that was to end that late September evening: the Irish never once trailed, controlling the clock and the game en route to a 38-17 victory that would stand as one of their statement wins in an eventual College Football Playoff roster.

About an hour before the game, we still didn't really know who was going to start at quarterback.

Brandon Wimbush, since transferred to UCF, had started for the Irish the previous season, in 2017. Behind him, redshirt freshman Ian Book had caught one game against UNC after a Wimbush injury, and looked fine in relief, but Wimbush, for all his inconsistency remained the starter. Turnovers plagued Wimbush in a drubbing at the hands of the Miami Hurricanes, and again in a late-season loss to the Cardinal. Inaccuracy, panic decisions, forced throws -- they leaked all the way into Wimbush's bowl performance against the No. 16 LSU Tigers in the Citrus Bowl. That's when HC Brian Kelly pulled him for Book.

Book and eventual Baltimore Raven Miles Boykin put 18 second-half points on the board to beat the Tigers, 21-17. But coming into camp, Kelly was noncommittal on a starter and insistent that both QBs would see playing time -- a delicate division problem that had gone largely haywire with DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire in 2016. Wimbush was named the starter, but pulled after three lackluster games in favor of Book, who started on the road and acquitted himself well against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. Well enough to earn his first home start, against the undefeated Stanford Cardinal in a huge rivalry game with playoff implications.

No pressure, young man.

As we now well know, Book delivered a statement performance, tightened his chokehold on the starting job, and didn't let go all the way through the semifinal loss to Clemson.

I was at that Stanford game, and I was shocked by Book's performance. That stage was supposed to be too big, that Stanford team too good -- and any player who couldn't soundly beat out Brandon Wimbush had to have some warts, right? But Book was impossibly calm and collected, regularly sifting through pressure and delivering accurate improvisation balls from bad throwing platforms; dynamic as a runner on both designed and scramble plays; industrious and compact with his throwing motion to keep the offense on schedule.

And that's largely what Book is as a passer: a schedule-keeper. He doesn't push the ball downfield often, electing quick back-shoulder fades on nine routes instead of hanging in the pocket to air out a rainbow. He'll tuck and scramble to create a positive play before risking a late throw to a backside read, and if he gets a running lane, will even tuck it before he gets to his second read. He largely protects the football from risky throws and asks a lot from his receivers in terms of adjusting to passes when he looks to place it away from coverage.

A shorter player without elite arm strength, you might be wondering what the major draw is with Book. I'd argue it's the athletic ability and the comfort extending plays -- he's not unlike Gardner Minshew II in that regard, and we're watching Minshew impress relative to his draft stock for the Jaguars right now -- but if you're suspicious, I'll ask you this: what's there to hang your hat on for Jake Fromm? Like Book, he's got wonderfully clean mechanics and can deliver a ball with good velocity given his motion. Like Book, he's comfortable managing a pocket and has good escapability. Like Book, he makes smart reads and protects the football relative to coverage.

Listen, I like Fromm better than Book, and I think he's a smarter player who has better touch on his throws. But they fill similar molds as passers, and it's a mold that's created measurable success in translating to the NFL.

The last time Book faced off against an SEC defense was the first time he saw it: that LSU Citrus Bowl, that galvanizing victory that threw his hat in the ring for the starting job he ended up never relinquishing. (Yes, he threw three passes against Vanderbilt; those don't really count.) Now, on the biggest stage since the stinker against Clemson -- a game in which Book generally acquitted himself well, despite constant duress from the Clemson defensive line -- Book has a chance to do what he did against Stanford, in his original coming out party: certify Notre Dame as a legit playoff contender.

This time, it won't be at home, as six-point underdogs to a fraudulent Stanford team: it will be against Georgia. Alabama's little brother who's been hitting the gym. Kirby Smart and his rotating safeties and trapping corners which stunned Tua Tagovailoa last year for almost long enough in the other semifinal game last season.

Stanford answered the question: "Is Ian Book legit?" Georgia will help answer the next question: "How legit is he?" The NFL and scouts everywhere are turning to Book to punch Georgia and Fromm square in the nose tomorrow, proving that he can be that level-headed schedule-keeper, that mistake free taker of what is given, who can make the throws necessary to move third-down sticks and keep drives alive; punch tight throws into the end zone for seven instead of three in one-score games. This is the national stage he needs to launch his draft campaign, and I can't wait to see what he does with it.