From Notre Dame to Saints, why rookie QB Ian Book remains 'unflappable'

METAIRIE, La. -- Only 6 feet tall.

Only a three-star recruit. Couldn’t win the big one. A fourth-round reach.

Throw whatever harsh critiques you want at the New Orleans Saints' newest quarterback, Ian Book. It's nothing he hasn’t heard countless times in the Notre Dame pressure cooker.

As Book said when he was drafted Saturday, skepticism has “just been the story my whole entire life.”

Nevertheless, Book wound up leaving Notre Dame with more wins than any quarterback in school history, going 30-5 as a starter and twice leading the Irish into the College Football Playoff.

And when you ask people like Sean Payton, Drew Brees, Irish coach Brian Kelly and other Notre Dame coaches for their impressions, the first words you hear are “winner,” “an absolute competitor” and “unflappable.”

Payton was asked after the draft for an example of what stood out while the Saints were scouting Book. He said: “Watch the Clemson game early in the season.”

Sure enough, Book’s signature moment came when he was facing the most pressure last November. Although Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence wasn’t playing because of COVID-19, the Tigers were the No. 1 team in the country. And the Irish were trailing 33-26 with less than two minutes remaining after they had squandered a 13-point first-half lead -- and Book himself had lost a gut-wrenching fumble near the goal line in the third quarter.

Book responded with a 91-yard drive that included a 53-yard pass to receiver Avery Davis and a 4-yard TD pass to Davis with 22 seconds remaining to force overtime.

Book then led the Irish on two TD drives in double overtime to secure the win.

“That was the big moment for his career,” said Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, who has been Book’s QB coach since 2017. “You know, up until that point we hadn’t won kind of the big one. Now, you beat your rival SC to go undefeated [in the 2018 regular season], and people seem to forget about that. And you beat Stanford, who’s ranked seventh in the country, your first start at home [in 2018], and people don’t want to give you credit for that. So there were some other big moments. But this was doing it against the very best in the country.

“And it really was Ian that said, ‘Hey we’re gonna freakin’ do this thing.’ ... It was unbelievable, his poise and his confidence.”

‘Don’t worry, I’ll play’

That mindset is nothing new. He said he started playing quarterback “from Day 1” in third grade because he wanted to have the ball in his hands.

Even though he was lightly recruited until his senior year of high school in El Dorado Hills, California, Book didn’t flinch when the opportunity to join Notre Dame’s loaded QB room presented itself.

“I feel guilty looking back on it now. Even I was thinking, ‘I get it, he’s not 6-4, he’s not 240 pounds,’” said Ian’s father, Rick, who admitted he and his wife Kim weren’t sure how far Ian’s career would take him when they encouraged him to choose Notre Dame over his commitment to Washington State. “We said, ‘You know what, if he carries a clipboard for four years at Notre Dame, he’s gonna get the best education out there.’ And we were completely content with that.

“But he said, ‘Don’t worry, Dad, I’ll play.’ And I was like, ‘God, this kid just has this internal moxie.' He just knew. I mean, he really knew.”

Book was recruited to Notre Dame by former offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, who first fell in love with Book when he was at Boise State and the Broncos offered Book a scholarship. Sanford left soon after for Notre Dame -- which had a QB room stacked with top recruits such as Malik Zaire, DeShone Kizer and Brandon Wimbush.

But when Kelly suggested they should try and add a quarterback that would be in it for the “long haul” instead of transferring if he didn’t win a starting job immediately, Sanford said, “I’ve got the perfect guy.”

“He’s an unflappable young man. ... I just knew this kid was gonna be special,” said Sanford, now the OC at Minnesota. “He was so level-headed, he was such a competitor. I knew the magnitude of being the quarterback at Notre Dame wasn’t gonna rattle him one bit.”

Rick Book laughed at the memory of his first visit to South Bend during Ian’s redshirt freshman season, when Sanford told him there were two “remarkable things” about his son.

First, Sanford told him, Ian was the first quarterback he had ever trained that never got the “yips” in practice -- no matter how much coaches tried to rattle him.

“And I was like all proud,” Rick recalled. “Then he said, ‘The second most remarkable thing is he’s the only kid on the roster who’s not homesick.’”

“Well, I wasn’t as happy about that,” Rick deadpanned. “But what it told me is Ian knew exactly what he was signing up for. He was 2,000 miles away, but it didn’t matter. It was, ‘I’m playing football, I’m competing, and I’m loving this.’”

‘He’ll do the same thing here’

Rick also loves to tell the story of Ian’s first big win as a redshirt freshman -- when he came off the bench to replace Wimbush in the Citrus Bowl and rallied the Irish past LSU.

Notre Dame offensive lineman Quenton Nelson, who plays for the Colts in the NFL, came to Book’s hotel room to give him a huge bear hug and thank him for winning his final college game.

“That just kind of shows you the respect he ended up getting from his teammates,” Rick said.

Book secured the starting job for good the following September after splitting time early with Wimbush, throwing for 274 yards and four TDs in that win over No. 7 Stanford.

“One of the hardest working kids I’ve been around. He just willed himself to the starting job, and once he got his opportunity he never looked back,” said former Irish OC Chip Long, who now holds the same job at Tulane. “I thought he handled [the skeptics] great and overcame some early struggles in certain seasons and always came back and finished strong -- especially when he had [rib and kidney injuries that sidelined him for a game] his first year starting.

“He’ll do the same thing here [in New Orleans]. He’ll just plain try to outwork you.”

Book threw for a combined 5,864 yards and ran for a combined 1,031 yards over his final two seasons. He threw 34 touchdown passes with six interceptions in 2019, with 15 TDs and three INTs in 2020.

Of course there are reasons why he fell to Day 3 of the draft -- and why ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said his "ceiling is as a backup."

Book will need to show more consistency with reads and recognition in the faster-paced NFL. However, he has always been lauded for his accuracy and how well he adjusts when plays break down, whether running or throwing on the move.

Two of the wildest examples came in a win over North Carolina last season.

“Very good with off-schedule throws and making plays outside the pocket,” said Brees, who has been studying Notre Dame for his role as an Irish analyst for NBC. “He comes across as a great competitor. His teammates loved him at Notre Dame.”

Of course the 6-foot Brees is a natural comparison for Book, who has studied Brees throughout his life. The success of shorter QBs like Russell Wilson, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray also provides blueprints.

Kelly said New Orleans is “obviously a great fit” for Book after the success Brees had.

“They’ve already been with a quarterback that is 6 foot and recognize that you don’t throw over offensive linemen or defensive linemen -- you throw around ‘em,” said Kelly, who added that Book brings “so many intangibles that nobody really could compete with.”

“Whether it will translate, we’ll see,” Rick said of those intangibles. “But don’t count this kid out.”