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How Ian Book has pushed Notre Dame’s offense toward the Playoff

Book’s solid all-around skills have multiplied in an offense geared perfectly to help him.

Notre Dame v Northwestern Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Brian Kelly has always built his Notre Dame offenses on power running and play action. At previous stops like Cincinnati, Kelly’s offense was a spread attack like one you might find in today’s Big 12. But at Notre Dame, he adjusted his system to make use of his talent pool.

In particular, Notre Dame has long loaded up with the kinds of offensive linemen schools like Cincinnati could only dream of recruiting: big, physical maulers who can smash an opposing team off the line of scrimmage. The Irish have become an NFL pipeline on the line, largely because they deploy that talent in the classic three-point stance (hand in the dirt), where linemen can drive at opponents and mash them:

The 2018 line has managed to replace the legendary tandem of Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, the left tackle and guard who went in the first round of the NFL Draft. Notre Dame’s blue-blood status and Midwestern location make it possible to keep rolling big linemen through every year and keep an edge in the trenches.

While Kelly’s kept recruiting those linemen, he’s remained a spread coach at heart. After dallying with dual-threat QBs for years in option-oriented systems, he made a transition this season before the Irish had a chance to lose: he turned to three-star redshirt sophomore Ian Book. That decision’s been critical to the Irish getting themselves into great Playoff position.

With Book, Notre Dame’s converted to a more balanced spread approach.

Notre Dame had a good start, beating rival Michigan 24-17 behind some solid play from dual-threat QB Brandon Wimbush. But then the Irish posted 24-16 and 22-17 wins over the likes of Ball State and Vanderbilt, and that was it for Wimbush. Book followed that up by leading the Irish to six consecutive wins at 38.8 points per game.

The difference is simple. The Irish traded an excellent runner in Wimbush — who also helped lead the Irish to a Week 11 win over Florida State, with Book expected to return from injury for Week 12 — for a serviceable option triggerman in Book, who has thrown for 8.9 yards per throw with 15 TDs and four picks as the operator of Kelly’s vertical spread passing schemes.

While Notre Dame regularly uses good tight ends who can block like tackles or as H-backs, it’s hard for spread offenses to run reliably if the QB isn’t a threat to at least use some read schemes. On the TD play above, Notre Dame motions in TE Alize Mack to block down for its pulling offensive linemen on a sweep play. But it also leaves the backside DE unblocked for Book to punish with a keeper if he crashes to chase the run down from behind.

Excluding sacks, Book’s ran for about 5 yards per carry and four touchdowns. The Irish call some direct-snap carries for him in short yardage, and they mix in typical read plays like the one that fooled Northwestern and sealed a win in Week 10:

Behind that line, Book can hurt teams with his legs. But he’s also Notre Dame’s most proficient passer yet in the run/pass option game.

That helps the RBs and involves Kelly’s perpetually loaded receiver group:

This is a favorite play for run-centric spread teams today: the traditional weak iso run action, with twin receivers holding the nickel (No. 25) with a bubble screen, and the solo-side receiver running a skinny post behind the safety, in case that safety gets nosy trying to top the run. It’s a downhill run play that draws in DBs with run-support responsibilities. When the QB is accurate to a big target on a cornerback, it’s trouble.

In the traditional spread passing schemes that propelled Kelly to Notre Dame, Book is also a significant upgrade over most Kelly QBs.

Here he is in one of the more essential roles in the Notre Dame offense, taking advantage of size and speed at WR on a vertical route combo up the seam:

The Wildcats roll a weak-side safety over so they can play over the top of Notre Dame’s three receivers to the strong side. But after the safety picks up the first WR running a post pattern, the second (No. 87 Michael Young) has space to execute a double move to win inside of the strong safety. Book lands the ball perfectly for six.

In the normal drop-back spread game, Book isn’t a world-beater, but he’s solid and can deliver accurate balls to big, imposing targets like the 6’4, 230-pound Miles Boykin:

Notre Dame’s spacing and run-game talent give Book simple reads. The passing game then comes down to accuracy and execution, rather than high-level field generalship. On this play, like on many others, he’s just reading a safety and throwing the flag route to Boykin as best he can to avoid the corner dropping back to contest the throw.

Book’s talents have unleashed the full weight of the Irish offense.

What Book is bringing to Notre Dame is conceptually similar to what Tua Tagovailoa is bringing to Alabama. With a versatile skill set that includes the ability to distribute the ball in spread-option schemes, RPOs, and play action, the defense gets into a bind. It has to either confuse Book about where the ball’s going or beat some talented player man-to-man.

The confusion angle is difficult, because Notre Dame can always just use the read game to run the ball, and the receiving group means he’ll often have matchup advantages. When an offense has Notre Dame’s line and blocking tight ends, it’s hard for a defense to stop the run without pulling numbers from the secondary. And when that offense has powerful, skilled wideouts with size advantages, a defense runs out of options in a hurry.

Book will get little draft buzz any time soon. But spread QBs of his ilk can be highly competent distributors, especially surrounded by NFL athleticism on a college field. This mix has left the Irish well positioned to have a special season.