2020 NFL Draft, Notre Dame and independents preview: Will Ian Book find big-time success in the NFL?
Book would snap the streak of Notre Dame quarterbacks who failed to produce at the next level
Joe Montana led Notre Dame to the greatest come-from-behind victory in college football bowl history. He then went from a third-round pick to a four-time Super Bowl champion, a three-time Super Bowl MVP and first ballot member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Many Irish quarterbacks have since tried to come close to the type of success Montana enjoyed as an NFL quarterback from 1970-'94. Each of them has failed to get there, while some rival schools have had at least one quarterback -- Michigan's Tom Brady and Purdue's Drew Brees come to mind -- go on to enjoy fruitful careers in the NFL.
This takes us to current Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book, one of the slew of players from Notre Dame and the five other NCAA Division 1 FCS independent schools with players whose names may be called during the 2020 NFL Draft. Here's a look at each.
Ian Book, QB
Book, a senior, would have an extra year of eligibility if he decides to forgo the 2020 draft. But, if he is able to put together a strong season while also leading the Irish back to the College Football Playoff, there's a legitimate chance that Book could decide to enter the draft after the 2019 season.
Last fall, the 6-foot-1, 208-pound signal-caller completed 68.2 percent of his passes for 2,628 yards with 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions while helping lead Notre Dame to a 12-0 regular season record as well as its first appearance in the CFP. Book's strengths entering 2019 include his accuracy as well as his football IQ. His notable weaknesses include his perceived lack of physical tools as well as his consistency on deep pass attempts.
One of Book's better (but not his best) games of the 2018 season came during Notre Dame's final regular season game, a victory at rival USC that punched the Irish's ticket to the CFP. While he threw for 352 yards and two touchdowns, he also threw an interception while completing just 56.4 percent of his attempts.
One of Book's best throws of that game -- and his season -- took place on his 24-yard touchdown pass to Chris Finke that got the Irish on the board after the Trojans had taken a 10-0 lead (you can watch the play at about the 1-minute, 12-second mark in the video above). Book, facing considerable pressure from the right side, lofted a perfectly-thrown, over-the-shoulder pass to Finke, who was able to secure the catch while getting his foot in bounds while also getting the ball over the goal line. The play showcased Book's football IQ: he had the matchup he wanted, with Finke in single coverage against one of USC's weaker cornerbacks. Book also made sure his pass -- a low, percentage one -- was thrown where only Finke could catch it. An interception in that situation could have doomed ND. Instead, Book completed an extremely difficult pass that got the Irish on the board.
A play Book certainly wishes he could have gotten back took place at the 2-minute, 52 second mark of the video. With heavy pressure in his face, Book backpedaled to his left before throwing a pass into triple coverage. The result wasn't pretty, with Book throwing an interception that cost the Irish a shot at taking a double-digit lead.
Book more than made up for his mistake in the fourth quarter. With Notre Dame facing a third-and-6 near midfield and holding a 17-10 lead, Book found a wide open Tony Jones Jr. for a 51-yard touchdown pass that proved to be the game-winning score. While it was a relatively easy throw for Book, sometimes the easier passes can be the hardest. Give Book credit for quickly getting the pass to Jones while not being phased by USC's eight-man front.
Book definitely has some things to work if he is going to declare this winter. He will have to continue to prove that his small stature won't be an issue at the NFL level, and can do that by continuing to work on his consistency and accuracy on deep passes. If he does those things while leading the Irish on another playoff run, Book may elect to begin his NFL journey sooner rather than later.
Julian Okwara, DE
The 6-foot-5, 240-pound pass rusher broke out in 2018, recording 8.0 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. While he isn't the biggest DE, Okwara makes up for it with his incredibly high motor that will undoubtedly impress scouts who watch his film. Okwara is relentless in his pursuit of opposing quarterbacks, as he recorded a whopping 61 pressures last season. Our Ryan Wilson had him going to the Tennessee Titans with the 12th overall pick in a recent mock draft.
Chase Claypool, WR
With Miles Boykin now with the Baltimore Ravens, Claypool, who caught 50 passes for 639 yards and four touchdowns last year, will be Book's go-to receiver in 2019. A physical receiver at 6-foot-4 and 229 pounds, Claypool is bouncing back from an ankle injury he sustained during April's Blue-Gold spring game. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has a game plan he hopes will allow Claypool to be ready for the Irish's first game.
"We haven't asked him to get in and out of explosive cuts, and I think what I was alluding to is when you observe him in practice, we're not going to throw a heavy load on him in the first three, four, five days," Kelly said, per The Herald Bulletin. "We're going to slowly get him back up to 100 percent and then peak him for Louisville."
Troy Pride, CB
After a solid 2018 season, Pride will have a chance to be Notre Dame's new lockdown cornerback with Julian Love now with the Giants. Pride's speed (he's been clocked running a 4.30 in 40-yard-dash) should help him stand out at next year's combine.
Khalid Kareem, DE
Kareem was still able to record 5.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss last season despite dealing with ankle injuries. Now healthy, the 6-foot-4, 262-pound edge rusher should drastically improve his draft stock with a big season in 2019.
MORE TO WATCH: Arguably Notre Dame's most consistent offensive lineman in 2018, Liam Eichenberg, a 6-foot-6, 305-pound offensive tackle, will most likely hear his name called in next year's draft. Safety Alohi Gillman, a former Navy transfer, finished second on the Irish in tackles in 2018. He also has the tools to be a solid special teams performer at the next level.
Tommy Kraemer is a former five-star recruit who has had a disappointing start to his college career, A 6-foot-6, 319-pound offensive guard, Kraemer has had a strong offseason that includes greatly improving on his agility. Kraemer could be a late-round steal for a team needing a lineman if his offseason strides carry into the 2019 season.
Khyiris Tonga, DET
Tonga, BYU's best run-stuffer in recent memory, was recently named to the preseason Bronco Nagurski Trophy watch list, the award given annually to college football's best defensive player. The 6-foot-4, 325 pound Tonga is a disruptive force who demands double-teams on a routine basis. A three-technique tackle with excellent athleticism, Tonga will look to improve his motor while not taking as many plays off in 2019. If he does that, he could very well hear his name called in the first round of next year's draft.
MORE TO WATCH: Ty'Son Williams, a running back who spent his freshman season at North Carolina before spending the past two seasons at South Carolina, could evolve into the Cougars' starting running back. He rushed for 856 yards and five touchdowns while averaging 4.7 yards per carry during his first three collegiate seasons. Starting TE Matt Bushman should have another productive season despite missing the majority of spring practice after undergoing shoulder surgery.
Antonio Gandy-Golden, WR
A 1,000-yard receiver in 2018, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Gandy-Golden has all the physical tools to be successful at the next level. He will, however, have to improve on his explosiveness and route running during his senior season. NFL fans looking for their team to draft a receiver in next year's draft should definitely keep an eye on him throughout the 2019 season.
Josh Mack, RB
A transfer, the 6-foot, 195-pound Mack led FCS with 1,335 rushing yards in 2017 while scoring nine touchdowns and averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Mack is a classic North-South runner with impressive cutback ability and breakaway speed that allowed him to rip off big runs during his time at Maine. Mack will have to prove this season that he can be as successful against better opponents.
MORE TO WATCH: Senior ILB Solomon Ajayi tied for the team lead in tackles last season while also recording two interceptions, recovering two fumbles and forcing another. Fellow senior Bejour Wilson returns after tying for the team lead with three interceptions last year while also breaking up 10 passes.
Others to watch
NEW MEXICO STATE: The Aggies' offense will feature running back Jason Huntley in 2019. Huntley, a strong but durable back at 5-foot-9 and 188 pounds, recorded over 500 rushing and receiving yards last year while scoring 10 total touchdowns. Senior inside linebacker Javahn Fergurson is a tackling machine, racking up 132 tackles while also recording 5.5 sacks during his junior season.
UMASS: Cornerback Isaiah Rogers enters his senior year with seven career interceptions, 25 pass breakups, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two interception returns for scores that includes last year's 55-yard interception return for a score against Ohio University. With Andy Isabella now in the NFL, expect fellow wideout Sadiq Palmer, a senior who finished second on the team in receiving yards last year, to become the team's new No. 1 receiver for 2019.
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