METAIRIE, La. — Ian Book knows this is a big deal, and he isn’t shying away from it.
The rookie is preparing to take his first NFL snap Monday night as the New Orleans Saints’ starting quarterback against the Miami Dolphins after veterans Taysom Hill and Trevor Siemian both tested positive for COVID-19 in the middle of the week.
Book’s family will be in town. His former Notre Dame coach, Brian Kelly, will also make the trip from nearby Baton Rouge after recently being hired by LSU.
“It’s an unbelievable opportunity. … I’m gonna be pretty buzzed, yeah.” Book said. “I don’t know what it’s gonna feel like. I’ve played in big games, but I think this is the biggest, obviously. This is Monday Night Football. I grew up watching prime-time football since I was a little kid. It’s a dream.”
But just as quickly, Book insisted that neither he, nor the Saints (7-7), will let the moment overwhelm them.
As of Sunday night, the Saints have a total of 16 players from their 53-man roster on the reserve/COVID-19 list, in addition to three practice squad players, one suspended player and four assistant coaches sidelined by COVID-19. This is the latest in a season-long series of hurdles that have New Orleans’ playoff hopes in serious jeopardy.
“There’s a million excuses out there, is what I’d say, and we’re gonna use none of them,” Book said. “Because we’ve gotta go out there and play. We’re all professionals, and when your name is called, you’ve gotta go out there and perform.”
Obviously the NFL is a different level, but Notre Dame was a fairly close proximity when it comes to pressure cookers. And Book went 30-5 during his four years with the Fighting Irish — winning more games than any QB in school history.
That included coming off the bench as a redshirt freshman to lead Notre Dame to a victory over LSU in the 2018 Citrus Bowl. And it included a come-from-behind win over No. 1-ranked Clemson last season.
When the Saints drafted Book in the fourth round, the first thing all of his new and former coaches described was how poised, composed and “unflappable” he has always been.
“I think it’s important [that] he’s played in real big games,” Saints coach Sean Payton said after returning Friday from his own weeklong COVID-19 hiatus. “And he’s done it consistently — if you’re measuring wins and losses — better than any other quarterback in Notre Dame’s history, which is important. Yeah, obviously there’s a transition to this level, but I think he’s up for the challenge.”
The 6-foot Book was only a three-star high school recruit and fell to the third day of the NFL draft, mostly because of his size. But one of his most prominent assets in college should serve him especially well in this situation.
Book often flashed that “unflappability” when the pocket broke down and he had to either reset the pocket, scramble or throw on the run.
“I think there are certain things that he does outside the pocket very well,” Payton said. “I think he gets rid of the ball well, I think he’s accurate when he throws it, I think he can move and escape. That’s something you saw in his college tape, and we’ve seen a little bit here.
“I don’t think you try to put a completely different game plan together. … We’ll get down to the things that we’ve seen him do and the things that he feels comfortable with.”
Book has been active for only two games and didn’t play in either. And he appeared in only one preseason game, completing 9 of 16 passes for 126 yards with no touchdowns and one interception against the Baltimore Ravens.
To further add to the degree of difficulty, the Saints’ practice schedule has been extremely limited this week as a COVID precaution. They canceled Thursday’s practice altogether on the day Book found out he was starting.
But Payton, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. and teammates have all expressed confidence, saying they like how sharp Book has been in meeting rooms and what he has displayed in practice as a scout-team quarterback.
“It’s not easy for anyone who’s stepping into their first NFL game, especially a quarterback,” said Saints tight end Nick Vannett, who compared Book’s mobility to Hill’s. “But with Ian, he’s an unbelievable athlete, unbelievable quarterback. If you guys just saw the things that he would do [on the] scout team against our defense, sometimes you just sit back like, ‘Oh my god, how did he pull that off?’
“I’m not sure if we’re gonna call any quarterback powers [designed QB runs] like we would with Taysom, but I think he’s a very good passer in all areas of the field. I think the biggest thing is that we’ve just got to do a good job of getting him settled into the game … and kind of build his confidence up a little bit. I think once we do that, we’ll be fine.”
Book said he quickly received encouragement and advice from fellow Saints QBs Jameis Winston, Hill and Siemian — among an estimated 200 people who texted or called within the first 24 hours of his unexpected promotion.
One stroke of fortunate timing was that his brother had just finished his Army boot camp at Fort Benning in Georgia — and was already in New Orleans to see his first game.
“I feel a ton better [than preseason],” Book said. “That feels like it was so long ago. Every time there was a rep, I got to take it mentally. The coaches have been getting with me and getting me all set up. And it’s just time to go out there and do it.
“The main thing for me is to have fun, move on to the next play, and play with speed. Don’t go out there thinking all the time, that’ll just slow my process down. I just gotta go out there and play and have fun. It’s football.”
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