Lou’s Confessions: Notre Dame & Phil Jurkovec Blame Game
“Have gun, will travel — and will be immediately eligible.”
That is pretty much the way of life for premier high school quarterbacks today who don’t find instant success, are disenchanted or are in a backup role. This prompts a transfer — and then a waiver to play right away at another school. In years past, one had to wait a year before becoming eligible again, but no more.
That has occurred recently with five-star recruits such as Shea Patterson (from Ole Miss to Michigan), Justin Fields (from Georgia to Ohio State) and JT Daniels (from USC to Georgia) …
Former Notre Dame reserve signal-caller Phil Jurkovec (2018-19) was not quite a five-star, but he fit the central-casting profile of a Fighting Irish quarterback before opting to transfer to Boston College this January.
You guessed it: Jurkovec received his waiver this week as well to be eligible in 2020, although his case was a little more drawn out for whatever reasons. Still, Notre Dame men’s basketball head coach Mike Brey stated last winter that there is no longer any turning back by the NCAA when it comes to granting transfer waivers with lawyered-up prospects.
“I think we're going to free agency [in college sports],” Brey said. “This thing’s out of the gate.”
By my count, Jurkovec was the 23rd Notre Dame quarterback transfer in the past 46 years (more on that tomorrow), which means there is one every two years. That’s not including the five graduate transfers during the Brian Kelly era who completed their fifth season elsewhere: Dayne Crist at Kansas, Andrew Hendrix at Miami (Ohio), Everett Golson at Florida State, Malik Zaire at Florida and Brandon Wimbush at Central Florida.
Chances are if you are the No. 3 quarterback (or even No. 2 in Jurkovec’s case) in your second year, especially at a Power Five school, unless you are willing to change positions (i.e. current Irish senior wide receiver Avery Davis), a transfer is virtually imminent.
Count on this becoming an issue again in 2021 when Brendon Clark, Drew Pyne and Tyler Buchner vie to succeed Ian Book.
So your No. 3 man either has to be a walk-on type who could play at a number of Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools but wants to be at Notre Dame for reasons beyond football, or someone who excelled there in high school but is playing another position. Nolan Henry (2015-19) is an example of the former, while Davis or sophomore punter Jay Bramblett are the latter.
It’s doubtful we see the likes of a senior such as Joe Montana as the No. 3 option like we did in 1977 (before becoming the starter by the fourth game of a national title run).
Jurkovec’s transfer, though, seemed to hit home a little more than the nearly two dozen others over four decades. The reasons were myriad for the former top-100 prospect:
• He was the first verbal in the 2018 class before he began his junior year, and became an ardent recruiter for the school even after the 4-8 meltdown in 2016, his junior season in high school. His passion for Notre Dame was conspicuous.
• A dual threat, he passed for 3,969 yards and ran for 1,211 during an unbeaten senior season while guiding a state title.
• He is a Western Pennsylvania native — which also produced Irish national title quarterbacks Montana, Tom Clements, Terry Hanratty and John Lujack, plus the likes of Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly …
• An all-state basketball player as well, which Clements, Montana, Tony Rice, Kevin McDougal and Golson also were while leading the Fighting Irish to prominence at quarterback.
And, of course, even though Jurkovec was in the same recruiting class as Trevor Lawrence, Fields and Daniels, Kelly boldly stated, “He’s somebody I could put up against any quarterback that I’ve ever seen.”
Added quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees: “As impressive of an athlete you will find across the country from a height, weight standpoint, ability to make plays with his legs, ability to make all the throws on the field. You don’t see that very often.”
That's natural recruiting hype, but one that always makes me cringe because it becomes pretty much no-win, especially for Notre Dame quarterbacks, from Ron Powlus, who had two Heismans projected for him nationally after one contest, to Jimmy Clausen, described as “the LeBron James of football.”
Rancor inevitably ensues when one builds up someone so much, yet is a non-factor in competition for the first two years. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t promote the guy as the best in his class, and then not take some accountability for why he isn’t.
Jurkovec also seemed to have it all in high school, but then …
Suddenly, the throwing technique once he arrives looks unorthodox and clunky, playing time is minimal and his 2019 spring game left Jurkovec frustrated and shaken, both with an inability to utilize his scrambling skills while getting touch-sacked 12 times — some of it from holding on to the ball too long because of a lack of defensive recognition or pocket awareness — and an inordinate amount of wounded ducks from his release.
“A pretty terrible day on my part,” a downcast Jurkovec said after the exhibition scrimmage.
“One’s on advanced calculus, the other one is still getting past algebra right now,” summarized 2017-19 Fighting Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long before that contest on the difference between the more seasoned Book (who arrived much-less hyped as a three-star recruit) and the fledgling Jurkovec.
When Book struggled and ostensibly regressed during a 5-2 start, the groundswell to give Jurkovec a chance expanded. When I asked Kelly the week after the 45-14 loss to Michigan what is holding back Jurkovec from challenging for the position, his response was he had not yet won the confidence of the staff to earn such a position.
“If I felt like playing Phil for five plays, four plays would make us a better football team, I would do it in a second,” Kelly responded. “I'm only interested in how I can help our football team win. This is not about an ego. I just want to win football games by playing the best players that will help us win.
“If I thought for a second that Phil Jurkovec would be on the field to help us winning in some fashion, he would be on the field. This is as honest as I can be with you.”
Long and the Irish staff divorced in December, and then Jurkovec left the house in January to play at Boston College.
Sides are taken on whom to blame. Some will side with Jurkovec getting a raw deal because the staff didn’t want a quarterback controversy after the debacle at Michigan. Others contend that Jurkovec may have been overrated and didn’t make the progress needed to merit action, never mind start.
Once again, reality is likely somewhere in the middle, and both sides will have their own version of events. Either way, a little extra spice was added to the schedule with Notre Dame-Boston College meeting this year, a game added to the docket because of going to an ACC-only schedule in 2020.
I confess, there will be some intrigue on “who was right,” but that’s probably a misguided way of viewing it.
Such a contest generally does not come down to one individual. Notre Dame sadly passed on 2017-19 star Boston College running back AJ Dillon, who turned pro after his junior season, but even he finished with only 56 yards on 14 carries in a 40-7 defeat to the Irish (with Jurkovec carrying five times for 42 yards and completing his lone pass for 10 yards).
It’s still a team game, and it wasn’t Dillon’s fault that there was absolutely nowhere to run.
Finding fault with Notre Dame’s coaches or Jurkovec will remain a continuing debate among many, and heaven help us if the Eagles with Jurkovec at the helm pull the upset.
Chances are, though, it probably was the best for both parties.
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