It is a truth inherent to all backup quarterbacks, one amplified by the nature of college football fandom. The unknown — in Notre Dame’s case, rising sophomore Phil Jurkovec — is always one play away from a starring role. Until that chance comes, be it via an Ian Book sprained ankle, lost helmet or move to the next level following the 2019 season, Jurkovec’s potential spurs a fan’s favorite commodity: hope.
Barring injury, none of that will change between now and Labor Day. Book will start for the Irish at Louisville (176 days away), Jurkovec will work through the spring and summer to be ready if needed, and Irish fans will wonder why the unknown promise of Jurkovec cannot be proven to be greater than the established success of Book behind center.
“This is [Jurkovec’s] spring where he really has to show himself in terms of understanding the playbook, being ready,” head coach Brian Kelly said before spring practice commenced. “He wasn’t the next guy in last year. He is now. This spring is crucial to his development.”
There is one of the reasons why Jurkovec will not leapfrog Book before facing the Cardinals; he has not yet mastered the playbook, only now genuinely needing to. He has already made progress overall, though, such that it has been noticed and noted by the coaching staff.
“He’s way better than he was in August when he came in and did it,” offensive coordinator Chip Long said Wednesday. “He’s way more confident. … The little things, every day, taking small steps, taking command of the offense, making sure guys are getting lined up, going through your progressions, all the things that a young quarterback needs to do, just building confidence in himself.”
Those “little things” take time, reps, experience — luxuries Jurkovec did not have without enrolling early last year for spring practice or even without spurning other high school sports to focus on football. The basketball star chased a state title rather than get to South Bend a semester early. By no means should that be faulted, only acknowledged as he now has the time, reps and, slowly, the experience to master those intricacies.
They are, to some extent, what elevated Book from presumed career backup to record-setting starter within the 2018 calendar year. Book also gradually earned his teammates’ trust, proving himself and his abilities to the point no one flinched when Book took over as starter three weeks into September. That faith, perhaps more than anything else, is the most necessary aspect for a backup before he plays.
“The players around him, getting confidence in [Jurkovec] in case he has to go out there and play,” Long said while discussing goals for this spring.
Take every word of Long’s as stated: Book is the starter, Jurkovec the backup. With no other quarterback on the roster this spring, both will take an abundance of snaps, both will get repeated chances to improve.
As the unknown, unproven, unseen possibility of potential, Jurkovec’s improvements will be more abstract while Book focuses on complementing his accuracy with greater potency.
This is where the most-basic instinct of fans’ jumps to the forefront. Book’s faults are known, a middling arm that could not beat Clemson in the Cotton Bowl. Jurkovec’s are not, only his qualities raved about during a quiet yet touted recruitment. As a recent SI.com article pointed out, the college football season includes only 12-15 days of action, leaving 350-plus days a year when the conversation around a particular team wanders beyond the field.
“Most of the focus during that time is on roster personnel, what’s going to happen in the future, and then, in a lot of cases, hope.”
The backup quarterback will forever represent that hope. And when Jurkovec becomes the starter, be it in 2019 or sooner, the hope will transfer to incoming freshman Brendon Clark. If not him, then rivals.com four-star Drew Pyne (New Canaan High School, Conn.) in the recruiting class of 2020 or newly-committed consensus four-star Tyler Buchner (The Bishop’s School; La Jolla, Calif.), the first commitment in the class of 2021.
If you ask Ellis Redding, hope is a dangerous thing, it can drive a man insane. Ask Andy Dufresne, and hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.
In college football, hope is simply the constant thing, the driving force behind repetitive conversation throughout the year, particularly as it pertains to the unknowns of a backup quarterback, even if his actual focus is on merely proving himself worthy to be called on if necessary, not yet when.