Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s tale of two QBs

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Ian Book is not the best quarterback. Phil Jurkovec is not the worst quarterback.

When remembering Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, it was neither the day Book cemented himself as a top-flight Notre Dame quarterback nor the day Jurkovec showed himself to be an Irish bust.

Book played well; Jurkovec did not. Perhaps both markedly so, but no more than that. The starter, the one with three years under head coach Brian Kelly’s eye, went 16-of-21 passing for 220 yards and a touchdown, a stat line very reminiscent of his 2018, and one that may have been improved if not for the red-jersey constraints of an intrasquad scrimmage.

Those jerseys protect the quarterbacks, obviously. And they inflate the sack numbers, both emboldening the defensive line afterward and somewhat diminishing the offensive line. They also restrict a quarterback’s mobility — remember this — and force him to throw passes on some plays he may have rather tucked and ran. A time or two, Book may have wanted to do that. 16-of-21 could have become 16-of-19, simply enough.

That limit, though, exists to force the quarterback to work from the pocket, work through his progressions, consider all available possibilities. The worst thing that happens is Khalid Kareem taps him on the rear end. On the play Kelly considered Book’s best, he may have run if allowed. On a third-and-goal from the 12-yard line, a gap certainly existed up the middle of the field, and an aware block from tight end Cole Kmet might have produced a touchdown.

Instead, Book worked through his reads — Chris Finke was covered out of the slot, Kmet was blanketed — and found rising junior receiver Michael Young in the back of the end zone.

“Some of the things [Book] struggled last year with was getting lost in the pocket, lost meaning taking himself out of throws,” Kelly said. “The touchdown throw that he made was indicative of the progress that he’s made this spring where he slid, bought some time in the pocket, and was able to hit [Young] coming in the back of the end zone.

“Those are the kind of throws that separate good players from great players. … That’s what you’re required to do and I thought he did it.”

It took most of a season and then the first half an offseason, and it took familiarity with his receivers and playbook as well as trust in his offensive line for Book to make that throw.

“My chemistry with Mike is getting a lot better, knowing where he’s going to be at certain times,” Book said. “Really trusting the offensive line, stepping up, going through my first, second and third reads. I knew Mike would be there.”

To some extent, that development may aid Book’s offseason goal of solving his greatest weakness — downfield throws — as anything else. Completing chunk plays can be only helped by trusting his line to give him the space to step up in the pocket, trusting his receivers to make a play, and forcing the defense to respect all the routes on a snap, not just the first or second options.

When Book connected with rising senior receiver Chase Claypool for 43 yards, Saturday’s longest play, he showed the arm strength needed to make the throw. Yes, there probably could have been a touch more air under it to give Claypool more time to adjust, but when a throw is accurate, that extra lift matters that much less.

Book proved he has developed since the Cotton Bowl — he would not have made either of those throws at any point in 2018 — and thus logically presented the likelihood he continues to improve before Labor Day. He is not the best quarterback; he is the better quarterback, both in comparison to his past self and to Jurkovec.

As the first public viewing of Jurkovec, this Blue-Gold Game will be long held as a turning point in his narrative. Either it marked the day he was no longer “the best quarterback in the country,” as Kelly described Jurkovec upon signing him in December 2017, or it marks the day Jurkovec began a redemption story on his way to a successful career.

Both those judgements depend on outcomes years down the line, and thus both miss the point entirely. Saturday was one day, one out of 15 spring practices. Jurkovec’s 15-of-26 showing was by no means an outlier from the rest of his first spring, but it was still simply a piece of his first spring, one only 10 months removed from his last days of high school.

“Quarterback is a position where everybody wants to see them ascend to this position immediately,” Kelly said. “He’s like that, as well. He wants to see it happen, but it’s going to take some time for him, and he has to understand that, too.

“He’s pushing himself a little too hard. He’s a little too hard on himself. You can see that. He’s got too much going on right now. He just needs to get the ball out of his hand and make it simpler. The game’s a little too hard for him right now and you can see. He never played like that in high school. He made it simple. He’s making this game way too hard.”

Is that a mental hurdle? Difficulty with the scheme? Struggles with the advanced talent at this level? Probably a combination of all three, and that is usually the case for freshmen, even if not usually on such a public display.

Jurkovec did not have the faith in his offensive line, leading him to retreat further into his drop than designed, making life even easier for charging defensive ends. He did not have trust in his receivers, regularly skying the ball well out their reach. He spent too long working through his progression, looking for a better option than the decent one he already passed up.

When seated, talking calmly, Jurkovec knows all of this.

“I think I personally have to do a better job of being more realistic in practice,” he said, showing maturity and composure beyond that of most teenagers asked repeated questions about their public mistakes. “There are probably times where you’re going like that, where I could have been sacked. I have to get the ball out quicker and take off quicker.”

Jurkovec granted he may have been more comfortable in a blue jersey, even if that left him exposed to Kareem’s full force.

“I think a major portion of my game is being able to make things happen whenever I’m live, being able to scramble, run a little bit, make things happen with my feet,” he said. “Taking that away was a little weird for me.”

Perhaps, but the time to scramble will come. Before risking those injuries, a quarterback is expected to display proficiency in the playbook and solid mechanics, even if they are still in the process of being “tweaked.” Jurkovec consistently displayed neither of those this spring, not in the one practice broadcast on television or in the previous 14.

He very clearly took Saturday’s showing hard. His answers to even delicate questions served as self-flagellation and little else.

Do you have to remind yourself this is what life is like for all quarterbacks? This life in the public eye?
“The standard that I have for myself is I’ll do better because a lot of those routes and plays out there that we were doing, I’ve done. I’ve hit before. I just expected more.”
Can you summarize your freshman year as a whole?
“It’s been really helpful. I’ve learned a lot. I just need to get a lot better.”

These were not the answers of someone familiar with self-doubt. The 11 incompletions and 12 sacks were still fresh in Jurkovec’s mind, so some measure of doubt understandably existed then, but there is no doubt he will do whatever he can to become more the best of quarterbacks than the worst of quarterbacks.

“I just need to put in a lot more work, a lot more film,” Jurkovec said. “The more reps I get, it’ll help.”

Kelly, for one, expects that to happen.

“It’ll come,” Kelly said. “He’ll wake up one day and it’ll be a lot simpler for him. Right now, it’s hard. We’ll get him to the point where it’s simpler.”

That point will not hinge entirely on Jurkovec’s accuracy; Book had that all of 2018, to a degree never before seen at Notre Dame. It will not arrive with a good deep ball; Jurkovec already has that, even if there never was an “A-ha!” moment Saturday. As much as either of those, if not more, simplicity will come with trust in his offensive line to protect him, in his receivers to make him look good, and in his playbook to not mislead him.

That takes time, as Book has shown.