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Criticism of Ian Book ‘fair,’ but Notre Dame without a QB controversy

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Brian Kelly has no thoughts of a quarterback controversy. The Irish head coach said as much immediately after Notre Dame’s 45-14 wreck at Michigan on Saturday, and he said it again Monday. Sophomore Phil Jurkovec is not about to step in for senior Ian Book, despite the latter’s 8-of-25 passing for 73 yards and one touchdown against the Wolverines.

“I don’t know that there is any appetite — there isn’t from [me] — there is no quarterback controversy,” Kelly said. “There isn’t any kind of conversation about making a change. Ian Book is our starter, will be our starter, and Phil (Jurkovec) will continue to be ready if he’s called upon.”

Just as Kelly knows the glare of an unflattering spotlight turns on him when the Irish get roundly trounced by a rival, he knows Notre Dame’s starting quarterback will be criticized following two games in which he completed only 43.9 percent of his passes and threw for 238 total yards. By no means is Kelly arguing Book has played well of late.

“Any time the quarterback doesn’t play up to a standard that he has, that others have for him, he’s going to be in the spotlight,” Kelly said. “It comes with the position. …

“Is it fair? Sure. I think it is fair criticism of everybody, including me.”

That criticism traces back further than just Book’s last two games. It can be summed up both by raw numbers and by broader concepts. First, the numbers:

Book as a starter in eight games in 2018: 70.04 percent completion rate, 9.09 yards per attempt, 18 touchdowns, 6 interceptions. (This does not include the Clemson game, because the Tigers were such an outlier compared to any other defense Book has faced.)
Book as a starter in seven games in 2019: 59.18 percent completion rate, 7.61 yards per attempt, 15 touchdowns, 2 interceptions.

Those rates encapsulate the broader concepts. Book’s struggles working through his progressions, instead dashing into crowded trenches for little-to-no gain, show up in his completion percentages. His inability to consistently connect on deep balls puts a ceiling on his yards per attempt.

Then why no quarterback change? Because Kelly’s charge is to win games, simply enough, and to win them now, not to follow Houston’s lead and drop a few extra games in 2019 in the interest of winning a few extra in 2020.

“I’m only interested in how I can help our football team win,” Kelly said. “This is not about an ego or we have to play one guy or two guys. 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. That is as honest as I can be with you.”

When Notre Dame turned to sophomore quarterback Phil Jurkovec in Saturday’s fourth quarter, it was more an admission of defeat than the beginnings of a position competition. (Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Jurkovec arrived at Notre Dame a touted four-star before the spring’s practices revealed how far from ready he was. Kelly said Jurkovec has improved since then, and his mop-up duties support that. In three appearances, Jurkovec has completed 9-of-13 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns.

But that is a far cry from being ready to lead the Irish offense.

“He hasn’t played a lot of real football,” Kelly said. “It has been a lot of practice football. It’s an incredible game, right? You practice, practice, practice, practice, and then you play only 12 games. He’s practiced a lot and hasn’t played a lot in college.

“He’s really missing that college — it is faster. That’s really all he’s missing right now. In practice, he looks pretty good, but it is getting to that point where he actually plays in some of the games and making those quick decisions, changing protections, those are the things that he’s going to have to continue to work on.”

Working on them now might serve Jurkovec in 2020 or 2021, but Kelly is still focused on 2019, when Book is his better option, and while that has not yet changed, it is not as inherently set in stone as all this may make it out to be. After all, Kelly was just as adamant about starting Brandon Wimbush last season right up until he wasn’t.

“What we’re interested in is both of those guys continuing to develop,” he said. “We put them in competitive situations each week. It’s ongoing. They don’t stop growing, just because one is one and one is two. They’re still in competitive situations during the practice week.

“Phil has gotten better and will continue to get better. He’s challenging Ian every single day even if you guys don’t see it.”

That said, if Kelly’s goal to win games this year turns into five more victories before December, this question will go away not because of Jurkovec’s development or lack thereof, but because of Book’s play. In his 14 wins as a starter, his stats have been impeccable, his overall play largely in step with them. In his three losses — against Clemson, at Georgia and at Michigan — well, nothing has been worthy of a compliment.

14 wins: 67.13 percent completion rate, 8.67 yards per attempt, 32 touchdowns, 8 interceptions.
3 losses: 50.94 percent completion rate, 4.79 yards per attempt, 3 touchdowns, 3 interceptions.

Kelly was speaking about the Irish as a whole, not the quarterback position, with his final words Monday, but they apply distinctly to Book.

“They won’t be defined by one game. They’ve got a great opportunity in the month of November. They can be remembered by winning the month of November. They win the month of November, the noise will change.”