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Where Notre Dame was, is & will be: Quarterbacks

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Sometimes a delay enhances the starting point of a series. This piece could have run after Notre Dame finished its regular season with a dominating win at Stanford. It could have been pigeonholed into the immediate aftermath of the Irish blowout of Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl.

Instead, a delay set it up to publish just as sophomore quarterback Phil Jurkovec reportedly entered the transfer portal. In any of those previous timeframes, much of what was written would have been rendered moot. Now, everything below should be accurate for at least a few months.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In most respects, little has changed for the Irish since August between what was and what is. Ian Book was the unquestioned starter, coming off an 8-1 stretch that led Notre Dame to the College Football Playoff. Doubts then lingered about Book’s ability to stretch the field, but that was about it.

With Jurkovec as Book’s backup, an injury to the starter would have created complete and total concern with not only an unproven backup but one who had shrunk in front of the middling Blue-Gold Game crowds.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Fighting the urge to copy-and-paste any of the above paragraphs, some repetition should both emphasize how much the status quo has persisted and how much it has shifted …

Ian Book is the unquestioned starter, now 20-3 in that role with two bowl wins in Orlando. Book showcased a deep ball often enough in 2019 to at least calm those doubts — his 70-yard toss to sophomore receiver Braden Lenzy against Navy certainly looked to be right on the mark — but not enough to quell them entirely.

With current freshman Brendon Clark now as Book’s presumed backup, an injury to the starter once again would create ample concern, though Clark will at least have a chance this spring to impress. He has already shown progress in practices, named the Scout Team Offensive Player of the Year at the annual season-end Echoes Awards.

“Brendon understands that you can’t just come in here and just throw your way to the starting position,” head coach Brian Kelly said in late November. “There’s a lot of work that has to go into preparing. I think Brendon minimally walks away (from his freshman season) going, wow, there’s a lot to this. There’s a lot of preparation that goes into being the starting quarterback, as well as the expectations.”

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99-to-2: No. 7 Brendon Clark

Clark may not be able to throw his way to the starting position based solely on arm strength — if that was the case, Jurkovec would have started all of 2019 — but his strong arm was a surprise throughout the preseason and fall. By no means did the Notre Dame coaching staff think he had a weak arm in recruitment, but he arrived with more zip than anticipated.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
An offseason of mature leadership awaits Book. That sentence is not hedged with a verb in the conditional tense simply because the Irish have no choice but for Book to deliver that. Losing his three leading receivers means Book will need to take charge in establishing chemistry with a new set of targets, from Lenzy to suspended sophomore Kevin Austin to sophomore tight end Tommy Tremble to Northwestern graduate transfer Bennet Skowronek. In terms of a track record, there has not been any moment of reckless immaturity from Book indicating that need may go unfulfilled.

Even the publicly and unnecessarily maligned “Shhhh” he flashed when winning the Virginia Tech game with a last-minute touchdown scramble was a sign of internal relief only a week after the debacle at Ann Arbor more than anything else.

“You come to Notre Dame and play quarterback, they’re going to love you when you win and they’re going to hate you when you lose,” Book said after that 21-20 nailbiter. “That’s part of growing up, part of mature, but again, it’s really — I only care about the guys on the team. That’s it.”

Frankly, Book’s stats do not need to improve much for the Irish to remain a second-tier Playoff contender. If he can again throw for 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns (34 in 2019, to be exact) with single-digit interceptions, all with a new set of skill players, then Notre Dame’s offense should be humming just fine, no matter whom its coordinator is.

Behind Book, logic suggests Clark will be his backup unless early-enrolling freshman Drew Pyne both greatly impresses and Book is knocked out for more than a week in the fall. As long as Book is taking the majority of the snaps, there will be no reason to burn a year of Pyne’s eligibility when Clark has already used his leniency year.

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Nonetheless, both will need to learn the Irish offense, again no matter who its coordinator is. Think back to 2015, when Notre Dame had only three scholarship quarterbacks as injury hit. With Malik Zaire knocked out for the season, Brandon Wimbush’s preserved year of eligibility was delayed and he immediately became a snap away from starting. That was obviously the case for Clark all of 2019, and his learning curve would have accelerated quickly if Book had gone down. Now that mandate transfers to Pyne, though the semester’s head start should help the cause.

All in all, the luxury of a three-year starting quarterback means Notre Dame is essentially where it was before 2019 and, on the front line, where it will be at the most pivotal position in the sport in 2020.