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Blue-Gold Game quells any QB debate

| Saturday, April 13, 2019

As the 2018 season bled into 2019 spring training, the premiere college football programs were in the midst of a quarterback debate. Alabama junior quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, then a freshman, had replaced then-sophomore Jalen Hurts and saved the Crimson Tide in the second half of the national championship game against Georgia. Clemson sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence was one of the top high school players in the country and looked to displace incumbent senior quarterback Kelly Bryant. Similarly, after Notre Dame’s victory over LSU in the 2018 Citrus Bowl, legitimate questions were raised over who would start at quarterback for the Irish in 2019.

While former Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush held the spot during the 2018 season and went 9-3 as a starter, his effectiveness declined towards the end of the season as teams exploited his less-than-stellar throwing ability by limiting the Irish running game. Junior quarterback Ian Book stepped into the Citrus Bowl for the Irish and threw a go-ahead and eventual game-winning touchdown pass to former Irish wide receiver Miles Boykin in the fourth quarter, and Notre Dame joined the quarterback controversy parade.

After Book had a tremendous regular season in 2018, completing 197 of 280 passes for over 2,400 yards and 19 touchdowns, he went a disappointing 17-34 for 160 yards, zero TDs and one interception in the Cotton Bowl against Clemson, prompting some to reignite the Irish quarterback controversy. After the 90th annual Blue-Gold spring game, it was abundantly clear that the quarterback “battle” is Book’s to lose.

Allison Thornton | The Observer
Irish sophomore quarterback Phil Jurkovec gets ready to throw a deep ball in Notre Dame’s 90th annual Blue-Gold spring game on Saturday.

During the game, Book and freshman Phil Jurkovec alternated drives at quarterback to start the game, with Book displaying the qualities that landed him the starting job in the first place, immediately leading the blue team to score.

“First drive was good, just to go out there, and I really wanted to push the tempo on the first drive,” Book said. “We were able to do that and just go down, and that’s what we’ve been doing all spring. First drive when we get into team situations is really push the tempo and go, and we were able to do that today, so it was awesome.”

Jurkovec, despite being sacked twice on his first drive, showed promise of his own, going 7-9 in the first quarter for 77 yards. However, it was all downhill from there for the redshirt freshman, as he displayed a noticeable lack of urgency and was sacked 12 times. Although he went 15-26 for 135 yards passing, he posted -71 yards rushing on 16 attempts.

“I think that we’ve had a number of sessions where I’ve said, ‘He’s still looking, he’s still growing,’” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of Jurkovec. “There are a lot of things that he learned today about recognition of when the ball needs to come out of his hand, the clock in his head so to speak. Those are all things that getting a game like this today really helps him in that awareness. … I think sometimes when you’re a quarterback, you get too locked into progressions. He’s gotta get the ball out of his hands and take some one-on-one matchups when he gets them as well. That’ll come, it’s just a matter of time.”

Book went 16-21 for 220 yards through essentially only one half of play, and he was composed and in control of the offense, an advantage from learning this system for multiple years.

“I feel like I’ve made a stride. I still have a lot more I want to get better at, but [I] definitely feel more comfortable in year two in the offense,” Book said. “Things are starting to click more, chemistry’s better and I definitely feel [like everything’s] good.”

Despite his struggles, Jurkovec said he sees a way to grow from this game.

“I think, honestly just both … doubling down on film and then getting those reps,” Jurkovec said of what he needs to do to progress. “It was a helpful day. It was terrible for me, but at least it was helpful.”

Jurkovec also cited specifically that as a dual-threat quarterback, he struggled with facing a tough, deep Notre Dame defensive front that took away his running ability.

“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 and make things happen with my feet,” Jurkovec said. “Taking that away was a little weird for me.”

Mostly though, Kelly believes Jurkovec needs to get out of his own head and make the right plays that garnered him so much success in high school.

“Quarterback is a position where everybody wants to see them ascend to this position immediately, and he’s like that as well, he wants to see it happen,” Kelly said. “But it’s got to take some time for him, and he’s got to understand that, too. He’s pushing himself a little bit too hard. … He’s just got to get the ball out of his hands 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, and he’s making this game way too hard. He’ll wake up one day, and it’ll be a lot simpler for him. Right now it’s hard, and we’ll get him to the point where it’s simple.”

The future is bright for Jurkovec, who threw for over 11,000 yards in high school en route to becoming a four-star recruit and top-100 high school player nationally. However, now is not his time as Book has the poise and experience to lead the Irish to another College Football Playoff appearance, and it will serve Jurkovec well to learn and gain support from his predecessor for another season.

“Phil’s made some huge leaps, especially just in the film room with defensive recognition,” Book said of his successor. “I was really proud of him today. I know he can make a throw when he needs to. It’s been good to just see the strides he made just from practice one all the way until today.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

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