Position Group Breakdown: Quarterback
Observer Sports Staff | Thursday, April 23, 2020
As the old joke goes, the three most scrutinized jobs in America are president of the United States, mayor of New York City and head football coach at Notre Dame. It wouldn’t be difficult to add ‘Notre Dame quarterback’ to the mix as we get to our final offensive position group breakdown.
Position Group: Quarterback
Depth Chart: freshman Drew Pyne; rising sophomore Brendon Clark; graduate student Ian Book
Key 2019 departures:
The Phil Jurkovec saga at Notre Dame is a perplexing one. He arrived in 2018 — the same year as Clemson star Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State star Justin Fields — and was the No. 5 dual-threat quarterback in the class. Irish head coach Brian Kelly praised Jurkovec and said he thought the 6-foot-5, 190-pound Gibsonia, PA product could be the best in the class. Things didn’t play out that way.
After redshirting his first year on campus, Jurkovec was locked in a two-man battle with then-rising senior Ian Book for the starting quarterback spot. A disappointing spring game performance from Jurkovec seemingly quelled that debate, and there was then talk that Jurkovec’s confidence took a major hit and the coaching staff had to work hard just to build him back up.
Book led the offense in 2019 with Jurkovec serving as the primary backup, while the coaching staff redshirted incoming freshman Brendon Clark. Following a disastrous 45-14 loss to Michigan, controversy swirled around the position as many called for Jurkovec to replace Book. However, Kelly didn’t mince words when asked about it and said, “There is no quarterback controversy… 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.”
Once Book announced his decision to return for the 2020 season as a graduate student, it was only a matter of time until Jurkovec elected to take his talents elsewhere, eventually deciding to transfer to Boston College. In his two years with the Irish he appeared in eight games, rushing 24 times for 139 yards and completing 12 of 18 passes (going 12-16 his second year) for 222 yards and two touchdowns.
Key 2020 Contributors:
Book’s time at Notre Dame has also been interesting. He was a three-star prospect who decommitted from Washington State at the last minute after receiving an offer from Notre Dame. The El Dorado Hills, CA native served on the scout team while redshirting his freshman season, then made a splash in limited action as a sophomore.
After starting in place of an injured Brandon Wimbush and leading the Irish to a 33-10 victory over North Carolina midway through the 2017 season, Book took over in the second half of Notre Dame’s Citrus Bowl matchup against LSU. He went 14-19 for 164 yards and recorded two touchdowns in the fourth quarter against the Tigers, one of which was a go-ahead score off of a one-handed sideline catch-and-run by Miles Boykin.
The following spring, Book and Wimbush battled it out for the starting quarterback spot ahead of Notre Dame’s season-opener against Michigan. There was talk that Book won the battle, but Wimbush’s dynamic running ability and starting resume led the coaching staff to start him in the opener. It worked, and the Irish opened the season on a three-game win streak, though the offense was lackluster against weaker opponents such as Ball State and Vanderbilt.
Book assumed the starting mantle for the fourth game of the season at Wake Forest, and promptly injected life into the offense as they demolished the Demon Deacons 56-27. He then led the Irish to their first undefeated season since 2012 and a matchup with Clemson in the Cotton Bowl Classic. However, the offense sputtered against the Tigers as the Irish lost 30-3, setting up yet another spring quarterback battle, this time between Book and Jurkovec.
Book won out and led Notre Dame to an 11-2 record in 2019 with losses at Georgia and Michigan. He has a 20-3 record as a starter, has rushed for 1,054 yards and eight touchdowns and thrown for 6,123 yards and 57 scores in his career. With the starting job under center all but locked down for next season, the question is whether or not Book will take a leap forward in his third year starting and make the Irish offense one that can compete against the elite defenses in college football.
Clark came in the 2019 class as the No. 20 pro-style quarterback and 12th-ranked player in the state of Virginia. He only threw the ball once last season but completed it for a 22-yard touchdown on a screen pass to Braden Lenzy against New Mexico.
After Clark received snaps in Notre Dame’s 66-10 victory over the Lobos in the second game of the season—snaps which could have gone to Jurkovec just a week before a trip to Athens, Georgia—the question arose as to whether or not Jurkovec had separated himself from Clark as the backup quarterback in the event of an injury to Book. In any case, that eventuality never arose, and the coaching staff elected to redshirt Clark.
Given recent circumstances, Clark will likely be the second-string quarterback for the Irish next season over their highly touted incoming QB.
A four-star prospect from New Canaan, CT, Pyne will be joining the Irish as a true freshman next season. He enrolled early in order to get a head start acclimating to college life and to take advantage of 15 spring practices to gain experience in the offense.
With the cancellation of all but one spring practice due to COVID-19, the staff will likely favor Clark’s experience in the system and take advantage of the four-game redshirt rule to preserve an extra year of eligibility for Pyne. Even so, a strong fall camp showing could always sway minds in the quarterback room and earn him the back-up spot.
Hayden Adams — Sports Editor
There exists a narrative, and an accurate one, that quarterbacks tend to regress in their second year starting under Brian Kelly. I think it’s safe to say that was the case with Ian Book in 2019. He threw 34 touchdowns last season, but 19 came against New Mexico, Bowling Green, Duke and Navy, the first three of which did not make a bowl game. He’s great against mediocre teams, but at his best, he’s mediocre against top tier teams.
Looking at the rest of the quarterback group, the situation is uncertain. Almost every season under Brian Kelly the Irish have had to start a backup QB at least once, with last year being a rare exception. I hate to say it, but the Irish are probably due for it to reoccur next year. I think Brendon Clark or even Drew Pyne could do a passable job in that role next season, but God willing it would be against anyone except Wisconsin or Clemson. And here’s to just hoping positional journeyman Avery Davis doesn’t have to reassume the spot he was recruited to play.
But as for Book, I could go on all day; his underrated athleticism, his zoning in on a single receiver and his hesitancy to take risks all make for great debate. When you get down to it though, only teams with a top-5 (and more like a top-3) quarterback have a shot at winning a national championship. I have to believe he’ll at least be top-10 next year. Hopefully a third year helming the offense, and Tommy Rees assuming offensive coordinator responsibilities, means a greater leap forward than the one backward last season. B+
Jimmy Ward — Associate Sports Editor
I’ve never been diagnosed with anxiety, but if any doctor saw my face whenever Ian Book flees the pocket, I would be diagnosed in an instant. And that’s not to make light of anxiety disorder, I am truly scared, haunted and flat out dreading what will happening next whenever he leaves the pocket. His O-Line might not have been as good as pats Notre Dame quarterbacks have had, but he tends to either pull off something amazing, or something detrimental.
But I have unfaltering faith in #12 — I have to. I remember the discussions following the loss to Michigan last year, sit Book, start Jurkovec. I’ll be honest and say that for a minute, I was convinced Jurkovec could have done the job. But realistically, he simply could not have. The first snap he took in that game in Ann Arbor, he quite literally fell flat on his own face. Book, on the other hand has shown he has the poise of an NFL quarterback. He may find himself outside of the pocket a bit more often than I would like — for my blood pressures sake. But there is no question he knows what he is doing and is a million steps in front of my ignorant self watching from the stands. Heading into his fifth year, Book will be one of the most experienced and seasoned quarterbacks in all of college football. A-
Nate Moller — Sports Writer
Everybody talks about how Ian Book regressed significantly last year, but his 2019 season was not a whole lot different than 2018. His completion percentage did drop from 68.2% to 60.2%, which was an obvious issue, but Book actually managed to average more pass and rush yards per game in 2019 than in 2018. I think the pressure started getting to Book last year, and this was the reason he didn’t improve significantly. From the beginning of the season, the 2019 team was Book’s team, which was not the case in 2018. If Book can gain more confidence next year and truly embrace his role as being the leader of the team, I think 2020 could be a much better year for him.
Under Book, Brendon Clark and Drew Pyne have obvious talent, but I am hoping that neither of them have to come in during a critical part of the game due to their lack of experience. Overall, I could definitely critique Book all day, but he is an above average college quarterback who can win a lot of games. If he wants to be an elite college quarterback and solidify himself in Notre Dame football history, however, he will have to perform better in big games next year against Wisconsin and Clemson. Having Book return will also be a huge advantage for the Irish over teams that do not know who their starter will be because of COVID-19’s impact on practice. B