Notebook: Nothing's changed when it comes to who Notre Dame QB Jurkovec can become

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Chip Long professed not to know whether Notre Dame quarterbacks Ian Book or Phil Jurkovec would spend at least part of their in-progress spring break with an outside throwing guru, as ex-starter and expat Brandon Wimbush did the past two springs.

Or care.

“I kind of leave it up to them,” the Irish third-year offensive coordinator said.

But he does want and expect them to throw to somebody at some point during the 11-day layoff until spring practice No. 4 on March 19, so that their timing doesn’t atrophy.

What they do around the throwing — their mindsets and agendas, in particular, looks quite different. That’s before, after and during spring break.

That Jurkovec’s mission is more about focusing on perfecting being Notre Dame’s Plan B than capsizing the QB depth chart is really only a problem outside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.

The sophomore’s size (6-5, 220 to Book’s 6-0, 208), his higher recruiting pedigree, him being the more fluid and dangerous runner, and Book’s statistical slide the final three starts of the 2018 season feeds the notion that the final 12 practices of spring should be more open competition.

That’s not what’s happening inside the Gug.

Instead it will be QBs coach Tommy Rees and Long refining their respective roles with a varied curriculum for each.

“When I talk to Ian, I tell Phil ‘earmuffs,’ because some things I’m telling Ian I don’t want Phil to hear,” Long said. “But he’s a confident guy, and I like him. He wants to be a great quarterback.

“But it’s just the little things each day. Taking small steps. Taking command of the offense. Making sure guys are getting lined up. Going through your progression. All the things a young quarterback needs to do.

“Just keep building confidence in himself, and the players around him will gain confidence in him, in case he has to go out there and play.”

Book, meanwhile, has embraced pushing hard to test himself in the areas that gave him the most trouble, or that he largely avoided in games, in an otherwise record-setting season for completion percentage (the deep throws, over-the-middle throws, poise and proficiency outside the pocket).

That won’t necessarily lead to Book looking like the better of the two quarterbacks on a given day in practice. Growth can sometimes be painful and/or ugly. But it’s the formula that will give Book the best chance to be better in 2019 as a second-year starter.

And finding a template where that happens on a regular basis has been a challenge to 10th-year head coach Brian Kelly at ND. To be fair, it’s not unique to the Kelly Era at Notre Dame.

The best pass-efficiency rating by a second-year Irish starter in the past 50 years is Rick Mirer’s 149.2, followed by DeShone Kizer at 145.6, Joe Theismann at 144.0, Everett Golson at 143.6 and Ron Powlus at 140.7.

Book, last year as a first-year starter, finished with a better rating than all of those — 153.97.

That’s not to say Jurkovec’s development is any less important, short term or long term. It’s just different. As the No. 3 QB last season, he garnered all of 10 game snaps. He attempted as many passes (2) as he performed kneel-downs.

And getting the baby steps right in the spring sets the stage for perhaps giant steps in August and beyond, just as Book did last year. The bottom line is nothing’s changed when it comes to who Jurkovec can still become.

“He’s one step away from being the starting quarterback,” Kelly said. “He wasn’t the next guy in last year. He is now. This spring is critical to his development. Phil’s got to gain the confidence in the offense and the guys around him. If he’s called on, he can lead us to a championship.”

Kmet raises expectations

Junior-to-be tight end Cole Kmet chose to spend his spring break playing baseball — and playing it well so far.

His two shutout innings of relief in a 7-4 win for the Irish baseball team Saturday at Wake Forest earned the lefty reliever his second save of the season, lowered his season ERA to 2.76 in 16 1/3 innings and gave him a team-best WHIP (walks and hits per inning) of 0.87.

Those numbers improve to a 1.14 ERA and 0.57 WHIP if you extract one bad outing in the season opener against Arizona State. His 15 2/3 innings since then, which included a shutout inning against the Sun Devils two games later, feature a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 23-to-0.

And yet bigger, better things are expected of Kmet on the football field this fall.

“Cole’s a freak athlete,” Long said. “He’s a once-in-a-lifetime guy you get to coach.”

Kmet’s numbers in 2018 were not so freaky (15 catches for 162 yards), in large part because he played through a high ankle sprain that he suffered in game 2 against Ball State and didn’t have a chance to completely heal until December.

“He seems a lot faster now, especially since he doesn’t have 20 pounds of tape on his ankle anymore,” Long said.

It also helps the offense overall that fellow junior Brock Wright’s game (2 catches for 12 yards in 2018) has also moved fast forward, but for different reasons.

“Brock is strong as an ox,” Long said. “But being 260 and now 248 has been a huge difference for him, the way he’s moving. He’s confident in the offense. He’s not having to think. He’s just going. He’s been the surprise right now for us.”

The next level for both of them is to break tackles on a consistent basis.

“That’s been the No. 1 emphasis,” Long said. “The amount of yards we left out there last year is absolutely embarrassing. So being able to get yards after contact is probably one of our No. 1 emphases on offense.

“We have to be explosive. I don’t think last year we really scared anybody. There were a couple of games our physicality showed up, but we were not very consistent with it and we weren’t very explosive. And that caught up to us.”

Taylor off and running

While Brian Kelly and new running backs coach Lance Taylor had never met before Taylor’s job interview in late January, Long and Taylor have known each other for a long time, even though they never worked together before.

“He’s a very focused, serious coach,” Long said. “And those players have done a great job of adapting. It’s the most serious that group has been since I’ve been here.

“When coach (Taylor) talks to one of them, they snap around and look him in the eyes and take his coaching instead of just walking off and doing their own thing or having some kind of emotional breakdown or anything like that.

“Just the command that Lance has, the insight he’s brought with him has been great. Another set of eyes to see what we’re doing and how we can improve has been a great value to me.”

Quarterback Phil Jurkovec looks for a receiver during a recent Notre Dame spring practice at the Loftus Center.
Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet (84) high fives fans after the Notre Dame-Northwestern NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018 at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois.