Analysis: Breaking down Notre Dame's 6 most compelling players heading into winter workouts

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

“I don’t really like having expectations, because expectations mean you’re entitled to something. I’m going in feeling like I’m not entitled to anything. I’m just going to work for everything I get. I’m going to push myself to the limit mentally and physically. I’m just going to be the best teammate I can.

“The only goal for me is really to win, and I don’t really care who does that as a quarterback. If I’m not on the field and the quarterback’s winning, then that’s what we’re going with. That’s the only goal for me. We have to win.”

Those were Phil Jurkovec’s words 19 months ago.

Maybe the Notre Dame junior-to-be has revisited them in the past few months. Maybe they came with an expiration date. Maybe at his core, that’s who the No. 2 quarterback on the Irish depth chart still is.

That incumbent Ian Book elected to return to become the first third-year starting QB at Notre Dame in a decade has only ramped up the curiosity about the 6-foot-5, 227-pound Jurkovec. Specifically, if he’s climbing toward his lofty recruiting-hype ceiling and whether the conclusion to that end will play out at ND or somewhere else.

There is also a pragmatic side that makes Jurkovec one of the six most compelling Notre Dame football players heading into winter workouts, which start next week with the onset of the spring semester. It’s that each of the last two seasons in which the Irish were still in the national title discussion in late December/early January, they couldn’t have arrived there without their QB understudy.

In 2012, Tommy Rees filled in for a concussed Everett Golson, and played start to finish in a late-October escape from BYU (17-14). He also relieved in a handful of other games where he positively shifted momentum.

In 2018, a demoted Brandon Wimbush made a November start against Florida State on Senior Day, with Book sidelined with a rib injury. Wimbush also started the first three games of the season, with a season-opening performance in a victory over Michigan impressive enough to make you wonder whether Book could have pulled that off at that point in the season.

To this point in his career, Jurkovec has played exclusively in low-leverage situations, but he sure does mop-up well. In a small and distorted sample size (18 career pass attempts), Jurkovec has a pass-efficiency rating (206.9) that’s just ahead of LSU Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow’s single-season NCAA-record pace (204.6).

His career rushing average is 5.8 yards per attempt on 24 carries, and in 2019 he ran for eight more yards (130 to 122) than the man who began the season as ND’s No. 1 running back, Jafar Armstrong, and in 24 fewer carries.

The hope from head coach Brian Kelly is that he won’t need to find out how those numbers might translate to a big moment under the bright lights this season. His mission, though, is to make sure they will, if necessary.

Here’s the rest of the most compelling Irish players heading into winter workouts (or rehab in some cases), with the start of spring practice roughly two months away and the spring conclusion, the annual Blue-Gold Game, set for April 18:

• Kevin Austin Jr., wide receiver: Notre Dame’s leading returning receiver in 2020 is last year’s No. 2 tight end, sophomore Tommy Tremble with 16 receptions. What the next wave of Irish receivers lacks in experience is made up for in wow factor, and that goes for both tight ends and wide receivers.

The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Austin has flashed both the most potential among the wideouts as well as the most “ifs.” Before Austin was suspended by the university from game action for the 2019 season, cornerback Troy Pride Jr. called him the toughest player to cover outside of Chase Claypool and Chris Finke, both now ready to chase their NFL aspirations.

The caveat is former Irish tight end Alizé Mack, who in a similar situation went from 13 catches as a freshman to a modest 19 as a junior after missing the 2016 season because of academics. Rust was a word that came up a lot in 2017.

The whispers about how Austin has practiced behind closed doors and occasional raves from his teammates and Kelly, though, suggest he’s made impressive strides on and off the field to the point that maybe his sophomore year won’t be a lost season after all.

“He’s been outstanding in everything we’ve asked him to do,” Kelly said in late November. “Every challenge that’s been put in front of him — and he’s had numerous, I repeat, numerous challenges placed in front of him — he has succeeded in meeting each one of those challenges.

“So good things on the horizon for him.”

• Daelin Hayes, defensive end: The seductive hook about former five-star prospects is the notion that at some point that projection is going to fulfill itself. In Hayes’ case, it doesn’t seem all that implausible.

The drive, the physical attributes, his resilience should make him at the very least productive as the starting rush end in 2020. Health is the wild card, though a torn labrum in Hayes’ right shoulder in game four of 2019 happened just early enough in the season to open the door for a fifth year at ND.

Ascending sophomore-to-be Isaiah Foskey and junior-to-be Ovie Oghoufo figure to form a formidable rotation, with incoming freshman Jordan Botelho a likely redshirt candidate.

• Liam Eichenberg, offensive tackle: Notre Dame finished 13th among the 130 offensive lines in the FBS this past season, as so rated by analytics-based Pro Football Focus. That’s 17 spots higher than the Joe Moore Award-winning LSU O-line graded out.

The Irish were deemed the nation’s second-best pass-blocking team by PFF, and the 6-foot-6, 305-pound senior Eichenberg was ND’s highest-graded offensive lineman overall, with zero sacks allowed as a high point on his résumé.

The next step for Eichenberg, and the O-line collectively, is improved physicality in the run game, a rite of passage for a discerning fan base given the program’s offensive DNA. Optics were probably worse than reality in that regard in 2019, and Eichenberg’s penchant for false-start penalties didn’t help that.

But there’s still a belief in the NFL scouting community that Eichenberg has the makings to be the fourth consecutive starting left tackle for the Irish to evolve into a first-round draft pick. Now it’s time to show it.

• Houston Griffith, safety: Halfway through the college career of the highest-rated recruit in the 2018 Irish class, per, the overriding number that stands out about 6-foot, 198-pound junior is five.

That’s the number of roles he’s filled spread over 24 games on the field, two exclusively on the bench and two springs. It’s also the number of tackles he garnered in an understated 2019 season.

From cornerback to safety to nickel to boundary cornerback to safety, has gone the progression. At least safety is a repeat destination. It’s also long been Griffith’s best position. So maybe everything finally clicks?

It kind of has to if the Irish are bent on playing three safeties on a regular basis in 2020, as they did last season. For starters, there are only five of them on the roster.

Freshman All-American Kyle Hamilton is a given. Griffith and Ohio State transfer Isaiah Pryor figure to join him. For Griffith especially, it really feels more like a question of when and not if.

He has too buoyant of an attitude, has been too much of a consistent standout in past winter workouts and is too gifted athletically to produce another enigmatic season.

• Jack Lamb, linebacker: The 6-4, 233-pounder was excelling in a niche role in Notre Dame’s dime package, a personnel group that played a large part in the Irish having the nation’s No. 5 pass-efficiency defense in 2019.

But he suffered a torn muscle in his hip/glute area Nov. 2 against Virginia Tech that ended his season and will likely limit his participation in the spring to non-contact drills at the most.

Otherwise, he’d have a chance to win a full-time role at the buck linebacker spot, being vacated by grad senior Asmar Bilal. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea has no shortage of options, including Jordan Genmark Heath, Marist Liufau, Shayne Simon or one of the rovers.

The good news for Lamb is that Drew White missed important reps last spring because of an injury in a deep competition for the starting middle linebacker job and was still able to emerge as the starter through a strong August training camp.

Notre Dame’s QB Phil Jurkovec (15) dives over Boston College’s Elijah Jones (20) during ND’s 40-7 rout, Nov. 23 at Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame defensive end Daelin Hayes (9) chases New Mexico’s Javohn Jones on Sept. 14, two weeks before a shoulder injury ended his season.