Notre Dame quarterback Phil Jurkovec enters NCAA's transfer portal

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Brian Kelly amplified the hype.

When four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec signed with Notre Dame on Dec. 20, 2017, the Irish head coach lauded his quarterback of the future.

“He’s the best quarterback in the country,” Kelly said that day. “He’s somebody that I could put up against any quarterback that I’ve ever seen.”

A little more than two years later with no college starts to his name, Jurkovec entered the NCAA’s transfer portal. Jurkovec confirmed the news with the Tribune after’s Matt Zenitz first reported it Wednesday afternoon. A Tribune source expects Jurkovec to follow through with a transfer and not just explore his options.

Word of Jurkovec’s impending exit came just 10 days after starting quarterback Ian Book announced he would return to play a fifth season for the Irish in 2020.

The 6-foot-5, 227-pound Jurkovec had long been considered a future answer at quarterback for Notre Dame. The Irish offered him a scholarship in 2015 during his sophomore season at Gibsonia (Pa.) Pine-Richland. He gave his verbal commitment to Notre Dame six months later in May 2016.

Jurkovec led Pine-Richland to a 16-0 record and a PIAA Class 6A state championship in his senior season. He finished his high school career with 8,202 passing yards, 71 passing touchdowns, 2,942 rushing yards and 43 rushing touchdowns in 34 games.

Rivals ranked Jurkovec as the No. 5 dual-threat quarterback and No. 87 overall in the 2018 class. 247Sports slated him as the No. 4 dual-threat quarterback and No. 115 overall.

When Kelly called Jurkovec the best quarterback in the country, the 2018 recruiting class also included Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. Both entered the week ranked among the top six quarterbacks in the FBS in passing efficiency for the 2019 season.

Lawrence will play to win his second straight national championship on Monday against No. 1 LSU (14-0). Lawrence and No. 3 Clemson (14-0) beat Fields and No. 2 Ohio State (13-1) in the College Football Playoff semifinal in December. A year ago, Clemson and Lawrence defeated Notre Dame and Book by a 30-3 margin in a College Football Playoff semifinal.

Kelly’s early praise for Jurkovec never led to significant playing time in his two seasons at Notre Dame. He played in two games as a freshman in 2018 and seven games as a sophomore in 2019 but only late in games already decided by a wide margin. Last season, Jurkovec completed 12 of his 16 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns and rushed 22 times for 156 yards in appearances against New Mexico, Bowling Green, Michigan, Duke, Navy, Boston College and Iowa State.

For all the hype that followed Jurkovec to Notre Dame, the Irish coaching staff made clear the gap it saw between Book and Jurkovec in the last year. In April, former offensive coordinator Chip Long used advanced calculus to describe Book’s level of quarterback play in contrast to Jurkovec working on algebra.

Following a disappointing performance in last year’s Blue-Gold Game, in which Jurkovec was sacked 12 times and completed 15 of his 26 passes for 135 yards, Jurkovec described his spring as up and down and not good enough to meet his standard.

“I have a long way to go with everything — physically and mentally,” Jurkovec said in April.

Jurkovec entered Notre Dame’s game against Bowling Green on Oct. 5 in the third quarter with the Irish leading 38-0. He conducted a six-play, 75-yard drive capped by a seven-yard touchdown pass to Avery Davis on his first series. He led another touchdown drive of 12 plays and 79 yards in the fourth quarter, but the Irish had to use a timeout before first-and-goal at the one-yard line.

After the game, Kelly said the Irish had to call a timeout because Jurkovec was reading the wrong signals from the sideline.

In the week following Notre Dame’s 45-14 loss at Michigan, in which Book completed only eight of his 25 passes for 73 yards and one touchdown, Kelly was asked by reporters about Jurkovec receiving more playing time. Jurkovec finished the Michigan game at quarterback with three completions for 79 yards and one touchdown on four attempts.

“If I felt like playing Phil for five plays, four plays would make us a better football team, I would do it in a second,” Kelly said on Oct. 28. “I’m only interested in how I can help our football team win. This is not about an ego or we have to play one guy, two guys. I just want to win football games by playing the best players that will help us win.”

In Notre Dame’s 52-20 win over Navy on Nov. 16, Jurkovec again entered the game in the third quarter of a blowout. Kelly complimented Jurkovec on a 17-yard completion to wide receiver Braden Lenzy. Jurkovec took a hit from a Navy defender blitzing unblocked from the outside, but Jurkovec still managed to throw to Lenzy near the sideline from the far hash mark.

“That’s hard to do when you don’t get a lot of reps,” Kelly said. “He showed some real signs. You don’t normally get those opportunities as the backup quarterback and execute them correctly.

“But it’s hard being the backup quarterback and stay locked in all the time. So there are a couple things where you scratch your head, but I just think it’s just a matter of time. Once he gets in there and gets a lot of work we feel really confident that he’ll be successful.”

Jurkovec’s shot at starting for Notre Dame likely wouldn’t have come until 2021 with Book’s return. Unless Jurkovec receives a waiver from the NCAA, he will have to wait until 2021 to play at his transfer destination too. Because playing in only two games as a freshman qualifies as a redshirt season, Jurkovec still has three years of NCAA eligibility remaining. But one of those years would expire while sitting out as a transfer in 2020.

Jurkovec reported scholarship offers from Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Penn State, Pittsburgh and others as a recruit. It remains to be seen which programs will pursue him in the transfer portal.

Mike Sanford, who offered Jurkovec as Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2015, was recently hired as Minnesota’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. But Sanford, who left to become the head coach at Western Kentucky in 2017, never coached Jurkovec at Notre Dame.

Without Jurkovec, Notre Dame will likely be left with three scholarship quarterbacks on its roster in 2020: Book, sophomore-to-be Brendon Clark and incoming freshman Drew Pyne.

The starting job belongs to Book and his 20-3 record with the Irish. Clark (6-2, 217) and Pyne (6-0, 195) will compete to become Book’s backup.

Clark, a former-three star recruit from Midlothian (Va.) Manchester, played in two games for the Irish in 2019: New Mexico and Bowling Green. Clark completed his only pass for a 22-yard touchdown to Lenzy against New Mexico. He also rushed five times for 33 yards in his two appearances. 247Sports slated Clark as the No. 15 pro-style quarterback and No. 525 overall in the 2019 class. Rivals ranked him as the No. 20 pro-style quarterback.

Pyne finished his senior season at New Canaan (Conn.) High 161-of-252 passing (64 percent) for 2,107 yards and 24 touchdowns with seven interceptions in 11 games. He also rushed 57 times for 259 yards and eight touchdowns.

Pyne impressed at the Under Armour All-America Game earlier this month with a final line of 9-of-11 for 121 yards and a 43-yard touchdown pass. Rivals rates Pyne as a four-star recruit, the No. 7 pro-style quarterback and No. 118 overall in the 2020 class. 247Sports slates him as a three-star recruit, the No. 18 pro-style quarterback and No. 743 overall.

Jurkovec will become the seventh quarterback to transfer out of Notre Dame before or after graduation since Kelly took over the program in late 2009. Quarterback transfers have become a prominent factor in college football.

Three of the four teams in this season’s College Football Playoff started former transfer quarterbacks: Fields (from Georgia), LSU’s Joe Burrow (Ohio State) and Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts (Alabama).

Fields, who Rivals ranked as the No. 1 quarterback in the 2018 class, transferred to Ohio State out of Georgia after his freshman season and found success with the Buckeyes immediately.

Tate Martell, ranked by Rivals and 247Sports as the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback in the 2017 class, transferred to Miami after two years at Ohio State and played wide receiver for much of the 2019 season. Former Clemson quarterback Hunter Johnson, who Rivals ranked as the No. 2 pro-style quarterback in the 2017 class, transferred to Northwestern and struggled to hold onto the starting job in 2019.

After the recruiting hype comes the pressure to live up to it. Just like in the NFL Draft, there are plenty of hits and misses in college football.

Maybe Jurkovec will prove Kelly right after all. But after Wednesday, any chance of that happening likely won’t come in South Bend.

Notre Dame quarterback Phil Jurkovec (left) has entered his name into the NCAA’s transfer portal.