SOUTH BEND — The end of spring practices couldn’t have gone any worse for Notre Dame quarterback Phil Jurkovec.
The redshirt freshman had a brutal Blue-Gold Spring Game, completing just 15 of his 26 pass attempts for 135 yards and zero touchdowns. He was sacked 12 times officially, although what was defined as a “sack” was different since the quarterback couldn’t be hit during the spring game.
Still, Jurkovec looked lost as he stepped into the backup QB role for the Fighting Irish.
“Just felt really different live. Kind of in-between if you’ll be sacked or if you’ll be down. That was just unnatural for me. I would’ve rather have just gone live and play, but under the circumstances, I can’t do that,” said Jurkovec following the game back in April. “It was very disappointing. A pretty terrible day on my part.”
Jurkovec has no choice but to move on from the spring game performance as he will be No. 2 on the quarterback depth chart this year behind redshirt senior Ian Book.
“A lot was made after the Blue-Gold Game, and I think there was a lot more progress during the spring than probably that game showed,” Notre Dame quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees said. “I think a lot of that was not unfair, because he needed to play better, but probably a little misleading on where we thought he was and what he could accomplish.”
It appeared Jurkovec’s woes continued into the start of fall camp, as he threw three interceptions to freshman safety Kyle Hamilton in the team’s first practice in Culver.
Since returning from Culver Academies, though, the 6-4, 227-pound quarterback has made considerable strides. Jurkovec has worked with Rees to make him more comfortable in the pocket.
“Really after the first couple of practices, I think he took a lot of ownership in what he was trying to accomplish. He took more ownership in getting his feet better. He took more ownership in learning the offense and making sure that when he stepped on the field that there wasn’t a drop, mentally,” Rees said.
Some of the “sacks” Jurkovec took in the Blue-Gold Game were from holding on to the ball too long. That’s another thing Rees has worked on with the young quarterback.
“One thing we’ve talked about with him throughout this entire camp is when the plays are there, let’s make them. When the plays aren’t there, let’s do a positive gain,” Rees said. “Let’s get us out of trouble, and that’s something, as a young quarterback, that he needed to learn.”
Head coach Brian Kelly has noticed Jurkovec making progress since returning to Notre Dame’s campus three weeks ago.
“Once he settled in to the style of footwork that coach Rees wanted him to focus on, he started taking off. And now it’s just learning defense and being aware of what we want him to do within our offensive structure,” Kelly said. “I wasn’t really nervous because I knew what the issues were that we had to clean up. It was just him making a decision that ‘I’m going to do this.’”With the growth in development has come confidence for Jurkovec. Rees said he’s seen the redshirt freshman become more comfortable in his surroundings and expects that to only get better as time goes on.
“Confidence plays a huge role. As he gets more reps and as you have more success, that’s naturally going to come,” Rees said. “I think Phil developed that in the middle part of camp and that’s carried through now.”
SMITH GETS PAID
A former Notre Dame linebacker received a major contract extension with the Dallas Cowboys this week.
Jaylon Smith signed a 5-year, $64 million deal Tuesday to stay in Dallas. Smith was a star in South Bend, recording 292 tackles in three seasons. A vicious knee injury against Ohio State in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl raised questions if Smith was ever going to walk again, though, let alone play football.
Despite the injury risk, Smith was taken in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft by the Cowboys. He missed all of 2016 rehabbing before returning for the 2017 season. He had 81 tackles in 2017 and 121 tackles in 2018, quickly becoming one of the best linebackers in the NFL.
Kelly commended Smith’s work ethic at the Irish’s media day Wednesday.
“It just goes to somebody that has such a positive outlook on life, has always taken the stance that ‘I’m going to persevere, I’m going to do it the right way.’ He’s never backed down from the way he’s handled things, and he’s rewarded for it,” Kelly said. “It just strengthens your convictions that if you do it the right way and you stick to it and you don’t listen to all the naysayers, things can turn out alright.
“You choose your path. He chose his path, and he stuck with it and he stayed positive. Man, it’s a great story and we should celebrate it.”