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Mailbag: On Notre Dame’s QBs and other idle week wonderings

Hear from head coaches Brian Kelly and Jim Harbaugh, as Chris Simms and Ahmed Fareed reveal the keys to Saturday night's matchup.

‘Tis inevitable. No matter how a football season may be going, the quarterback could be playing better. Thus, when filling Notre Dame’s idle week with a mailbag, it should have been expected the majority of the questions would tie to Irish senior quarterback Ian Book. Fortunately, reasonable minds did not go too far overboard in fretting about Book …

It’s almost as if Book has not been at the helm for 14 wins in 16 starts, with the two losses coming to a national champion and a possible Playoff team. (Georgia’s loss to South Carolina aside, the Bulldogs still control their own path to the College Football Playoff.) Book was not the reason Notre Dame lost at Georgia or back in December against Clemson, yet these conversations continue to come back to him.

To answer the question offered by our resident “The League” fan (excellent deep cut, by the way), sophomore quarterback Phil Jurkovec’s first start will come when Book is injured. Just as Book stepped in for Brandon Wimbush in 2017 at North Carolina and Wimbush returned the favor last year against Florida State, at some point Book will take a hit that keeps him out for a week. These are the realities of the game.

Which is to say, when Tim Murray of NBC Sports’ “The Daily Line” asked … “If you had to put money on it right now, does Ian Book start vs. Navy in Ireland?” I replied yes.

Being a gambling personality on a gambling show, Tim then provided hypothetical odds of Book -140, Jurkovec +120. (Bet $140 to win $100 if Book starts; bet $100 to win $120 if Jurkovec does.)

The longer version of Tim’s question is, “Will Book jump into the NFL draft or take a graduate transfer elsewhere?” Because if Book is at Notre Dame and healthy, he will start across the Atlantic. Record-setting quarterbacks who led the Irish to the Playoff and have kept Notre Dame winning through a 13-2 stretch do not get benched.

The sign of health around Notre Dame is its 26-4 record since first falling to Georgia in 2017’s second week, a true tally of 27-5 since the debacle known as 2016. The sign of Book’s worthiness as a starter is his 13 wins in 15 starts as the true starting quarterback (discounting that spot start at North Carolina in 2017) and the current scoring average of 39.2 points per game.

While Wimbush did not lead the Irish offense efficiently and thus put Notre Dame in jeopardy against even Ball State and Vanderbilt, Book has kept things humming well enough, despite his struggles with the deep ball. The Irish opted for ball control against USC not because of any concern about Book, but because that was the best strategy to further limit the Trojans’ receivers.

Yet that deep ball deficiency should be enough to keep Book out of the NFL draft until 2021, and it is hard to fathom anyone transferring away from being Notre Dame’s starting quarterback.

That should lead to Book becoming the fourth three-year Irish starting quarterback of the last quarter-century, joining Ron Powlus (‘94-’97), Brady Quinn (‘03-’06) and Jimmy Clausen (‘07-’09).

Phil Jurkovec Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, INDIANA - OCTOBER 05: IPhil Jurkovec #15 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish warms up before the game against the Bowling Green Falcons at Notre Dame Stadium on October 05, 2019 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

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This possibility, an arguable likelihood, naturally spurs some concern about Notre Dame’s future quarterbacks … “If Book returns next year, ND will have four QBs on the roster with another highly-ranked recruit committed for the 2021 class. Who would be most likely to transfer due to a lack of playing time?” — Jules from Joliet, Ill.

Jules did not mention Jurkovec by name, but the undertone was there. To date, Jurkovec has not bucked his backup role, in part because his spring was so humbling. His dismal Blue-Gold Game showing was a public moment of worrisome performance, and he knew it as he sat in the interview room afterward.

“I just need to put in a lot more work, a lot more film,” Jurkovec said forlornly in April. “The more reps I get, it’ll help.”

No matter how much improvement he has shown in the past six months, Jurkovec is grounded enough to know he was never going to jump from that spring showing to surpassing Book by now, nor is Jurkovec ready to. That underlying understanding may be one of his best long-term assets.

Obviously, these things change with time, especially among 18- to 22-year-olds, but there is no reason to speculate about Jurkovec jettisoning because Book returns in 2020.

While the coaching staff is high on current freshman Brandon Clark, and everyone is high on 2020 consensus four-star commit Drew Pyne, it is too soon to fret over either.

Just because there is a depth chart is not reason to wonder about transfers. While that is the world created by the transfer portal, four games of free eligibility and the graduate transfer loophole, there is still logic to having four quarterbacks on the roster. Injuries happen (see above) and players do not pan out (see Avery Davis). A fifth-year passer may change some of that calculus, but the luxury of a third-year starter is worth navigating that situation.

“Who do you think will be on the 2020 ‘Watch Lists’? That also includes guesswork on who goes and stays, naturally” — Mark H.

Mark had previously wondered if the Irish would have any offensive linemen among the All-Americans this season, specifically junior right tackle Robert Hainsey. While one midseason list included senior right guard Tommy Kraemer, do not anticipate any such acknowledgements to come at year-end. The line has not been consistent enough to warrant them, despite its excellent pass protection.

This space will not dabble much in pondering next season’s watch lists, because watch lists on the whole are inane. Sophomore Jarrett Patterson made the Rimington Trophy Watch List this summer, even though he had never played a single snap at center at that point.

Wondering who will stay, though, is a pertinent conversation. Hainsey may have the technical skill for the next level already, but everything about him screams two-year captain and four-year starter. At that point, Notre Dame should return its entire offensive line, its quarterback, its starting running back and junior receiver Michael Young. The offensive question will be junior tight end Cole Kmet. He probably should jump to the NFL, but could return if he really does want to pitch for the Irish baseball team this spring, as he has said.

Defensively, there is only one “Will he or won’t he” question, and that is senior safety Alohi Gilman. Considering Gilman transferred from Navy specifically because of professional aspirations, there is little reason to expect him to put that off.

Is this a trick question? Next weekend at 7:30 ET on ABC. Virginia Tech has reached a level of mediocrity about to be illustrated by North Carolina. David Cutcliffe keeps Duke from becoming the wreck it was before his tenure, but its offense still struggles and will be shut down by Clark Lea’s defense. Navy is better than expected before the season, but Lea has figured out how to handle the triple-option in his two years with the Irish. Boston College just lost its quarterback for the season. And Stanford did not gain even 200 yards against UCLA on Thursday.

Michigan, Michigan should scare Notre Dame fans the most.

“How many games has Jordan Genmark Heath appeared in? I was surprised that we didn’t see him on the run teams Saturday night.” — nebraskairish

Genmark Heath has played in all six games, making five tackles. His role remains so small as a result of the emergence of fifth-year linebacker Asmar Bilal, a price Irish fans should be happy to pay due to Bilal’s increasingly stellar work in his final season.

Genmark Heath was not on the coverage unit for the opening kickoff against USC because Notre Dame’s A-Team was. Many of these names only handle those duties in pivotal moments against the toughest of foes: Pride, Owusu-Koramoah, Gilman, Moala, Elliott, Bilal, Jamir Jones, Bauer, Claypool, Kmet.

Don’t be shocked to see a similar opening set in Ann Arbor because, again, that is the toughest remaining game.

A fun exercise, it is surprisingly simple when looking at the current Irish starters. Let’s start with recent defensive departures:

The Irish miss cornerback Julian Love. Adding him to this secondary in place of the question marks that are senior Donte Vaughn and sophomore TaRiq Bracy would give Lea the best defensive backfield in the country.

As laudatory as that statement was, it pales in comparison to the defensive upgrade that Jaylon Smith would bring to the linebacker group. Let’s get flexible and move Bilal to the middle and put Smith at Buck, but let’s also create a nickel-heavy base package with Smith and Owusu-Koramoah the second tier, often buttressed by Gilman approaching the line with freshman safety Kyle Hamilton working deep. Lea’s defense is already strong. Adding Smith, and to a lesser extent Love, would be akin to cheating.

Notre Dame’s offense needs more help, and while considering complementing Kmet with Tyler Eifert, that is getting greedy and could be a bit superfluous. It is more important to develop a running game and combine it with a deep threat. The latter part is obvious: Will Fuller.

The ground game could come via C.J. Prosise in an advanced version of the role Armstrong was presumed to play this season, but Prosise may still need some help. Notre Dame’s offensive line has played well, but a generational talent would undeniably make it better. Add Quenton Nelson to the mix.

That team could legitimately win the national championship. Its defense would keep things low-scoring, the ground game could lead the way on a touchdown drive or two, and Book would need to step into one deep throw to Fuller to provide the final cushion. He should have the time to wind up with the current offensive line’s pass protection buoyed by Nelson.

I know Peter, and I strongly suspect this was a question from his lovely wife, Kate. She is poking fun at my conviction that anyone born after 1985 does not properly appreciate the artist behind “Tupelo Honey.” She is doubling her glee by wondering why I was so surprised to hear Notre Dame Stadium play “Cecilia” by Simon & Garfunkel last weekend. It was an odd pregame choice, but a delightful song to hear at any point, nonetheless.

In the spirit of playing along with Kate’s glibness, I considered some newer choices (Bishop Briggs, Welshly Arms, Judah & The Lion), being sure neither their lyrics nor topics would be overly inappropriate. I debated an old favorite, “Black Water” by The Doobie Brothers.

But the answer is Beck, because the musical genius has a song for any mood or atmosphere, something Peter and Kate would have done well to remember on their wedding day, four years ago Thursday. Yes, they are the type of people to get married during football season. I had to prop a cell phone up against a butter dish to watch Michigan State block a Wolverines punt and return it for a touchdown as time expired.

Speaking of which, “Have you ever connected with the illustrious Claire from previous year’s posts?” — rbmat

Claire is more proverbial than illustrious, but let’s see how the wedding I am required at this weekend goes. At least this couple chose an Irish idle week.