It didn’t take long for Boston College fans to get excited about Phil Jurkovec.
Although he was Ian Book’s backup for two years at Notre Dame, the 6-foot-5, 226-pound gunslinger was a former four-star recruit who put up video game numbers at Pine-Richland High School and, ultimately, was rated No. 87 overall in the Class of 2018. Plus, he was the first big name recruit or transfer of the Jeff Hafley era, at a position that needed to be filled following the departure of Anthony Brown.
In the seven months leading up to the NCAA’s approval of Jurkovec’s immediate-eligibility waiver, expectations grew, and eventually the #FreeJurk campaign began. The movement attracted the attention of BC alum and former Monday Night Football play-by-play man Joe Tessitore and, soon after, ESPN colleagues Jay Bilas and Rod Gilmore—longtime college basketball and football analysts, respectively.
By the time Jurkovec received his waiver on Aug. 4, the pressure was on.
That carried onto the field, not only figuratively but also literally. In fact, Jurkovec had more pressure dropbacks (157) than any other quarterback in the country this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
And, for the most part, he thrived, drawing comparisons to Pittsburgh Steelers star Ben Roethlisberger for his sturdy body, awareness, and evasive playmaking ability.
Piloting Frank Cignetti Jr.’s motion-based, pro-style offense, Jurkovec was asked to throw more than any quarterback in the Steve Addazio era. He attempted 50 or more passes twice in his first five games. The last BC quarterback to reach that mark in a single outing was Chase Rettig in 2012. Jurkovec posted four 300-yard games in his first month as a starting collegiate quarterback and rounded out the 2020 campaign—in which he played 10 games—with the sixth-most passing yards (2,558) in the ACC.
Of his 336 pass attempts, 125 came while he was pressured, per PFF. In other words, 37.2% of Jurkovec’s throws were delivered under duress. He completed 70, logging the most passing yards under pressure (1,080) of any quarterback so far this season. North Carolina’s Sam Howell is second on the list with 873 passing yards, and, notably, Heisman Trophy finalist Kyle Trask is fourth with 798.
What’s particularly intriguing about Jurkovec is how remarkably efficient he was with defenders in his face. Of the top-five quarterbacks in passing yards under pressure, Jurkovec was the only one with zero interceptions under duress on the season. As far as under pressure stats are concerned, he also had the highest completion percentage and second-lowest sack percentage of the group.
Jurkovec posted a 8:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio while under pressure. Whether it was standing tall in the pocket and weathering hits or moving outside the tackle box and uncorking balls downfield, Jurkovec proved time and time again to be up to the task.
For example, look at this touchdown strike against Georgia Tech. Edge rusher Jordan Domineck got a headstart on Jurkovec after jumping offside. Jurkovec felt Domineck coming from the right, slid up in the pocket, protected the ball, and launched a perfectly-placed pass to a toe-tapping CJ Lewis for six.
Of course, it was his magic outside the pocket that turned heads. Watching back the tape, this is the moment that stuck out the most. Playing with a separated throwing shoulder against his former team, Jurkovec retreated backward on 3rd-and-15, rolled out of a sack, broke through another, pointed downfield, and fired a 34-yard pass to Jaelen Gill before being hit by a pair of Irish defenders.
This is where the Ben Roethlisberger comparisons come from. Phil Jurkovec evades two sack attempts, steps up in the pocket, points for Jaelen Gill, and launches a pass before taking a big hit.
Gill comes down the 34-yard reception to move the chains on 3rd-and-15.
What a play. pic.twitter.com/ndIzkKjE1c
— Andy Backstrom (@andybackstrom) November 14, 2020
Gutsy is the word that comes to mind, and it’s a pretty apt description of Jurkovec’s play in 2020. Sometimes, however, it came back to haunt him, or at least should have. While he didn’t technically throw any picks under pressure, there were a few noteworthy potential interceptions.
In the first quarter of BC’s home game against Pittsburgh, Rashad Weaver beat Tyler Vrabel off the edge, forcing Jurkovec to scramble right. While on the run, the redshirt sophomore threw back across his body. The pass was intended for Zay Flowers, but there were a couple of Panthers defensive backs who could have made a play on the ball, including safety Paris Ford, who dove but couldn’t seal the interception.
Then, at Clemson, with under seven minutes to go in the fourth quarter and a four-point deficit to cut, a pressured Jurkovec danced to the right on 2nd-and-14 and overthrew Hunter Long. The ball soared over the outstretched hands of BC’s star tight end and into the palms of Tigers cornerback Derion Kendrick, who promptly deflected it into the arms of linebacker Baylon Spector. Fortunately for the Eagles, the takeaway was wiped because of a Xavier Thomas targeting penalty.
Similarly, a face mask penalty erased a Jurkovec interception in the third quarter of the Notre Dame game. Jurkovec felt the heat coming from his backside, moved up in the pocket, and barely got a throw off before taking a hit. The pass was nowhere near an Eagles receiver. Instead, it landed right in the hands of Irish safety Kyle Hamilton.
So, there’s a bit of luck factored into Jurkovec’s perfect touchdown/interception split for under pressure throws, which begs the question of how sustainable that kind of success is for his BC career, especially if he continues throwing off his back foot as much as he did in 2020. Regardless, the precision of his passes under duress is commendable to say the least. At times channeling his inner-Houdini, Jurkovec completed 56% of his passes while under pressure, yielding an adjusted completion percentage of 65.2%, according to PFF, which calculates the metric by finding the percentage of aimed passes thrown on target.
Game after game, the Pittsburgh native turned in highlight-reel plays where he hit his receivers on the money just before getting lit up by a defender.
Jurkovec made a bunch of those kinds of throws against Clemson, helping the Eagles stake themselves to an 18-point lead. His 48-yard hookup with Gill, in particular, was eye-catching. Jurkovec faked the handoff, dropped back, and stepped into a downfield pass with a pair of Tigers veering off his blind side. The ball fell into the hands of Gill in stride, allowing him to pick up more than 20 yards after the catch.
As exciting as Jurkovec’s pressure-cooked throws were, it’s only natural to ask why there were so many.
Let’s look at Anthony Brown’s most injury-free season: 2018. He was pressured on 83 of his 314 dropbacks (26.4%), according to PFF. A significantly lower percentage than Jurkovec’s 40.7%. And, by the way, just for comparison, Brown completed just 22-of-62 passes under pressure that year, or 35.5%, and was sacked 20.5% of the time on those pressure dropbacks (Jurkovec’s sack percentage in 2020: 14.6%).
The offense Brown was running—a run-oriented, 12-personnel scheme—is completely different than the one Jurkovec orchestrated this season. Just the sheer volume of pass plays and the lack of a consistent rushing attack this year, at least at the beginning of the season, certainly could have played a role in Jurkovec’s increased pressure dropback rate, too.
It’s easy to point to BC’s offensive line, especially after the group that returned four All-ACC starters experienced a drastic offseason shakeup. Zion Johnson, a three-time ACC O-Lineman of the Week at left guard was moved to the blind side. Vrabel was pushed from left tackle to right tackle. And the versatile Ben Petrula shifted from right tackle to right guard, while redshirt freshman Christian Mahogany was inserted at left guard. The decision was made to better fit Cignetti’s system and to fill the void left by John Phillips at right guard. But without a complete spring ball and a normal training camp, the new-look line’s chemistry formation understandably dragged into the regular season.
As a result, the Eagles allowed 17 sacks in the first four games—four more than they gave up in all of 2019—not to mention that BC’s run game ranked toward the bottom of the FBS at the time.
But not all of those sacks were the fault of the offensive line. PFF actually attributes five of them to Jurkovec, four of which he was responsible for against Pittsburgh. Late in the first half, Jurkovec sensed the pocket collapsing yet, instead of stepping up, went backward. He dodged Weaver but not Patrick Jones II, who brought him down for a loss of 17 yards before he could get the ball out.
It’s plays like that, where Jurkovec reversed rather than rolling out or stepping up, that occasionally backfired. It happened again at Clemson when linebacker Trenton Simpson shook off a Travis Levy block, leading Jurkovec to retreat, but he tripped on his own feet, lost the ball and nearly the possession had he not recovered the fumble.
Dangerous play for Phil Jurkovec.
Retreating to the backfield, Jurkovec trips over himself and loses the ball. LB Trenton Simpson nearly scoops it up but can’t corral the loose ball.
Jurkovec regains possession, and the Eagles punt two plays later. pic.twitter.com/NLXHf0X1vv
— Andy Backstrom (@andybackstrom) October 31, 2020
After the Pittsburgh game, Jurkovec didn’t have another outing this season where he was responsible for more than one of his own sacks, according to PFF, and BC’s offensive line made strides throughout the year—in pass protection and run blocking. In three of the Eagles’ final six games, BC rushed for more than 180 yards while allowing zero sacks.
With another year in the system, both parties should, in theory, minimize the sack total. Jurkovec getting the ball out quicker would certainly help in that regard. Of the 26 ACC quarterbacks with 50-plus dropbacks this season, Jurkovec ranked 23nd in average time to throw (2.78 seconds), per PFF. He’s only ahead of N.C. State’s Bailey Hockman (2.81), Notre Dame’s Ian Book (2.90), and teammate Dennis Grosel (3.11).
The thing is, though, a lot of Jurkovec’s best moments resulted from him extending plays with his feet, avoiding sacks, and dialing up passes downfield. And it’s what made this BC passing attack even more revolutionary. His escapability played a big part in BC skyrocketing from 113th to 24th in passing offense and, more specifically, from 79th to 14th in 30-plus-yard pass plays.
Was it always pretty? No. But it sure was exciting.
And that’s not something people have been able to say about BC’s aerial attack in years.