CHESTNUT Hill, Mass. — Few players in college football changed their career trajectories in 2020 as precipitously as Boston College quarterback Phil Jurkovec.
And to understand how the Notre Dame transfer rejuvenated his career, the story begins with the Pittsburgh accent of Boston College offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr.
“We needed him, and he needed us, to be honest,” Cignetti said recently in his distinct Pittsburghese.
Jurkovec is a Pittsburgh-area native who led BC to a 6-5 record by throwing 17 touchdown passes after transferring in January 2020. Along the way, Boston College found its best quarterback prospect since Matt Ryan, and Jurkovec’s production reminded everyone why he’d been mentioned with Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and Matt Corral amid the top quarterback recruits in 2018.
The narrative change can be distilled to the comforts of home re-discovered in Boston, an awakening narrated by Yinzers. Jurkovec bonded immediately with Cignetti, a defiant Pittsburgh guy who’ll stop anyone wearing a Pirates hat to ask where they’re from. Both Jurkovec and Cignetti understand a salad garnished with French fries, the enduring delight of Primanti Brothers and the use of hoagie to describe a sandwich.
“As soon as we told Frank there’s a quarterback in the [transfer] portal who’s not only huge and can run and throw, but he’s also from Pittsburgh …” BC coach Jeff Hafley said with a laugh. “I mean, there was no convincing Frank any other way that this was going to be the guy.”
Jurkovec starred at Pine-Richland High School, located just north of Pittsburgh, where he developed into a four-star quarterback. Jurkovec didn’t necessarily know Cignetti, but he soon realized that he’d gone to fifth grade with Cignetti’s daughter, Alyssa, and that one of his close high school friends, Chrissy Ciarrocca, is Cignetti’s niece.
“There’s a family atmosphere,” Jurkovec said of Pittsburgh, “that it’s not too big, that people still look out for everybody.”
After two underwhelming seasons at Notre Dame, Jurkovec found comfort in a familiar voice and from coaches looking out for his development. He has clicked with Hafley’s open-door vibe, flourished in Cignetti’s NFL-style system and announced himself as an intriguing — and divisive — NFL draft prospect. Mostly, he has re-established himself as one of college football’s boldfaced names and given Hafley’s early tenure an immediate identity.
At 6-foot-5 and 227 pounds, Jurkovec emerged as one of the ACC’s breakout stars in 2020 by throwing for more yards in his first 10 starts — 2,558 — than any quarterback in school history. The buzz should amplify early in the season, as BC opens with one of the easiest slates of any Power Five team: Colgate, at UMass and at Temple. The Eagles also return first-team All-ACC wide receiver Zay Flowers and an offensive line that brings back 125 starts among the five returning starters.
“Jurkovec is like your favorite indie band’s favorite indie band,” a veteran NFL scout told Yahoo Sports. “Every scout right now is buzzing about him.”
How BC won over Jurkovec beyond Pittsburgh ties
When Jurkovec arrived for his visit to Boston College in January 2020, he was greeted outside Terminal B at Logan Airport by Hafley, Cignetti and BC director of player personnel Joe Sullivan.
Jurkovec was dealing with a compressed time frame to make a decision, so the visit took on more of a business trip vibe than the flash of a high school recruiting trip. By this time, all the familial and Pittsburgh connections to Cignetti had been solidified. The main point of the visit was making sure that Jurkovec meshed with Hafley, who can claim Pittsburgh bona fides with five seasons served as a Pitt assistant.
Hafley, 42, had just taken over the BC job, coming from Ohio State. And he inherited a program with little quarterback depth, as 2019 starter Anthony Brown entered the portal and eventually transferred to Oregon. BC started a former walk-on quarterback, Dennis Grosel, seven games in 2019 after Brown got hurt and didn’t score an offensive touchdown in its bowl game.
Hafley made sure the BC crew got to the airport early. He bought a Dunkin Donuts coffee and waited anxiously for the potential signature acquisition of his early tenure. “I didn’t leave his side,” Hafley said with a laugh. “I went on the campus tour with him, I went out to dinner with him.”
Cignetti watched film for more than three hours with Jurkovec, explaining exactly how his more than a decade coaching players like Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning and Sam Bradford in the NFL would expedite Jurkovec’s development. They went over nuances like the quarterback evaluation system Cignetti learned from Mike McCarthy while working as the Packers’ quarterbacks coach and how BC receivers run routes that count “revolutions on the outside leg,” which tie into the quarterbacks’ footwork in five-step and seven-step drops.
The comfort level dove deeper than the Pittsburgh chatter, as Jurkovec quickly got the feeling that the coaches were invested in his evolution as a quarterback. Jurkovec ended up feeling so comfortable that he even tried oysters for the first time at Legal Seafood Harborside.
“Just being around Coach Hafley and Coach Cignetti,” Jurkovec said, “I knew that everything else took second to that, like my relationship with them and having people that I knew were gonna invest in me and I knew that were gonna give me their all. It was a trust factor that sold me.”
Jim Jurkovec, Phil’s dad, appreciated the depth of Boston knowledge brought by Sullivan, who politely nodded to the Pittsburgh biases while detailing the city. He particularly enjoyed the perspective of associate athletic director Barry Gallup, the wise Yoda of the BC staff who famously recruited Doug Flutie to the school and has been on staff in some capacity for nearly four decades.
After being buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame and feeling as if his development stunted, Jurkovec found the ideal situation for him on and off the field.
“I think it’s the best decision I’ve made,” he said. “It was a tough decision leaving Notre Dame, but looking back, the position that I’m in now — being the starter, having all the weapons around me, having all these great people around me — I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
The connection with Cignetti provided the capper, as he offered a clear and detailed plan to resurrect Jurkovec’s career and highlight his talents, detailing the fundamentals, techniques, footwork, progressions and confidence. “He understood intuitively what Phil needed,” Jim Jurkovec said. “It was very clear. He was able to assess Phil. He knew what he could do. He knew what was missing. And he knew what needed to be added.
“There was a lot of wisdom, but he did it in a homespun way.”
How Jurkovec found comfort zone at Boston College
Seven quarters into Jurkovec’s Boston College career, and the Eagles found themselves at a crossroads. They trailed 21-7 to lowly Texas State, who finished 2-10, in the final minutes of the third quarter of BC’s second game in 2020.
Hafley admitted that his thoughts on the sideline drifted to how he’d handle the first significant on-field adversity of his tenure as a head coach. Jurkovec couldn’t get over the frustration of BC’s offensive inertia against a Sun Belt team. But during the final 16 minutes, the same “gamer” who led Pine-Richland to an undefeated state title in 2017 re-emerged after essentially two seasons of competitive atrophy. Jurkovec led a 12-play touchdown drive to end the third quarter and a pair of scoring drives to tie, and then win, the game in the final three minutes.
“It just was so natural for him,” Hafley said. “The ball was coming out of his hands so quickly. There was no thinking, there was no hesitation and you saw leadership, you saw poise, you saw there was no nervousness.”
One of Jurkovec’s distinct strengths is his ability to create off-script and extend plays. But that comeback showcased what he could do on-script, as he patiently completed check-down passes and didn’t force the action.
When BC got the ball with 47 seconds left and the game tied, Jurkovec completed five straight passes to move the ball to the 19-yard line. After an incompletion, Aaron Boumerhi kicked the game-winning, 36-yard field goal with three seconds left. That ended up changing everything, as it allowed BC to finish over .500, avoid an embarrassing Group of Five loss and establish momentum for the program that hasn’t slowed. “I think it swung our whole year,” said Hafley, who has put together a 2022 recruiting class that’s currently No. 11 in the country.
As the offense opened up, Flowers broke out to become a first-team All-ACC selection and is poised to become the first BC wide receiver to be drafted to the NFL since 1987. The addition of 6-7 grad transfer tight end Trae Barry, an FCS All-American at Jacksonville State who chose the Eagles over Ole Miss, has been BC’s buzziest offseason addition.
There’s also expected to be a development uptick from Jurkovec, who had his first full spring in the program and feels more comfortable in Cignetti’s offense. Hafley considers the quarterback the “most underdeveloped position in the game,” and he expects Jurkovec to show significant strides after completing 61% of his passes last year.
“Even if you look back in the season, it was almost like at times he was in survival mode,” Hafley said. “I mean, he didn’t have a great grasp … So did he understand the scheme? Yeah. But was he also making plays off of pure ability? There’s no doubt. He had so many off-schedule plays, it was ridiculous. What you see now is you see confidence, and he knows exactly what he’s doing.”
Mixed NFL scouting report for Jurkovec
Last season, Jurkovec wowed scouts with his physical tools, off-script improv and ruggedness taking hits. As of now, it’s tricky to gauge Jurkovec as an NFL prospect. He has started only 10 career games, which is why he’s projected everywhere in mock drafts — and preseason mocks are inherently mockable — from a first-round pick to undrafted. Some NFL teams have studied him. Others haven’t even discussed him.
Scouts that Yahoo Sports spoke with were intrigued but skeptical. Jurkovec’s pure throwing ability is a looming question, which is why one scout was leery of the hype. Another scout summed him up this way: “He’s a more talented Ryan Fitzpatrick. He’s athletic enough. Tough and smart. Is the arm talent good enough? I think so. But I don’t know if he’s a slam dunk starter.
“He’s like a baseball player playing quarterback. He’s an athlete. He doesn’t have a refined throwing motion. The mechanics aren’t perfect, but he gets the job done.”
He’ll be aided by a run game that should improve after BC underwent one of the most distinct offensive identity changes in recent football history. BC went from No. 113 nationally in passing offense in 2019 to No. 24 in 2020. The Eagles also plummeted from No. 8 to No. 118 nationally in rushing. With balance will come better opportunity in the pass game, as Hafley admits BC “didn’t have an identity in the run game” last season.
Most important to recognize entering 2021 is how Jurkovec’s career has been resuscitated after he disappeared on the depth chart at Notre Dame. And that’s why there’s excitement about what he — and BC — can become with him under center and a fellow Yinzer shepherding his development and calling plays.
“It’s something that I knew and, heck, everyone from the state of Pennsylvania knows what he’s capable of,” said Eric Kasperowicz, who coached Jurkovec at Pine-Richland. “It was just getting in the right situation, and the rest was history.”
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