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‘He Made Me Look Like A Lot Better Coach’: Phil Jurkovec Returns Home With Big Goals

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Phil Jurkovec is 6-foot-5, 215 pounds. If he walks into a room, Eric Kasperowicz says, people notice. He’s tall, certainly bigger than he was back during his Pine-Richland days, but it’s not the size that attracts eyeballs.

It’s likely the air of unshakable confidence. Jurkovec isn’t bold and brash, he doesn’t need to be, but he also isn’t afraid to say what needs to be said. There are so many ways to be a leader, but Jurkovec leads by example. Actions speak louder than words? Well, when a team’s best player is also the hardest worker, that doesn’t go unnoticed.

Even when Jurkovec ran around Pine-Richland games as a tall, lanky eighth grader, he didn’t go unnoticed. But that may actually have been because of his size. He stood a head — sometimes two — taller than his classmates.

“You’re just telling yourself, ‘Hey, if he can stay athletic and not get too big, he could be a heckuva athlete.’ Now we didn’t really know quarterback, we just knew he was a heckuva athlete,” Kasperowicz told PSN. “He could run faster than everybody else, he could jump higher than everybody else.”

Kasperowicz was the brand-new head coach at Pine-Richland then, well before his four WPIAL and two PIAA titles, but as he watched the tall, lanky middle schooler, it quickly became clear that he was watching his future quarterback.

Jurkovec didn’t start on varsity as a freshman in 2014. Not because Kasperowicz wasn’t sure of his ability, but because he was blocked by Ben DiNucci.

You know, another future Pitt quarterback who led Pine-Richland to a WPIAL title and PIAA championship appearance — a one-score loss to St. Joseph’s Prep. DiNucci left big shoes to fill, after throwing for 4,200 yards and 46 touchdowns.

Jurkovec stepped into the spotlight as a sophomore, not long before he received a string of initial offers from Pitt, Penn State and Wisconsin. The shoes to fill weren’t too big. It was a snug fit, maybe too perfect of a fit in the Pine-Richland offense.

The lanky, energetic kid Kasperowicz used to watch running around like a chicken with his head cut off was an immediate success. He was the quarterback he envisioned.

Pine-Richland went 14-4 over Jurkovec’s sophomore and junior seasons — although a season-ending injury led to a 3-3 finish in 2016 without him.

Over two seasons — one and a half, really — at the helm of the offense, he threw for 4,233 yards and 32 touchdowns and ran for 1,731 yards and 19 more touchdowns. In just 18 games. It was nearly unprecedented success for an underclassman, but the individual success wasn’t enough. The ultimate goal of winning a WPIAL — and PIAA — title wasn’t achieved in either season.

Through three seasons of high school football, 18 games as a starter, 16 games as a backup and six games sidelined by an injury, he didn’t have to wont for individual success. There wasn’t much to be accomplished at the individual level, but there was plenty at the team level. And that fueled his drive.

“Even in the beginning, his best attribute was his competitiveness, his leadership skills; he was such a competitive kid,” Kasperowicz says. “He was never a kid you had to worry about not working or taking things for granted. He was the hardest worker on the team. That helped everybody else around him — wanting to keep up with him. If your best player is a hard worker, that makes things pretty easy.”

Jurkovec entered his senior season at P-R with little left to prove — on the outside.

He was verbally committed to Notre Dame — regarded as one of the top high schoolers in the country. But he wanted to win. Badly. A season-opening 41-0 win over Wayne (Oh.), racking up 400 yards and six touchdowns himself, made that abundantly clear.

In a dominant senior season, Jurkovec completed 73% of his 334 passing attempts for 3,969 yards and 39 touchdowns — to just six interceptions. And he ran the ball 132 times, racking up 1,211 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Pine-Richland averaged 47 points per game during Jurkovec’s senior season, failing to score 40 points just once — a 28-7 win over Manheim Township in the PIAA semifinals. And, of course, when P-R met St. Joe’s in the first state title appearance since the narrow loss in 2014, Jurkovec led P-R to a 41-21 win.

It was Kasperowicz’s first state title as a head coach, arriving on the heels of his second WPIAL title — the first since the near double with DiNucci in 2014. It wouldn’t have been possible without a Herculean effort from Jurkovec, the lanky kid he used to watch operate the P-R youth team.

It was a “dumbed-down” version of P-R’s offense at the youth level, but Kasperowicz knew then. As he watched Jurkovec make the throws that normal kids couldn’t, he knew. The athleticism — the insatiable desire to win — was just the icing on the cake.

Jurkovec finished his high school career with 8,202 passing yards and 71 touchdowns and 2,942 rushing yards and 43 touchdowns — in two and a half seasons. He was a High School All-American and Mr. Pennsylvania Football. And a Notre Dame commit.

ORLANDO, FL – DECEMBER 28: Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Phil Jurkovec (15) hands off the ball during the game between Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Iowa State Cyclones on December 28, 2019 at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fl. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire)

With Ian Book — and Brandon Wimbush during his freshman season — in the way, there wasn’t much opportunity for an early impact. He played well in a limited setting, jogging onto the field in mop-up duty, but he wasn’t afforded the chance to really play. Kasperowicz feels like the experience helped him grow up.

“It’s big fish in a small pond (at P-R), now you go to Notre Dame and you’re a small fish in a big pond,” Kasperowicz says. “Had a good start and obviously ended up transferring to (Boston College) under coach (Frank) Cignetti who he’s obviously reunited with, had an incredible season there.”

Jurkovec completed 12-of-18 pass attempts for 222 yards and two touchdowns during his two seasons in South Bend, but he wanted more. He hit the transfer portal for the first time ahead of the 2020 season. It didn’t take long to find a new home.

Jurkovec entered the portal on a Wednesday in early January, made a weekend visit to Boston College and committed that Sunday. Pitt showed interest, but with Kenny Pickett entrenched as the starting quarterback, it wasn’t a fit then.

A second chance at Boston College, which arrived after Kasperowicz felt like Jurkovec progressed, worked his way through Notre Dame’s system, was what he needed. He needed a change. He needed an opportunity that wasn’t provided at Notre Dame.

“I think that’s difficult for anybody, if not difficult then an eye-opening experience for anybody, I don’t care if it’s a coach coaching at one level to another, a player going from high school to college — especially a college like Notre Dame where everybody around you is a five-star,” Kasperowicz says.

Boston College was the fresh start Jurkovec needed. He had an experienced offensive coordinator in Frank Cignetti Jr. and the chance to finally get onto the football field and showcase something that he wasn’t able to since he walked off the field at Hersheypark Stadium following a state title win in 2017: his ability as a starting quarterback.

It started off perfectly. Jurkovec wasn’t perfect, but he was enticing. He flashed a big arm, bigger heart and the ability to make things happen when plays broke down. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. He was a gamer, a guy who willed wins. And that just drew more and more NFL Draft hype as the season wore on.

Jurkovec put together four 300-yard games and threw at least one touchdown pass in all but one game — an ultra-efficient season-finale win over Louisville. His best performance of the season came against Pitt, of course, throwing for a career-high 358 yards and three touchdowns.

A 2,558-yard, 17-touchdown campaign in 10 games pointed toward the potential. Unfortunately for Jurkovec and Boston College, Jurkovec’s moments of brilliance were overshadowed by injuries — inconsistency and injuries over the last two seasons.

Oct. 10, 2020; Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, USA; Boston College Eagles quarterback Phil Jurkovec (5) hands a ball off during an ACC matchup between Pittsburgh and Boston College. The Eagles won the game 31-30 in overtime over the Panthers. Credit © Brian Foley for Foley-Photography.

An injury limited him to just six games in 2021 and eight games in 2022. In the two-year stretch, as he was battered by opposing defenses on a consistent basis, he completed 199-of-343 passing attempts (58%) for 2,628 yards with 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also added 279 rushing yards and six touchdowns.

Boston College hit a snag this season, unable to build off glimpses of success. It was a poor season for nearly everyone involved, and unfortunately, it just didn’t work out for Jurkovec and BC. It was once again time for a change, and he only had one more chance to make it work. Where better to go than home?

When Kedon Slovis entered the transfer portal on Monday, Jurkovec — who entered the transfer portal three days earlier — was ready. He committed to Pitt that day. It’s something out of a TV script. The prodigal son returns home for one last shot. It’s made to be turned into a movie or TV show — if it hasn’t already.

However, even as the hometown hero, the big-name quarterback commit, Jurkovec isn’t taking the opportunity for granted. He recognizes that he isn’t walking into a free starting spot.

“Yeah, he’s transferring in, he’s the big name, but nothing is going to be given to him,” Kasperowicz says. “He’s gotta go in and earn that job. He’ll do that, that’s the mindset he’ll have, and he’s got bigger goals down the road. The next step to achieve those goals is to come here to Pitt, earn a starting job and lead them to an ACC championship and national championship.”

Through the ups and downs, the moments of doubt at Notre Dame, the moments of brilliance at Boston College, Jurkovec has always done one thing: learn. He’s dedicated himself to becoming a student of the game, learning to read defenses and find the areas where his individual game could lead to collective success.

But if there’s one thing that Kasperowicz sees in him, has seen in him since even those early days at Pine-Richland, it’s competitiveness. He hates to lose. Do you love to win or hate to lose? For Jurkovec, it’s always been about loving to win.

The winning hasn’t been as consistent as it was back in those Pine-Richland days, but Kasperowicz hasn’t seen that seep into Jurkovec as a person or player. He’s still the same kid with a hunger to get better. He realizes that he doesn’t know it all, and that just makes him want to get better.

Pitt is coming off a good season. It wasn’t the continuation of an ACC championship as many hoped — and expected — but if there’s one thing Jurkovec wants, it’s a championship.

It wouldn’t hurt to follow in the footsteps of Kenny Pickett in more ways than one.

Kasperowicz has watched Jurkovec ever since those middle school days.

It’s all he can do now.

While it’s been a rollercoaster couple of years that’s seen him spend a season as a Pitt assistant and take the Mars High School head coaching position, Kasperowicz has stayed in Pittsburgh. It’s where his family is. He just didn’t expect to see Jurkovec back in Pittsburgh.

Maybe after he transferred from Notre Dame, but it just didn’t work out then. The only other way he could’ve seen it was if the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him in the NFL Draft. He’s just happy Jurkovec is back now.

Even if Jurkovec isn’t coming back to line up under center for Mars, Kasperowicz knows that Jurkovec’s ability to simply take over football games hasn’t gone anywhere.

“We’re in a tough situation, tough part of the game, needed a play, he would demand the football,” Kasperowicz says. “Get the ball in his hands and let him take over. He made me look like a lot better of a coach than I really am over his career.”

When Jurkovec walks into the room at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side, it won’t be his size that attracts eyeballs.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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SRS
SRS
1 month ago

PITT and Joey Yellen transfer happened quick two Years ago. Not sure if after 2020 Season whether Pickett and Jurkovec would have been a conflict.

Here’s hoping the competition this next Spring and Fall camp is interesting as the Schedule is demanding early. Having two QBs ready game 1 will be necessarry.

Pittband
Pittband
1 month ago
Reply to  SRS

What AD schedules two FBS teams in the preseason? Oh, that’s right – THREE! If we were to win all three, I expect Duzz would find the cupboard bare of uninjured players. See this season, playing two FBS opponents.

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