Life is pretty good for Phil Jurkovec right now. I mean, he’s basically just off at summer camp. He’s bunking at the SpringHill Suites on the South Side until the end of the week, heading down to the UPMC Rooney Sports every day for practice or film or whatever and there’s even a field trip or two here and there.
Jurkovec loves the setup. It may sound like the kind of camp he’d have been shipped off to as a kid, but it actually is more of a business trip. The whole team is isolated, bonding as a unit, competing in practice and just preparing for the 2023 season — which is only a handful of days away now.
It’s been a while since he was a quarterback in Pittsburgh. It’s been just about six years, since he led Pine-Richland to a perfect season in 2017, capping it with WPIAL and PIAA championships.
Jake Kradel certainly remembers when Jurkovec was still in town. His Butler Golden Tornados — who Jurkovec admitted weren’t very good when Kradel played offensive and defensive line there — left Pine-Richland Stadium with a 64-point loss. Jurkovec only needed 12 passes.
The chance to play alongside Jurkovec now, or rather, right in front of him, is certainly something that he prefers.
“It’s been great,” Kradel said after Wednesday’s practice. “He’s a Western PA guy, so we kinda like the same things. It’s good to hang around him, just see his leadership, his development through this spring and summer and fall. So, he’s gonna have a great year, and we’re just gonna keep building that bond throughout the season.”
A quarterback has to have at least a solid bond with his center. The first that came to my mind was Peyton Manning and Jeff Saturday during their days with the Indianapolis Colts. But if you want a more local comparison, look no further than Kenny Pickett and Jimmy Morrissey.
Jurkovec has appreciated Kradel’s consistency, in snapping the football, sure, but in his approach the football and the way he carries himself on and off the field, too.
Kradel has appreciated Jurkovec, too. He’s seen Jurkovec bring a level of grit that the offense lacked last season. A sort of… Pittsburgh toughness.
“He steps up to the plate and just demands our attention, demands us to be locked in and really just brings a factor that I don’t think we had last year,” Kradel said. “He brings that Pittsburgh toughness. You know, hey, if we need a yard, he’s gonna get a yard, so it’s just a guy you like to play for like to block for.”
It’s probably pretty safe to say that Pitt’s offensive line, which returns over 3,000 snaps from just last season, is going to be an upgrade from the last couple of lines Jurkovec played behind at Boston College. If you flick on the BC tape, Jurkovec doesn’t always look great, but it’s hard to make plays when you’re running for your life.
But Jurkovec, when he isn’t forced to escape the pocket on every single snap, is an excellent athlete at 6-foot-5, 245 pounds — yeah, that’s right. Jurkovec is a tank these days. And in his Boston College days, he could take a draw for a first down on 3rd-and-7, he could roll out of the pocket and hit star wideout Zay Flowers for a 45-yard strike or just evade the rush long enough to hit star tight end Hunter Long on a crosser.
Poetry with the Panthers ✍️🎨
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) August 23, 2023
Pitt wanted a quarterback that’s able to extend plays. Gavin Bartholomew wanted that, too. But he really wanted a quarterback that would throw the football to the tight ends.
“The tape doesn’t lie, I mean even during spring ball and now in fall camp, he loves tight ends,” Gavin Bartholomew said after Wednesday’s practice. “He’s gonna try to find a way to find them. And (coach Tim) Salem always emphasizes the scramble drills, he’s good at it, so he looks for tight ends.”
When Jurkovec was at BC, he targeted Long often. Long caught 57 balls in 2020, racking up 685 yards and five touchdowns. Those are numbers that shouldn’t be out of reach for a player of Bartholomew’s talent.
“(Bartholomew) can jump and catch the ball,” Jurkovec said. “I know you saw him hurdle the guy last year, but especially in the end zone being able to elevate and make contested catches.”
With Bartholomew (6-foot-5, 250 pounds) and Malcolm Epps (6-foot-6, 255 pounds) as red zone targets, Jurkovec has a couple of big, jumpball guys. But if it’s 3rd-and-goal on the 3-yard line, Bartholomew said Jurkovec is like a tight end himself. It’s gonna be hard to bring him down when he gets out in space.
The only issue is staying healthy. It only takes one hit, and Jurkovec hasn’t been able to put together a full season in either of the past two seasons. But part of that leadership role he’s taken on is toughness in games, even if that means standing in the pocket and taking hit to make a play.
“He’s a great leader,” Bartholomew said. “I feel like that was something we were trying to find is a leader, and there’s some guys stepping up, and Phil’s doing a really good job.”
It’s that lead-by-example kind of approach, but it’s also just being vocal, using his voice in the huddle, in the gym, wherever. That level of trust can sometimes be difficult to attain, but Kradel trusts him. Bartholomew does, too.
With just a couple of days until summer camp is over, finishing with a walkthrough at Acrisure Stadium on Friday before the Kickoff Luncheon, Jurkovec has done just about all he can to earn the trust and respect of his teammates entering the 2023 season. It remains to be seen whether that will be enough to carry over to wins on the field, but it’s clear that Jurkovec has command of the room.
He may not always throw the tightest spiral, but it’s the way he gets the ball where it needs to go. He has that sort of moxie that isn’t able to be taught; it’s something you’re born with. Perhaps another example of that ‘Pittsburgh toughness’ that Kradel was talking about?
Jurkovec doesn’t need to try to follow up Pickett. He doesn’t need to try to improve upon Kedon Slovis. He just needs to lead Pitt the way he feels is best, finally at the helm of his hometown Panthers.
“I’m pumped,” Jurkovec said.”I’m ready for it. It feels right being in that stadium. It’s so cool, that environment. We watched the Steelers game the other day. It’s just an awesome feeling to have grown up and watched so many games there, and now I get to play in it.”