PITTSBURGH (AP) — Phil Jurkovec grew up watching Pittsburgh soldier its way through years of mediocrity where success was fleeting, if it existed at all.
He cheered for the Panthers while growing up in the city's northern suburbs, though that didn't stop him from committing to play quarterback at Notre Dame in the spring of 2016, politely declining an offer from Pat Narduzzi and the hometown Panthers to sign with the Irish.
The better part of a decade later, Jurkovec is back home. The teenager that then-Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly once called the best high school quarterback in the country has become a 23-year-old hoping to end his nomadic career on a high note.
When Jurkovec runs onto the Acrisure Stadium turf on Saturday as the Panthers host Wofford, he won't carry the outsized expectations that followed him to South Bend. He'll just be a hometown kid eager to keep up the momentum the Panthers have been building over the last two seasons.
Pitt isn't asking the redshirt senior to be great. They're just asking him to be happy.
“You want (him) to have a positive experience,” offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. said. “And I knew that his prior season didn’t go as well as he wanted it to go, and that if we brought him to Pittsburgh, that we could probably make a difference in his life (by) giving him a chance to enjoy the game, have fun and have some success.”
It's a transaction the 6-foot-5 Jurkovec has eagerly accepted.
“I've been through a lot,” Jurkovec said. “I've been in a ton of different situations.”
Not all of them ideal.
He arrived at Notre Dame in the fall of 2018 as a four-star recruit that Kelly hoped would push then-incumbent starter Brandon Wimbush. It never happened. Jurkovec left for Boston College after two seasons.
The Eagles proved a better fit. He threw for 35 touchdowns in three seasons but struggled with consistency and staying healthy over the course of his final two years in Chestnut Hill. He entered the transfer portal last December with an eye on a reunion in more ways than one.
Sure, Pitt offered a chance to come home. It also reconnected Jurkovec with Cignetti who called the plays at Boston College in 2020 and 2021 before taking the same job with the Panthers.
While Jurkovec called the opportunity to finish his career 20 miles from where he starred at Pine Richland High School “a big percentage” of the reason he joined the Panthers, it wasn't the biggest.
“The coaching, that was probably the key to it," Jurkovec said.
His familiarity with Cignetti's pro-style offense meant he wouldn't have to learn a new system on the fly. Cignetti — whose NFL stops included working with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay and Eli Manning in New York — already had an inherent understanding of Jurkovec's strengths. No feeling-out-process necessary.
“You want the ball in his hands because he can play within the pocket or extend plays outside of the pocket and bring the quarterback run game to it,” Cignetti said.
Cignetti is quick to point out the Panthers aren't going to lean too heavily on their new quarterback. Pitt went 9-4 last season and finished No. 23 in the final poll last year despite spotty play from USC transfer Kedon Slovis.
The offense that Jurkovec will lead onto the field against the Terriers aims for balance. Cignetti has no plans to ask Jurkovec to do everything. The Panthers have won a combined 20 games over the last two seasons and become arguably the most consistent team in the ACC not named Clemson under Narduzzi's watch.
The program Jurkovec told “thanks but no thanks” all those years ago is not the program Jurkovec transferred to over the winter. Pitt regularly churns out NFL players (including Steelers starting quarterback Kenny Pickett).
While he stressed he has no regrets on his journey, Jurkovec knows the next four months offer one last shot at delivering on the remarkable promise he's shown in flashes, but rarely in long stretches.
“I think you always have something to prove, but I’ve shown that I can play,” he said. “It's just like a personal thing. I want to be able to see how good I can be.”
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll