No surprise: Golson named starting QB for Notre Dame
SOUTH BEND — For anyone who saw the improved precision in his passes, the drive for redemption that oozed from his pores, the aura of respect and belief Everett Golson earned from his teammates over the past seven months, Wednesday’s headline splash was really more of a ripple.
For the record, Golson will be Notre Dame’s starter for the Aug. 30 season opener against Rice and presumably beyond, per Irish coach Brian Kelly. That the 6-foot, 200-pound senior turned a potentially momentous event Wednesday into more of a formality comes down to a simple concept.
In the 6½ months that the Myrtle Beach, S.C., native was exiled from the school for academic/disciplinary reasons, Golson not only found a way to get better, but transformatively better.
And the 2012 starter, who fashioned a 10-1 record during a season that saw the Irish finish in the top five of the AP poll for the first time since the very day Golson celebrated his first birthday in January 1994, built on that momentum from this mid-January on, when the suspension ended.
“I don’t think I prepared like a backup,” Golson said when asked if he ever doubted he could ascend past sophomore Malik Zaire back to the top of the depth chart.
The less predictable and more intriguing story line at this point becomes what exactly Zaire’s role will look like moving forward.
“I told Malik first and let him know what his situation was,” said Kelly, who told the staff Tuesday night and the players Wednesday before practice.
“And I got the right answer from Malik. He wasn’t happy. If he gave me a hug, I’d be very disappointed. So he went out and practiced well. He wants to be the starter here, and he’s going to keep working to be the starter.”
But Kelly made it clear there wouldn’t be a two-quarterback system by design, a concept the coach had dabbled with and more so contemplated during most of his first four seasons at ND when he had quarterbacks with conflicting skill-sets.
“Everett would play unless he was injured and couldn’t answer the bell,” Kelly said. “We’re not looking to play two quarterbacks. We’ve got one starter. But I think we all know, we run a spread offense and we run the quarterback. That puts the quarterback in position that he could get hit.
“You better have a quarterback that can go in there. I’m confident, knock on wood; I hope that doesn’t happen. But if Malik goes in there, he can run our offense and we can win with Malik running our offense.”
Zaire has not taken a college snap in a game. The same goes for freshman DeShone Kizer, the only other scholarship QB option on the roster with 2013 starter Tommy Rees having graduated and Andrew Hendrix having transferred to Miami (Ohio).
Golson ranked 62nd in passing efficiency (131.0 rating) in 2012 after redshirting as a freshman the season before. That’s 61 slots behind AJ McCarron, his QB counterpart in the BCS National Championship Game loss to Alabama.
He threw for 2,405 yards and 12 touchdowns that season and ran for 298 yards and another six scores. Statistically, his best distinction is that he has the lowest career interception rate per attempt in school history.
“Overall understanding of the entire offense,” Kelly said of the biggest difference he sees in the 2014 version of Golson versus the one from two seasons ago. “Not singular plays, but the entire offense and how the offense operates. Understanding the bigger picture. (That) and his leadership, those two things.”
The most stunning news of the day to come out of Notre Dame training camp actually was on the defensive side of the ball — and it came in bunches.
Freshman Andrew Trumbetti has leapfrogged junior Romeo Okwara on the depth chart at defensive end and is now in line to start the season opener in 2½ weeks, opposite senior bookend Ishaq Williams.
If that indeed holds up, the 6-foot-4, 251-pound Trumbetti would become the first freshman to start at defensive end for the Irish in a season opener since Anthony Weaver 16 years ago.
Freshman standouts Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt started six and three games, respectively, for ND three seasons ago, but they were reserves in the opener against South Florida and didn’t play at all the following week at Michigan.
“We think that he’s got a huge upside for us in so many areas that sometimes I don’t talk about him enough,” Kelly said of Trumbetti. “But a great motor, physical, smart, does all the things that we ask him to do.”
And he’s got company. Classmate Jonathan Bonner has moved into the No. 2 end/tackle spot behind junior standout Sheldon Day.
“Explosive off the ball,” Kelly offered of the 6-3, 269-pounder. “He’s got toughness. Plays physical. Plays like a big boy. Doesn’t play like a freshman. He’s got maturity. He’ll see action for us.”
So apparently will Greer Martini, an unheralded 6-3, 230-pound freshman, whose settled into the No. 2 slot at weakside linebacker behind preseason All-American Jaylon Smith.
Jhonny Williams, from nearby Berrien Springs High; Kolin Hill and Daniel Cage are three of the other first-year players pushing for significant roles in the defensive front seven.
So, now, is middle linebacker Nyles Morgan, the most celebrated defensive recruit in the freshman class, who Kelly had described as overwhelmed just a few days ago.
“Oh, he’s (still) totally overwhelmed,” Kelly said. “But it doesn’t matter, because he runs all over the place. He runs and makes plays. It’s just he’s an athletic kid, and he gets in more scuffles than any player that I’ve coached in a long time.”
Experience did claim one depth chart victory on defense. Kelly named senior Cody Riggs the starting cornerback opposite junior standout KeiVarae Russell. Then again, Riggs is a newcomer with the Irish, having transferred in from Florida.
The influx of new talent pushing its way into the two-deeps and into key situational roles can be viewed two ways — either the existing holdovers disappointed or Kelly’s largely uncelebrated defensive recruits are better than advertised.
There’s probably a little bit of truth in both points of view, but add in new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s fearlessness in putting inexperienced players on the field, something predecessor Bob Diaco only did very reluctantly.
“I think in years past I probably would be (nervous),” Kelly said about the freshman surge. “But then my eyes tell me something different when I watch them. These guys are physical football players, and they’ve got an edge to them.
“I’m watching them every day. I’m going against them every day. I’m liking it. I know when you have holes. I’ve been around long enough. I know when you look at them and go, ‘Oof, that’s not very good.’ Now they’re young. We might cut a gap loose. We may be in the wrong gap.
“But it’s not because we’re not ripping and roaring up the field. It’ll be fun, but they’re going to cause a few moments of coach VanGorder throwing his hat on the ground. I’m sure of that.”
Monday’s first trial with the new Notre Dame FieldTurf was pushed back to Wednesday because of lightning in the area.
Kelly envisions the team likely getting three more practices in on the new surface before the Aug. 30 opener.
“You’ve got to get that surface knocked down a little bit,” Kelly said. “It’s really a little soft right now, because the in-fill needs to kind of work itself in. Probably a bad analogy, but new carpeting is really fluffy. You’ve just kind of got to work it in a little bit.
“Your foot imprint is pretty noticeable. We’ve just got to get on there and work it in. But our kids love it. The track is outstanding. The field is outstanding. We just want to get comfortable in the stadium too and the surroundings.”
Eric Hansen: 574-235-6112