Brian Kelly confident in Everett Golson's future at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND —The best depth in Brian Kelly’s six springs as head football coach of Notre Dame has allowed him to hold more physical, and thus more meaningful, practices.

That means more starters vs. starters, more tackling, a better sense of what reality will look like Sept. 5 in the season opener against Texas, and fewer unanswered questions than ever before lingering into summer.

What it can’t tell him definitively, though, is where quarterback Everett Golson’s head is at these days, particularly when it comes to whether the 23-game career starter will continue his open quarterback duel with junior-to-be Malik Zaire in June or shop for somewhere to start over once he secures his Notre Dame degree in May.

Even though it’s all largely percolated quietly and benignly since Zaire pulled even on the depth chart last December, aside from a punctured January rumor that Golson was sizing up LSU for a possible landing spot, where Golson’s fifth year unfolds remains the biggest piece of unfinished business for Kelly.

“I couldn’t tell you for certain,” Kelly said Saturday after practice No. 12 of 15, heavy on the live scrimmaging, including no restrictions on hitting the two QBs. “But he’s had his best spring since he’s been here.

“He’s fully engaged in everything that he’s doing. It’s the best that I’ve seen him do the things that we’ve asked him to do since he’s been here.”

In Saturday’s scrimmage — with a media horde, future Irish safeties Avery Sebastian and Mykelti Williams, and elite offensive line recruits Liam Eichenberg and Ben Bredeson looking on — Golson threw the ball deep with confidence and accuracy.

Working primarily with the No. 2 offense in the normal rotation, Golson ran zone read plays without coughing up the football. He handled blitzes and pressures with poise and strong footwork.

He did generate an interception, an overthrow into double coverage that safety Matthias Farley plucked easily. But Zaire threw a pick, too when a red-zone pass glancing off the hands of linebacker Jaylon Smith and into the arms of ascending safety Max Redfield in the end zone.

What Golson chose not to do was define his situation to the outside world, taking a polite pass Friday when given the opportunity to speak with the media.

“He doesn’t want to talk about it … because he’s focused on his academics and graduating,” Kelly said. “I’m OK with that. I’m fine with that.

“He’s had his share of living in the bright lights of it. Now in the fall, he’s going to have to do what everybody else does in the fall. When it’s media time, he’s going to have to sit in front of you guys and answer questions.

“But we’ll give him his space, (and) I expect him to be here and help us win games in the fall.”

He’s certainly met Kelly’s high expectations this spring to this point, but not enough to create separation from Zaire.

The biggest advantage for Golson —a player who ranked 30th nationally in pass-efficiency last season and the first under Kelly at ND to finish in the top 50 — relates to the recognition side of playing quarterback, deciphering coverages and fronts and knowing how and when to check into a better play.

“We had a quick-tempo play on,” Kelly said of Zaire’s Saturday experience. “He got out of the quick-tempo play, changed the entire formation, and you’re kind of wondering, ‘What’s going on here?’ So there’s still some of that processing going on.

“But as it relates to their skills, I think we’ve got a pretty good understanding of their skills. Now it’s just making sure that they’re well rounded in everything.”

And that both stay fully engaged.

“It’s like anything else, if you’re half in, you kind of see it,” Kelly said of Golson. “Listen, I’m not shocked by anything that 18- to 21-year-olds (do). I’ve been in this business too long. But there’s no indication that anything that he’s done would mean that he’s just doing this as a way to go somewhere else.

“If I sensed it at all, I’d have pulled the plug on it myself, because we’re wasting our time. And I think I got a pretty good sense of people and situations.

“I’m not going to jeopardize our program, our staff, our livelihood, what we do if somebody’s not bought in and 100 percent committed.”

Here are some of the other less-pressing, but still-intriguing pieces of unfinished business this spring:

1. Offensive play-calling

Kelly called the offensive plays in all but the 2013 season of his first five years at ND. In February, upon hiring offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, Kelly mentioned he was open to relinquishing that role to either Sanford or associate head coach Mike Denbrock.

He still is, but so far there’s no change in the status quo.

“Mike Sanford Is still learning the offense, still feeling comfortable with the things that I like to call,” Kelly said. “Mike Denbrock is still tutoring him a little bit relative to the nuances within the offense. So it’s too early for us to really kind of come up to a definitive conclusion.

“I think we feel very comfortable working together and where we’re going, and everybody’s on the same page. But I stand in front of you today not ready to say who’s calling plays, who’s doing what. Right now it’s been really good in that the consensus in the room, it comes easy.”

2. Finding a pass rush

After finishing 22nd nationally in sacks generated during their 2012 run to the national title game, the Irish have ranked 96th and 74th, respectively, the past two seasons.

Romeo Okwara led Notre Dame individually in sacks with 4.0 in 2014, a third of what Stephon Tuitt amassed in 2012, and the Irish overall were extremely scheme-dependent on generating pressure. That came back to bite them when they couldn’t get their niche personnel on the field on third down against uptempo offensive teams.

Saturday, the Irish offensive line more than held its own, and that could be a reflection of its collective improvement more than anything else. In any event, Kelly is confident that the generating of pressure will be more of a balance in 2015 between improved skill of his front seven and coordinator Brian VanGorder’s schematic wrinkles.

“It’s going to be five, six different players that cumulatively will create,” Kelly said. “I don’t think we’re looking for one guy who's, ‘Wow that is an elite pass-rusher, and he’s going to be the guy we have to chip.’ But we think guys have improve immensely in their individual technique.

“I think Isaac Rochell is a better pass-rusher. I think you’ll see, as we move forward, that (Andrew) Trumbetti and Okwara are better off the edge than they have been before, so I think they’ll all be improved from last year.”

3. Not your average Joe

Reigning team most valuable player Joe Schmidt will get his first significant snaps on the spring Monday and Wednesday, though last year’s starting middle linebacker won’t participate in the contact portions of practice.

Schmidt was lost for the season Nov. 1, when he suffered a broken fibula and other complications in the win over Navy.

Even in missing 5 ½ games, Schmidt finished the season as ND’s fourth-leading tackler (65) and just three tackles behind No. 2 tackler, safety Max Redfield.

But with sophomore-to-be Nyles Morgan’s strong spring and 2013 starting middle linebacker Jarrett Grace’s convincing comeback from two surgeries and multiple fractures in his right leg, where does Schmidt best fit?

He could resume as the No. 1 middle linebacker in August, and that would give the Irish three players at that position with starting experience and star potential.

It could also prompt a shift to weakside linebacker, where Schmidt cross-trained as a backup in 2013, with current starting weakside linebacker Jaylon Smith then moving back outside, where he played as a freshman.

Smith has already dabbled with that this past week, but played inside exclusively on Saturday and looked noticeably more comfortable than he did at that position in 2014.

So it’s a nice dilemma to have.

Squibs

• First-year defensive backs coach Todd Lyght missed Saturday’s practice to honor and celebrate the life of his late mother.

“His mom passed away in February, and today was the memorial service (in Atlanta),” Kelly said. “The family was not able to get together when she passed.”

• Juniors Greg Bryant and Will Fuller has emerged as Notre Dame’s top two options on punt returns.

Bryant shared those duties with cornerback Cody Riggs last season. Bryant averaged a team-best 11.8 yards on eight returns. Fuller logged one return that netted zero yards last season.

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