Analysis: Deciphering life after Golson at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Those dreading, snickering or just plain wondering whether Everett Golson could twist fate like a bad soap opera plot and end up playing in Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 5 — in a Texas uniform — here’s the spoiler:

Notre Dame has the power to block certain schools on the impending transfer quarterback’s potential landing spots — yes, even with the cushy, no-waiting, grad school-style change of addresses.

And Irish sixth-year head coach Brian Kelly, and predecessor Charlie Weis for that matter, haven’t been shy about playing that trump card, especially when the next step for the player in question happens to be on a future Irish schedule.

As with Texas being the first game of “Life after Golson” for the Irish, approximately four months from now.

Golson and Kelly each elected to limit their participation Thursday in college football’s most seismic May story line so far to quotes from prepared statement land. And neither came close to a Texas reference, or any other potential destination for that matter.

“His most important accomplishment is completing his course work toward a degree from the University of Notre Dame. I wish him all the best moving forward,” read a snippet of Kelly’s version.

“God has a plan for each of us, and I ask for your prayers as I move forward in this new journey in my life," Golson’s rendition concluded.

As intriguing as how and where Golson moves on without ND might be, the more scintillating and significant narrative is how the Irish move on without Golson.

The most encouraging potential reality along those lines tethered to junior Malik Zaire, with all of 35 collegiate pass attempts on his college résumé, is that five of the past six national champions crowned in college football have had first-year starting QBs controlling their offensive joystick.

The one exception was Alabama in 2012, with second-year starter A.J. McCarron leading the 42-14 onslaught over ND and its first-year starter, Golson, in a game in which McCarron’s girlfriend somehow emerged with more camera time than either QB.

The sobering and cautionary bottom line is that Zaire, for all his ability to back up his big dreams in a very small sample size, is still an unknown.

And come Sept. 5, he’ll eventually be operating with a minimal safety net.

Two prospects teeming with both enticing promise and potential growing pains, redshirted freshman DeShone Kizer and incoming freshman Brandon Wimbush, will vie through a handful of June “OTAs”, coach-less, informal July workouts, and August training camp to be Plan B.

The wiry 6-foot-5, strong-armed Kizer looked physically and mechanically capable this spring of growing into a starter someday while he overcame some trying moments in his personal life going on in the background, but his confidence and consistency were predictably lacking.

The 6-foot-2, thick-built Wimbush, who Kelly poached out of Penn State’s 2015 recruiting class, may be the best raw talent the coach has ever had in his 25-year head coaching career.

Wimbush’s strong suit — both in his own eyes and those who’ve coaxed him into an elite prospect — is passing, but his reported 10.8-second best time in the 100-meter dash this spring, running for the Jersey City St. Peter’s Prep boys track team, and his 11.2-yards-per-carry rushing average last fall on the football field more than hints at multiple dimensions.

As far as Plan A, to those who saw all 15 spring practices and not just the rare public/media windows, the 6-0, 222-pound Zaire was certainly more engaged and more confident in what he was doing than the so often-brooding understudy to Golson last fall.

Consistency in operating the pre-snap controls at the line of scrimmage, in the vertical passing game, in overall proficiency are the teaching points that linger into the summer and where Golson had a decided upper hand in a spring competition from which he walked away.

And that is why recent addition Mike Sanford’s value as a quarterbacks coach easily supersedes what he might bring toward renovating the Kelly offense or possibly, eventually taking over offensive play-calling from Kelly.

The offense will look different with Zaire. Zone read plays figure to be as much a part of the Kelly offense as at any time since Zach Collaros was tag-teaming with Tony Pike on their way to an undefeated regular season that almost landed Cincinnati in the BCS National Championship Game in 2009.

Instead it launched Kelly to Notre Dame to succeed deposed coach Charlie Weis.

But with Golson gone, there is a valid question as to whether Kelly will feel as comfortable exposing Zaire on the run as much as he might have, with now the rest of the quarterbacks on the roster having a combined zero collegiate snaps.

And Zaire will be tested, most often and most decidedly outside his running comfort zone.

Zaire’s first and only college start, the 31-28 win over LSU in Music City Bowl in which he combined with Golson, came against the team that was playing the pass better than any team in the country going into the game and finished as the ninth-best defense overall.

But LSU coach Les Miles perhaps underestimated both the extent to which Zaire would be used in that game and how different his skill set actually was from Golson’s, so QB-poor, defense-rich Texas may truly be the first time Zaire will be a central figure on the defensive scouting report since his days at Kettering (Ohio) Archbishop Alter High School.

From there, Zaire likely will be peppered with 8-man fronts, with drop-eight and rush three stretches, with relentless and exotic pressures — the same rites of passage through which Golson had to pass.

In the long run, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If it doesn’t expose Zaire to the point of regression, it will coax him toward the kind of quarterback Kelly wants him to evolve into — an accomplished pocket passer to go with his advanced running skills.

The very early, very premature returns of Zaire as a passer — 133.3 pass-efficiency rating, accomplished in a half against USC and intermittently over a full game against LSU — for comparison’s sake is slightly better than what Golson put up (131.0) as an 11-game starter, one-game reliever and one-game spectator during the 2012 season.

Extended over an entire season, that number would have ranked Zaire 52nd nationally. Golson was 30th in the actual rankings at 143.6, by far the best mark of Kelly’s time at Notre Dame and scraping the bottom of what national title teams tends to produce in that category.

Of the 16 national champs in the BCS Era and the one in the new playoff format, only three times did those teams rank lower than 20th in team pass efficiency with a low of 37th (2007 LSU), and more often (four times) were first. Ohio State, with three QBs in its mix this past season, finished second.

Little known about Zaire, though, is that both Ohio State and Alabama unsuccessfully tried to lure him to their campuses during his Alter High days.

And Zaire actually had the better recruiting pedigree than Golson coming out of high school. Golson was deemed by Rivals.com as the 16th-best dual-threat QB nationally in 2011, Zaire was No. 3 in that category in the 2013 class.

Maybe most impressive in Zaire’s past was fashioning a 20-2 record as a starter at Alter while toggling the Knights’ offense between a wishbone/option scheme under center and a spread passing offense, using the shotgun.

And in the year before Zaire took over as the starter, as a sophomore, he nearly took the starting job away from a senior who had led Alter to the Division IV state title the season before, according to Alter coach Ed Domsitz.

"It was a tribute to him that he was able to push as hard as he did for that starting spot," Domsitz said, "because it was uncertain until just before the season started."

Golson’s future brings with it plenty of uncertainly as well. Unlike previous ND QBs who took their fifth-year option elsewhere —notably Dayne Crist (Kansas) and Andrew Hendrix (Miami of Ohio) — he wasn’t able to go through spring practice with his new team.

The former early enrollee did enjoy the best of the five springs he spent in South Bend, per Kelly, but how will that translate to a new offense, new coaches, new teammates and old expectations?

Since Golson decided silence suited him best this past spring when it came to dealing with the media and that scripted words Thursday was a more palatable alternative than a press conference, we’ll have to wait for a burst of candor from either him or Kelly to find out whether he asked for a guarantee before slipping out the trap door.

If that indeed happened, and Kelly denied it to him, that was certainly the right move, no matter what the aftermath looks like for either of them.

Reading between the lines, Golson’s concerns about his pro future had to be at the forefront of the decision and the potential to overachieve projections of a team that will finish next year’s polls in the teens an afterthought.

That, fairly or not, is what his Notre Dame legacy will be stamped with, whether Golson goes on to produce the rare Russell Wilson sequel (N.C. State struggler to pass-efficiency record holder at Wisconsin) or the more common, disappointing outcome for grad school-style QB transfers.

For a player with a history of coming back and facing the music when it would have been easier to change zip codes, his exit and the timing of it will likely ultimately define him.

ehansen@sbtinfo.com

(574) 235-6112

@EHansenNDI

Notre Dame’s Everett Golson (5) walks off the field with teammates following the the 49-14 loss to USC on Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, at the L.A. Coliseum in Los Angeles, Calif. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN