Everett Golson

The spotlight is back on Golson

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When Brian Kelly meets with the media tomorrow, we expect to hear that quarterback Everett Golson is cleared and ready for Oklahoma. The sophomore quarterback, who left the Stanford game after taking a helmet-to-helmet blow, sat out Saturday for precautionary reasons, leaving the Irish offense to Tommy Rees (and a sprinkle of Andrew Hendrix) as Notre Dame snuck by BYU 17-14. And with Golson back as the team’s No. 1 quarterback, all the young signal-caller needs to do is march into Owen Field and beat one of the best teams in the country.

No problem, right?

In Golson, Notre Dame has its quarterback of the future. But to get out of Saturday with their undefeated season alive, they’ll need their sophomore quarterback to play beyond his years, and rebound from the struggles that have plagued him during his debut season.

Let’s start with the bad news. Golson has certainly made progress behind the scenes, with Kelly praising his sophomore quarterback’s commitment to becoming a compete quarterback and learning through every rep and minute in the film room. Yet that evolution hasn’t necessarily been evident on the field. Golson’s best days have been against the team’s worst opponents. Against Navy, he looked sharp — completing 66 percent of his passes and managing the game. He improved against Purdue, throwing for a season-high 289 yards before some late struggles and a critical fumble forced Brian Kelly to bring in Tommy Rees for the game’s final two-minute drill. Golson put up nice enough statistics against Miami as well, completing 17 of 22 throws against the Hurricanes, his best accuracy of the season, but showed some immaturity when he rolled in late to a meeting in Chicago, forcing Kelly to pull the young quarterback from the starting lineup.

Against the three top defenses he faced, Golson didn’t complete better than 50 percent of his passes. Against the Spartans, that efficiency was enough, as he limited the turnovers and took advantage of one-on-one match-ups in the secondary. Against Michigan, the moment got away from him, throwing two interceptions in eight passes, looking frazzled and showing bad decision making before he was yanked. And against Stanford, Golson struggled mightily before fighting back on his final series, his best plays of the afternoon were the ones leading up to the concussion that ended his day. In retrospect, sitting Golson against BYU — a team currently ranked No. 4 in the country in total defense — was a smart decision. He could learn while watching Tommy Rees, especially after having his prep time cut in half.

But as Golson starts the second half of his rookie season, there’s reason to believe he’ll be capable of playing his best football when the Irish need him. He’ll have a running game to rely on, as the Irish ground attack is peaking after gashing BYU for 270 yards, over 200 yards more than their season average. He’ll have a revitalized Tyler Eifert, who reminded Golson that No. 80 is an awfully nice weapon if he chooses to throw that way. And he’ll have his athleticism, a set of legs that’ll keep him out of trouble and keep Oklahoma’s defense honest as they try to keep the young quarterback in check.

“When there isn’t anything there, he has a knack for breaking tackle or making somebody miss him and runs around so he can buy extra time and scramble and wait for someone to work open or take off and run it himself,” Sooners head coach Bob Stoops said Monday. “He’s got excellent feet that way.”

Combining Golson’s athleticism with defensive coordinator Mike Stoops‘ commitment to simplifying a defense that had the Sooners thinking too much and Golson might have his best chance to simply see what the defense gives him and react, something the Irish have hoped would happen as the young quarterback got more comfortable.

The younger Stoops, returning to Oklahoma after a stint as the head coach at Arizona, had a telling comment for the media a few weeks ago when the Sooners figured out how to stop Texas.

“I think the more multiple offenses get, the more simplistic you need to get,” Stoops said of his defense. “I think that’s a unique concept.”

It’s also a concept that should apply Saturday as the Irish continue to parade different personnel onto the field, mixing and matching tight ends, wide receivers, multiple running backs, and two quarterbacks.

“We are more simple so there’s less chance to blow it ourselves,” Bob Stoops said.

It’s a maxim that Notre Dame’s head coach might consider taking to heart this weekend.

 

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars, T
Colin McGovern,* G/T
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

BVG
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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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