Everett Golson

Golson key to Irish offense’s evolution


Early in the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame, we spent obsessive amounts of time discussing quarterback performance. After watching Charlie Weis spit out two elite college quarterbacks, the Irish bringing in another “offensive guru” gave Notre Dame fans hopes that their new head coach would continue to develop quarterbacks, even if it was with a system different than the one the previous coach employed.

Three years ago to the day, here’s what we wrote when trying to predict how Dayne Crist would perform in Brian Kelly’s system.

While everybody seems to agree that Dayne Crist holds the key to the Irish offense, trying to predict how he’ll play certainly presents a lot of variables. The Irish will be breaking in three new starters along the offensive line, with both tackles and Eric Olsen gone at center. The receiving corp lost Biletnikoff winning wide receiver Golden Tate, a staggering blow for any offense. While the entire running back depth chart returns, Theo Riddick moves outside to the slot, where he’ll try to open up opportunities for Cierre Wood.

The key for Crist and the Irish offense will be its ability to absorb Brian Kelly’s offense. While philosophically divergent from that of Weis’, Kelly’s spread attack correlated nicely when it came to success in the air, as both the Irish and the Bearcats were elite last season when it came to throwing the ball. More importantly, Kelly’s system has proven to be very good for quarterbacks in general, not something you could say about Weis’ complex NFL offense. Since Kelly entered D-I football in 2004, he’s yet to have a season where quarterbacks threw more interceptions than touchdowns. Over six seasons, his quarterbacks have averaged nearly 62 percent completions while throwing an average of 27 touchdown passes against only 10 interceptions, pretty staggering numbers. The average passer rating of a Brian Kelly quarterback is 141.8, which would’ve put John Q. Average in the top 30 in the country last season.

On paper, Crist’s first season looked like we probably could have expected. (Though certainly not how we remembered it.) His numbers are actually pretty close to those Everett Golson put up in year one.

To complete the exercise, let’s take a look at the debut seasons of Crist, Tommy Rees and Golson:

174 of 294 (59.2%) 2,033 yards. 15 TD 7 INT

269 of 411 (65.5%) 2,871 yards. 20 TD 14 INT

187 of 318 (58.8%) 2,405 yards. 12 TD 6 INT

Those numbers all fit in the approximate window that Kelly’s past quarterbacks displayed at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, where guys like Kent Smith and Tony Pike had solid but not spectacular first seasons.

Of course, one benefit of a first-year starter is the progress made between their first and second seasons. After sitting out his freshman season, Golson is entering his third spring in Brian Kelly’s system. With that comfort, he’s no longer the confused rookie quarterback that wasn’t trusted to run the football for much of the first half of the season, for fear of fumbling. Now, he’s got the potential to be Kelly’s first star quarterback at Notre Dame.

“I don’t know that you could even put him in the same category with where he started last year to where he is now,” Kelly said.

That much has been evident even in our limited windows into the Irish this spring. If there was any question that this was now Golson’s offense, it has been answered resoundingly this offseason.

While in the past, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin have had to pair back the offense to something Golson could handle, now it’s a matter of stopping him from taking on too much.

“He didn’t know anything relative to what he had for tools last year in terms of what he could do with the offense,” Kelly explained. “Now he wants to maybe do a little bit too much. We’re at a totally different point in his development.”

That point should be fascinating. While Golson loses All-American Tyler Eifert, he returns a wide receiving corps that while thin, should be ready to take a leap forward. TJ Jones will likely be a front-line player. Davaris Daniels is poised for a big season. And while we’re not quite sure what to make of the slot receiver position, there are intriguing weapons available that’ll now be ready to be properly utilized with Golson understanding his job, and the offense, better.

The last time Brian Kelly had a quarterback lead a team in passing for two consecutive seasons, Tony Pike exploded, throwing for over 2,500 yards, with a sparkling 29:6 touchdown to interception ratio. That’s likely more than the Irish can wish for with Golson this season, but his skillset is one that’s so diverse that the sky truly is the limit for the rising junior with three seasons of eligibility remaining.

With Gunner Kiel retreating and Malik Zaire most likely spending this season learning, the groundwork laid in a 2012 season that saw the Irish reach unprecedented heights could help Notre Dame finally have the offense many assumed would arrive in South Bend with Kelly.

All of that now possible with Golson’s continued growth.

“I think the thing that stands out the most to me though is his command,” Kelly said. “His communication and his command and his leadership has been evident as we start to evolve.”

Bye Week Mailbag: Now Open

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 15: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford defeated Notre Dame 17-10. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

It’s been too long. Or maybe it hasn’t.

Against my better judgment, I’m opening up the mailbag. Drop your questions below or at Twitter @KeithArnold.

How we got here: The Defense

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

The first of a multi-part series as we look at the 2-5 Irish at the bye week. 


Notre Dame’s season was sunk by Brian VanGorder’s defense. That sentence is much easier to write after seeing the unit without its former coordinator. But it was just as clear after watching the Irish play their first four games of 2016 that Brian Kelly needed to make a change. The Irish gave up a combined 124 points in their three September defeats, a season-high for either yards or points (against FBS competition) for Texas, Michigan State and Duke.

For many VanGorder detractors, the move came four games too late. The Irish were plagued by big plays and schematic breakdowns throughout 2015 (and before), a fatal flaw of a defense filled with talented personnel that too often underperformed.

How did the Irish get here? Any why did Kelly make the decision to hire VanGorder—a decision that has already impacted his legacy in South Bend?

Let’s look back.



When Brian Kelly tapped VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco, he was hiring a coach who seemed like an evolutionary next step. While Diaco’s 3-4 base and point prevention philosophies were the perfect tonic for improving a team that was wrecked by the Tenuta era, Alabama undressed the Irish at the end of the 2012 season, a simplicity in Notre Dame’s scheme that received a few comments from Alabama players in the postgame glow that likely had Kelly wondering if they’d hit their ceiling.

That’s an important factor to remember when Kelly was hiring Diaco’s replacement. Because the foundation of the defense was well established. Kelly needed someone to build on top of it.

That likely made VanGorder’s pitch music to Kelly’s ears. Because while Diaco relied heavily on his base set, VanGorder’s DNA included sub-packages, complementary parts, Rex Ryan-inspired blitzes, and a philosophy that no throw would be conceded— underneath or otherwise.

Add to that Kelly’s personal relationship with VanGorder. Kelly had watched his former Grand Valley State colleague from the beginning of his career. He had seen him work with young players and believed in him as a teacher (something he referenced multiple times when he introduced VanGorder to the local media) before blazing his own trail, earning a head coaching opportunity at Wayne State, a high-profile coordinator position at Georgia and eventually making his way to the NFL—for a long time, farther up the food chain than Kelly.

Perhaps that was enough to dismiss his chaotic year at Auburn, when the Tigers season—and defense—went up in smoke as Gene Chizik was fired and VanGorder’s defense gave up 63 to No. 20 Texas A&M, 38 to No. 5 Georgia, and were blown out 49-0 to Alabama—after after mid-October.

But for a variety of reasons, likely his success turning to coaches with a personal connection, Kelly once again did so, hiring an NFL position coach who was a few years removed from being an elite-level coaching target for a vacancy that was a high-profile national opening.



The challenge with VanGorder’s struggles always seemed to be the caveats. Injuries decimated his first defense, a group that shutout Michigan and stymied Stanford, but crumbled by the end of the season, with USC naming a number and the Irish tumbling after giving up big, ugly scores to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.

The 2015 defense had strong moments—dominating Texas, holding Clemson to 24 points and nice wins over option opponents Georgia Tech and Navy—but obviously imploded late against Stanford and never stood a chance against Ohio State, with injuries once again leveling the depth chart.

But there were improvements. Between 2014 and 2015 VanGorder’s unit got a better handle on up-tempo attacks. An offseason committed to stopping the option saw those goals achieved with successful defensive performances against Georgia Tech and Navy. And even if VanGorder’s veteran-heavy 2015 unit was mostly moving on (the talent exodus is staggering now that you look at it), most had talked themselves into believing that Year Three would have better institutional knowledge for all, a depth chart ready to step in and perform.

[A necessary footnote: Luck certainly wasn’t on VanGorder’s side. Injuries, transfers and suspensions certainly didn’t do him any favors, either. Whether it was the disappearance of edge rushers—Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams, Bo Wallace—or the loss of KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield, injuries to Jarron Jones, Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Drue Tranquill, there was always the defense VanGorder hoped to put on the field… and then the one that he actually did.]



Austin, Texas. Opening night, 2016.

The Irish defense was exposed against the Longhorns, shredded by both the power running attack and freshman Shane Buechele’s passing. It was an all-systems failure: Scheme, blown assignments, questionable personnel decisions—all pointing back to a game plan that required a bunch of assumptions (new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was difficult to scout), but nonetheless was a disastrous start.



Even if Kelly gave the staff’s performance a passing grade, by noon after the loss to Duke, the decision was made to relieve VanGorder of his duties.

“This is a difficult decision,” Kelly said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”



While Kelly won’t likely go any deeper into the decision to make the change than he’s done in a few media sessions, it’s telling just how different the defense is organized with VanGorder out the door.

Full-unit meetings have been turned into position group teaching sessions. Depth chart’s have been reshuffled, resulting in major personnel changes. A base three-man front has taken over as the status quo. And the defense has stopped giving up points and big plays, especially after they found their footing against Syracuse.

Where Kelly goes from here is anyone’s guess—especially considering he’s still trying his best to get this season under control. But after tapping into his personal coaching network to fill a premium vacancy, don’t expect Kelly to settle on the familiar—or for Swarbrick to allow it—when his roster is loaded with young talent and in need of a fundamentally sound plan.

CB Elijah Hicks commits to Notre Dame

Irish 247

Just hours after one member of Notre Dame’s 2017 class stepped away, another took his place. Southern California defensive back Elijah Hicks committed to the Irish. The four-star prospect, an all-purpose defender who can play safety, cornerback and contribute in special teams, pulled the trigger just days after taking his official visit to South Bend.

He made the news official via Twitter and recorded a commitment video with Irish 247’s Tom Loy. And even as Notre Dame’s season continues in the wrong direction, Hicks bought in to the message being sold by the Irish coaching staff, picking Notre Dame over programs like UCLA, USC, Michigan and Washington.

A year after stocking up the secondary—Hicks gives the Irish a nice piece to pair with Paulson Adebo and all-purpose athlete Isaiah Robertson. And as we watch Troy Pride, Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Devin Studstill might a quick impact on the back end, Hicks compares favorably to that quartet, another prospect with elite offers who will come into South Bend ready to fight for a spot in the two-deep.

Hicks told Irish247.com why he pulled the trigger now:

“I chose Notre Dame because on my official visit I felt comfortable and it felt like home,” said Hicks. “One of my favorite quotes about Notre Dame is, ‘Other teams play college football, Notre Dame is college football.’ Coach Lyght, I feel like he could give me the tools that’s necessary to make it to the NFL and have a long career. Also, they have a rich tradition and great academic support.”

Hicks plays for La Mirada High School, the same program that produced reserve Irish tight end Tyler Luatua. He returns Notre Dame’s 2017 class to 18, a Top 10 group by any evaluation.


Irish suffer first recruiting defection with Donovan Jeter


After five losses, Notre Dame suffered their first consequence of a poor season in recruiting. Donovan Jeter, a four-star defensive lineman, has stepped away from his verbal commitment.

Jeter made the news public on Tuesday, taking to Twitter to send Irish fans into a tailspin.

The sky isn’t quite falling. Jeter called the Irish his top school, likely just getting ahead of the news that he’ll start taking official visits to other schools, something Notre Dame’s recruiting staff has worked well to slow down the past few cycles. Also helping the Irish’s cause is his proximity and connection to fellow Western Pennsylvania prospects David Adams, Kurt Hinish and Josh Lugg.

Still, after making it through last recruiting cycle without a defection, finding a way to win back Jeter is priority No. 1, a versatile defensive lineman who had an elite offer list and picked Notre Dame after basically dismissing them over the summer. The Irish have done it before, getting Stephon Tuitt back in the fold after Georgia Tech sold him on staying home. They won a battle with current defensive coordinator Greg Hudson when he was at Florida State for Aaron Lynch, though Lynch only lasted a season in South Bend.

Usually a decommitment—especially this time of year—isn’t ground for a news story. But as all eyes focus on Brian Kelly and his grasp on the Irish program, this serves as ammo for those looking for cracks in the foundation.


Jeter posted a Tweet that essentially confirmed my speculation. And also should serve as a reminder—DO. NOT. TWEET. AT. RECRUITS.