Five things we’ve learned: Analyzing Everett Golson’s departure

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The dust has settled. Everett Golson is leaving Notre Dame. So while the rest of the story will take chase—the wheres and the whys eventually coming out—the only thing that’s important for the Irish is looking at what remains, and how the program moves on from here.

On paper—and that’s all this decision has been with volleying written statements of gratitude from Golson and head coach Brian Kelly—things become far simpler for the Irish offense, though the margin for error is eliminated.

Malik Zaire is the starting quarterback. And as Kelly said in his statement, he’s got “supreme confidence” in his third-year sophomore quarterback.

So let’s take a look at a few different angles as we explore Golson’s departure.

 

You can’t blame Golson. But you certainly can judge him. 

With a final season of eligibility remaining and a deep desire to put himself in position to be an NFL quarterback, Golson ultimately didn’t believe his best opportunity to do that was at Notre Dame.

“I have decided that it is in my best interest to graduate from Notre Dame and transfer to another school effectively immediately,” Golson said in his statement.

That move comes with consequences.

Golson’s legacy is now a complicated one. He’ll join Dayne Crist and Andrew Hendrix as quarterbacks in the modern era who ended their once-promising careers at another school. But unlike those two, Golson accomplished impressive things—though leaving before he had a chance to cement his legacy certainly earns him no historic favor.

A fifth-year in the program would’ve given Golson a chance to make a run at some impressive statistical numbers, especially surrounded by this personnel. More importantly, Golson could lead the Irish into a lofty postseason game—a second appearance reserving him a spot among the elite quarterbacks at Notre Dame.

Legacy is a difficult concept to grasp as a 22-year-old. And it certainly doesn’t pay the bills once you leave South Bend.

But after receiving universal praise for battling back from his academic suspension and returning to Notre Dame, it’s more than fair to criticize this decision as an easy way out, even while it may very well escalate his 2015 season’s degree of difficulty.

 

It’s time to recalibrate some offensive expectations. 

In the day-after analysis game, there are some winners and losers that jump to mind. Zaire the most obvious winner of them all. Notre Dame’s best offensive leader will now be the captain of the ship—a desire he made clear from Day One of this competition.

But while Golson’s connection with rising junior Will Fuller in the Blue-Gold game served as the game’s biggest play, this certainly isn’t good news for Fuller’s stat line or the passing offense. While Fuller will get his opportunities to take the top off of a defense, you’ve got to think that the sheer number of balls coming his way (not to mention successfully completed) will be down significantly. That will trickle down to Chris Brown, Corey Robinson and the rest of a talented receiving corps, with the untested tight ends potentially getting more involvement.

Harry Hiestand’s meeting room likely isn’t wallowing in sorrow. As an offensive line, a 230-pound sledgehammer of a quarterback that serves as a trigger man for a devastating zone-read running game is a dream come true. No need to try finessing anybody up front. The trenches will be a fist fight, one that fits the personality of this group—and now offense—just fine.

While we will all inevitably dig into the LSU game to look for clues as to how this offense will look, the one-game sample was never a good predictor. And it certainly won’t be with DeShone Kizer and Brandon Wimbush serving as primary backups.

So expect Zaire to be put on a proverbial pitch count when it comes to running the football, and expect the three-headed monster of Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant and C.J. Prosise to be more than happy to pick up the slack.

 

The plans for Brandon Wimbush have changed. 

Even as the crown-jewel of the 2015 recruiting class, incoming freshman Brandon Wimbush expected to spend his freshman year learning. That’s not the case anymore, with Wimbush now likely thrown into the backup quarterback battle with Kizer, who didn’t necessarily have the best of spring games.

Wimbush spoke with the South Bend Tribune about the transfer news, candidly discussing how it’ll change his early college experience.

“I was really shocked,” Wimbush told the Tribune‘s Tyler James. “It gives me an opportunity, which I’m excited for, but I’m kind of disappointed that he left because I wanted to be able to learn under him.

“I wanted to redshirt. I had the mindset of coming in and redshirting and being able to learn and get acclimated for a year. With this, my mind changed immediately. My mindset really did change quickly as soon as I heard it.”

Wimbush hits campus in early June. From there, it’ll be straight to the deep end, working with offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford to master the offense as quickly as possible, though it’s still far from ideal to have any young quarterback—highly touted or not—as part of the game plan.

 

There’s a lesson to be learned here for Brian Kelly. 

From the moment Golson set foot on campus, he was the apple of Kelly’s eye. And perhaps that created a blind spot for a head coach who has otherwise had 20-20 vision.

After inheriting a depth chart filled with quarterbacks that didn’t resemble his prototype, Golson was the solution. And after a redshirt season spent grooming, Golson won a three-man race that turned into the 2012 season—a year where both the head coach and quarterback flourished.

But after Golson’s academic departure essentially cost the Irish a potentially great 2013 season, the quarterback came back and Kelly acted like nothing had happened. That approach worked when wide receiver Michael Floyd spent spring practice in limbo and then made the most out of his second chance. But it didn’t at the quarterback position and the team suffered for it.

Kelly hung tight with Golson last season longer than just about anybody else would have. And while none of us were in practice or meeting rooms watching Zaire prepare for his chance to play, when Golson finally flamed out against USC, it was clear that the team took to Zaire’s energy and playing style immediately.

Entering this spring, Kelly once again appeased Golson, taking him out of the media availability circuit, allowing him to focus on football and academics—a decision that certainly spared Golson from talking about the elephant in the room.

And with Kelly, associate head coach Mike Denbrock and new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford all praising Golson for his work ethic and commitment this spring, it still ended up with the quarterback’s departure.

Credit Kelly for finally being honest with his quarterback—even if it came too late to salvage 2014. (And really, unless Malik Zaire could play linebacker like Joe Schmidt, that season wasn’t going to be salvaged.)

Kelly could’ve told Golson whatever he needed to to keep him on campus. But with the potential for a great season in 2015 with either quarterback behind center, Kelly considered the other 84 scholarship players on the roster instead of the one who had only gotten his way.

Competition is only the lifeblood of a program if it’s happening at every position. And if Golson wasn’t comfortable competing, he’s better off playing somewhere else.

 

The Malik Zaire era has begun. 

Golson’s departure means Kelly is still hunting for his first multi-year, consecutive-seasoned starter, crazy when you consider he’s entering his sixth season.

Enter Malik Zaire.

Whether it was Plan A or not, Zaire has the chance to be a three-year starter and a multi-year captain for the Irish, the perfect lead-from-the-front, face-of-the-program type quarterback that Golson was never comfortable being.

Now Zaire needs to show the maturity to handle the spotlight. That means no more emotional tweets of the less-than-cryptic variety, that will certainly serve as an earthquake amongst the far from stable segment of this fanbase that still expects the worst when it comes to this program.

It also means growing into the quarterback Notre Dame needs. While Zaire will be the perfect runner in the Irish system, if the offense will be optimized, it’ll require a dedication to the craft of quarterbacking. That means a better mastery of the mid-level passing game and a deeper understanding of the playbook.

Zaire can get away with a late throw playing against USC reserves trailing by multiple touchdowns. He can’t playing against the Trojans in mid-October with an undefeated season on the line. Or on a 3rd-and short in the red zone when the line of scrimmage is stacked and expecting a run.

While the woe-is-me crowd will look at Golson’s departure as another sign that the gods are conspiring against the Irish, the reality is far from it.

Simply put, Golson looked into the future and didn’t like what he saw.

While dodging competition certainly doesn’t seem like the best way to make it to the NFL, the decision has been made and the Irish are moving forward with Zaire. Now it’s up to the brash and confident young quarterback to prove he was a leading man all along.

 

 

Notre Dame’s 2018 defense bolstered with Coney & Tillery returns

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Notre Dame’s defense found some stability last week with the promotion of linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Elston to associate head coach following Mike Elko’s abrupt departure, but only some stability.

That foundation is much more solid now after the Irish announced the returns of both junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery on Monday.

Both Coney and Tillery enjoyed noticeable developmental progress in one year under Elko.  Coney totaled a whopping 116 tackles to lead Notre Dame, far and away his best season. Among those takedowns, he managed 13 for loss, including three sacks. Tillery, meanwhile, led the Irish with 4.5 sacks this season, adding another 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

Notre Dame’s defensive tackle situation may have bordered on dire if not for the return of junior Jerry Tillery. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With Lea and Elston sticking around, Coney and Tillery are well-positioned for even further growth. If nothing else, they will step into starring roles in a rather complete front seven.

Notre Dame loses senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, as well as senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner and senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti. If Coney and Tillery had joined that group, the front seven would have been rife with unproven commodities and little depth. Instead, Coney will fill in at linebacker, meaning only one youngster will need to step forward, and Tillery will headline a defensive line surging under Elston.

After amassing 17 tackles in the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, Coney insisted he had not yet put much consideration into his future.

“I’m just right now still focused on the win,” he said. “We just got this 10th win. I’m just trying to soak up the moment. This is a great moment. … Focusing on that and the win and enjoying it with my brothers.”

Those words combined with Elko’s sudden departure for Texas A&M made Coney’s return seem unlikely. His breakout season at least placed him into NFL draft conversations and capitalizing on that chance would have made a good amount of logical sense.

With Lea in his ear for another season, Coney will have a chance to become more than a physical player excelling in run defense and develop his coverage skills. Coney and senior Drue Tranquill will lead an otherwise lacking linebacker corps.

Sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) made 10 and four tackles, respectively, this year. Jonathan saw more playing time on defense, occasionally spelling senior Nyles Morgan, but has not yet looked the part of an every-down contributor. Irish coach Brian Kelly has previously admitted to considering a move to defensive line for Jamir, but that unit’s progression made that position shift less of a necessity.

If any of the incoming four linebackers or the two current freshmen, David Adams or Drew White, were to emerge, however, such a move may become an available luxury. Only Tillery’s return makes it a genuine luxury, though.

Tillery’s 56 tackles this year showed a level of consistency not seen in his first two seasons. His length alone makes Tillery an intriguing draft prospect. Logically speaking, a second season of such production, if not even increased output, should further his professional hopes. By returning along with Elston, the player/coach combination will provide experience to a position group otherwise devoid of it. With Bonner having said he will not return, Tillery and current freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish are the only returning defensive tackles of contributory note.

Freshman Darnell Ewell will also certainly enter the rotation after spending 2017 preserving a year of eligibility. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum will be in the mix, as well. Incoming freshmen consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademiloloa (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.) and consensus three-star defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin (North Caroline High School; Ridgely, Md.) will complete the fray.

Reports on Monday indicate junior Elijah Taylor will leave Notre Dame after missing 2017 with a LisFranc fracture suffered in spring practice. He appeared in four games in 2016, making four tackles including one for loss. More than anything else, his departure is a step toward reaching the NCAA maximum of 85 rostered players. With Coney and Tillery returning but Taylor departing, the Irish roster currently stands at 86 players, though a few more recruits may be added. (This does not count sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, indefinitely suspended and presumed not likely to play for Notre Dame in 2018.)

Monday’s Leftovers: Coney & Tillery once enrolled early at Notre Dame, now to the NFL or not?

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Today marks two occasions. It is the day before Notre Dame begins its spring semester. In other words, it is the day before this year’s seven early enrollees begin classes. It is also the deadline for early entrants to file for the NFL draft.

There are two common threads to the separate events. Junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery both enrolled early in 2015, and they have both delayed their stay-or-go decisions to today.

With the early signing period’s implementation, the former date holds less import. These players have already signed with the Irish. Gone are the days of putting down a drink and racing to a computer after finding a source to confirm a consensus five-star quarterback’s early arrival. With an early signing period, Gunner Kiel likely would have been bound to at least begin his career at LSU in the spring of 2012, rather than show up on Notre Dame’s campus at the 11th hour.

The tangible value of arriving early can still hold legitimacy, but that theoretical does not become much of a reality until spring practice commences, anyway.

Junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) will need to decide today if he will head to the NFL Draft or return for his senior year. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

So an early enrollee summary can wait until tomorrow’s first day of classes. In the meantime, breathes remain baited waiting for the decisions from Coney and Tillery. Will they return for a year under first-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea, or follow the lead of running back Josh Adams and receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and head for the NFL?

As has been discussed and seems rather obvious, both Coney and Tillery would greatly boost the 2018 Irish defense. They would also both likely hear their names called in the NFL draft, so there is merit to whatever option each chooses.

— As it pertains to the early enrollees, the measureable benefit of the semester’s head start can be debated. In looking at the last three classes, it has appeared to have great effect with a few of the freshmen, but not for most.

2015: Tillery, Coney, defensive lineman Micah Dew-Treadway, offensive lineman Tristen Hoge.
2016: Safety Devin Studstill, receiver Kevin Stepherson, defensive end Daelin Hayes, defensive end Khalid Kareem, safety Spencer Perry.
2017: Offensive lineman Robert Hainsey, tight end Brock Wright, running back C.J. Holmes, safety Isaiah Robertson, offensive lineman Aaron Banks.

Of those 14, Tillery, Studstill, Stepherson and Hainsey offered genuine contributions in their debut seasons.

Tillery started three games in 2015, appearing in all 12, making 12 tackles with one sack. More than the counting statistics, the depth Tillery provided at defensive tackle was an absolute necessity.

As injuries and suspensions purged the Irish secondary just before the 2016 season’s start, Studstill was forced into a starting role. He finished the year with 38 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. He was not yet ready to be a collegiate starting safety, but he was needed to be, and the time spent going through the paces in the spring provided Studstill enough of a base to be somewhat serviceable from the outset.

Stepherson broke out as a deep threat right away — a likelihood with or without an early enrollment simply due to his speed. In his only complete season with the Irish, Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

Hainsey’s impact was far and away the most distinct. He went from the second most-heralded early-enrolled offensive lineman to a starter at right tackle. That surge puts Hainsey in pole position to start at left tackle in 2018. He may have ended up there, anyway, but the freshman first played a pivotal role on the best offensive line in the country.

— It would not be a site dedicated to football if it did not include some mention of the Minnesota Vikings’ victory Sunday evening. Some adjective should precede victory in the previous sentence, but no quick combination encapsulates just how absurd, dramatic and, per the quickly-adhered catchphrase, miraculous the conclusion was.

Stefon Diggs’ game-winning touchdown may not have been as excellent as Irish receiver Miles Boykin’s was in the Citrus Bowl if compared in a vacuum, but Diggs’ score came with no time remaining on the clock, while Boykin’s was merely an excellent play that if failed, other chances would have followed.

Of course, being the Vikings, the Notre Dame connection is thorough.

— A thought experiment sparked by that Minneapolis tangent … The Minnesota Timberwolves played their first game in franchise history Nov. 3, 1989, meaning it has endured a title drought the exact same length as the Irish have.

Which wins its respective championship first?

9-win, 30-TD quarterbacks like Wimbush are rare; Links to read

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It is not easy to win nine or 10 games in one season. It is not easy for Notre Dame, for any team, and it is not easy for a quarterback.

If granting the premise the Irish would have won at North Carolina if junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush had not sprained his foot the weekend beforehand, then Wimbush indeed notched nine wins this season. That does not credit him with the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, though it is certainly possible he would have found a way to win that game, too.

In doing so, Wimbush accounted for 30 touchdowns, 16 through the air and 14 through the ground.

Those two facts alone will guarantee Wimbush a chance to start at quarterback for Notre Dame on Sept. 1, as they should. After all, how many nine-win quarterbacks were there in 2017? How many players scored 30 combined touchdowns? Not many.

Obviously there will always be a Baker Mayfield or a Lamar Jackson, but consistent and frequent production is not as easy as the two Heisman winners make it seem. If narrowing the focus to Power Five teams, only 21 quarterbacks won nine games this season. That should probably bump to 22 out of deference to McKenzie Milton leading Central Florida to an undefeated season.

It bears noting the Irish faced six of those quarterbacks: Georgia’s Jake Fromm (13 wins) USC’s Sam Darnold (11), Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke (10), Miami’s Malik Rosier (10), North Carolina State and Ryan Finley (9), and LSU with Danny Etling (9).

Again keeping the field to the Power Five conferences with an exemption for the 13-0 Knights, only 14 players managed 30 total touchdowns, including Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford (29 passing, 10 rushing).

Between the two lists, just nine quarterbacks can claim both:
McKenzie Milton, Central Florida: 13 wins; 37 passing touchdowns, eight rushing.
Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma: 12 wins; 43 passing, five rushing.
J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: 12 wins; 35 passing, 12 rushing.
Trace McSorley, Penn State: 11 wins; 28 passing, 11 rushing.
Sam Darnold, USC: 11 wins; 26 passing, five rushing.
Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State: 10 wins; 37 passing, 10 rushing.
Malik Rosier, Miami (FL): 10 wins; 26 passing, five rushing.
Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame: 9 wins; 16 passing, 14 rushing.
Luke Falk, Washington State: 9 wins; 30 passing.

This is not to say Wimbush should have an easy path to the starting gig for 2018. Before a long offseason of quarterback headlines and interminable debates, this is to say Wimbush has produced enough he will and should get his chance, despite any late-season struggles and obviously-needed improvements. Underselling Wimbush’s 2017 serves no point but to offer an exceptionally-flawed argument.

A FUN BIT OF TRIVIA:
No NFL team has both hosted the Super Bowl and played a divisional playoff game at home in the same year. The Minnesota Vikings will do just that Sunday (4:40 p.m. ET; v. New Orleans; FOX), as the Super Bowl will be at U.S. Bank Stadium in a few weeks. Some might deem the Vikings as “Notre Dame North” thanks to their reliance on former Irish safety Harrison Smith, tight end Kyle Rudolph and — less of a reliance, to be accurate — receiver Michael Floyd.

That is not the piece of trivia, though.

Stanford Stadium hosted the 1985 Super Bowl, with the San Francisco 49ers beating the Miami Dolphins.

Anyone who has been to a Notre Dame game at Stanford can use that fact to realize in a tangible manner just how much the NFL has grown in the last three decades. The idea of the world’s largest entertainment event being held at The Farm is genuinely beyond fathoming for those of a certain generation, this scribe included.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Monday’s Leftovers: On Notre Dame’s dual needs at defensive coordinator and those effects
Notre Dame promoting Lea & Elston bodes well for at least the short term
Harry Hiestand leaves Notre Dame on good terms and in good shape
A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s offensive roster

OUTSIDE READING:
Jack Lamb on Clark Lea: “best possible choice” for Notre Dame
Clark Lea’s promotion was a win for continuity, and one Notre Dame sorely needed
Optimism for Notre Dame football in 2018 starts with the Irish defense
Irish ‘feel really good’ about O-line in ‘18
In Harry Hiestand, Matt Nagy hits a home run on his first swing at Bears’ coaching staff
Notre Dame’s Moore Award personal for Taylor
What happens if the Vikings reach Super Bowl LII? Expect plenty of logistical challenges

Editor’s Note: Yes, the above quarterback bit was originally intended to run a bit longer in the weekly “Friday at 4” slot, but the timing did not fit last week with the defensive coordinator shift and the time was not at hand this week to get the piece put together as “Friday at 4” dictates.

Then again, stalling for a day creates another day of halfway-worthwhile content in a time of year that is devoid of much substance, aside from coaching changes, transfers, NFL declarations, et al.

And in the spirit of “Friday at 4,” how great would it be to have Dr. Stephen Strange as a weekend partner in figurative crime?

A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s offensive roster

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While Notre Dame awaits stay-or-go decisions from junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, its offensive side of the roster is set … for now. As was briefly discussed in the most-recent “Monday’s Leftovers,” the Irish roster is currently at 87 players. That could rise as high as 90 if the incoming recruiting class rounds up to 25 signees and both Coney and Tillery return for the 2018 season.

A quick, even terse, look at the offense can provide reference for conversations and debates at both the virtual and real-world bar as the roster sheds a handful of players.

A couple quick notes: The order of this listing is not intended to stake a stance on positional competitions (cough quarterback cough). This is simply presenting the options available moving forward.

The designations following each of the 10 receivers are inherently speculative. With junior Equanimeous St. Brown declaring for the NFL and sophomore Kevin Stepherson not expected to be around next season, Notre Dame will need to tinker and experiment with receiver alignments throughout the offseason.

To a degree, the same goes for the offensive linemen, particularly among the backups. Rarely is there a genuine second-unit. Rather, one or two utility options will serve as backups for the whole line.

Quarterback (4):
Jr. Brandon Wimbush
So. Ian Book
Fr. Avery Davis
Incoming fr. Phil Jurkovec

Running back (5):
Jr. Dexter Williams
So. Tony Jones
So. Deon McIntosh
Fr. C.J. Holmes
Inc. fr. Jahmir Smith

Receiver (10):
Jr. Miles Boykin (field)
So. Chase Claypool (boundary)
Fr. Michael Young (slot)
Sr. Freddy Canteen (slot)
So. Jafar Armstrong (field)
So. Javon McKinley (boundary)
Jr. Chris Finke (slot)
Inc. fr. Braden Lenzy (slot)
Inc. fr. Kevin Austin (boundary)
Inc. fr. Micah Jones (field)

Tight end (6):
Jr. Alizé Mack
Sr. Nic Weishar
Fr. Cole Kmet
Fr. Brock Wright
Inc. fr. George Takacs
Inc. fr. Tommy Tremble

Offensive line (12):
Fr. Robert Hainsey (LT)
Fr. Josh Lugg (LG)
Sr. Sam Mustipher (C)
Sr. Alex Bars (RG)
So. Tommy Kraemer (RT)
So. Liam Eichenberg (T)
Fr. Aaron Banks (G)
Jr. Trevor Ruhland (G, C)
Fr. Dillan Gibbons (G)
Inc. fr. Cole Mabry (G)
Inc. fr. John Dirksen (G)
Inc. fr. Luke Jones (T, committed, not signed)

Specialists (4):
Jr. Justin Yoon (PK)
Sr. Tyler Newsome (P)
So. John Shannon (LS)
Fr. Jonathan Doerer (KO)