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.

 

 

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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