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.

 

 

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Associated Press
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Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

rivals.com
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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister

Monday’s Leftovers: Geography, as much as academics, caps Notre Dame’s recruiting possibilites

Associated Press
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A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a practical ceiling on Irish recruiting efforts.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day, a day on which Notre Dame secured the No. 13 class in the country, per rivals.com. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Sure enough, the Irish once again fall into that spectrum in 2018, finishing No. 11 per rivals. Though Notre Dame has risen above that range once (No. 3 in 2013) and fallen below it once (No. 20 in 2012) during Kelly’s tenure, his overall analysis remains accurate.

The instinct has always been to cite University academic standards as the greatest hurdle to rising into the top five consistently, but another aspect should not be overlooked. In a recent mailbag, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pondered the factors keeping the Irish from becoming a perennial 10-win team.

“Another major reason is a lack of a local recruiting base,” Staples wrote. “No program has a stronger national reach than Notre Dame, but that still doesn’t make recruiting nationally easy. It’s much easier to have hundreds of quality prospects within driving distances.”

That dynamic is a part of why the Irish are better positioned to reap rewards from high school juniors now being able to take official visits in April, May and June. Those time periods are less hectic for most high schoolers, so a long-distance trip may fit into the calendar with a bit less stress. Obviously, only time will tell the true impact of that new change.

Looking at both this past year’s recruiting rankings and the last nine years of rankings underscores and supports Staples’ point.

Rivals considered 33 prospects to be five-star recruits in 2018. Only seven schools managed to sign multiple such players: Georgia (8), Clemson (6), USC (5), Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Penn State (2), and Miami (2). To speak more broadly, four schools in the Deep South, two in the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor and one in California, all talent-rich areas, especially compared to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

If combining the total signees of both four- and five-star rankings by rivals, Notre Dame signed 12 such prospects. Only 11 schools signed more, including six of the above seven. (Clemson equaled the Irish haul, though its even split between four- and five-star recruits stands out compared to Notre Dame’s 12 four-stars.) The additional five: Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Auburn and Florida. In other words, two schools tapping into Texas, two schools within Florida and one more in the Deep South.

If looking at the last nine years of recruiting, the span of Kelly’s time in South Bend, only eight programs have consistently out-recruited the Irish, all but one mentioned already. LSU finished with the No. 13 recruiting class in 2018, lowering its nine-year average placement to 8.0. The Tigers are one of five SEC teams in that group of eight, joining Florida State, Ohio State and USC.

Sense a theme?

It will always be hard enough for Notre Dame to find high-caliber players likely to succeed at a strong academic institution in the Midwest. That task is even harder knowing how far away those players typically are to start with.

Other programs face a similar challenge, and few handle it as well. Consider the 2018 recruiting classes of Stanford, Michigan and Michigan State, for familiar context.

Stanford finished with 4 four-stars in rivals’ No. 63 class. The Wolverines pulled in 7 four-stars as part of the No. 24 class, while the Spartans signed 5 four-stars in the No. 26 grouping.

The Blue-Chip Ratio
Finishing within Kelly’s range has not stopped Notre Dame from consistently having one of the most-talented rosters in the country. If abiding by rivals rankings for consistency, 45 of the 89 players currently on the Irish roster (including incoming freshmen) were four- or five-star recruits.

A commonly-cited metric of a roster’s talent is the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio.” Essentially, a national championship caliber team will have at least 50 percent of its roster consisting of former four- or five-star prospects. Entering 2017, Notre Dame was one of only 10 such teams in the country.

As should be expected, the other nine included six programs from the Deep South, Ohio State, USC and, as an ode to Jim Harbaugh’s early recruiting successes, Michigan.

A Presidents Day Reminder
Notre Dame cannot officially claim any POTUS as an alum, but both Josiah Bartlet and James Marshall would like to argue otherwise.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s pending attrition actually intended to improve the roster
NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012
Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not
‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle
Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

OUTSIDE READING:
NCAA appeals committee upholds vacation of Notre Dame wins
A letter from the President on the NCAA Infractions Case
Irish set high expectations for Jurkovec
Elston ‘recruits’ Tillery, Bonner for one last ride
Giants release defensive end Ishaq Williams with a failed physical designation
Re-ranking the longest FBS coaching tenures from 1-to-230
Hip injury to keep Stanford QB K.J. Costello sidelined for much of spring drills