Golson key to Irish offense’s evolution

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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:

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

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

EVERETT GOLSON
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.”