For Golson, challenges won’t disappear now that he’s at FSU

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Everett Golson left Notre Dame for Florida State. Degree in hand, free agency well earned. But for some who thought Golson left South Bend because he wanted nothing to do with a quarterback competition that Malik Zaire seemed to embrace, the fifth-year quarterback’s arrival in Tallahassee won’t mark the end of a position battle.

Golson left a competition for the starting quarterback job at Notre Dame for the vacancy Jameis Winston left behind at Florida State. And Jimbo Fisher apparently made it clear that he welcomed the Irish transfer to campus, but guaranteed him little more than a shot at the starting job.

“Controversy and competition is two different things. It’s competition,” Fisher told the AP’s Ralph Russo. “And players on the team, when a guy is a competitor and he does well — whether it’s Sean [Maguire], it’s Everett, it’s De’Andre [Johnson], it’s J.J. [Consentino], it’s Deondre Francois — whoever is on our team, they’ll follow the guys who play the best, respond the best and lead them the best.”

There’s few who doubt that Golson will win the starting job in short order. But then again, few looked at Notre Dame’s spring practice and saw a job that didn’t look like Golson’s, either.

So as we step back and look at Golson’s decision to start anew, it’s worth looking closer at the relationship with the quarterback and his head coach, and also the instability at the top of the offense, with Golson asked to establish yet another relationship in the more-than-fluid offensive leadership under head coach Brian Kelly.

While Golson only played in one system at Notre Dame, he had multiple teachers. During his freshman year, Charley Molnar was the quarterback coach and offensive coordinator. After Molnar left to take over the UMass program, Chuck Martin ran the offense and the position during Notre Dame’s 2012 BCS title game run.

After Golson’s academic detour in the 2013 season, he returned to a reshuffled coaching staff after Martin took the head coaching job at Miami (Ohio). Golson was then working under Mike Denbrock‘s leadership with new quarterback coach Matt LaFleur asked to work on technique and position responsibilities with Golson and a young depth chart.

LaFleur’s short stay in South Bend was a misstep for Kelly, the young assistant happier in the professional game and returning to work with Kyle Shanahan. Enter another young offensive assistant in Mike Sanford, who had just weeks to build and develop a relationship with his embattled starting quarterback, and it’s fair to consider these factors when people talk about Golson going to learn and work with completely new coaches.

Of course, Golson’s primary coach has always been Kelly. From Day One, the Irish head coach has kept Golson’s tutelage under his purview. And as Kelly moves forward running the Irish program, the head coach needs to take a step back and access whether that arrangement serves his football team best.

Multiple sources close to Golson cite the head coach-player relationship as a significant factor in Golson’s decision to depart. And while some fans would point out that Kelly stuck by and believed in Golson for far longer than any reasonable coach should have, the decision to seek a clean slate was one that hinged on the working relationship between the two men most responsible for the offense’s efficiency.

With Sanford’s arrival and the addition of off-field resources like former Buffalo head coach Jeff Quinn, there’s no shortage of proven offensive leaders in the Notre Dame coaching room. And while Kelly’s DNA won’t change from that of an offensive coach, given a new opportunity to work with Zaire, perhaps the singular nature of the relationship between head coach and his quarterback will change.

All that being said, Kelly isn’t the first head coach to tightly manage the quarterback position. Successful coaches at every level establish that bond with their quarterback, and if there’s any blame to assign—or any perceived failure in Golson deciding to leave—it’s fair to put some of that on the quarterback’s shoulders.

Golson isn’t a guy completely comfortable in the spotlight. And in a program and playing a position where eyes are always watching, the minor details—things like body language on the sideline and press conference demeanor—end up being fair game. And as the mistakes piled up last season, Golson became less and less able to deal with the adversity, finally benched after a flat-line performance against the Irish’s biggest rival in USC.

Even if his season ground to a halt before playing well in limited minutes against LSU, there’s no reason to think that Golson won’t have a good season at Florida State. For all the worries that the offense is too complex and Golson’s timeline is too truncated, this is an offense that allowed players like JaMarcus Russell to thrive, and turned mediocre NFL players like Christian Ponder and EJ Manuel into first-round picks. Golson’s a smart kid with better-than-most skills. He’ll be just fine.

So while Notre Dame fans can only wonder what the Irish offense would’ve looked like with the 1-2 punch of Golson and Zaire, it’s one thing to embrace an unknown quarterback platoon as a fan. It’s an entirely different thing to do it as a player, especially one that hopes to continue his career at the next level.

Golson’s move to Florida State will certainly cut both ways when NFL talent evaluators access his abilities—both to play and to lead at the next level. So while Golson made one difficult decision when he decided to leave South Bend, he faces another set of challenges at Florida State.