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.