In an optimal world, where egos don’t exist and playing time isn’t a concern, Everett Golson would’ve stayed at Notre Dame. Brian Kelly, Mike Sanford & Co. would’ve been able to deploy him and Malik Zaire situationally, turning to Golson for passing downs and Zaire for short-yardage red zone spots.
That idyllic vision of the 2015 season was never likely to happen. Golson made it official Thursday in informing Notre Dame of his intent to transfer and play his final year of college football elsewhere.
Whatever college team winds up with Everett Golson will get a talented, successful quarterback, one who — despite his 22 turnovers last year — has earned the opportunity to be an unquestioned starter somewhere. They’ll get someone who accounted for 37 touchdowns and threw for 3,445 yards last fall, and they’ll get someone with experience in pressure-packed road games and a BCS Championship.
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Those 22 turnovers are why Golson is on his way out of South Bend, though. Had Golson been less careless and/or unlucky in 2014, he wouldn’t have been yanked in favor of Zaire Nov. 29 at USC and he would’ve started the Music City Bowl — if Notre Dame still went to the mid-tier game at all. A less turnover-prone Golson probably leads the Irish to a better record and possibly a better bowl game, though a reduction in interceptions and fumbles still wouldn’t have made up for the loss of Joe Schmidt.
Maybe returning to Notre Dame and competing with Zaire would’ve made Golson a better quarterback. Maybe he’ll struggle to handle the crash course he’ll get in whatever new offense he joins this summer. Maybe the team he goes to won’t have as good a season as Notre Dame, which returns every single wide receiver it had last year, its top two running backs and four offensive linemen with starting experience.
But it’s hard to criticize Golson for taking his first opportunity to bolt South Bend and go somewhere he won’t be constantly looking over his shoulder in his final year of college eligibility. He’s a guy who has an uncertain future as a pro, so 2015 very well could be his final year with complete control of an offense.
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For Notre Dame, Golson’s departure may be a blessing. No longer will Kelly feel the risky pull of “well, if we can fix the turnovers…” and gamble against another Arizona State-like implosion. Golson was highly flammable last year, both in a good and bad way.
His refined throwing mechanics, ability to move outside the pocket and rocket arm made him a prototypical spread quarterback, the kind who has the ability to put up huge numbers in Kelly’s offense. But his penchant for turnovers, either due to carelessness, mental lapses, bad luck or some combination of all three, made him a combustible commodity.
Zaire is a different quarterback, a stout 230-pounder with excellent read option skills and a developing arm. He always represented the safe option in Notre Dame’s quarterback battle, even despite his inexperience.
With Zaire running the offense — no pun intended — Notre Dame can play to its biggest strength: A deep, experienced and skilled offensive line headlined by left tackle Ronnie Stanley and center Nick Martin. Add the running back trio of Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant and C.J. Prosise to the mix and there’s an easy ground-game identity for the Irish to establish this fall.
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Notre Dame showed it can control a game that way, rushing 51 times in its 31-28 win over LSU in the Music City Bowl. That won’t necessarily be the blueprint for all 12 regular season games this coming season, but it’s a good starting point. The offense was good enough to make up for some shaky defense in Nashville — and Brian VanGorder’s group should be better for getting beat up in November last year.
This may not have been the outcome Notre Dame wanted, but it’s the one it needed. It’s also the one Everett Golson needed.
Let the Malik Zaire era begin.