Notre Dame

Uncertainty looms as Notre Dame's QB competition enters summer


Uncertainty looms as Notre Dame's QB competition enters summer

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Did we just watch Everett Golson’s last appearance in a Notre Dame uniform?

That’s the question that’ll dominate headlines and discussions here at Notre Dame for the next three and a half months after Saturday's Blue-Gold Game on the LaBar Practice Fields. Golson, by refusing to speak to the media during spring practice, hasn’t put any of the speculation to rest. And while his coach maintains he expects his senior quarterback to be part of the team come August, we haven’t heard any guarantees straight from the source.

So let the speculation begin. If Golson indeed graduates in May, he’ll be free to get out of South Bend as a one-year graduate transfer. The South Carolina native was connected with LSU back in January, while other top-flight schools without a clear option at quarterback certainly would be interested in a guy who accounted for 37 touchdowns last year.

The reason why the speculation about Golson exists, though, goes back to the 22 turnovers he committed last year, which precipitated the ongoing quarterback competition he’s embroiled in with junior-to-be Malik Zaire. Coach Brian Kelly was pleased with the play of his two quarterbacks during Saturday’s scrimmage, with Zaire’s 68-yard touchdown heave to Will Fuller the highlight of the afternoon.

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“I thought they both competed at a high level in the first half, and I think we all say they're all capable of playing championship football,” Kelly said (the quarterbacks were live in the first half, and neither were available to the media after the game). “Both Everett and Malik played well, did very good things. Malik probably made one poor decision putting the ball up for grabs, but neither one of them turned the football over. Everett tried to force a ball late in the third quarter.

“Other than that, I thought their judgment was excellent. The zone read game was strong. The decisions they made were excellent, so really pleased with them in the first half.”

The Blue-Gold Game was just one of 15 spring practices, with little added importance placed on it inside the Gug. Brian Kelly has roundly praised Golson throughout the spring, even going so far as to say he’d rather have Golson and Zaire than Ohio State’s elite quarterback triumvirate. He’s saying the kind of things that make it fair to wonder if Golson has the inside track on the starting job heading into the summer.

And if that’s the case and it’s Golson’s job to lose, why would he transfer to another school with an offense and coaching staff he’s unfamiliar with?

Zaire, though, has put up a strong challenge to the quarterback throne ever since he tagged in for Golson during the second quarter of last year’s regular season-ending debacle at USC. He represents the run-first option, and by extension, the safer one in this quarterback competition. It’d be a surprise if Zaire committed anywhere near 22 turnovers as a starter next year, even with under-construction throwing mechanics and only about six quarters of actual game experience. The offense doesn’t need to take many risks when he’s in the game.

“He's made great progress in his mechanics and delivery, and he'll continue to work on that,” Kelly said. “So we saw improvement from the spring Day 1 to Day 14, and I think we'll continue to see that as he goes through the summer.”

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But with Golson, there’s the tantalizing allure of slashing those turnovers and having a quarterback with a rocket arm and refined mechanics who threw for 3,445 yards last year.

This is a guy who threw for 313 yards and three touchdowns in Notre Dame’s near-upset of Florida State, with an illegal pick play the only thing separating Golson and the Irish from a landscape-shifting win in Tallahassee. After a brutal start at Arizona State, Golson nearly led 31-point comeback that fell short in part because of a bad hold, an inexplicable drop that led to a pick-six and a fourth quarter defensive collapse. And against LSU, it was Golson who led Notre Dame into field goal territory with the score deadlocked at 28 in the dying embers of the game.

Perhaps the most maddening thing about Golson’s 2014 season was all the success he had in the shadow of his mistakes. If Kelly and Mike Sanford truly believe they can fix his interception and fumble issues, Golson has to be the guy quarterbacking a team that returns 18 other starters this fall.

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Zaire certainly will continue to push Golson over the summer, during fall camp and into the season. Whereas last year coaches didn’t feel they had a viable replacement for a struggling Golson until Nov. 29, that won’t be the case this fall. If Golson is the starter and the turnovers return, his leash should be far shorter than it was in 2014.

There’s plenty of risk associated with Golson, but also plenty of upside. This is a decision coaches can’t afford to mess up, not with so much talent returning around the quarterbacks and a legitimate playoff run on the table.

But first, there has to be a decision to make. And that requires Golson to still be here come August.

“We keep working on each individual and where they need to continue to grow individually, and then the decision on playing time will take care of itself,” Kelly said of his message to Golson and Zaire heading into the summer. “They can't control that. All they can control is what's in their purview and that is the fundamentals of what we've asked them to work on.

“And the rest they can't really worry about, it's not their call.”

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

A 4-8 season in 2016 has put Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly firmly on the hot seat as he heads into his eighth season with the Fighting Irish.

In response to a tumultuous season, Kelly made major changes to his staff this past offseason by hiring new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

Mike Elko, who previously led Wake Forest to an FBS Top-40 total defense ranking, was hired by Kelly to be Notre Dame's defensive coordinator, and Chip Long — former offensive coordinator at Memphis — will now be in charge of the Fighting Irish offense.

However, the biggest change and arguably the No. 1 factor in Kelly's long-term future in South Bend, will be the person under center in 2017.

Barring an unforeseen circumstance, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush — a former Rivals four-star recruit — will lead Notre Dame out of the tunnel in Week 1 vs. Temple.

Wimbush has only thrown five passes during his time at Notre Dame, but showed what kind of talent he has with a 58-yard rushing touchdown as a freshman in 2015.

Wimbush was one of the focal points of a recent Rivals story regarding quarterbacks who will be facing pressure in 2017

Earlier this week, Rivals Recruiting Director Mike Farrell gave his scouting report on the Notre Dame quarterback.

I’m a big fan of Wimbush but that hasn’t always been the case. It’s not that I didn’t like him when I first scouted him before his high school career took off, but what I saw way back when was a kid who had a rocket arm and zero touch. But throughout his high school career he improved every time I saw him, showed much more than just a strong arm and flashed impressive poise for his age.

I’ve seen very limited action when it comes to Wimbush in college as he hasn’t played often and his spring game performance had ups and downs, but I believe in this kid’s ability. He can extend the play, has that great arm and just needs to get comfortable in the Notre Dame offense and make sure he doesn’t try to use that cannon to fit the ball into tight spots. I can see him having some growing pains this season, but as he gets more comfortable and learns to take what the defense gives him while keeping defenses off balance with his athletic ability, I think he’ll finish strong.

Will Wimbush's rocket arm be enough to save Kelly from the hot seat?

That's still to be determined.

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

After a handful of late additions sent in their national letters of intent to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame on Wednesday announced its 21-player recruiting class of 2017. There are a couple of ways to view the end of what was a volatile recruiting period for the Irish:

The glass-half-full take:

Two and a half months after wrapping up an embarrassing 4-8 season, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 11th by 247 Sports, 13th by Rivals, 13th by Scout and 16th by ESPN. In fact, Notre Dame actually ranks higher this year in 247 Sports' composite rankings (11th) than it did in 2016 (15th), when the Irish were coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl berth. 

Nearly scraping together a top-10 class after going 4-8 and losing four assistant coaches in Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, Scott Booker and Keith Gilmore is an impressive feat (Greg Hudson was only an interim defensive coordinator, and Brian VanGorder was far from a reliable recruiter). Plenty of kudos should be extended the way of recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Elston for heading up the program's efforts to keep what began as a pretty strong class from disintegrating. 

Additionally, coach Brian Kelly pointed to the work of the 15 verbally-committed players who stuck with their pledges even as Notre Dame sustained a string of confounding losses and significant coaching turnover. 

"We couldn't be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish," Kelly said. "Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame."

Five of those players enrolled early — tight end Brock Wright, offensive linemen Robert Gainsay and Aaron Banks, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson, all of whom 247 sports rated as four-star recruits — and guys like tight end Cole Kmet, quarterback Avery Davis and offensive linemen Joshua Lugg never wavered, too. 

That those players stuck together helped Notre Dame maintain a good base after the NCAA-mandated dead period lifted after the College Football Playoff title game last month, and new coaches Brian Polian, Mike Elko, Clark Lea, Chip Long and DelVaughn Alexander were able to bring in six late additions to the class: safety Jordan Genmark Heath, wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, kicker Jonathan Doerer, defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive lineman Kofi Wardlow. 

Armstrong, Tagovailoa and Wardlow all filled red-line positions of need, while adding more players to increase the pool of talent available to Elko is hardly a bad thing. 

But the optimistic viewpoint here is the deck was stacked against Notre Dame in recruiting, and they actually turned out a pretty good hand thanks to a complete effort from everyone in the athletic department. 

"Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, met with our recruits," Kelly said. "That's unusual. I don't think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.

"In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it's going. There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future. So having Jack's involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are."

Now, for the glass-half-empty take:

Notre Dame had six players decommit, five of whom were at positions of need (defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver). Only four-star defensive end Robert Beal jumped ship before Notre Dame's fall tailspin was underway, and four of those six decommitting players were four-star recruits. 

Notre Dame wound up replacing them with six late commitments, but five of those late-deciding players were three-star recruits and one (Doerner) was a two-star player. That's a good recipe for slipping from having a top-10 class to one on the outside looking in. 

A common lament among fans is that Notre Dame has struggled to sign five-star recruits lately, and while it's true the Irish haven't done that since 2013 — Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield, as rated by 247 Sports — that's not as big an issue as it may seem. Just look at the disparity in college success between Smith and Redfield as a front-and-center example of how a five-star rating doesn't guarantee success in college. Signing more four/five-star recruits than two/three-star ones is far more important (more on that in a bit). 

But the bigger issue with Notre Dame's 2017 class perhaps has more to do with its 2016 class. Notre Dame lost ace recruiters Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks after the 2014 season and re-worked its entire recruiting operation in response, which led to little oomph in a 2016 class that, based on the prior season, should've been much better than it was. 

Last year's group could ultimately build a legacy as a less-heralded crop of recruits that went on to success — the strong debuts of 247 Sports three-stars in cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson were good starts — but there's a long way to go there. 

If 2016 was supposed to be a more transitional recruiting class, though, then 2017 represents a massive missed opportunity. Going 4-8 with all the right recruiting machinations in place is a glaring shortcoming for the future of the program — even a nine-win season could've allowed Notre Dame to hang on to some of those four-star players it lost and earn a top-10 class ranking. 

More importantly than a top-10 class, though, is pulling in more four- and five-star recruits than two and-three star ones. Notre Dame didn't do that in 2017 (10 four-star recruits out of 21) or 2016 (10 four-star recruits out of 23) after hitting that benchmark each of the last three recruiting cycles. That's a worrying trend given the correlation between signing a majority of four- and five-star recruits and winning a championship

The last two recruiting cycles have been, in that context, significant disappointment. While strong classes in 2014 and 2015 could prop up a playoff run as soon as this fall, the future of the program may not be on solid footing even if the Irish engineer a major turnaround in 2017. Next year's class likely will be critical to the long-term success of the program under Kelly, presuming he's still around to usher in the next group of recruits in February of 2018.