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.”