No, Brian Kelly hasn’t named a starting quarterback. We’re still around 90 days away from any sort of clarity in this soap opera. However, with all organized football activities in summer hiatus, it’s a good time to envision how the Notre Dame offense might look should sophomore Everett Golson win the starting gig in the fall.
Golson was part of a three-quarterback rotation in last month’s Blue-Gold Game with juniors Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix. He showed flashes of the elusiveness and arm strength that has made him the fan favorite, but again struggled with maintaining Kelly’s desired pace of the offense and getting plays called in a timely manner.
Kelly is no stranger to tailoring his offense to different types of quarterbacks. His 2009 Cincinnati team that went 12-0 in the regular season used a taller, pro-style passer in Tony Pike and a shorter, faster Zach Collaros at various times during the season.
Last year, with Rees the starter in the final 12 games, Kelly’s play-calling had to account for Rees’ lack of speed and a strong arm. While Golson won’t be as adept at making pre-snap adjustments as Rees, his different skill set will allow Kelly to expand the playbook.
Far too often last season, draw plays to Cierre Wood were smothered by opposing defenses, partially due to the fact that there was little threat of Rees reading the defense overplaying the handoff and keeping the ball himself. Golson isn’t quite Denard Robinson, but his speed is closer to that of the Irish’s arch nemesis than to Rees. Having to account for Golson should open up some lanes for Wood, the instinctual Theo Riddick and the dynamic George Atkinson III.
It’s not quite that simple, however. With Golson, we’re also more likely to see a botched handoff or confusion as to which direction the play is being run or what look the defense is giving up. That’s when the ball can end up in the wrong hands, a far worse outcome than a two-yard loss.
The passing game can also evolve under Golson, thanks to the Myrtle Beach, S.C. native’s live arm. Despite the loss of first-round NFL draft pick Michael Floyd, the additional zip on Golson’s throws allows Notre Dame to stretch the field both vertically and horizontally.
With wider hashmarks in the college game, out routes to the far side of the field can often be dangerous throws. Golson can make those throws more easily than Rees, but the concern again is misreading coverage. While Rees’ interceptions last season are well-documented, many of those came on throws in the middle of the field. Sideline and out routes were generally immune to Rees’ poor decisions.
Getting back to Golson, a misread on an out route can quickly become six points for the other team. A quick out against man coverage is a relatively safe throw, but if Golson sees man and it’s in fact bracket coverage with safety help, the route can be jumped by an aggressive cornerback.
While Rees’ turnovers were untimely, the one positive was that they didn’t lead to many long returns, including his interception in the Blue-Gold Game. As is the case with everything involving Golson, it’s high-risk, high-reward. After 14 Rees turnovers in 2011, most Irish fans are fully willing to accept the additional risk.
The one facet of the passing game where Golson could make the biggest impact is the deep ball. Even without Floyd, the Irish will use Tyler Eifert as their primary downfield threat and will add in two of the fastest freshmen in the nation this summer in Chris Brown and Davonte Neal.
Notre Dame’s successes with the deep ball last year were often a product of Floyd’s elite ball skills, not necessarily his straight-line speed. With the combination of Golson’s arm and the speed of Brown and Neal, the Irish should be more of a quick-strike attack than it was a year ago.
While the Blue-Gold game was promising for Golson, it came against a vanilla defense and a lack of pressure. After clearly being nowhere near ready to see game action as a freshman, there are still strides to make between now and September if he is to get the call against Navy in the season opener.
Every game is a roller-coaster ride, but if the keys to the offense are in fact handed to Golson, expect the range of emotions for Irish fans during games to rival that of overtime in Game 7 of a Stanley Cup Playoffs series. There will be big plays, some really good, and some really bad.
However, if Rees could simply have matched every bad big play with a good big play (and not kneed a police officer earlier this month), maybe we aren’t even discussing how Golson would run the offense. He would likely still be donning a red hat on the sidelines.