A new era in Notre Dame football begins on Saturday when sophomore Everett Golson not only makes his first career start as quarterback of the Fighting Irish, but also takes his first snap after not playing in 2011. He left spring as the clubhouse leader and fan favorite and held off junior Andrew Hendrix for the starting role during fall camp. Incumbent Tommy Rees is suspended for the game after an offseason arrest.
Head coach Brian Kelly has played musical quarterbacks ever since arriving in South Bend. Dayne Crist started the first nine games of the 2010 season and won the starting job heading into last season, which lasted all of one miserable half in the opener against USF.
Rees started the final 12 games, but Hendrix appeared in five of the final eight games. Even at Cincinnati in 2009, Kelly rotated between pro-style passer Tony Pike and the more mobile Zach Collaros.
Are Kelly's days of juggling quarterbacks about to end now that Golson has been tabbed as the starter? For Kelly to take Notre Dame to where it strives to be, they must be. However, why should we trust that the coach who may be the toughest on his quarterbacks since Steve Spurrier will have the patience to stick with a first-year player through one of the nation's most difficult schedules? Because, frankly, it's his only choice.
Even the great Spurrier couldn't accomplish what he wanted with two quarterbacks. Despite winning SEC titles at Florida in 1993 and 1994 with a combination of Danny Wuerffel and Terry Dean, the Gators lost two games each year. Once Dean graduated and Wuerffel was the unquestioned starter, Florida played for the national title in consecutive years in 1995 and 1996. In 1997, it was back to a rotation between Noah Brindise, Doug Johnson and Jesse Palmer, and the Gators failed to win the SEC East for the first time ever.
While Kelly and Spurrier's paths have never crossed, it would be wise of the Irish head coach to take a lesson from the head ball coach. Golson may not repeat Wuerffel's Heisman Trophy-winning season of 1996, but Notre Dame will be much better off if he's the unquestioned starter for the duration of the season.
What's not to like about Golson? He's fast, he's dynamic and he has a strong arm. Will he make mistakes? Certainly. However, his mistakes can be no more damaging than those of Rees, who caused Irish fans to practically dread appearances in the red zone.
While Ty Willingham proved that even Notre Dame is not afraid to fire coaches after three seasons, Kelly will be the head coach in 2013 barring an off-field scandal. It's not a "win now or else"-type season for Kelly like it is for such coaching counterparts as Derek Dooley at Tennessee and Danny Hope at Purdue. The most important goal for this season is not necessarily to win a certain number of games, but to ensure the quarterback position has some stability heading into 2013.
Expectations are relatively low for the Irish in terms of a win total, and unlike last year, the positives of a win over a highly-ranked team such as Oklahoma would outweigh the negatives of a loss to a team like Boston College.
Even if Notre Dame had beaten USC last year, it would have done little to erase the atrocities of turnover-filled losses to USF and Michigan. Notre Dame doesn't need to make a BCS bowl, but it needs to prove it can compete with teams who might be playing in BCS bowls. Golson gives the Irish Ithe best opportunity to do just that.
Rees, and to a lesser extent Hendrix, still have plenty to offer this season. Should Golson suffer an injury, Rees is exactly the quarterback you want coming off of the bench. He's won 12 games in Kelly's offense and has proven the spotlight of playing quarterback for the Fighting Irish is not too bright for him. However, Kelly should only use Rees if he has to. If the offense is struggling, which it undoubtedly will be at some point, give it a spark through a means other than by changing quarterbacks.
Kelly and Golson have worked together for a year-and-a-half now. If the comfort level between the two isn't there, it probably never will be.
Now, it's time for Golson to expand his development from the practice field to Notre Dame Stadium. It won't happen overnight, but the future of the program will be much brighter, and the direction much more stable, if Kelly doesn't take Golson's keys after every little fender bender this season.