Breaking Down the Notre Dame Offense, BCS Hopes If Everett Golson Returns
The fate of Notre Dame's offense next season is hanging in the balance.
As you read this, former starting quarterback Everett Golson's readmission application is being reviewed by the university administration officials. If you weren't already aware, Golson was expelled from Notre Dame in May for what he later revealed was cheating.
A decision regarding Golson's readmission to Notre Dame won't arrive until December, though should he be accepted, he'd be allowed to practice with the team during its bowl game preparation (he wouldn't be permitted to play in said bowl game, mind you).
For the purposes of this article, let's assume Golson is granted readmission, and the Irish offense picks up where it left off with Golson following a humbling loss in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game.
How would the offense fare with Golson back at the helm?
Everett Golson, QB
When fall camp prior to the 2012 season came to an end, Golson was tabbed as the Irish's starter over then-junior Tommy Rees for one reason in particular: his ability to efficiently operate the read-option offense.
While he lacked the football smarts of Rees, Golson allowed head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin to expand their offense far beyond the extent they could with Rees.
And that's what Golson will bring to the table should he be readmitted to Notre Dame.
No longer will opposing defenses feel comfortable stacking the box on first, second and third down, as Golson's ability to pick up yards with his feet—this is especially true out of the shotgun—keeps defenses honest.
Now, the next step for Golson is understanding and reading defenses. During the 2012 season, the offense consistently executed a base number of basic plays from base formations, which often consisted of rolling Golson out of the pocket, allowing him to take off running should his receivers be covered downfield.
Along with that comes his ability to analyze defenses at the line of scrimmage and call the appropriate audibles to put his offense in a more advantageous position, something he was wholly incapable of doing during the Irish's 2012 season.
Tarean Folston, RB
Before anyone gets all worked up, remember that this is simply a projection, not a certainty.
And it is my projection that Tarean Folston will be Notre Dame's No. 1 running back entering the 2014 season. The freshman had a coming-out party of sorts against Navy, rushing for a career-high 140 yards on 18 carries to go along with his first career touchdown.
The Cocoa, Fla., native has displayed time and again that he is the Irish's most electrifying running back, an ultra-talented player capable of handling the lion's share of the carries.
But it's unlikely that Folston would take on the role of "feature back" in 2014, as Kelly has displayed a rather confounding habit of playing each of the running backs on the depth chart. With George Atkinson III, Cam McDaniel, Amir Carlisle, Greg Bryant and Folston slated to return next season, don't expect to see Folston be the Irish's leading rusher on a weekly basis.
DaVaris Daniels, WR
With T.J. Jones gone following the conclusion of the current season, DaVaris Daniels will be Notre Dame's No. 1 receiving threat entering the 2014 season.
The Vernon Hills, Ill., native is currently the Irish's second leading receiver, having reeled in 35 receptions for for 534 yards and five touchdowns. As the leader of what will be a rather young receiving corps in 2014, expect to see Daniels' production rapidly increase.
However, for that to happen, Daniels must display a daily consistency that isn't always apparent.
Chris Brown, WR
Chris Brown has had a quiet two years since arriving on campus.
The Hanahan, S.C., native was recruited largely because of his speed, which was translated as having the potential of Brown becoming a lethal threat in the vertical passing game.
But that speed has only earned Brown one memorable moment—a 50-yard reception last season at Oklahoma that set up for the Irish's go-ahead touchdown during a 30-13 victory that vaulted the Irish into the thick of the national championship race.
Brown's sophomore season hasn't been nearly as eventful, as he has hauled in just 10 receptions for 155 yards and one touchdown.
Whether he experiences a breakout season when the calendar flips to 2014 remains to be seen, though he'll be counted on to mitigate the sting of losing Jones.
William Fuller, WR
Perhaps the most decorated position within Notre Dame's 2013 recruiting class was at wide receiver.
The most sparkling example of the class's stature to date has been William Fuller, a 6'1", 171-pound Philadelphia native who didn't truly arrive onto the scene until the Irish's 45-10 win at Air Force.
Against the Falcons, Fuller had two receptions for 93 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown catch that showcased his blazing speed, a trait that made him such a heralded prospect. With the promise he's shown as a freshman, expect Fuller to become a consistent presence within the Irish's passing game.
Troy Niklas, TE
As a junior, Troy Niklas has lived up to the hype of his nickname, "Hercules."
The 6'7", 270-pound tight end has maintained the "Tight End U" reputation at Notre Dame, having been more than a satisfactory replacement for former tight end and current Cincinnati Bengal Tyler Eifert.
Through 10 games, Niklas is Notre Dame's third-leading receiver and is tied for second place for touchdown receptions (five) with Daniels. Such a productive season has earned Niklas the distinction of being a semifinalist for the John Mackey Award, given annually to the nation's best tight end.
If the Servite, Calif., native doesn't bring home the hardware this season, the odds of the massive tight end doing so next season will increase tremendously.
Steve Elmer, LT
Having enrolled early, Steve Elmer placed himself directly in the mix for playing time along Notre Dame's offensive line during the 2013 season.
But it wasn't simply his early arrival that aided in that process; Elmer's versatility allowed the Irish's offensive coaching staff to tinker with a variety of lineups when incumbent starting right guard Christian Lombard was lost for the season due to a back injury.
While Elmer currently fills that role, his natural position of tackle will allow the 6'6", 317-pound lineman to replace current fifth-year graduate student Zack Martin at left tackle.
Mark Harrell, LG
Mark Harrell hasn't made much noise to this point in his career, and understandably so after redshirting as a freshman last season.
Unfortunately for the 6'4", 305-pound lineman, playing time has been sparse in 2013, as senior Chris Watt has had a stranglehold on the position not only this season, but for the past three seasons, as well.
But Watt's eligibility will expire at the conclusion of the current season, opening up for the door for Harrell.
Nick Martin, C
Worries existed about whether a seamless transition would be made into the post-Braxston Cave era at the center position, but those worries have been put to rest as Nick Martin has been more than a consistent presence for the Irish.
The younger brother of incumbent starting left tackle, Zack Martin, Nick has steadily improved from game to game, and has been nearly flawless in the fundamental aspects of the position.
The good news for the Notre Dame offense is that it'll possess a veteran voice at the position entering the 2014 season.
Christian Lombard, RG
The most experienced presence along Notre Dame's offensive line next season will be Christian Lombard.
Unfortunately, the Inverness, Ill., native was lost for the season after undergoing surgery to repair a herniated disk. Luckily for the Irish, Lombard is eligible for a fifth season, which is an invitation he'll likely receive following the season.
Remaining at right guard will allow Notre Dame to gain a stability and a fearsome presence along the right side of the offensive line.
Ronnie Stanley, RT
Initially competing with Elmer during fall camp for Notre Dame's vacant starting right tackle position, Ronnie Stanley eventually won the job and hasn't looked back since.
The Las Vegas native and former 4-star prospect has been steady in his first season as a starter, after playing sparingly as a freshman during the 2012 season. Having played guard for the majority of his prep career, the transition to tackle wasn't necessarily a smooth one for Stanley, though it has worked out well thus far in 2013.
As a junior next season, Stanley will team with Lombard to form the strong side of the Irish's offensive line.
A Stronger Offense with Golson Back
The notion that Notre Dame's offense will be a stronger unit in Golson's potential return is largely dependent on his grasp of Kelly's offense.
It's a drum that has been beaten time and time again, but if Golson returns where he left off, the Irish offense will be a carbon copy of the 2012 version that relied the defense to bail it out on a consistent basis.
But with the majority of the summer and fall spent with noted quarterback guru George Whitfield, I'm hopeful about Golson's improved grasp of the mental aspects of the game. If he displays an ability to consistently read defenses and adjust accordingly, the Irish offense will become a much more efficient unit than it was with Golson at the helm in 2012.
Should that be the case, offensive fireworks are likely to follow.
With a plethora of breathtaking talent at the skill positions, as well as a solid offensive line, fans may finally see the type of quick-strike offense they've been anxiously waiting for since Kelly arrived at Notre Dame in Dec. 2009.
State of the Irish Defense in 2014
If Notre Dame fans were displeased with the Irish defense this season after enjoying a stellar unit in 2012, they'll likely be in for further disappointment in 2014.
The overwhelming strength of the defense for the past two years—the defensive line—will suffer a major setback should nose guard Louis Nix and defensive end Stephon Tuitt choose to enter the 2014 NFL draft.
While the common response to the proposed quandary is to simply rebuild, replacing such vaunted players is never a simple task. In other words, the Irish can't simply "replace" the two. Instead, it will be a group effort led by underclassmen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, as well as junior-to-be Sheldon Day.
It's difficult to surmise exactly to what extent the defensive line will regress, but a regression is imminent.
Thus, opposing offenses won't find it nearly as difficult to run the football, making life even more difficult on Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.
How Will the Irish Fare in 2014 with Golson?
While many fans have been quick to assume that a return of Golson to the program will elevate the program back into the national championship discussion, that may not be the case.
Sure, Golson allows the offense to expand with the read-option, which may lead to a few more timely third-down conversions and scores.
But as I've stated, it's not certain whether Golson is a more polished passer or an improved student of the game. Paired with the uncertainty surrounding the defense, it's difficult to legitimately include Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff discussion.
And considering the Irish's 2014 slate includes contests against Michigan, Stanford, Florida State, Arizona State and USC, among others, a 9-3 or 8-4 finish would be an accomplishment in itself.