On Monday afternoon, Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson returned to practice for the first time in nearly year. Having spent the the fall semester away from the school in a state of academic exile, he is ready to help lead the Irish back into the national title picture.
Golson called the experience of practicing "surreal" and was forthright about his process of mind during the suspension, according to Matt Fortuna of ESPN.com.
"No, not at all," said Golson, when asked if he ever considered transferring. "I knew I messed up, so for me, I had to come back and complete what I started."
What Golson started was a re-shifting of the culture at Notre Dame, a return to the years of yore when the team could compete on a national level. As a redshirt freshman in 2012, he led the team to an undefeated regular season, a No. 1 BCS ranking and a spot in the national title game against Alabama.
With Tommy Rees at the helm, Notre Dame slogged through a decent but forgettable year in 2013, struggling with turnovers and offensive inconsistency that seldom existed under Golson. As a result, you might expect the team to hand him his old position, starting quarterback, with open arms and little competition.
In late January, head coach Brian Kelly sounded adamant about Golson having to re-earn his job—not as punishment for his suspension, necessarily, but because the other scholarship QB in spring camp, Malik Zaire, is good enough to play in 2014.
Said Kelly, per John Taylor of College Football Talk:
I just want to caution everybody that we have, I think, a very good quarterback in Malik Zaire. I’m not ready to hand everything over to Everett. I love Everett, he played in the national championship game, but I’m also somebody that wants to make sure the quarterback position is such that we give everybody an opportunity to compete for that position.
It seems absurd, on the surface, that Golson might not start this upcoming season at quarterback. The man has never lost a regular-season game; the offense he led in 2012 finished ninth in the Football Outsiders F/+ ratings. He nearly won a national title.
Could a scant-tested sophomore really unseat him?
Well...maybe. Theoretically. Golson was, after all, himself a redshirt freshman when he accomplished all of those things. If he thinks the player is wise (and skilled) beyond his years, Kelly is not afraid to throw him into the fire.
Zaire was a 4-star recruit in the class of 2013, checking in as the No. 167 overall player and No. 4 dual-threat quarterback on the 247Sports composite. He is built like Golson—shorter, faster, weaker-but-accurate arm—and is already a fan favorite in South Bend.
(Playing behind Rees will do that for you.)
Still, there's a difference between Golson having to "compete" for his job and actually having his job in jeopardy.
Kelly's words in late January weren't empty—Zaire will be given a fair chance to compete—but they were more of a scare tactic, of political coach-speak, than a meaningful clue toward his plans.
In fact, just one day into spring practice, Kelly has already changed his tune, more than just slightly, with regard to Golson's role. These were his exact words, per Justin Kenny of the News-Sentinel:
I think we all know, with college football and where it is, the quarterback is really going to be the centerpiece of this offense and the way we run it. It's going to fall on (Golson). Today was a very good day for him for a first day.
... We're going to heap a lot on this kid's shoulders, and he knows that. That's why he came back to Notre Dame, because he wants that opportunity.
Clearly, he's going to be the guy that drives us.
What changed in the month between Kelly's first comments and his second? How did he go from "everybody (should have) an opportunity to compete" at quarterback to "(Golson is) going to be the guy that drives us"? Those sentiments run opposite one another.
It's hard to say for sure what Kelly is thinking. More likely than not, he never truly intended—nor currently intends—for Zaire to win the job.
Golson helped him reach the national title game two seasons ago, and according to a thorough profile by B/R's Keith Arnold, his time spent working with QB guru George Whitfield has only made him better in the interim.
It's not all physical, either. According to Fortuna, Kelly noticed the improvement before Golson even took the field:
In some of the film study I had with (Golson), there was definitely a conceptual awareness that he had lacked at some times with the passing game. He clearly has that. It's an easier conversation for him. If I could give you the best way to explain it, it would be when he would explain his progression, it might take him 10 seconds. Well, you've got 2.6 seconds to throw the ball. Now he's precise in his communication.
In order to lose his starting job this spring, Golson would need to get injured, re-suspended or show serious signs of rust. Either that or Zaire would need to be Johnny Manziel 2.0.
Perhaps even a combination of those things would be necessary.
When Kelly opened the job up to competition in late January, he wasn't throwing gas atop a fire. He was lighting a feeble, flickering flame on top of kindling. The tiny blaze still burns, but it's entirely within Kelly's control. It is not an inferno. He can blow it out at any time.
It may not take long before he does.
Odds of Zaire Starting at QB After Spring: 25-to-1