To be clear, Everett Golson's triumphant return to Notre Dame isn't complete when he runs out of the tunnel on Saturday to take part in the 85th annual Blue-Gold game.
But the fourth-year quarterback (Golson has two seasons of eligibility remaining), last seen battling Alabama for a national championship, has completed the most difficult part of an odyssey not many return from.
Golson's dismissal from Notre Dame shocked the college football world in late May of last year, when the university confirmed the Irish quarterback was no longer enrolled in school. Golson owned up to his mistakes, releasing a statement through the university, taking full responsibility for "poor academic judgment" and pledged his return in the winter of 2014.
While most Notre Dame fans have been shell-shocked into expecting the worst, Golson did exactly that, returning for the spring semester and to the Irish football team exactly as he'd planned. Regarded by some as college football's most important player, Golson now has to finish what he started, leading the Irish back to the top of the mountain.
With all due respect to Malik Zaire, this is Everett Golson's football team. And while the South Carolina native tantalized college football fans with an impressive rookie season, he'll need to do much more in 2014 for the Irish to be successful.
More #NotreDame HC Brian Kelly on Golson: "He has been picking it up quite well. He's still learning the QB position though."— Tony Krausz (@JGKrausz) April 4, 2014
What's the Proper Statistical Measuring Stick for Golson?
Brian Kelly came to Notre Dame with the reputation of being an offensive guru. With a system built and refined at Grand Valley State, Kelly's meteoric rise to Notre Dame came after successful stops at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, where his offenses put up points by the bushel.
But things haven't been so easy in South Bend. Inheriting a quarterback depth chart that put all of its faith in Dayne Crist, a combination of injuries, attrition and ineffectiveness created chaos at the most important position on the roster, almost from the start.
From the first day that Kelly was able to officially talk about Golson, it was clear that he represented a different kind of quarterback than the ones the head coach inherited on his roster. On signing day in 2011, Kelly laid out exactly how he saw Golson fitting into his offense.
"I think what you'll see you'll see Tommy Rees and most likely Dayne Crist and the other quarterbacks fit into one category," Kelly said when comparing his quarterbacks skill sets. "Then on the other side of the ledger you'll have Everett Golson. And within our offensive structure, we can go full out spread with Everett Golson."
After putting the training wheels on Golson in 2012, we should finally see what this offense looks like with a quarterback designed for Kelly's system. But after four years of some alternate universe in South Bend, what does that actually look like?
To get a better idea of what Golson's statistical benchmarks should be, let's take a trip down memory lane and look at Kelly's quarterbacks of old.
|Year||Team||Quarterback||Comp. %||Yards||TDs||INTs||Rush Yards||YPC||Rush TDs|
At Central Michigan, many remember Kelly's star quarterback Dan LeFevour. But before LeFevour, Kent Smith became a dangerous triggerman that Kelly took from the bench and turned into one of the MAC's most dangerous weapons. Smith finished 12th in the nation in total offense during his second year under Kelly's direction, setting a school record with 3,242 total yards while throwing for 295 yards per game.
At Cincinnati, Kelly turned Tony Pike into one of the nation's most prolific quarterbacks in his second season starting. Even though Pike didn't possess the dual-threat skills that Kelly usually utilizes, Pike finished 2009 as one of the nation's elite, finishing inside the top 25 in almost every statistical category, the nation's 12th most efficient passer.
At Notre Dame, even Tommy Rees saw a significant statistical jump in his second year in Kelly's system. While his 14 interceptions held back the Irish and contributed to a disappointing 8-5 record, his completion percentage jumped nearly five points, and he threw for almost 100 yards more a game than he did during his freshman season.
This should be Everett Golson's third season starting in Kelly's system. But after spending last season training with George Whitfield, there's hope that 2013 wasn't a completely lost year. Kelly acknowledged that Golson's understanding of the Irish system and its complexities are much improved.
But there's still plenty of work to do.
"What we're doing offensively this year is new math for him," Kelly said this spring. "I knew there was going to be a learning curve there, and I think he's making really good progress from that standpoint.
"He's just still learning in my perspective about the quarterback position... He knows he's got work to do."
How Do You Measure Golson's Success?
Statistically, there should be a significant jump in Golson's production. Much of 2012 was spent limiting Golson's impact on the offense until he found a rhythm later in the season. That meant taking away his options as a ball-carrier and relying heavily on the running game and a stout defense instead of a young quarterback.
2014 will be a different story. Much of the Irish's success will rely on Golson being the engine of this team. While it's too soon to judge the schematic changes Brian VanGorder has implemented on the defensive side of the ball, just about everybody inside the Gug understands that the Irish are going to have to win some games this season by outscoring their opponents.
The pieces are in place for that to happen. Running backs Greg Bryant, Tarean Folston and Cam McDaniel should solidify the ground game. A young but talented receiving corps has big-play ability that'll only be magnified when DaVaris Daniels returns. And the opportunity to play at tempo—something Kelly has talked about since arriving at Notre Dame— is finally an option with the read-option forcing defenses to stay more honest.
"I think that's the direction we're certainly moving into," offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock said in January. "With the athletes that we have we feel like we're in a position offensively to push the tempo more and to put our playmakers in positions where they can make big plays and do the things that all of us hope our offense looks like, one that's dynamic and can score more points and move the football consistently."
All of the individual production Golson could put up has Irish fans salivating. But the ultimate measure by which a quarterback is judged is wins and losses.
Nobody remembers the struggles Golson had during his rookie season: that he was pulled against Purdue, with Tommy Rees marching the team down the field for the game-winning field goal; that he froze early against Michigan and was replaced after making critical mistakes against the Wolverines. He didn't break the 50 percent completion barrier against Michigan State or Stanford, either.
Those things don't matter when you win.
Golson has done much of the heavy lifting needed to rehabilitate his image. He's grown from the mistakes he has made and returned to campus to reclaim the starting quarterback job.
But to lead the Irish back to greatness, and to win a spot in the new College Football Playoff, his work has only just begun. Because against a schedule that's among the toughest in the nation, Notre Dame needs Golson to be great.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.