"Zero is okay."
"Zero" represented an acceptable yardage total when his quarterback's initial play failed. "Zero" was better than a turnover, and coming off a 2011 season in which the Irish offense committed an astounding 29 such errors, the preference for zero, as opposed to calamity seemed prudent.
Fast forward to 2014, where triggerman discretion may no longer be the better part of valor.
"I use a term, you're either fearful or you're fearless," said Kelly Monday when asked about Everett Golson's mentality. "I think there was a time where he was a bit fearful at the quarterback position. I wanna get him fearless. I think if we can get him to that level, where he's fearless -- I'm starting to see that. That's where we wanna get him. He's on that. We want to keep moving him towards not being afraid and being fearless at that position."
Told of his coach's wishes, Golson first admitted, then explained his past fears.
"Past" being the operative word.
"I agree. I agree. I was young," said Golson, offering that his coach must have been referring to Golson's redshirt-freshman season of 2012. "As I've matured and gain experience, that confidence grows."
It's grown since Golson returned from academic exile. It's grown over a spring and summer set of practice sessions in which he's re-emerged as the leader in the clubhouse to start under center for the first time since he and his then-undefeated teammates were hammered by Alabama.
It's grown, because Golson has matured. Physically, mentally, and in his attachment to the program.
The last 12 months afforded Golson plenty of competition at his so-called "quarterbacks camp" under the guidance of George Whitfield, Jr. He wasn't the only collegiate signal-caller to participate, and that work among the nation's best kept Golson's competitive edge razor-sharp.
"I also had the opportunity to work with a lot more guys," Golson noted of his recent session with Whitfield this summer. "(Baylor's) Bryce Petty, (Michigan State's) Connor Cook, (Oregon State's) Sean Mannion…Just being competitive in that respect, you take away a little bit of confidence."
His current competition hits closer to his football heart.
"This is what you play for. This is your home," Golson said of the ongoing battle to separate from his understudy, redshirt-freshman Malik Zaire. "This is the here and now."
Both here and now, it appears the job is Golson's to lose. While it's unlikely he'll do so during August, it's a reality that strikes most of Kelly's quarterbacks at some point in a given season.
Get the job done, or -- assuming someone else appears somewhat capable -- someone else will.
"If he gets to that it's gonna be fun and exciting to watch him play," said Kelly of Golson's unwitting pursuit of fearlessness. "It's that development, right? We're moving him and developing him through trust and running our system of offense the way we want to run. I think when we get there we're all gonna be feeling pretty good about it."
"You can see it in his tone, the way he communicates. I'll know it and you'll know it when you see it."
Golson might be a step closer to seeing it than Kelly realizes. Asked if he's "in a competition" right now, the senior ignored reporters' all-knowing grins and offered, "That's what it is. If Coach Kelly put that out there, that's what it is."
It's one Golson, and to a lesser extent, the Irish football program, can't afford to lose.