Dating back to his days as the gun-slinging quarterback at Myrtle Beach High School in South Carolina, there never was any doubt that Everett Golson’s greatest asset was his ability to throw the football. He passed for a phenomenal 11,634 yards and 151 touchdowns during his prep career.
But Golson never hesitated running away from the pressure, whether it was on the football field as the pocket around him collapsed, or off the field, where he sprinted as far away and as quickly as he could from scrutiny.
Golson is on the run again, this time from Notre Dame -- the school and the football program that invested five years and thousands of practice reps in him because of his incredible ability to throw the football -- even though Golson emerged from the spring as the clear frontrunner for the position.
On Thursday, as the spring semester at Notre Dame comes to a close and Golson is on the verge of being handed the sheepskin signifying the completion of his undergraduate degree, Golson released a statement indicating his intentions beyond the upcoming graduation ceremony, and it doesn’t include his participation with the 2015 Fighting Irish football team.
“After much thought, prayer and discussion with my family, I have decided that it is in my best interest to graduate from Notre Dame and transfer to another school effective immediately," Golson said.
Indeed, while there remained uncertainty as to whether Golson would stick around Notre Dame for his final year of college eligibility, there was never any doubt that Golson would – as he stated – choose what was in his best interest first and Notre Dame’s second.
That’s what he did on the field as he was turning the football over 22 times during the 2014 season and that’s what he did off the field when he made decisions in the classroom that ultimately led to his season-long suspension in 2013.
"I will have no future comment at this time and ask that you respect my time as I figure out this life-changing moment,” said Golson in his released statement.
Of course. Enabled by Notre Dame to run from the spotlight and the scrutiny that comes with being a Fighting Irish football player – which used to be a part of the educational process of a Notre Dame student-athlete -- Golson was allowed to maneuver around his secret, which was to test the spring waters and see if he could live with Kelly for another football season.
“We, of course, have approached our preparations for the upcoming season with this possibility in mind,” said Kelly in a follow-up statement Thursday. “The emergence of Malik Zaire, based on his performance in the Music City Bowl win over LSU and throughout spring practice, has given our staff supreme confidence that he can lead our team to great success in 2015.”
While Kelly said at the end of spring that he saw no indication of Golson’s commitment to Notre Dame and trepidation of sharing the job with Malik Zaire – as he was forced to do in the Music City Bowl – this was an eventuality that simmered beneath the surface.
Golson knew he could wait. Wait until the end of spring practice. Wait until final exams. Wait until he knew for certain that he would indeed claim his undergraduate degree from the Mendoza College of Business – one of the top business schools in the country.
He’d avoid contact with the press in the meantime because the press might ask him a question that would make him uncomfortable – most questions did – and then he might tip his hand prematurely.
There was never any doubt that Golson would make the most individually self-serving decision, which he has a right to do because it’s his football career with the potential to make a ton of money. Ultimately, he fulfilled his academic obligation to Notre Dame by earning his undergraduate degree.
If he had perceived staying at Notre Dame to be in his best interest, he would have stayed. Now he can go somewhere else where he can play football, worry little about academics, and get away from another Kelly tirade.
While the Irish weren’t necessarily anticipating this decision by Golson, nobody knows Golson better than Notre Dame/Kelly. Well aware of his fragile leadership skills, there were several reasons to make sure Zaire received plenty of reps with the No. 1 unit this spring.
Most damaged by Golson’s decision to stick around this spring is sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer, who didn’t receive a meaningful rep with the first unit all spring as the No. 3 quarterback in the equation. A distant No. 3.
Zaire wanted to be the starting quarterback in 2015 just as badly as Golson. Zaire showed some selfish tendencies of his own during the 2013-14 seasons when his practice effort/performance was brought to light by Kelly. When Zaire knew he wasn’t in the mix, it negatively impacted the way he practiced.
Notre Dame’s receiving corps probably isn’t happy today as Golson’s departure and the insertion of Zaire into the starting lineup undoubtedly creates a much more natural lean to the rushing attack. Unless Will Fuller eagerly awaits the 2015 season to work on his stalk blocking, the components of the passing attack have been knocked down a couple pegs. Zaire will never have the sheer passing prowess of Golson.
By the same token, the offensive linemen probably exchanged texts Thursday night with glee, knowing what this means to the game-day play chart this fall. Additionally, for those pleading for Notre Dame to return to its roots with a stronger emphasis on the rushing attack, wish granted.
At the end of the day, it’s Golson’s life and Golson’s prerogative to leave Notre Dame after earning his undergraduate degree. Notre Dame gave him an opportunity on and off the football field, and after several fits and starts, he reached the destination in the classroom, albeit a circuitous route, and still has the benefit of picking and choosing where he’ll start 13 games or so this fall.
It won’t be any of Notre Dame’s 12 regular-season opponents, which the school undoubtedly will attempt to block, and it won’t be with the Fighting Irish, where Kelly and new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford – a true asset – were trying to prepare Golson for the real world of professional football.
As supremely gifted as Golson is physically, the odds of him succeeding in the NFL are steep because he hasn’t come close to showing the maturity and mental toughness to survive in a world that no longer will allow him to take the easy way out.
This was not a case of Golson losing his starting job in the spring, thus prompting his departure. This was a young man assessing the situation and seeing the potential for pitfalls and choosing the easiest, most comfortable route.
Notre Dame is accustomed to off-season heartbreak, some of which involves Golson’s past. But one way or another – with hindsight now fully in focus – the arranged marriage of a two-quarterback system at Notre Dame this fall would have been as uncomfortable as a real-life arranged marriage.
Notre Dame’s margin for error at the quarterback position has narrowed considerably. The offensive team of Kelly/Sanford/Mike Denbrock must now be much more conscious of exposing Zaire to too many hits, otherwise a completely inexperienced quarterback, whether it’s Kizer or freshman Brandon Wimbush, will be in charge.
And yet, there’s something to be said for the ability to simply turn the offense over to Zaire, formulate one, cohesive plan around him, and march forward. There is no logical alternative to that now, which gives Notre Dame and Zaire four months to prepare for that eventuality. On paper, that’s not as good as having both Golson and Zaire.
And yet, like so many situations that arise in football, the Notre Dame coaching staff may look back at this watershed moment in the sixth year of the Kelly regime and say addition by subtraction – considering all the proven pieces around the quarterback position – totaled a better and more cohesive football team than the one with Everett Golson at the helm.