Everett Golson wanted to get away from Brian Kelly.
Reduce the quarterback’s decision to bolt, announcing it the moment he could knowingly flee with a degree, and that’s what Golson did. He made the hard decision to leave teammates with College Football Playoff designs. He made the easy decision to find a new head coach that can push him in a different direction with a different force.
Kelly arrived here billed as a quarterback savant, a head coach who could MacGyver the position with castoffs. It didn’t matter who started at Cincinnati, the program won. The surgically repaired Ben Mauk, the immobile Tony Pike, the freshman Zach Collaros. The names changed. The wins didn’t.
The names have changed here too. But it’s been a five-year dramatic turnover.
Notre Dame’s roster is worse without Golson, but it can also improve if Kelly takes proper stock of the situation. Putting his entire offense on Golson worked in theory but failed in practice. Dayne Crist didn’t have the mentality to take Kelly either. Tommy Rees did, only because he was a football junkie who could handle Kelly’s temper and his playbook.
Kelly believes his system must be driven by the quarterback. It’s time to put another position at the wheel. And with this offensive line back with this running game and Malik Zaire’s skill set, it’s time. It’s time for Kelly to put away that route tree.
Because if Notre Dame wants to make a serious run at the real postseason, a pass-first spread with a run-first quarterback won’t work.
“We, of course, have approached our preparations for the upcoming season with this possibility in mind,” Kelly said in a statement. “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.”
If Kelly points Zaire in the right direction, building game plans around a power run attack instead of a complex pass game that overtaxes the quarterback, Notre Dame can have that great success. Zaire has a brand of natural leadership Golson didn’t. It showed the moment Zaire got into the lineup at USC despite the blowout score. While Golson wandered in a fog, Zaire engaged the bench.
There should be no question this offense will be Zaire’s now. Kelly played it smart by essentially naming him the starter instead of staging a sham quarterback competition in August. DeShone Kizer needs work. So does Brandon Wimbush. But Notre Dame needs even more to have a clear direction at the position. Now it does.
Where Kelly can evolve beyond play calling is player management of a position he’s often reduced to rubble. He publicly ripped Crist after the USC debacle four years ago, a relationship that then turned toxic. When Andrew Hendrix was forced into action against USC two years ago, he froze. Under Chuck Martin at Miami, Hendrix developed into an all-conference quarterback.
Golson was next in line, another quarterback run ragged by season’s end. Like those other two, he wanted out.
Yet Kelly has the template to make this work. He took a freshman Rees and coaxed him into a four-game win streak, saving a season spiraling out of control. He took a red-shirt freshman Golson to the BCS National Championship Game. He turned a red-shirt freshman Zaire into a bowl game MVP during his first start.
Inexplicably, Notre Dame is 15-1 when starting a freshman or red-shirt freshman quarterback under Kelly. It’s when Kelly complicates his offense that things go sideways, the head coach unable to resist adding complexities, wrinkles and checks.
Kelly is an expert in the field of spread offense. But he’s struggled to teach that course here.
Golson’s departure is a step back for Notre Dame’s program, even if it cuts out a drama before training camp. But this roster move can also be a positive if Kelly sees it as an opportunity to change.
This isn’t about whether or not Kelly should yell at his quarterbacks. It’s about whether or not Kelly is getting the best out of them.
With Everett Golson, he didn’t.
With Malik Zaire, he can.
Getting there means Brian Kelly must change, both the plays he calls and how he manages the quarterbacks who run them.