The most important player in college football in 2014 didn't take a snap last year, although that description depends on just how relevant one thinks Notre Dame football is in 2014.
After a season-long hiatus because of an academic violation, quarterback Everett Golson is back on campus and participating in spring practice in South Bend, and now Notre Dame is poised to bet big on its redshirt junior quarterback, who is charged with reshaping the Fighting Irish into the offense-driven success story that coach Brian Kelly's best pre-Notre Dame teams have been.
Notre Dame has spent 20 years struggling to sustain success, with three 10-win seasons by three head coaches since Lou Holtz went 31-5-1 from 1991-93, and its only bowl wins since then have come in the Hawaii, Sun and Pinstripe Bowls. Now, 2014 seems to mark a crucial juncture in this particular era, with Brian Kelly -- clearly the best Notre Dame coach since Holtz, although the competition hasn't been steep -- needing to prove that the undefeated 2012 regular season was not a fluke for Notre Dame football, that such a high level of success can be considered a reasonable annual goal instead of once-in-a-generation luck.
Proving it wasn't a fluke, and, in turn, proving Kelly's own brand of coaching acumen, relies on Golson developing into the premier quarterback everyone is hoping he'll be, even if it's a year later than everyone hoped. And that absence makes the anticipation for what's to come only greater.
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The last time we saw Golson, he didn't stand a chance.
It's not that he played particularly poorly himself, but Notre Dame was so hopelessly overmatched against Alabama in the BCS title game in January 2013 that no amount of personal heroics could have saved the Fighting Irish from embarrassment in a game that kicked off an infamous string of bad fortune: 42-14, followed by the Manti Te'o saga days later, followed by Golson's suspension months later. Everything that appeared so good came crumbling down so quickly, and Notre Dame was exactly where it was before.
The suspension re-opened the door for Tommy Rees to become Notre Dame's starter, and while in some respects Rees performed admirably, it was painfully clear how limited the offense was: It had a totally immobile pocket passer with a penchant for turnovers and no pro upside attempting to spur the offense forward in a season in which the defense was poised to take a step back. The Irish did beat Michigan State -- the Spartans' only loss -- Arizona State and USC, but predictably they fell to 9-4, essentially looking in some respects like a copy of Kelly's first two teams that went 8-5.
With little flexibility, Notre Dame did find ways to become more of a big-play offense, with Rees establishing connections with T.J. Jones and DaVaris Daniels downfield, but otherwise the offense has stayed rather consistent in its relative mediocrity.
To this point, Kelly has endured a Brian-Billick-in-Baltimore type fate, the supposed offensive genius becoming most known for winning with dominant defense and passable offense. But that's often actually been true throughout Kelly's stay at the FBS level: In 10 years, only three of his offenses finished in the top 25 nationally in yards per play, with the high point being the 2009 Cincinnati team that went undefeated in the regular season and averaged 6.98 yards per play, ranking second in the nation. Over the last three years, Notre Dame has held steady at either 37th or 38th in that category, although it's done it in different ways, allowing Rees to throw downfield more last season as the offense morphed into big-play mode to attempt to make up for deficiencies elsewhere.
The one obvious boost Golson gives the offense is clear in the chart above, as Golson is a dual threat who can move the pocket, throw on the run and make plays with his feet on the edge, bringing increased flexibility to both the passing and running games. The only hope for the offense last year was to expand vertically, using the talent of Jones and Daniels, plus tight end Troy Niklas, to blow the top off defenses. Now, it can continue to try to do that, with Daniels (who is suspended for the spring but will return) and emerging receivers like Corey Robinson and Chris Brown, but while also maximizing the amount of space defenses have to cover by expanding the offense horizontally with the help of Golson's versatile and still improving skillset.
Golson was by no means Vince Young or Johnny Manziel for Notre Dame as a freshman, but his 298 rushing yards look nearly that impressive when compared to Rees, whose five-yard run in the Pinstripe Bowl was his longest since 2011. And, of course, that was merely Golson as a redshirt freshman, a time that -- with the exception of Manziel and Jameis Winston -- usually includes handcuffs on the quarterback as he adapts to the college game and grows into the position.
During his hiatus, Golson spent time working with quarterback guru George Whitfield, who has tutored Manziel, among other luminaries. With offensive coordinator Chuck Martin taking the head coaching job at Miami (Ohio), the added flexibility Golson brings to the offense is obviously enticing to Kelly, who said he will retake the team's play-calling duties, putting even greater responsibility for the program's fate on his own shoulders, as he welcomes Golson back into the fold and tries to build on the work done with Whitfield.
"I want to be back involved," Kelly said on SiriusXM in January, according to the South Bend Tribune. "I think it's been for me -- I don't want to say frustrating -- but we haven't had the ideal situation for the quarterback. ... I just feel like we have the right quarterback in place. I think that we're at that point now where the offense is in a position where we've got the skill players that we can be much more aggressive offensively."
The Irish offense is loaded with potential, sure, as Kelly has recruited well (with no class ranking worse than 20th, according to Rivals.com) but there are immediate challenges in rebuilding around Golson while welcoming him back into the fold. The left side of the line loses stalwarts Zack Martin (a potential first-round pick) and Chris Watt. Receiver T.J. Jones , who had 1,108 yards and nine touchdowns, is gone, as is Troy Niklas, one of the top receiving tight ends in the nation. And while the running back position has talent, Notre Dame is still searching for a reliable lead back, whether it's sophomore Tarean Folston, sophomore Greg Bryant, senior Cam McDaniel or senior Amir Carlisle. The supporting cast will have to grow up in a hurry too, entering a season in which the schedule (Michigan, Stanford, North Carolina, Louisville at home; Florida State, Arizona State, USC on the road) provides stumbling block after stumbling block.
But ultimately, as Kelly says, everything comes back to the quarterback. With only six starters and coordinator Bob Diaco gone, Notre Dame will not field a defense nearly as good as it did two years ago, and thus the offense is burdened with the responsibility of elevating the team back into national contention. Given that Kelly has talked a lot about his desire for newfound aggressiveness and modernity on offense, so much of that is wrapped up in the untapped potential of Golson that it feels like it's now or never for Notre Dame. Either Golson becomes a star, or the Kelly-Notre Dame relationship begins to fizzle.
While technically former blue-chip recruit Malik Zaire, a redshirt freshman, remains in the quarterback race and could be a stellar backup plan, the stage is set for a two-year marriage of coach and quarterback, Kelly and Golson, that will define the trajectory of the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame.
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Notre Dame is still quite relevant, of course. But circumstances have also changed drastically. Long stubborn about its independence, Notre Dame begins 2014 as a partial member of the ACC, sacrificing a portion of its scheduling freedom. And while it will continue to appear on NBC every Saturday, the "always on national television" trait that gave it a leg up on the competition for so many years hardly seems to matter anymore when even teams like Kentucky and Purdue can be found somewhere on TV every week too.
The thing about 2012 is that it definitely was sort of a fluke: Notre Dame assembled the perfect combination of experienced defensive players at the right time, and during the regular season it got almost every break imaginable to finish undefeated instead of going something like 9-3, which could have easily happened if that season was repeated. Replicating that success is nearly impossible, and while Kelly was obviously happy everything worked, that's not the style he wanted to win with.
History fades, and like at Nebraska, it cannot be relied on as the No. 1 draw when pitching your program. But Notre Dame does have a forward-thinking coach who has succeeded everywhere he's gone, with technically sound up-tempo and spread concepts adapted to his players. Rees was never the player ideally suited to make Kelly's philosophy work; Golson is supposed to be the one who finally, in year five, shows what Kelly's offenses are capable of doing.
"Is Notre Dame relevant?" is a perpetual storyline that in itself reveals just how relevant Notre Dame still is. And so, yes, Golson may be the most important player in college football right now, because he is the one who will largely decide the fate of the team that still can't help but command attention, whether it's warranted or not.
It's a lot of pressure, the weight of a prestigious football program on his shoulders, especially after his missed season ostensibly held the team back for a year. For better or worse, Notre Dame's actual relevance on the national stage, and the path Kelly's reputation takes, will be tied to Golson's comeback story.
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