Had he been a member of the squad and made the normal strides a quarterback makes from his first year as a starter to his second, there’s no telling where the Irish might have finished.
A BCS bid – which would have required two fewer losses during the regular season -- certainly would have been within a reasonable reach had Golson been at the helm for the second straight year with super-sub Tommy Rees waiting in the wings.
But Golson’s poor academic judgment led to his removal from Notre Dame for the fall semester, the insertion of Rees back into the starting lineup, and the ascension to the next rung up on the depth chart by freshman Malik Zaire.
As it turned out, Zaire – who missed several weeks with mononucleosis early in the season – preserved a year of eligibility after arriving last spring as an early-entry freshman.
Now, following a 9-4 season, Rees is gone, Golson is back, so is Zaire, and current high school senior DeShone Kizer is just a few days removed from signing a Notre Dame letter of intent and becoming the third piece to the Irish quarterback puzzle this summer.
For the second straight month, Brian Kelly definitively declared that Golson will not automatically get his starting job back, one, because those things must be earned, and two, because Zaire is a legitimate threat to be the best signalcaller on the team this fall.
“He has all the intangibles,” said Kelly Friday, shortly before officially presenting Mike Denbrock as his offensive coordinator and introducing Matt LaFleur as his new quarterbacks coach.
“He’s got a strong arm, he’s physically gifted, he’s the first one in and the last one to leave…You can count on him. You can put everything on him and he’s all about football.”
If Kelly could have counted on Golson to take care of business in the classroom, the 2013 season might have transpired quite differently. So when Kelly makes a point of saying that he can “count on” Zaire without the Kettering, Ohio, product taking a single live snap this past fall, it tells you that he, Kelly, is serious about an open competition at quarterback this spring.
“From my standpoint, it’s very simple because it’s a philosophy that Coach Kelly has carried since he began, and that is the best player plays,” Denbrock said. “He will make that clear to the football team as he has every year he’s been here.”
While working with the receivers during the 2013 spring and fall, Denbrock learned how much his troops respected the young, left-handed signalcaller.
“The receivers feel very comfortable with Malik for his work ethic and the way he goes about his business,” Denbrock said. “They respect his ability to throw the football down the field.
“I think what they respect the most about Malik is that he understands his strengths and weaknesses as (well) as anybody, and he’s not afraid to dig in and make sure those weaknesses become strengths.”
Zaire gave Kelly and the staff reasons throughout the spring and fall to view his future optimistically and to put him on a fast track at the position while still trying to preserve his first year of eligibility. It would have required injuries to Rees and senior Andrew Hendrix to force Zaire into the lineup, but the preservation of the year had more to do with spacing out the eligibility of his quarterbacks than it did Zaire’s capability of running the offense.
“There are a lot of traits that he carries with him that when it’s a competitive situation, he really raises his level of play, and I think you can go back to the spring game last year as a mid-year enrollee,” Kelly recalled. “He looked his best in the spring game. He didn’t practice all that well. But in the spring game, when it (was) a competitive situation, he (rose) up.”
Kelly said that Zaire didn’t always practice to the level of his ability in the fall, either. Part of it was the mono. Part of it was still being a true freshman. Part of it was Zaire’s lack of concentration when he knew the odds of him participating in a game last fall were slim.
“When we get into game situations, he makes plays,” said Kelly, referring to Zaire’s performances in live practice scenarios.
“Practice sometimes…he tends to be a little mechanical and makes some mistakes that you wish he didn’t make over (again). But when the lights go on -- I know that’s an overused phrase -- but when he gets into competitive situations, he makes plays, and you love your quarterback to be a playmaker.”
When Zaire’s performance in those live practice situations waned, Kelly began looking at himself.
“When it was apparent that I had to spend more time coaching him, we changed the way we coached him,” Kelly said. “When we were running a play, we had him run the play as well against air. That really helped him a lot.
“So sometimes it’s a matter of how you teach somebody. What we really had to do was find out what clicked for Malik. I think that made all the difference. It was frustrating, but when a kid makes plays in games (or live scrimmages), sometimes you’ve got to look at yourself. When we did that and found out some of the ways we could coach him differently, it made a difference, and I think we’ll continue to do that.”
The one offensive coach on the field this spring who can approach the quarterback competition with a completely open mind is LaFleur, who spent the fall coaching Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins, the second-year signalcallers with the Washington Redskins where LaFleur served as quarterbacks coach.
“From my standpoint, both of these guys are coming in with a blank slate as far as I’m concerned,” LaFleur said. “I don’t have history with either one of these guys. So I’m just excited to see what they’re all about and watch ‘em work and see how they compete and learn along the way.”
Make no mistake, Golson is back, and he’s bigger, stronger and fully expecting to reclaim his role as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback.
“All the reports are good,” said Kelly of Golson’s physical and mental condition upon his return to campus a couple of weeks ago. “Physically, he’s put on a lot of weight. He’s stronger, more mature, which is something that we would expect. But it’s Jan. 31, so there’s a long way to go.”
Kelly is many practice snaps away from declaring a starting quarterback for the 2014 season.
“I know we’re always in this rush to move to Everett, but I just want to caution everybody that we have a very good quarterback in Malik Zaire as well,” Kelly said. “I’m not ready to hand everything over to Everett.
“I love Everett. He played in the national championship game. But I’m also somebody that wants to make sure the quarterback position is such -- especially now that Matt is here with us -- that we give everybody an opportunity to compete for that position, and Malik is going to get that chance as well.
“Everett is doing great. Physically, he looks like he should at this time. The reports have been great and we’re very, very excited. But I do want to caution everybody, including anybody that’s around the program and our players in particular, there’s a pretty good quarterback that we didn’t play this year – Malik Zaire – who is going to get a chance, too.”