Following a disappointing 8-5 finish to the 2014 season, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish entered spring practices with plenty of speculation surrounding the fate of incumbent starting quarterback Everett Golson in South Bend, Ind.
A report from The Times-Picayune back in January pegged LSU as a possible landing spot for Golson, with sophomore Malik Zaire tabbed as the likely heir to the Irish’s offense. Golson, now listed as a graduate student on his official Notre Dame player webpage, could have played immediately for the Tigers due to an NCAA loophole, but instead he and Zaire were working out at the start of spring practice over the weekend.
Now Golson and Zaire will battle it out for the starting role in 2015.
Golson returned to the Irish lineup in 2014 after sitting out a year as a result of academic violations. Golson wound up setting new career highs in passing yards (3,445), touchdown passes (29), completion percentage (60 percent) and yards per pass attempt (8.1), but with losses in the Irish’s last four regular season games, he would lose the starting job to sophomore Malik Zaire.
Golson opted not to speak with reporters Saturday, but Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said he couldn’t foresee a Golson departure.
“If you’re half in, you kind of see it,” Kelly said to CSN Chicago. "It would surprise me -- I’m not shocked by anything that 18- to 21-year-olds do -- but there’s no indication in anything that he’s done would mean that he’s just doing this as a way to go somewhere else.”
Based off his two years of work under center, including a trip to the BCS national title game back in 2013, Golson maintains the mental edge in the competition, but Zaire does have the physical tools to one day ascend.
“There are some things, like today with Malik, sometimes he’ll check into some things where we’re not certain as to what he was thinking,” Kelly said to The Elkhart Truth after Saturday’s practice. “With Everett, there’s no doubt about where his mind is relative to what he’s seeing, what he’s thinking.”
Kelly would go on to say that if he felt Golson wasn’t fully invested in Notre Dame, he would’ve ended the speculation quickly.
“If I sensed (Golson eyeing a transfer) at all all, I would pull the plug on it myself because we’re wasting our time,” Kelly said. “I’m not going to jeopardize our program, our staff, our livelihood, what we do, if somebody’s not bought in and 100 percent committed. So that’s the most honest answer I could give you from that standpoint.
Zaire split time with Golson in the last two gamesof 2014, technically earning starts in both, and he showed significant potential in each matchup. Zaire earned the first start of his career in the 49-14 blowout loss to USC, going 9-for-20 for 170 yards and rushing for 18 yards and a touchdown.
Zaire built off that performance helping the Irish upend then-No. 23 ranked LSU to a 31-28 Music City Bowl victory by passing and rushing for 96 yards, scoring touchdowns both ways and showing the kind of versatility integral to successfully running Notre Dame’s attack.
It’s the kind of production that made Zaire a huge get for Kelly on the recruiting trail, and falls in line with the prowess he showed in high school. In his senior season, the lefty Zaire threw for 1,990 yards and 24 touchdowns, and racked up 1,120 rushing yards and nine scores.
Whoever gets the starting nod will have to show immediate improvement on the field for a squad that ranked No. 40 in the country with 32.8 points per game. The first test involves a stare down with a rebuilding Texas making a visit in the season opener on Sept. 5, and by the time rival USC comes to town at the midway point of the season on Oct. 17.