Golson's departure sends Notre Dame back to square one
For everyone at Notre Dame, 12-0 must seem like so long ago. In real time, less than five months have passed since the Fighting Irish were the toast of college football. Notre Dame had a storied-but-long-suffering football program in the midst of a renaissance, and as the Irish prepared to face Alabama for last season's national title, the future brimmed with happy possibility.
Then Notre Dame got creamed by the Crimson Tide. Then Deadspin revealed that Manti Te'o had fallen for a figment of someone's imagination, and that relationship had formed a sizable piece of the linebacker's Heisman campaign mythology. Now comes the news that Everett Golson, the quarterback who helped lead the previously mentioned renaissance, is no longer enrolled at Notre Dame due to what the Chicago Tribune has reported as an "academic violation."
The past five months have been particularly unkind to the Irish, but before anyone relegates Notre Dame to also-ran status before the first snap of the first practice of the 2013 season, consider these facts:
• Though it may have carried the metaphorical weight of 100 losses, the Alabama game was the Irish's lone defeat in 13 games last season.
• The Te'o scandal was embarrassing, but it didn't affect anything on the field. He had already exhausted his eligibility before the big reveal.
• Defensive tackle Louis Nix III and defensive end Stephon Tuitt remain enrolled. They also remain terrifying to opposing offenses.
There's no spinning this one: Losing Golson now is bad. Irish coach Brian Kelly had turned over the keys of the offense to Golson, and in so doing had finally stabilized a position that was in near-constant flux during Kelly's first two seasons.
Details remain sketchy. We don't know if Golson will be allowed to re-enroll at some point, but the assumption is that the Irish will play the 2013 season without him. Kelly probably channeled his inner wedding singer when he heard the news, replacing "things that could have been brought to my attention yesterday" with "things that could have been brought to my attention before Gunner Kiel transferred." Kiel was the mega-recruit who came to South Bend in 2012. Golson was supposed to keep Kiel's seat warm until Kiel was ready to lead the offense. Then Golson -- with occasional assists from Tommy Rees -- led the Irish to the BCS title game and became the unquestioned starter. Staring at three more years of serving in the Golson administration, Kiel elected to transfer to Cincinnati this spring.
The presumed starter now is Rees, a loyal player who helped eliminate any controversy regarding his save-Notre Dame's-bacon fill-ins in 2012 by handling the situation with extreme grace. Another possibility is Andrew Hendrix, a dual-threat senior with a skill set more similar to Golson's who saw significant action in 2011 as a change-of-pace from Rees and Dayne Crist. Still another is option is freshman Malik Zaire, an early enrollee from Kettering, Ohio. A
more remote possibility complete impossibility is -- click this link to set the proper mood -- Gunner Kiel.
(Update: Kiel texted "I'm a Bearcat" to a reporter from the Cincinnati Enquirer on Sunday, so he's not going back to Notre Dame. Still, it's interesting to note that he probably could have come back. Read the paragraph below to see how.)
John Infante, the author of the always-essential Bylaw Blog, wrote Saturday night that there is an exception to the NCAA's transfer rules that Kiel could have headed back to Notre Dame if he'd wanted to return and if Kelly wanted him back. Because Kiel just enrolled at Cincinnati for the summer and hadn't participated in what the NCAA calls "countable athletically related activity" -- in English: practice or games -- he would be eligible for the exception and could return to Notre Dame.
No matter who wins the job, the Irish offense will once again suffer from an offseason of uncertainty. The huddle -- or the random gathering of players near the line of scrimmage, since hardly anyone huddles anymore -- is a different place when everyone knows who is in charge. Notre Dame finally had that luxury this spring, and now Kelly must go back to the drawing board. Instead of fine-tuning in camp, he'll probably be running another competition.
Still, if anyone can handle this situation, it's Kelly. At Cincinnati in 2008, Kelly had to play five different quarterbacks because of injuries and other issues. "You have to be able to sell the other 10 guys that this quarterback is going to get the job done for you," Kelly told SI's Pete Thamel back when Thamel wrote for The New York Times. "Being the parent of an 11, 8 and 7 year old, I've been able to con a bunch of 18 to 22 year olds this year."
Kelly went into that season hoping Ben Mauk -- who was petitioning the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility -- would be his starter. Tony Pike, the guy who started out fourth on the depth chart, wound up leading the Bearcats to a Big East title. Maybe there is another Tony Pike buried on Notre Dame's depth chart. Maybe there isn't. But thanks to this most recent setback, Kelly can only keep the renaissance going if he can sell the rest of the offense on the fact that Notre Dame has someone capable of getting the job done.