Notre Dame's post-signing day quarterback depth chart last February was comprised of five triggermen: two seniors, a junior, a sophomore, and a freshman. Among them they shared 29 career starts and 24 victories, with the only pair of untested passers combining for nine recruiting stars per Scout.com.
The names Golson, Kiel, Rees, Hendrix, and Zaire represented, both in theory and in terms of experience, the best quarterback depth chart in the nation.
Oh those best laid plans...
Gunner Kiel transferred, Everett Golson was suspended from the University, Malik Zaire contracted mononucleosis, and planned backup senior Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix remained to do the heavy lifting. (The bulk of which was done -- we later discovered by necessity -- by Rees.
Rees won nine games, none from the other quintet made an impact, and now fifth-year head coach Brian Kelly begins the second phase of his Irish tenure with a fresh start at quarterback.
Projected 2014-15 Depth Chart
Kelly's Irish enter the spring session with just two scholarship quarterbacks with a third expected to join when the squad reconvenes for summer school and a fourth already pledged for the 2015 recruiting cycle.
Potential 5th-Year Senior: None. Andrew Hendrix asked for his release and will seek a final season of eligibility elsewhere.
Senior: Everett Golson (2015) -- reportedly 6'0" 202 pounds. (though unless he grew, he's not 6'0")
Sophomore: 6'0" 208-pound Malik Zaire (2017)
Incoming Freshman: Four-star prospect and the No. 15 ranked QB in the 2014 class, 6'5" 205-pound DeShone Kizer (Toledo, Ohio).
Incoming Freshman, Part II: Early four-star prospect, 6'4" 200-pound Blake Barnett (Corona, Calif.)
The lack of early enrollment from Kizer suggests two likely developments: A.) Zaire is given 50 percent of the spring's practice snaps and thus is better prepared as Golson's projected backup for 2014, and B.) Kizer will, assuming good health for the Golson/Zaire pair, receive a much-needed calendar year-plus of seasoning on the sidelines.
Ensuring at least one season of eligibility between quarterbacks allows a head coach to manage both the player and position development and also mitigate transfer, at least early-career transfers similar to last March's defection of Kiel, who prior to his exit was removed from the incumbent Golson by one season of eligibility.
If Kizer were to play in 2014, he and Zaire would be on the same eligibility path.
Call and Ball?
Will the return of Golson open the door for Kelly and his yet-to-be-named offensive coordinator the freedom to run a quicker tempo offensively? An athletic quarterback such as Golson can, in theory, operate the read-option spread attack using a play called from the sidelines, a default check at scrimmage, and with the built-in third option of a quarterback run (the actual "option" of the so-called read-option offense).
Conversely, in 2013 with Rees under center, the quarterback run was not an option, and continuous pre-snap checks by the quarterback at scrimmage was thus the chosen method of attacking opposing defenses. (And proved to be a strength of Rees' game, especially his pre-snap pass protection audibles, a necessity for a quarterback who was otherwise a stationary target in the pocket.)
The inherent advantage of tempo thus often yielded to ensuring "the right play."
Will Kelly next fall again control Golson's pre-snap judgments from the sideline as he did in 2012? Or will Golson be given the freedom to "Call and Ball" as Kelly so aptly referred to Oregon's style of offense during Notre Dame's initial assimilation to his spread attack in 2010?
Trust will be the determining factor, and that's something Golson will have to earn -- both on and off the field.
Grades: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
Projecting with any accuracy future quarterback depth charts at Notre Dame is an exercise in futility, but as it stands today:
2013 Grade: C … No viable backup option and the lack of a running threat greatly impeded the offense's evolution. Rees -- easily the team's most indispensable player because of the reality of his understudies -- threw too many crucial interceptions for a player with his vast experience. Then again, the senior competitor isn't to blame for the erroneous choice of putting the onus of the offense on his right arm. Rees graduates a winner, a competitor, a Notre Dame man, and a player that likely should have gone down in program annals as the most effective and reliable backup in history. Golson's choice negated that scenario...
2014 Grade: B … I exited the 2012 season considering Golson Notre Dame's fourth-best football player (Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, Zack Martin) entering 2013. He's doubtless the most important for 2014 and ranks alongside sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith and senior tight end Troy Niklas as one of the three top players.
He also hasn't played football since January 7, 2013. Neither of his backups have taken a college snap (one hasn't taken a collegiate practice snap). B might be kind, considering there are nine months of land mines to negotiate between now and the season's opening kick.
2015 Grade: A … Accepting the reality of 2014 above, I believe Golson will rank among the nation's top 10 quarterbacks by season's end 2014, and thus among the top 5 entering 2015. Zaire will likely have meaningful snaps under his belt (in fact, I guarantee it), and the third and fourth options, redshirt-freshman Kizer and true freshman Barnett, will be the envy of most collegiate programs.
Oh those best laid plans...