When Brian Kelly said “We have another step that we have to take in the development of our program,” following his team's 42-14 loss to Alabama in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game in Miami earlier this year, he wasn't talking conservatively.
If Notre Dame is to continue its progression in its quest for reaching the level of the Crimson Tide, spending a season playing things safe simply won't do.
In other words, Tommy Rees simply won't do.
On Saturday, Kelly's Memorial Day weekend took a turn for the worse, as he lost returning starter Everett Golson at quarterback for the 2013 season (at least) due to “poor academic judgment.”
The one-year starter has hopes of returning for the 2014 season, but at this juncture, there is no guarantee that Golson will ever play in South Bend again.
“I understand how my integrity could be in question,” Golson said in a release. “But I want to reassure my supporters that through this experience I will return a better student athlete, as well as a better individual.”
The safest decision that Kelly could make regarding his program is to elevate second-string senior Rees to the starting job. But that is the equivalent of playing for a tie, and this isn't 1966.
Notre Dame football needs to continue moving forward, not maintaining, and that is where true freshman Malik Zaire enters the picture.
The freshman quarterback has been a part of the Irish program since January, and the coaches have raved about his competitiveness and football intellect.
“Malik can throw it, he can run it, he's got great versatility at the quarterback position,” Kelly said earlier this year, “and he's a really, really smart kid.”
If Zaire simply isn't ready to play major college football two months from now when training camp opens, then I certainly understand Kelly's decision to start Rees. You can't throw an entire season away for the sake of development of one player – regardless of it being the quarterback or not. However, if Zaire has the slightest chance of being able to repeat what Golson did last season, and that is to manage the offense early in the season and improve with each practice and game, then there is no rational reason not to give him an opportunity.
A number of people (including Kelly) lauded Rees for his part-time play in 2012. However, a closer look revealed that he was the same limited quarterback that lost the starting job in training camp after starting for two seasons.
Rees relied on All-American tight end Tyler Eifert (who will be in Cincinnati this fall, not South Bend) to an almost humorous degree when inserted into games. During the Blue-Gold spring game last month, many in the press box wondered aloud if Rees' first pass was going to be directed to Eifert on the sidelines, as he watched in street clothes.
In addition, the same problem that plagued Rees as a sophomore (interceptions), wasn't resolved as a junior (he threw as many picks, two, as he did touchdowns last year).
There is precedent set at Notre Dame for Irish players (see Darin Walls and Gary Gray) that have drifted astray academically, only to be reinstated following time away from the university. However, nothing is certain for Golson. Which brings up another reason why Kelly should rely on Zaire.
If Golson's effort to reenroll at Notre Dame happens to be denied, and the Irish have spent the 2013 season middling its way to a 7-5 or 8-4 mark with Rees, Kelly enters another spring (2014) with an unproven offensive leader.
However, a reinstated Golson can return to the program in January of 2014 and compete with a seasoned Zaire, letting a contest of “may the best quarterback win” ensue throughout the eight months leading up to the 2014 season opener. That is a far more attractive option than visiting the Grotto regularly in prayer that Golson is readmitted.
One thing is absolutely certain for the next three months and that is there will be competition for the starting position leading up to the Aug. 31 opener against Temple. Zaire will see to that.
“What I loved about Malik is when he came up here (to visit in 2012), he sat in our quarterback meeting room, and in that meeting room you've got some really good quarterbacks,” Kelly explained. “When he left that meeting, he made it clear to me that this was the place he wanted to be.
“He loved the environment, he loved the coaching, he loved the opportunity to come in and run the offense, and that's looking at great competition and saying 'I don't care about that, I'm going to come to Notre Dame because it's the right place for me academically, and it's the right place for me because I'm going to be the starter here at Notre Dame.' And we love those kind of guys that have that attitude.”
So will the Irish Nation, so give the kid the keys and let's see what he can do.