Notre Dame Football: 3 Things That Will Change with Everett Golson at QB
The return of Everett Golson is a little over two months away. And for Irish fans who have worn out their DVR and racked up YouTube stats watching highlight reels of the exiled quarterback, a chance to see Golson back behind center for the Irish will be here in no time.
With the Irish back in South Bend training with strength coach Paul Longo and working the playbook with the Irish coaching staff, identifying how Notre Dame will use Golson requires a long look back to 2012. While the first-year player was learning the offense by the spoonful, he did enough things well to give us hints as to how Brian Kelly will expand the offense in 2014.
After relying on Tommy Rees to get the Irish through 2013, Kelly and new offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock will have the perfect quarterback for their reintroduced spread attack. That means a chance for Kelly to turn Notre Dame's offense into the high-flying units he had at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati.
Let's take a look at three key changes for the Irish offense with Golson at quarterback.
Return of the Empty Set
With Tommy Rees behind center, Notre Dame's offense too often came to a halt in the no-back formation. By design, you'd think an empty set would favor a quarterback like Rees. The cerebral veteran could take advantage of spreading the defense out pre-snap, identifying a mismatch and making a quick decision.
But that wasn't the case in 2013, and the Irish offense too often got stuck in neutral with Rees by his lonesome in the backfield. In the Oklahoma game alone, the empty set put the Irish in a hole from which they couldn't dig out.
On 60 percent of passing downs, the Irish went empty. The results were disastrous: 4 of 10 for 64 yards and two interceptions with one returned for a touchdown.
Last year's struggles won't last. Expect the empty backfield to be a staple in Brian Kelly and Mike Denbrock's offense.
With Notre Dame's talent at the skill positions, spreading out opposing defenses and asking them to cover some dynamic personnel one-on-one will challenge just about every team on the schedule. Making it tougher? Golson's excellence playing in the empty set.
In 2012, Notre Dame was one of the most frequent—and effective—users of the no-back formation in all of college football. And Golson thrived in the formation. Over at FootballStudyHall.com, Bill Connelly charted multiple spread-heavy offenses in 2012 and found that Golson was at his best alone in the backfield.
The team that combined no-back frequency with effectiveness the best might have been Notre Dame. The Irish were known mostly for their defense, but even against the strong defenses listed in the above sample (Michigan State, Stanford and Alabama), they were tremendously effective from the no-back set. Quarterback Everett Golson was just 14-for-32 passing for 178 yards overall versus Michigan State, but from the no-back he was 9-for-14 for 122. (That means he was 5-for-18 for 56 otherwise.) In the first half versus USC, Golson was 7-for-13 for 115 yards from this look. Hell, even against Alabama, he was more successful in the no-back (5-for-8 for 71) than he was in other formations (16-for-28 for 199).
Without Troy Niklas to play alongside Ben Koyack and supply two veteran tight ends, Notre Dame's offense is built to spread out. The wide receivers can go five-deep with DaVaris Daniels, Corey Robinson, Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Torii Hunter Jr., and that's not even including slot receivers Amir Carlisle and C.J. Prosise. And both Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant are excellent pass-catching running backs.
Those groans you often heard when Rees lined up alone in the backfield with little threat of a run? They won't exist in 2014.
Winning Third Down
Last season, Notre Dame's third-down conversion rate was a mediocre 42 percent. With an offensive line anchored by first-round draft pick Zack Martin and third-rounder Chris Watt, that just isn't good enough.
But Golson's return will give the Irish an immediate improvement on third down, considering the quarterback was Notre Dame's most effective chain-mover in 2012. With Golson piloting the offense, the Irish ranked 25th in the country in third-down efficiency, far better than the 53rd the Irish ranked last season.
Digging deeper, Golson's ability to make plays on the move, either through the air or with his legs, will be a huge advantage for the Irish on third down. With the offensive line reshuffled and Ronnie Stanley, Steve Elmer and Mike McGlinchey taking over new jobs, Golson's ability to escape and take the focus away from the running back lineup in the backfield on third-and-short will be crucial.
Even with Notre Dame hesitant to rely on Golson as a runner for most of the 2012 season's first month, he quickly became their best third-down option. Here's a quick look at how Golson converted third downs and moved the chains compared to the 2013 team.
- Golson (2012): 30 rushing attempts on third down. He converted 15 for first downs (50 percent).
- Team (2013): 50 rushing attempts on third down. Converted 18 for first downs (36 percent).
- Golson (2012): On 3rd-and-short (1-3 yards), converted 10 of 14 attempts (71 percent).
- Team (2013): On 3rd-and short (1-3 yards), converted 17 of 34 attempts (50 percent).
With an additional 15 pounds of muscle put on over the past calendar year, Golson has added some bulk to protect himself. It'll likely make him even more efficient in this area, keeping the offense on the field and scoring more points.
(Finally) Running the Tempo Offense
At this point, Notre Dame fans should feel like Charlie Brown lining up a kick every time they hear about Kelly's up-tempo offense. Kelly came to South Bend with the reputation of a guy who liked to score points in a hurry at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati, but while he's talked about installing a fast-paced system, we're still waiting to see it entering his fifth year.
But Golson's return should allow the Irish to finally start moving quicker, keeping the defense off guard as Golson "calls it and hauls it." That wasn't possible with Rees behind center. But even Notre Dame's former offensive coordinator, Miami RedHawks head coach Chuck Martin, expects 2014 to be the year the Irish finally go fast.
Talking to Tim Prister at IrishIllustrated.com (subscription required), Martin expects Kelly to go back to his offensive roots this season.
I think they're going to go fast and score a lot of points. I think Brian Kelly likes to go fast and score a lot of points... He's taken (the play-calling) back over and I think that's the direction he'll want to go. They're going to average 30 points a game this year.
Part of that decision is likely because Notre Dame's defense is replacing key personnel and won't be as capable of going toe-to-toe with an opponent. But the other reason is that Kelly finally has a quarterback with experience in his system who's also physically able to run the system.
Golson possesses every skill needed to move this offense at pace—as does his backup, sophomore Malik Zaire. Golson's a competent runner. He's able to move in the pocket and throw on the run. And he's got the ability to put a defense on its heels with a complement of skill players who force defenses to respect the zone-read running game as well as the pass.
Sure, Notre Dame made it to the BCS title game doing the opposite, wearing down opponents with multiple tight ends and running backs Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood. But the Irish are finally capable of scoring points quickly, and that's likely the biggest change we'll see in 2014.