Ralph D. Russo
Notre Dame will have a new starting quarterback in 2013 — just as it did in 2012, when the Fighting Irish went undefeated in the regular season and played in the BCS Championship Game.
Point being that the loss of Everett Golson, who was suspended for the fall semester for what he called “poor academic judgment,” doesn’t necessarily mean the Fighting Irish are without hope to return to the BCS title games. But this certainly won’t help.
Coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday that senior Tommy Rees, junior Andrew Hendrix and freshman Malik Zaire will compete for the starting job with the Irish this fall.
Here are three reasons why the Irish can still thrive without Golson and three reasons why they might not.
— Notre Dame leaned on a talented defense that had allowed the fewest touchdowns in the country per game. Despite the loss of Heisman Trophy finalists Manti Te’o, the Irish will be stacked again on that side of the ball with two of the best defensive linemen in the country, Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III, leading the way.
— Left tackle Zack Martin and left guard Chris Watt are back and that means Notre Dame should be able to run the ball again. The Irish relied heavily on the left side of the line while averaging 189 yards per game on the ground last season.
— The Irish won with mostly unspectacular quarterback play last year. Golson ranked 64th in the country in passer rating (131.02) and threw 12 touchdowns in his first season as a starter. Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin spent most of the season protecting the redshirt freshman. They slowed the pace of the offense, spoon-fed him the playbook and managed the game to emphasize the defense. No reason they can’t do that again, right?
— Rees has to be the front-runner to start at quarterback. He’s got 18 career starts, and played a key role as a reserve last season, bailing Notre Dame out when Golson was struggling or hurt. So he’s experienced and has had success — but he’s also thrown 24 interceptions (along with 34 touchdowns). Expecting him to suddenly become a quarterback that doesn’t turn over the ball is essentially wishing he becomes a different player after three years. It’s certainly possible, but it’s impossible to count on it.
— Conventional wisdom was that Golson’s improvement would allow Notre Dame to overcome relative inexperience at the other skill positions, especially running back, where it’s speedy but fumble-prone George Atkinson III will team with a group of talented freshmen. The Irish have plenty of potential playmakers, but beyond receiver TJ Jones, they are short on proven commodities and now have less room for growing pains.
— Yes, Notre Dame’s defense should again be among the best in the country, but it will be hard to repeat the success the Irish had in the red zone, especially near the goal line. Notre Dame allowed touchdowns on 34 percent of its opponents’ possessions that got inside the Irish 20-yard line, according to www.cfbstats.com, third-best in the nation. Assuming some normal regression in that area, the Irish will need more production from an offense that ranked 38th in the country in yards per play. Making the necessary gains without a double-threat like Golson could be tough.