QB Curve: Is Everett Golson’s Notre Dame Ascent Still on Track?

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Quarterbacks: There are a lot of them! Each week, QB Curve will keep you up to speed on the game’s most important position by putting a different college signal-caller in the spotlight and putting the rest of the field in perspective.

QB of the Week: Notre Dame’s Everett Golson

Typecasting: The Prodigal Son. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and Notre Dame partisans were already plenty fond of Golson before his season-long absence in 2013. As a redshirt freshman in 2012, Golson won his first 10 starts in the Fighting Irish’s out-of-the-blue run to the BCS title game, which made his subsequent suspension and the nondescript 9-4 campaign that followed that much harder to endure. On Saturday, in his first real game in nearly 20 months, Golson was every inch the conquering hero the Irish remembered, thrashing Rice for five touchdowns (two passing, three rushing) and posting a career high in pass efficiency (206.3).

Although he’s flashed the arm strength necessary to stretch secondaries downfield …

… Golson fell into the “athlete” category as a recruit, and initial comparisons tended to stack him up against Tony Rice, master of the triple option in Notre Dame’s late-’80s heyday under Lou Holtz. While the Irish don’t run much option in Brian Kelly’s spread-oriented scheme — Golson dropped back to pass almost four times as often as he ran in 2012 — Golson is 6-foot-1, 200 pounds,1 so no one is ever going to mistake him for a statuesque pocket passer, and his mobility is a defining asset. Every time he drops back, Golson has the potential to stress defenses by escaping pressure, extending plays, and turning potential negatives into positives in ways a more plodding passer (we’re not naming any names) cannot.

At His Best: Kelly did attempt to keep his quarterback involved as a reliable running threat two years ago, when Golson rushed for 415 yards (not including negative yardage on sacks) and a team-high six rushing touchdowns, all from less than 10 yards out. Golson’s three touchdown runs against Rice covered 11, 14, and 4 yards. Factor in the space an athletic quarterback creates for Notre Dame’s backs by forcing defenses to respect him on read-option and bootleg calls, and Golson’s influence on the ground game is palpable.

His potential for creativity can also trump his coach’s design. At no point in 2012 was that ability more valuable than at the end of the late do-or-die drive against Pitt, when Golson juked his way into the open field just in time to lob a touchdown pass to Theo Riddick, then scrambled in on the two-point conversion to force overtime:

Golson ran for a career-high 74 yards against the Panthers, and the Irish needed every last one of them: Remember, Notre Dame trailed 20-6 in the fourth quarter and came closer to losing than any other contest that season before getting annihilated in the championship game. The Irish survived only because their young quarterback managed to pull a couple of rabbits out of his hat.

At His Worst: It’s very easy to overstate Golson’s role in Notre Dame’s perfect 2012 regular season, significant portions of which he spent watching from the bench during key moments. In the Irish’s down-to-the-wire wins over Stanford and Purdue, backup Tommy Rees led the game-winning drives off the bench; in the win over Michigan, Rees fueled Notre Dame’s only touchdown drive after Golson was benched for throwing two interceptions in the first half. As the full-time starter in 2013, Rees improved on Golson’s 2012 production in terms of touchdown percentage, yards per attempt, and overall efficiency. Notre Dame also averaged more points per game last year: Despite the record and title-game berth, 2012 is the lowest-scoring season for the Irish (25.8 ppg) since 2008.

And there’s the rub. Golson was backed in 2012 by one of the stingiest defenses in school history, which led the nation in scoring defense in the regular season and once went four full games without allowing an offensive touchdown. That defense never had to be bailed out and never forced the offense to abandon its close-to-the-vest game plan. The quarterback took care of the defenders by avoiding mistakes that put them in a bad position; the defenders took care of the quarterback by making it safe for him to be boring. But last year’s defense bore no resemblance to the 2012 edition, and the current edition may be on even shakier ground. There’s no precedent for Golson in a true shootout, or even a minor skirmish.

To Saturday and Beyond: Much of the angst over Golson’s suspension stemmed not from how good he was as a redshirt freshman, but from how good he could have been last year with a season of experience under his belt. As overwhelmed as he occasionally was during the first two-thirds of the 2012 campaign, Golson clearly began to grow into the role down the stretch, beginning with a patient, composed night at Oklahoma that confirmed Notre Dame as a legitimate national contender. From there he fueled the comeback against Pitt, posted his best stat lines of the season against Boston College and Wake Forest, and led the Irish to another validating road win, at USC.

Under the circumstances, it was hard to hold his less-than-inspiring effort in the championship game against him, because quarterback was the least of the Irish’s problems against Alabama, and by that point no one doubted his grip on the job. There’s every reason to believe Golson was on schedule for a more consistent campaign as a sophomore, possibly verging on a breakthrough. This weekend’s visit from Michigan will be the first real opportunity we have to judge whether that scheduled ascension still holds, or whether it was too ambitious in the first place.

Quick Outs

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• Texas quarterback David Ash has been ruled out of this weekend’s game against BYU with “concussion-related symptoms” suffered on a very routine-looking hit in the first quarter of the Longhorns’ win over North Texas, an ominous setback for a guy who missed the last nine games in 2013 for the same reason.

Ash finished the game against UNT with no apparent problems, and his status beyond the BYU game is still up in the air; during his extended absence last year, he was evaluated on a weekly basis but never given the green light. Given what we now know about the long-term consequences of head injuries, though, and given the abundance of caution with which they’re treated, it’s hardly a leap to speculate that Ash’s football career may be finished. If he does set foot on the field again, he’ll be walking on eggshells.

In the meantime, the Longhorns will turn to sophomore Tyrone Swoopes or (if things go really sideways) true freshman Jerrod Heard, both of whom are large, athletic, and raw as can be. As a recruit, Swoopes was seen as the heir apparent and casually compared to Vince Young before watching his stock fall precipitously as a high school senior; on campus, his accuracy and consistency have kept him from seriously pushing Ash as the starter.2 Unfortunately, if Ash misses time beyond this weekend, the schedule leaves no cushion for growing pains: Four of Texas’s next six games after BYU are against UCLA, Baylor, Oklahoma, and Kansas State, all ranked in the current Top 25.

Whatever criteria Central Florida coaches used to settle on redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo as its opening-day starter against Penn State need some serious reevaluation. After two quarters under DiNovo, UCF limped into halftime with just three first downs and three points, and the points were the result of a short field goal set up by the defense. Midway through the third quarter, coaches yanked the freshman for sophomore Justin Holman, who proceeded to lead three extended touchdown drives in the final 20 minutes without any ground support to speak of. As overwhelmed as DiNovo looked in his time, Holman looked every bit as capable, presenting an obvious upgrade in terms of athleticism and arm strength — four of his nine completions went for 20 yards or more — and rallying the Knights to a late lead. The defense couldn’t close the deal, subsequently allowing Penn State to drive 55 yards to kick the winning field goal as time expired, but the about-face under Holman gave UCF more to look forward to in defeat than the team had any right to expect.

The situation is less settled at Clemson, which saw its offense grind to a halt Saturday in the second half of a 45-21 loss at Georgia. Most of the game belonged to senior Cole Stoudt, who was making his first career start after three years behind Tajh Boyd, and the early returns were not good: After leading a pair of touchdown drives in the first half, Stoudt retreated into a shell, failing to pass for a single first down after halftime. All the while, Tigers fans were howling for true freshman Deshaun Watson, who had appeared briefly in the first half to thread the needle on a 30-yard touchdown pass to Charone Peake.

Again, that throw came on the third attempt of the kid’s first collegiate drive. Yet coaches went back to Stoudt and stuck with him, largely ignoring the freshman save for a three-and-out in the third quarter and a garbage-time possession after the defense had finally yielded to Todd Gurley in the fourth. After the loss, coach Dabo Swinney said Watson’s playing time is on a “game-by-game evaluation.” No word on whether the actual game in progress will figure into things.

The best individual stat line of the weekend belonged to Western Kentucky senior Brandon Doughty, who obliterated school records by passing for 569 yards and six touchdowns en route to a 59-31 upset over the defending MAC champion, Bowling Green. As a team, WKU racked up 702 yards of offense (also a school record) and scored eight touchdowns on drives covering at least 69 yards apiece.

Reggie Collier “Athlete” of the Week: New Mexico’s Cole Gautsche

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The Reggie Collier “Athlete” All-Stars honor quarterbacks who best embody the “dual threat” ethos of their inspiration, the first player to rush for 1,000 yards and pass for 1,000 yards in the same season.

Gautsche rushed for a career-high 184 yards in New Mexico’s opener against UTEP, best among all quarterbacks in Week 1, including touchdown runs of 68 yards in the first quarter and 51 yards in the third. Over his first two seasons in Albuquerque, Gautsche accounted for more than 1,500 yards on the ground while delivering seven 100-yard rushing games, significantly outpacing his ghastly stat line as a passer in the Lobos’ triple-option attack. Alas, his value was even more apparent Saturday in absence: Gautsche pulled up lame with a hamstring injury early in the fourth quarter, and New Mexico failed to reach the end zone again in a 31-24 loss.

QB Curve Power Hour!

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Ranking the nation’s best quarterbacks after Week 1.

1. Marcus Mariota, Oregon. No alarms, no surprises against South Dakota — just an obscene efficiency rating. (Last week: 2)

2. Jameis Winston, Florida State. Against Oklahoma State, he turned in arguably his shakiest performance as a starter, yet he still wound up with 370 yards passing and a crazy touchdown run that defied physics for a human being who weighs 230 pounds. (LW: 1)

3. Bryce Petty, Baylor. Petty sat out the second half of the Bears’ win over SMU and confirmed Monday that he’s day-to-day with a broken back. Even if that designation proves ambitious, his presence won’t be essential for at least another month. (LW: 3)

4. Kenny Hill, Texas A&M. We suspected Hill was going to be fun to watch in place of Johnny Manziel, but did we see him moving into the top five in this space with a bullet? We did not. (LW: NR)

5. Christian Hackenberg, Penn State. Days after being featured in QB Curve, Hackenberg set the school passing record, drove the Lions for a last-second win, and looked every inch the ideal pro prospect against UCF. He also threw two interceptions, just to remind us that he’s still a sophomore. (LW: 7)

6. Taylor Kelly, Arizona State. ASU opened on a Thursday night against Weber State, so no news is good news. (LW: 6)

7. Nick Marshall, Auburn. While serving a suspension, Marshall ceded the first half of Auburn’s win over Arkansas to sophomore Jeremy Johnson, and he may have to cede more time after Johnson posted the second-best efficiency rating of the weekend. (LW: 5)

8. Brett Hundley, UCLA. He took five sacks and countless other hits at Virginia, which is less Hundley’s fault than that of the Bruins’ makeshift offensive line. Still, UCLA managed just one offensive touchdown against a defense that finished last in the ACC last year in points allowed, and the preseason hype only made that showing feel worse. (LW: 4)

9. Connor Cook, Michigan State. Cook passed for three touchdowns with one incomplete pass against Jacksonville State, signifying nothing. Check back after this weekend’s blockbuster trip to Oregon. (LW: 9)

10. Cody Kessler, USC. He dropped 394 yards and four passing touchdowns on Fresno State in a 52-13 rout, because apparently USC is still growing these guys on trees. (LW: NR)

Waiting: Shane Carden (East Carolina), Rakeem Cato (Marshall), Devin Gardner (Michigan), Kevin Hogan (Stanford), Trevor Knight (Oklahoma), P.J. Walker (Temple)

Filed Under: College Football, QB Curve, Everett Golson, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Brian Kelly, Michigan Wolverines, David Ash, Texas Longhorns, Central Florida Knights, Justin Holman, Clemson Tigers, Cole Stoudt, Deshaun Watson, Western Kentucky, Brandon Doughty, Reggie Collier “Athlete" of the Week, New Mexico Lobos, Cole Gautsche, QB Curve Power Hour!, Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Bryce Petty, Kenny Hill, Christian Hackenberg, Taylor Kelly, Nick Marshall, Brett Hundley, Connor Cook, Cody Kessler, Quarterbacks, Football, NCAA, NCAAF, Matt Hinton, Tyrone Swoopes

Matt Hinton is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ MattRHinton