NOTRE DAME, Ind. – There is no better example of just how far the Notre Dame football team has come in a relatively short amount of time than Everett Golson. The sophomore (who would be known anywhere else around the country as a redshirt freshman) was locked in a battle with Andrew Hendrix just four months ago to see which would become his team’s starting quarterback.
Golson emerged from that battle the same way he emerged from 10 starts this season – victorious. Now he is preparing for the heftiest task of his young career when he and the Irish face Alabama in three weeks in the BCS Championship Game.
“It’s a little surreal for me right now,” Golson said earlier this week of his 2012 journey. “I never really slow down to think about it, just because I’m young. It’s all a growing process for me. Right now I’m just keeping my head down and still trying to learn everything I can learn and preparing the best that I can prepare. I haven’t really got a chance to think about it.”
Maybe it is best that Golson hasn’t slowed down to think about things. After early speed bumps this season Golson still led the Irish to their first milestone win of the season at Michigan State. He has stepped-up when the lights were brightest and challenges greatest, like at Oklahoma and USC, to lead the Irish to their unblemished record.
Head coach Brian Kelly believes those experiences will help his young quarterback on the biggest stage in Miami.
“I think he’s got enough experience this year that he can go in there and play the game,” Kelly commented this week. “He’ll be like anybody else. The nerves will have to settle down. I think as he gets into the flow of the game, once you start seeing him smile a little bit, I think everyone that watches him just know that’s when he plays his best.”
Golson was at his best in those proving ground wins over the Sooners and Trojans. He was a combined 28-for-51 for 394 yards with no touchdown passes, but no interceptions, passing. He ran for a total of 111 yards and a touchdown in the two games as well as his confidence climbed throughout the season.
“I think that just came with game experience and the adversity that I’ve been hit with,” Golson said of his internal and external certainty as the season progressed. “(Like) getting pulled in the Purdue game or having a bad game (against) Michigan. That’s all adversity that I was hit with, but it’s made me better in the end.”
On the surface, Golson’s numbers against Purdue were not bad. He completed 67% of his 31 passes for 289 yards that day. He had no interceptions while throwing his second career touchdown pass and rushing for his first score. However, after a fourth quarter fumble that led to Purdue’s game-tying field goal Golson was pulled in favor of Tommy Rees.
Golson was solid the next week at Michigan State, but had his worst game of the season at home the following week in Notre Dame’s narrow win over Michigan. The Myrtle Beach, SC native completed nearly as many passes to Michigan defenders as Notre Dame receivers while going 3-for-8 for just 30 yards with two interceptions before Rees replaced him in the first half. He is able to look back now with a smile as he chalks it all up to experience.
“If I were to look back on the season I would say this is the definition of a growing process,” Golson commented. “Coming in inexperienced and going through those trials and that adversity that had to be dealt with. I feel that at the end of the day if you’re tried like that that’s what makes great players great. You have to be tried. It’s about what you do on the other side of it.”
Texas A&M Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel is in the same boat as Golson. Both sat out last year as freshmen before being thrust into the lineup this fall. Manziel’s numbers, 3,419 passing yards with 24 touchdowns and 1,181 rushing yards with 19 more TDs, dwarf Golson’s, who has 2,135 passing yards with 11 TDs and 305 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
The two share a similar quality though at this early stage in their career – confidence. Golson’s teammates see a completely different confidence in him now that was not as easily apparent back in September.
“As the season went on he’s just become more of a leader and really calmed down,” left tackle and offensive captain Zack Martin said of Golson. “He was out there just playing football and having fun. In the USC game he was just so calm and the leader of the offense.”
Golson knows he lacked the true leadership early in the season that a quarterback needs to run the huddle and have control on the field. He was knocked out of the Stanford game and missed all of the BYU game the next week with a concussion, but his confidence has steamrolled since the Oct. 27 win in Norman the following week.
“At the beginning of the season just being young and inexperienced, you’re not gonna have that confidence that you’re gonna have 12 games later or later on in your career,” Golson said candidly this week. “I think that was me being a little bit inexperienced and just trying to feel my way through it and learn how to be that leader.”
Golson and the Irish now face, unquestionably, their greatest challenge of the season. The defending national champion Crimson Tide allows less than 80 yards a game on the ground and a modest 166 passing yards per week.
“We’re not going to be able to run it at will against the defense that we’re going to see in Alabama,” Kelly said of the formidable challenge that awaits his young quarterback and the Irish offense. “We’re going to have to throw the football. We’re going to have to find some big chunk plays. He’s going to have to be integral in that. He knows that and we know that. I think Alabama knows that too.”
“Alabama has a great defense,” Golson complimented. “You talk about their athletes and then you go to their defensive scheme, but moreover they’re just well disciplined. I think they show that when they play their responsibilities and the way they play and conduct themselves.”
The Fighting Irish have been the underdog all season and their quarterback is their ultimate poster child. Golson has gone from scout team afterthought to starting in the national championship game in a year’s time. Underdog is a role he and his teammates have come to relish.
“We’ve always been kind of set as the underdog,” Golson said with a hint of a chuckle. “Going into it (the season) nobody would have ever seen us at this point, but we’ve worked our way up from the bottom. That just shows great resilience from us and that unity from us.”
His own determination has driven Golson from the scout team, through last spring, into fall camp and through a fall season that saw him bounce back resiliently from those early trials and tribulations. He keeps that determination closer to his heart than he keeps the laces on a football to his fingers.
“It’s kind of been in me since my childhood,” Golson said this week of his grit. ”I’ve just always had that determination and that will to win. That’s what’s carried me this far and I hope that it carries me more.”
Just one more win to go.