MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly knows all is well with his offense when he sees Everett Golson flash the smile that his former coaches and teammates at Myrtle Beach High School came to know so well.
And Golson has been smiling a lot in the latter stages of the season.
The consistent development of the redshirt freshman as a quarterback and leader over the course of his first season playing college football was not only important to the Fighting Irish’s ascension to Monday’s Discover BCS National Championship game, it was essential.
“We don’t get here unless Everett makes the strides that he made,” Kelly said. “We would not be here unless Everett Golson continued to develop into the quarterback that he is today.”
Golson’s evolution into a playmaker who has also managed the offense with smart decisions and few mistakes has helped No. 1 Notre Dame go 12-0 and set up a showdown at Sun Life Stadium with No. 2 Alabama (12-1), and has him poised to make history and join a very exclusive list of champions.
Since the NCAA reinstituted freshman eligibility for athletes in 1972, only two freshman quarterbacks have led their teams to the national title, and none have done it since the onset of the Bowl Championship Series, which created a championship game beginning with the 1998 season. “I’m ready for the challenge,” Golson said.
In 1983, Bernie Kosar started all 12 games for Miami en route to a title as a redshirt freshman. In 1985, Oklahoma true freshman Jamelle Holieway became the starter in the fourth game after Troy Aikman was injured and led the Sooners to the title as an option quarterback in the run-oriented wishbone offense.
“Watching Everett grow this year as a player and become what we’ve seen these last few games – a guy whose a really dynamic playmaker – has been fun to watch,” said Irish senior offensive lineman Mike Golic Jr. “The funny thing about Everett is even as he’s been growing as a player and obviously getting better and better each week … he’s always been a very cool and calm guy. It always seems to him like he’s playing backyard football with his friends. He’s got that big smile on his face and the situation is never too big for him.”
The 2012-13 year has been the season for redshirt freshman quarterbacks in college football. Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel handed Alabama it’s only loss and is the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, and Golson has made his own impression by leading a team that began the season ranked outside the top 25 in the nation into the title game.
The season has tested Golson’s resolve, however.
Despite opting to play a quarterback whose only college experience was running Notre Dame’s scout team offense in practices as a true freshman, Kelly also didn’t want this to be a season of transition. He wanted to win this year.
That led him to replace Golson with junior Tommy Rees, who had gone 12-4 as a starter over the previous two seasons, late in games on four occasions through the season’s first nine weeks because Golson was either ineffective or suffered an injury.
Rees led a last-minute drive for a game-winning field goal in a 20-17 win over Purdue in Week 2, replaced Golson midway through the second quarter of a 13-6 win over Michigan in Week 4 after Golson started the game 3 of 8 with two interceptions, and replaced a concussed Golson late against Stanford in Week 6 and completed a late drive for a game-tying field goal and threw a TD in overtime.
Golson had some big wins along the journey, as well. He led the Irish to a 50-10 season-opening win over Navy in Dublin, Ireland; directed a 20-3 win at No. 10 Michigan State in Week 3 for the Irish’s first win over a top-10 team in seven years; led a 41-3 pounding of Miami in Week 5 after being pulled from the Michigan game the previous week; and orchestrated a 30-13 win as a two-touchdown underdog at Oklahoma in Week 8.
But against Pittsburgh the week after the Oklahoma win, Golson was again replaced by Rees. This time it was for only three series, though. Kelly put him back into a game for the first time on the season in the hopes he could lead a comeback, and Golson responded, throwing two fourth-quarter touchdown passes, tying the game with a two-point conversion run with 2:11 to play and scoring the game-winning TD in triple overtime.
“If I would have got down on myself or not believed, we wouldn’t be sitting here today,” Golson said. “If I was to look back on the season I would say it’s the definition of a growing process for me. If you’re tried like that, I think that’s what makes great players great. You have to be tried and it’s about what you do on the other side of it; how you come out of it.”
Despite being a two-time state football champion and prolific passer at Myrtle Beach, Golson had a long way to go at the start of the season. Senior running back Theo Riddick said that early in the season the team had difficulty getting through a practice without false start penalties and other miscues, and he saw indecision and doubt in Golson’s eyes as late as the Michigan game.
“For me it’s been a growing process as far as taking control back there and just kind of communicating with them, and them on the other side just building that confidence in me,” Golson said of his teammates on offense.
In 11 games, Golson has completed 166 of 282 passes (58.9 percent) for 2,135 yards (194.1 yards per game), and he’s thrown 11 touchdowns compared to five interceptions. He has also rushed for 305 yards and five touchdowns on 89 carries for a 3.4-yard average per run.
His improvement late in the year is reflected in his statistics. He has thrown for at least 200 yards in each of his last four games and multiple touchdowns in three of those. From the pocket, Golson has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes in the last three games with four touchdowns and no interceptions, matching his TD total from the pocket in the first eight games of the season.
“I think Tommy Rees, being there in the beginning for me, has helped me out tremendously, kind of helped me to become the player that I am and become more confident in my play,” said Golson, who was particularly upset about being pulled so early from the Michigan game because of circumstances that included his parents being in attendance.
“You talk about me being pulled out of those games – it was for the betterment of the team. At the time, to be honest, I couldn’t see it because the competitor in me wanted to be on the field, but the coaches did what was best for the team, and that’s why we’re 12-0 today.”
Offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said the coaching staff never considered replacing Golson as a starter because his upside was too great.
“Our confidence never wavered in anything he was going to become,” Martin said. “We were just pushing the envelope to how quickly we could get him to the level we knew he could play. He was our guy, and we knew mentally what he was capable of doing, we knew physically what he was capable of doing, and we knew there was going to be a maturation process.”
Martin said Golson had the technical aspects of the position such as the footwork and mechanics down long ago, as well more intricate things such as defensive reads.
“Now it was trying to get him to play comfortable and relaxed and communicate and all the other things that go into that position,” Martin said. “It was just a process, and we knew we were going to stick with it. I don’t know that he knew we were always going to stick with it, but there was never any doubt in our mind of what he was going to become for us.”
He has become a player who has a chance to be the first freshman quarterback since the creation of the BCS to win a national title.
“He will be like anybody else; the nerves will have to settle down,” Kelly said. “But I think as he gets into the flow of the game, once you start seeing him smile a little bit, I think everybody that watches him knows that’s when he plays the best.
“… I’m confident the moment won’t be too big for him because he knows we’ve got 100 percent confidence and trust in him that he can go in and win us a national championship game.”
Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 626-0284.