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Notre Dame preview: Overwhelmed last season, QB Everett Golson watched and learned

Notre Dame redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golshas matured off field. | Joe Raymond~AP

Notre Dame redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson has matured on and off the field. | Joe Raymond~AP

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2012 NOTRE DAME SCHEDULE

Sept. 1 vs. Navy*

Sept. 8 vs. Purdue

Sept. 15 at Michigan State

Sept. 22 vs. Michigan

Oct. 6 vs. Miami+

Oct. 13 vs. Stanford

Oct. 20 vs. BYU

Oct. 27 at Oklahoma

Nov. 3 vs. Pittsburgh

Nov. 10 at Boston College

Nov. 17 vs. Wake Forest

Nov. 24 at USC

*—at Dublin, Ireland +—at Soldier Field

Updated: September 29, 2012 6:12AM



SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Worried? Nah, Everett Golson wasn’t worried. Why would he be? Everything always had come so easily, so naturally. Hyper-talented guys such as Golson — guys who throw 151 touchdown passes in high school, who play in state championship games in football and basketball, who can play full songs on the piano by ear without even being able to read sheet music — can handle anything, right?

So, sure, Golson figured he would compete for Notre Dame’s starting quarterback job as a true freshman last year. And, sure, he was ready for the athletic and academic demands of Notre Dame.

But he couldn’t. And he wasn’t.

By midseason, Golson found himself buried on the scout team, running other teams’ offenses, not Notre Dame’s. On top of that, he was struggling with his classwork, with dorm life and the difficult transition from kid to adult that every college student — from football players to philosophy majors — faces.

‘‘It was like everything was moving 100 miles per hour,’’ Golson said.

Ironic because that always has been Golson’s style. He plays fast, runs fast, acts fast. His improvisational skills made him one of the most prolific quarterbacks in high school history.

But, as Golson quickly learned, Notre Dame isn’t Myrtle Beach High. And major college football isn’t the South Carolina High School League. It takes more than sheer talent at this level. It takes a lot of preparation, a lot of studying and a whole lot of hard work.

Or, as Golson likes to put it, he had the art of playing quarterback. He needed to learn the science.

Well, class is over. Now it’s time for the experiment to begin.

Golson, a redshirt freshman, will start at quarterback Saturday when the Irish open their season in Ireland against Navy without a college snap to his credit. A tremendous talent and a tremendous unknown, he now has a chance to take control of a program desperately in need of some stability at the position — Kelly went through three quarterbacks last year alone — and desperately in need of a spark to return it to national prominence against arguably the toughest schedule in the nation.

‘‘I had dreams about it,’’ Golson said. ‘‘Seeing visions of it. Just me being out there, the crowd and everything. That’s what motivates me to keep going, to keep driving and learn as much as I can.’’

It began with his humbling freshman year. He said he realized he wasn’t mature enough to be a leader of men, and getting demoted to the scout team gave him a new perspective. Standing on the sideline, he watched Dayne Crist, Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix and learned how to handle himself.

In the spring, he took a big leap on the football field, throwing two touchdown passes without an interception in the spring game. And in the summer, he took a big leap in the classroom, where he learned to prioritize better and bump up his grades, all while working on the science of quarterbacking — with teammates in South Bend and with former teammates back home in South Carolina.

Last year, he said he wasn’t worried about ball security. This year, it’s a focal point, with only three interceptions throughout camp. Last year, he said he was overlooking the little things and struggling with even getting the plays from the sideline. This year, it’s all about attention to detail.

Last year, he was an athlete. This year, he’s a quarterback.

‘‘Just the knowledge of the offense,’’ Golson said when asked what has changed between last year and this one. ‘‘Getting in the film room, getting my mechanics down, being a better quarterback from that sense. It was very difficult. But with time and preparation, and with coach [Brian] Kelly and [offensive coordinator Chuck] Martin being there, it made it so much easier. It would have been a hard task to get by on my own.’’

When training camp began this month, Golson was the one taking the first-team snaps on the strength of his spring-game effort. He never relinquished the spot.

‘‘I think it was the individual meetings during spring, how he handled his academics in the summer and all those little things,’’ Kelly said. ‘‘He’s built trust along the way. And you build trust every day in camp.’’

Now Kelly is entrusting him with the offense he designed — an offense built for someone like Golson, a player with a big arm who also can run.

Of course, he’s entirely unproven. And he still has a reputation (based on what little anyone has actually seen of him) for being a run-first, pass-second player — a reputation he has been working hard to shed.

‘‘I don’t think that’s a battle I can fight; it kind of is what it is,’’ Golson said.

Not that he won’t try.

‘‘When I came in, you could see in the spring game I was a little amateurish,’’ Golson said. ‘‘I’m always running out of the pocket to rely on my athleticism. I need to become a more complete quarterback, stay in the pocket and read the defenses.’’

In other words, rely a little less on those improvisational skills — the art, as he says — that got him here, and rely a little more on the science that can keep him here.

FIVE KEYS TO THE SEASON

1. Shoring up the secondary

An already-thin group of cornerbacks took a big hit when Lo Wood was lost for the season. The Irish will be starting a converted receiver (Bennett Jackson) and a converted tailback (KeiVarae Russell) at cornerback. Veteran safeties Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta will have to offer plenty of help.

2. Stability at QB

Last year’s opening-day starter, Dayne Crist, lasted one half before losing his job. With Andrew Hendrix and Tommy Rees waiting in the wings, Everett Golson won’t have a long leash. He needs to seize the job and end any QB controversy before it begins.

3. Help at receiver

You don’t simply replace a guy like Michael Floyd, ND’s all-time leading receiver. Veterans T.J. Jones, Robby Toma and John Goodman have their shot, but freshmen Davonte Neal, Justin Ferguson and Chris Brown are viable options.

4. Veterans up front

An experienced offensive line with four seniors — left tackle Zack Martin, left guard Chris Watts, center Braxton Cave and right guard Mike Golic Jr. — needs to take some of the pressure off Golson, whose natural instinct is to tuck and run at the first sign of trouble.

5. Perspective at the top

This team is likely to take some lumps with one of the nation’s toughest schedules. It’ll be imperative for coach Brian Kelly to keep the Irish — especially his young starters at QB and cornerback — from spiraling downward if and when things go awry.

FIVE KEY PLAYERS

Everett Golson

Who else? The man with zero college snaps takes over one of the highest-profile positions in college sports. With plenty of skill at receiver and running back, Golson’s No. 1 priority simply will be to not turn the ball over while he gets his feet wet.

Tyler Eifert

The All-America tight end needs to be Golson’s safety blanket and the team’s biggest receiving threat. The 6-6, 251-pounder had 63 catches for 803 yards and five touchdowns last year as the team’s No. 2 receiving threat behind Michael Floyd.

Cierre Wood

Wood showed last year (1,102 yards while splitting carries) that he has the speed and elusiveness to be an elite every-down back, but he was suspended for the first two games. He’ll be back in time for the meat of the schedule.

Bennett Jackson

Jackson hardly has any meaningful experience at cornerback, but he’s suddenly the entrenched ’’veteran’’ back there. With a true freshman in KeiVarae Russell on the other side, Jackson likely will draw the toughest assignments.

Davonte Neal

The Irish returned only 10 punts for three total yards in the regular season last year. In their last seven regular-season games, they didn’t return a single punt. Neal, an electrifying freshman who earned the job in camp, will try to remedy that.

THE FIVE BIG ONES

Vs. Navy | How will Everett Golson handle his first college experience? How will the Irish handle the travel to Ireland and the five-hour time difference? How will the Irish defense solve Navy’s triple option? Navy has won three of the last five meetings.

Vs. Michigan | The Irish have lost three straight heartbreakers to the Wolverines. Heisman candidate Denard Robinson will be the first elite QB the Irish secondary faces, so it’ll need to have come a long way in the first three weeks.

Vs. Miami | Never mind the pomp of the annual Shamrock Series game or the gaudy uniforms the Irish will wear. It’s a real possibility ND will have lost two straight leading into this one and will need a win to stay above .500.

At Oklahoma | The Irish haven’t played the Sooners since 1999 and have won six straight in the series dating to 1957. But OU is a legit national-title contender with QB Landry Jones returning to an offense that averaged nearly 40 points per game last year.

At USC | The Trojans could be playing to lock up a spot in the BCS championship game. No matter how well or poorly the Irish have done to this point, a win could be a defining moment for Brian Kelly.



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