As Notre Dame Stadium undergoes a transformation that'll begin to update the historic venue, the football team returned to campus for its own renovation. As bulldozers tear out grass and prepare the stadium for FieldTurf's installation, Brian Kelly's veterans returned to campus this week to begin laying the foundation for the 2014 football season.
Every summer is important for a college football team. But, for this Irish team, it's critical. While the unproven talent on the roster needs to take a step forward, and the incoming freshman need to catch up to the rigors and demands of college football, this summer is most important to one of the key players on the Irish roster:
No player has more pressure on their shoulders than Golson. After letting down his teammates and coaches last season after being suspended for a semester after cheating on a test, the Irish quarterback enters 2014 wanting to make amends.
While Golson took that first step forward during spring practice, summer offers a unique opportunity. On an empty campus surrounded by only teammates, Golson can become the quarterback the Irish desperately need him to be.
But here's what he's going to have to do.
Own the Playbook.
Nobody has forgotten that Golson led the Irish to the BCS title game in his redshirt freshman season. But Kelly has been the first to state that he needs so much more from Golson if he's going to be the engine of the Irish offense.
"He recognizes that in his first year here at Notre Dame he had training wheels on and we played to the strength of our defense," Kelly told Jack Arute and Geno Toretta on SiriusXM's College Sports Nation. "Then he took a year off, and then when he came here, he didn’t know as much as he thought he did. So that’s a real positive thing for a young man to come in and know that he’s got a lot more to learn as it relates to the quarterback position.
"He certainly has so much more developing to do. And I think that’s what he recognized. This isn’t just getting back to where I was, this is, boy, I need to get so much better."
The training wheels on the Irish offense were courtesy of Manti Te'o and one of the most dominant Irish defenses in school history. Those won't exist as Brian VanGorder installs a new system with an almost entirely rebuilt front seven.
So the onus is on Golson to master the offense that he's being asked to run, a system that'll be quite different from the power-running, two tight end sets that efficiently moved the Irish down the field.
Even if Troy Niklas stayed for his senior season, Kelly was planning on transitioning the Irish offense back to the true spread attack that he has wanted to run since arriving in South Bend. We saw flashes of that with Golson in 2012, as the Irish offense effectively moved the pocket, utilized the quarterback run and threw the ball efficiently with only two viable receiving threats in Tyler Eifert and TJ Jones.
But if Golson isn't capable of owning the concepts and mastering the playbook, it's hard to think that the talented young personnel will be able to do it without him.
Credit Golson for understanding the importance of the summer. While most Irish players spent a few weeks at home recharging their batteries before returning to campus, Golson was back in San Diego working with George Whitfield.
Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks last fall learning the science of quarterbacking, focusing more on core concepts than Notre Dame-specific schemes. Golson's refresher course last week was likely a lot more specific.
Golson's training session will be supplemented by a key rule change made by the NCAA. It allows the Irish coaching staff to continue working the playbook with its team over the summer. That'll allow Golson to continue mastering the spread concepts he only touched on in 2012, and will pay huge dividends for his young playmakers.
Learn to Lead
While Brian Kelly will likely name the team's captains sometime during August's training camp, the leaders of this football team will emerge this summer. And whether or not Kelly bestows Golson with a coveted "C" on his jersey, there's no question the offense's leader needs to be the Irish quarterback.
There isn't much that's "informal" about summer workouts, even though the NCAA often mandates them as that. But after having leaders like Zack Martin and Tommy Rees around to organize the team's work over the past few summers, the Irish offense needs Golson to pick up that slack if the unit is going to move forward.
Last year, Martin forced the Irish's young offensive line to grow up in the summer. He dragged the young depth chart to lunch, waited in the weight room for them to finish their workouts, and created a culture that stressed a brotherhood, regardless of where you were on the depth chart. That became critical once injuries started piling up, and, even without Christian Lombard, Chris Watt and Nick Martin, Harry Hiestand's offensive line stayed together.
Likewise, Rees' respect on the roster only grew after Golson departed. While the quarterback limited what the Irish could do on the field, his willingness to embrace a very difficult role in 2012 and stick out a depth chart that seemed intent on burying him, helped keep the skill players together heading into 2013.
The emergence of young quarterback Malik Zaire during the spring game gave Brian Kelly the champagne problem of having two quarterbacks (seemingly) good enough to start for the Irish. But even in a best-case scenario, Zaire is only where Golson was entering 2012. That's not a bad thing. But to win double-digit games this year, the Irish need their starting quarterback to be more than just "1 of 11," and Golson is the only viable option to fill that role.
Being a leader isn't something that comes naturally to Golson. A mild-mannered and quiet person, Golson needs to use this summer to transform his personality from the talented guy in the shadows to the man leading the charge.
Golson knows that's the case, stating back in April that he's feeling the transition take place.
"I do feel like I'm a leader," Golson said. "It has evolved. That's my role, to be a leader on this team."
Golson will earn that role this summer. And if he can do that and master an offense that's been tailor-made for him, it will have been a very successful summer.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.
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