SOUTH BEND, Indiana — The last time he started a game, Notre Dame football quarterback Everett Golson was a redshirt freshman. Two years later, a new-look Golson is the vital, valuable engine as the Irish enter the 2014 season.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly made a simple but blunt distinction at the start of fall camp when evaluating Golson.
The question posed to Kelly referred to Golson as “the quarterback that took you to a title game.”
“I would argue that Everett rode the bus to the championship,” Kelly clarified.
It was less a shot at the yet-to-be-named starter and more a truism about Golson’s role as a redshirt freshman.
“It’s really, quite frankly, night and day compared to where he was in 2012 in my opinion,” Irish offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock said at Tuesday’s media day.
To the untrained eye, Golson looks different in the physical realm, in terms of size, strength and accuracy. Bigger. Stronger. Crisper. And when you ask coaches and teammates, Golson has grown immensely on the mental side of the game as well.
It all adds up to what surely looks like a much-improved quarterback in 2014. And as the Irish retool their offense this season, looking to push an uptempo attack, hoping to jump on teams instead of relying on their defense, Golson is key, probably the key.
Notre Dame’s offensive brain trust sat down at the end of last season and analyzed the team’s strengths and weaknesses. The faster tempo is one of the byproducts of the self-study.
“We feel like we’re to the point now offensively where we can take a little bit more of the game control and kind of control the tempo of the game, control the outcome of the game by the way we play offense, as opposed to just kind of leaning on our defense and offense let’s score one more than they do,” Denbrock said.
Naturally, Golson plays a crucial role in the attack.
“He’s the cornerstone of the whole deal,” Denbrock said. “He’s the guy who really is the puppet-master who’s pulling the strings even though coach Kelly is calling the plays.”
The offensive coordinator praised Golson’s work over the last three or four days of practice, saying Golson has made some impressive adjustments. He’s noticing the safeties rotating before the snap. He’s recognizing blitzes from the defense, threats “that he never saw in 2012,” according to Denbrock.
“He is just remarkable in the way that he’s developing in my opinion,” Denbrock added. “So I think he’s poised to really do a great job with us.”
Denbrock isn’t the only coach to think that. Former Texas head coach and current ESPN broadcaster Mack Brown came through camp in South Bend recently and left with high expectations for the Irish signal-caller.
ND QB Everett Golson looked great in practice Sunday. Look for him to have a super year— Mack Brown (@ESPN_CoachMack) August 13, 2014
Golson’s job becomes even more important now while the Irish proceed without the services of the four players—wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, cornerback KeiVarae Russell, defensive end Ishaq Williams and linebacker Kendall Moore—who are being held out of practices and competition during an ongoing academic investigation. Without their top receiver and top cornerback—as well as a projected starting defensive lineman—the Irish have a smaller margin for error. Golson has the ability to shove the academic investigation from the forefront.
Maybe just as importantly as his on-field ability, Golson has improved leadership qualities, at a time when the Irish need stability and focus. He used to be an underclassman who had “spotty” attendance and showed up late, according to Kelly.
“He wasn't doing the things leaders do,” Kelly said Tuesday.
Now, Kelly says, Golson is first to everything and first to speak up.
“He has matured, and he knows what great leadership looks like, and he's paid attention to it and knows what it looks like, and now he's that guy out in front,” Kelly said.
The Irish are hoping Golson and the fresh offense put them out in front of the opposition.
“We want to be aggressive, and we want to really beat you on the offensive side which was different from 2012,” Golson said Tuesday.
“He has the keys to the offense,” Denbrock said of Golson.
He’s now driving the bus.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.