SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- At 7:22 a.m. on Monday, Everett Golson walked out of the locker room and into a hallway at the Notre Dame football complex, though not quite into plain sight. Unlike other players making the same walk, he already had his helmet on. When he said something to a coach over his left shoulder, the words were muffled by his facemask and visor. He was neither the first player on nor the last player off the indoor field on his first official day of work after nearly a year spent in academic exile. The opening day of spring practice did not begin or end with Everett Golson. That made it exceptional, because for the Fighting Irish in 2014, just about everything else will.
"It was crazy," Golson said later, when asked how it felt to walk onto a field for Notre Dame for the first time in about a year. "I want to say surreal in a sense. I felt accomplished for a split moment -- that I went through what I went through, and now I'm back."
On a marrow-freezing morning with two-story snow piles all around, the Fighting Irish program marked its rebirth. The 2012 national championship game appearance notwithstanding, fifth-year coach Brian Kelly's team can now begin to look precisely how he wants it to simply because he has his quarterback once again. He made enough adjustments and compensations last season -- at quarterback and elsewhere -- to win games. But Kelly also never concealed for a moment how much he pined for a dynamic, howitzer-armed passer to be the engine of his offense.
He had devoted all energy leading up to the undefeated 2012 regular season to ensuring Golson would be just such a player, and then the Irish held Golson's hand through rough stretches during that campaign. It was painstaking laying of a foundation for both coach and quarterback. When Golson was dismissed for a semester last spring because he cheated on a final exam, Kelly knew exacly what he lost, and he was left to spend much of the unsatisfying '13 season lamenting the quarterback who got away. Now, Kelly knows exactly what he's got: a more polished, more football-literate version of the player who will define his offense and, by extension, Notre Dame. It's all on the quarterback, which is exactly how Kelly wants it.
"Absolutely," he said after the workout on Monday. "Your offensive line has to play well, it has to protect the quarterback. We've got to run the ball effectively, take care of it. But I think we all know college football and where it is -- the quarterback is really going to be the centerpiece of this offense and the way we run it. It's going to fall on him. We all live in the same world when it comes to the Notre Dame quarterback. We're going to heap a lot on this kid's shoulders. And he knows that. That's why he came back to Notre Dame, because he wants that. Clearly, he's going to be the one that drives this for us."
In a sense, the Fighting Irish have never had that Everett Golson. As a sophomore in 2012, he was good; he played 12 games and threw for 2,405 yards and 12 touchdowns. In the blowout loss to Alabama in the BCS title game, his performance was hardly catastrophic.. But Notre Dame only got that far because of its defense. Golson wasn't fully mobilized. He had limited command of both the offense and his reads in his first year of action, especially early. That's why Tommy Rees parachuted in to run the two-minute offense and save a win against Purdue in September. That's why a few weeks later Rees took virtually no snaps going into the game against Michigan and yet, in relief, ran an Everett Golson game plan better than Everett Golson.
In 2014, Golson could be more complete in every way. His time last fall with quarterback guru George Whitfield opened his eyes to what he called "the actual science of being a quarterback." Since re-enrolling in January, his conversations with Kelly during film study have been, frankly, less remedial. "There's a conceptual awareness that he had lacked sometimes," Kelly said. "When he explained his progression [of reads before], it might take him 10 seconds. Well, you have 2.6 seconds to throw the ball. Now he's precise in his communication. That tells me a lot."
Physical ability has never been much of a concern for Golson; that's how he could scramble right and throw back across the length of the field for a 36-yard touchdown pass in a win over Michigan State in his third career start. But even his ability to make highlight-reel plays might be better now, too. Golson has added 15 pounds to his 6-foot frame, and now tips the scale at 200 (gauging by the evident heft under his Notre Dame polo shirt on Monday, he put on the weight in the correct way). "I think I actually got a little faster, to be honest," Golson said. In the first period of Monday's practice, as the Fighting Irish offense ran through plays while Avicii's "Levels" blared over the speakers, Golson rolled left and lasered a pass to receiver Corey Robinson along the sideline. The thrust on the ball was uncommon and unmistakable. And while only 30 minutes of the practice was open for viewing, that pass seemed to be prologue.
"He's throwing frozen ropes," defensive back Matthias Farley said. "He looked awesome. There's some pace behind every throw."
Or as tight end Ben Koyack put it: "Not too many people throw a fastball like he does."
Golson can throw from the pocket or on the move. He can run the option, as he did with tailback Tarean Folston near the goal-line on Monday, or he can improvise. He can be, simply, the true spread-offense quarterback that Kelly covets, and he can make Notre Dame more unpredictable, in a good way.
The Irish ranked 67th nationally with an average of 406.2 yards per game last year, and 74th with 27.2 points scored per game. Since the end of the season, they have lost two four-year starters on the line, their top wideout (TJ Jones) and their top tight end (Troy Niklas). Even with relative inexperience nearly everywhere on offense, Golson is capable of putting a turbocharge into the operation. "I don't feel the pressure," Golson said. "I feel like it's more a platform for me. I feel like that is where I want to be. I want to be in the front and have that leadership role and lead these guys to victory."
A program is built on that premise now. Kelly's new quarterbacks coach is Matt LaFleur, late of the Washington Redskins, for whom he tutored Robert Griffin III. Kelly also will resume calling plays. He ceded the responsibility last fall, but with Golson back Kelly wants the offense to run exactly like he wants it to. Notre Dame can now have the look, on both sides of the ball, that most closely approximates the coach's ideal. That owes mostly to the return of the player in the red No. 5 jersey. On Monday, Golson wiggled and danced in warmup lines behind linebacker Kendall Moore, and then, minutes later, jumped into the lineup to direct the offense without a hint of hesitation.
It was a sight that was welcomed unconditionally by the Fighting Irish. As one might expect from 18-to-22-year-olds sympathetic to imperfect behavior, the players say that Golson owes them nothing, that he doesn't have to do any work to re-earn trust. "We're all a family, things happen, right, wrong or indifferent," Farley said. "That would do nothing but hinder us as a program from moving forward, if people held on to stuff like that. He's back and we couldn't be happier."
When the magnitude of what he'd done truly hit Golson, he was watching Notre Dame open the season against Temple last August. He saw players on the walk into the stadium and getting revved up in the tunnel before kickoff and he knew: That's where I'm supposed to be. "I went through that whole process of first feeling humiliated, for one, but then coming back around to where I am now, me being back here and getting ready to go," Golson said. "I regret it in a sense, but I think it allowed me to grow so much. My maturity level is completely different now. I had some time to sit back and think on what I did and how I can move forward from that. I think I'm a different person because of it."
The fate of an entire team is relying on it.