SOUTH BEND – Nowhere will Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly's unorthodox genius be more on display in the national title game than with first-year starting quarterback Everett Golson.
Kelly threw Golson, a sophomore who didn't play a down in 2011, into the lineup before he was fully ready. Then he yanked him around, pulling him for Tommy Rees in some critical clutch situations. He threw him back in. He criticized him, cajoled him and did everything but coddle him.
“We had to take him out on a couple of occasions,” Kelly said. “We did that to win games, but think of that from Everett Golson's standpoint. He had to question at times, 'Does Coach Kelly want me to be the guy here? Is this my job or Tommy Rees' job?' ”
One could argue whether Kelly's handling of Golson was a case of indecisiveness about his quarterback or a master plan that only Kelly fully understood. The end result is the same either way: Golson is no longer a wide-eyed rookie. The mental toughness needed to handle the big stage, not to mention Alabama's defense, has been steeled over a season.
Along the way, he never lost a game, even though Rees finished the job a time or two.
“Being taken out, at the time it hurt just because the competitor in me wanted to be in there and show I could come back from adversity and handle adversity,” Golson said. “But (Kelly) saw what was best and took me out. Adversity is going to be there. It's about what you do after that. I used it as motivation.”
Golson ended up starting 10 of Notre Dame's 12 games, but it was how he finished that proved Kelly's decisions right. After winning at Oklahoma on Oct. 27, Golson's final four games showed a quarterback who had come of age.
In wins over Pittsburgh, Boston College, Wake Forest and USC, Golson threw for 990 yards, seven touchdowns and only two interceptions. He also ran for a pair of touchdowns.
The difference in his command of the offense from earlier in the season was evident for everyone to see.
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Chuck Martin is another coach who rode Golson with an intensity that helped hone his mental toughness. He noticed the difference in Golson in the latter stages of the season.
Martin wasn't looking at throwing motion or completion percentage. He was reading body language. This is what he said he told Golson:
“I can tell you're a better player, not based on performance, but on how you jog onto the field on first-and-10,” Martin said. “I can tell you're a better player by how you conduct yourself between snaps. You just look so much calmer, dude. The way you're moving is so much more methodical and confident. Making plays go hand in hand.”
Golson points back to the Oklahoma game, a game he started while fighting the flu. Notre Dame was holding on to a 10-6 lead at halftime of a game the Irish would win 30-13. At halftime, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o gave Golson a pep talk of sorts.
“I was pretty sick, but it helped having Manti come up to me and say, 'We're going to get through this together,' ” Golson said. “Having a defensive player coming up to me and saying that helped a lot. It pushed me a little more to keep going.”
At that point of the season, with the Irish a legitimate national-championship contender, Kelly settled in with Golson. No more looking over his shoulder wondering if Rees would be coming. No more doubt who was the man at quarterback.
“Once he knew after the Oklahoma game he was the guy, his confidence and trust builds and builds and builds,” Kelly said. “He knows we have 100 percent confidence he can go in and win us a national championship.”
Alabama represents the toughest test yet for Golson, of course. The Crimson Tide players have been here before. They're accustomed to taking their defense, finding any weaknesses in the opposing quarterback and exploiting them. LSU fans can testify to that.
“They're a great, great team,” Golson said. “They do a lot of things that present a lot of match-up problems for us. They're just a great defense, starting with their athletes – they have a great caliber of athletes – and a great scheme and they're really well-disciplined in their responsibilities. They're tough.”
Tough is a good word for Golson.
He's been through Kelly's fire. He's undefeated as a starter. He's on the verge of leading the Irish to a place no quarterback has taken them since Tony Rice in the 1988 season.
“I'd be very, very surprised if he can't handle the moment,” Kelly said. “He has enough experience to go in and play the game. As he gets into the flow of the game – once you start to see him smile, everybody who has watched him knows, that's when he plays his best.”
Alabama can throw a lot at the young quarterback. Thanks to Kelly's approach, Golson knows how to handle some intense pressure.