MIAMI. — Everett Golson, Notre Dame's starting quarterback in Monday's college football championship game, was an afterthought six months ago when the Fighting Irish began preparing for the 2012 season.
Veteran Tommy Rees, who started several games the previous two seasons, was back. So too Andrew Hendrix, who saw playing time in 2011. And the presence of Gunner Kiel, last year's top high school quarterback prospect, only added to the depth chart.
Golson, who spent the entire 2011 season on Notre Dame's scout team as a redshirt freshman, was just another wannabe at a school that has produced legendary quarterbacks.
But Golson's mobility, running ability and arm strength impressed head coach Brian Kelly, and now the Myrtle Beach, S. C., native is on the verge of leading No. 1 Notre Dame (12-0) to its first national football title in 24 years.
“Coming in (last year) I thought I was ready to play, or had that confidence that I was ready to play. But it wasn’t that way for me,” Golson said. “Being put on the scout team really humbled me and made me kind of reassess myself.”
Kelly surprised the experts when he named Golson the team’s starter back in August before heading to Ireland for the season opener against Navy. He played well in the 50-10 win, but struggled against Purdue and Michigan and missed the game against BYU because of concussion.
Kelly twice pulled Golson in favor of Rees during September games and it appeared a quarterback controversy was brewing even though Kelly insisted otherwise. He backed up that claim by sticking with Golson, who had his best game of the season against Miami (Fla.) Oct. 6 at Soldier Field in Chicago, a 41-3 Irish victory.
“That built a little bit of confidence in me,” said Golson. “What was instilled in me there showed (later) in the Oklahoma game and the Pitt game.”
Against Oklahoma Golson showed poise and confidence that offensive Coordinator Chuck Martin said he could see from the moment the Irish ran onto the field. Against Pitt the next week, Golson was pulled again, but Kelly put him back in for the fourth quarter with the Irish trailing by 14 points. Golson brought Notre Dame all the way back for a 29-26 win in triple overtime.
“It’s been a steady improvement (for Golson) as the year has gone on,” Martin said. “The nice thing for him is he got thrown in the fire right away.”
The fire gets even hotter Monday night against an Alabama defense that is as strong as it’s ever been, leading the nation in rushing defense (79 yards per game) and second only to the Irish in scoring defense (10.69 points per game).
Led by linebacker C.J. Mosley and cornerback Dee Milliner, the Alabama defense has been the toughest in college football to score on in the red zone. Opponents have come away with points just 63 percent of the time when inside the Crimson Tide's 20 yard line.
Oddsmakers have installed Alabama a 10-point favorite over Notre Dame on the basis of the Tide's strength on defense and Notre Dame’s slow progression on offense.
Mosley said it makes no difference one way or the other.
“It’s a championship game, so being the favorite or being the underdog doesn’t matter,” Mosely said. “Both teams are going to give it all they got.”
Mosely leads the ‘Bama defense with 99 tackles, 11 of those for losses. Milliner has 51 tackles, 2 interceptions and 18 pass breakups.
They will have to deal with Golson's mobility and Notre Dame's one-two running back punch of Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, who average 74 and 73 rushing yards per game, respectively. There's also Tyler Eifert, one of the best tight ends in the country.
“I don’t think we have seen anyone like him,” Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson said of Eifert. “He has size and speed at the same time.”
Irish wide receiver TJ Jones is also a threat, catching 43 passes for 559 yards and four touchdowns. Jones’ late father, Andre, was a defensive end on Notre Dame’s last national championship team in 1988.
As for Golson, who got better by the game during the season, going up against one of the game’s great defenses is just another step in the process of proving himself.
“Alabama has a great defense,” Golson added. “It’s definitely going to be a great opportunity."
Michael Wanbaugh is the editor of the Goshen News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.