By Michael Wanbaugh
CNHI News Service
When summer workouts began in preparation for the 2012 season, Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson seemed like an afterthought.
Veteran Tommy Rees who started games in each of the past two seasons was back, as was Andrew Hendrix who also saw playing time in 2011. Then there was the arrival of freshman Gunner Kiel who was considered the top QB prospect coming out of high school last year. The depth chart behind center was suddenly very packed.
Golson, a red-shirt freshman from Myrtle Beach, S.C., was relegated to the Irish scout team last season and had a long way to go if he was going to see the field in 2012.
Now he is on the verge of leading No. 1 Notre Dame (12-0) to its first national title in 24 years when the Irish battle No. 2 Alabama (12-1) Monday night in the BCS National Championship Game at Sun Life Stadium in Miami. Kickoff is set for 8:30 p.m.
“Coming in (as a freshman 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.”
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly surprised many 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 would struggle in upcoming games against Purdue and Michigan and miss the game against BYU because of concussion.
Kelly pulled Golson in favor of Rees twice and it seemed a quarterback controversy was brewing, even though Kelly insisted it wasn’t. 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.
“I think that built a little bit of confidence in me,” Golson said. “What was instilled in me there showed (later) in the Oklahoma game and the Pitt game.”
Against Oklahoma Golson emerged with a poise and confidence that ND offensive Coordinator Chuck Martin said he could see as he 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 the Irish 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 one of the toughest to score on inside their 20-yard line. Opponents have come away with points inside the red zone just 63 percent of the time. That leads the nation.
The combination of Alabama’s strength on defense and Notre Dame’s slow progression on offense, has the defending national champion Crimson Tide installed as a 10-point favorite over the No. 1 Irish. Mosely said that doesn’t make a difference.
“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 a loss. Milliner has 51 tackles, two interceptions and 18 pass breakups.
In addition to Golson, who is a mobile, strong-armed quarterback, Alabama will have to deal with several Notre Dame weapons, both at the line of scrimmage and downfield.
The Irish one-two running back punch of Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick averages 74 and 73 yards per game, respectively. Tyler Eifert is one of the best tight ends in the country and often draws double coverage in red zone situations.
“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.”
Wide receiver TJ Jones has also emerged as 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 continued to get better as the season went, going up against one of the game’s great defenses is just another step in the process.
“Coming from the spring, one of (Coach Kelly’s) main focuses for me was the mechanics of being a quarterback,” Golson said. “I think he’s helped me out a lot with that and I’ve shown progression from the start of the season.
“Alabama has a great defense,” Golson added. “It’s definitely going to be a great opportunity to compete for this national championship.”