SOUTH BEND, Ind. - The last time Everett Golson played in a game was Jan. 7, 2013, Notre Dame's 42-14 shellacking at the hands of Alabama in the BCS Championship. When Golson takes the field Saturday against Rice at Notre Dame Stadium, it'll have been exactly 600 days since he was last hit and since he last played in front of a packed stadium on national TV.
Golson's been through two spring practices, one summer of workouts and trained with quarterback guru George Whitfield in San Diego over those 600 days. He feels comfortable with his teammates and running the Irish offense, but it's been a while since he played a meaningful down of football.
Coach Brian Kelly said Golson's long layoff won't change his expectations for his starting quarterback against Rice. But...
"We need to be cognizant of that fact that this will be his first game since playing against Alabama," Kelly said. "We need to get him into the game, probably you hear this from everybody, but have some success early on with him and get him into the flow of the game. I think once he starts to get comfortable playing the game at fast pace, then we just call the game like we normally would. But I think we need to get him off to a good start."
Golson, a senior, is more mature than he was two years ago but it'd be tough to blame him if there are some jitters when he takes the field for the first time on Saturday. A year ago, he was relegated to watching games from a couch thanks to his academic exile from campus, an experience he said was "embarrassing."
"I watched the Temple game, and I felt kind of bad just seeing all those guys out there," Golson said. "I think the biggest thing I saw, I saw Amir (Carlisle) break off on that run and it really sunk in like oh, man, I'm not there.
"Then the Michigan game, that one kind of tore me up a little bit, just for the simple fact that they lost. The competitor in me always felt like maybe I could've done something to change the circumstances and stuff like that. It definitely hurt me for sure."
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Golson's been building toward Saturday's season opener ever since he pledged to return to Notre Dame in the summer of 2013. He re-joined his teammates for winter workouts this January with level of excitement not usually seen out of upperclassmen, observed wide receiver Chris Brown.
"Usually vets come in, they just get in, get it done," Brown said. "He came out there, he was like 'let's keep going, let's keep going.' It was one of those funny times to see him so excited."
Only a handful of guys are still around the offense Golson ran in 2012, and as long as DaVaris Daniels is out, Golson has completed a grand total of two passes to the targets he'll be throwing to on Saturday (one to Ben Koyack, one to Brown). Christian Lombard is the only starting offensive lineman from 2012 still with the Irish, while running back Cam McDaniel mostly saw garbage-time carries with the second-team offense in blowouts two years ago.
Golson talked about that "clean sweep" of players serving as a wake-up call for him to become a leader: "There was no more sitting around and waiting to see who else was going to step up," he said. "I had to be that guy and I took responsibility to be that guy."
The Irish ran a basic offense in 2012, one designed to keep Golson from making mistakes while an elite defense powered the team's run to the BCS Championship. The script is flipped in 2014, with Notre Dame relying on Golson and its offense to win games with a young and potentially mistake-prone defense.
Notre Dame's season may very well sink or swim based on how good Golson can be. That's quite a burden to put on a guy who hasn't played a game in over a year and a half, but Golson feels up to the task.
"I think it's been, what, 600 days or something ridiculous like that," Golson said. "I'm definitely eager to get back out there. I can't wait."