SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Before Notre Dame opened preseason camp, a reporter asked coach Brian Kelly about Everett Golson, prefacing his question by saying Golson "led" Notre Dame to the BCS championship game in 2012.
Kelly quickly corrected the reporter.
"I would argue that Everett rode the bus to the championship," Kelly said, offering a pre-emptive shot of motivation to his senior quarterback.
That certainly isn't the case anymore. This year Golson is more like Ralph Kramden or Cosmo Kramer since he can say to himself: Now I'm driving the bus.
"I've been that guy set apart or not really falling into what everybody else is doing," Golson said. "I think that's what made me a natural leader."
After spending the 2013 season in academic exile, it's up to Golson to keep the bus on track while four of his teammates face the same fate as a result of the university's academic fraud investigation.
To fulfill that role, the Irish need Golson to take the reins of a team that has several inexperienced players stepping in at key positions on both sides of the ball. And they need Golson to grip those reins much tighter than he did in 2012.
"He was spotty in attendance. He was at times late. He wasn't doing the things leaders do," Kelly said of Golson's sophomore year. "Now he's first to everything. He's the first one to speak up if things aren't going well. He's matured. He knows what great leadership looks like, and he's paid attention to it."
Even though quarterback lends itself to a position of authority, Golson said he did not feel much like a leader in 2012. He could look around the locker room and see players such as Manti Te'o and Tyler Eifert who had earned the respect of their teammates and the right to speak during crucial moments. Golson admitted he had a tough time developing his voice.
But once he returned from suspension, Golson said the burden of leadership weighed heavy.
"It really hit home for me when I got back," Golson said. "You kind of see the clean sweep: The guys that were here in 2012 weren't here in 2013, 2014. So it was important for us to establish that leadership. There was no more sitting around and waiting to see who else was going to step up. I had to be that guy."
Senior defensive back Matthias Farley has seen Golson's transformation from the other side of the ball and has noticed him becoming more vocal and comfortable in leading the offense.
Even before Golson beat out sophomore Malik Zaire for the starting job, Farley said Golson made his presence felt. This was Golson's team, and nobody was going to wrest it from him.
"Since he's been back, there's been no question who the leader of the offense is," Farley said. "I don't think anybody on the team, any of the coaches, would question that. He's definitely become more vocal, which is important, especially as a quarterback. Previously, he was the young guy."
Now the young guys on the team are learning from a hungrier, more motivated Golson. In some ways, Golson's time away from the program may have benefited Notre Dame for this season. It has narrowed his focus, and his tribulations, in an odd way, have helped him gain credibility in the locker room.
"I was definitely embarrassed at first, but you have to feel that," Golson said. "Humility? You have to feel that as well to know what it's like when you get back up to the top. It hurt, and I felt like I had the full brunt of that to really self-evaluate myself and correct my mistakes."
You won't find Golson acting like a crusty veteran, putting his hand on a young player's shoulder and teaching him right from wrong. Nor will you find him standing in front of everyone to address the team — at least for now, running back Cam McDaniel fills that role.
But Golson's words and actions carry weight.
"He realizes that if (he has) an off day, there's other guys that are going to have an off day," strength and conditioning coordinator Paul Longo said. "How he carries himself with that has been very noticeable. … He's been up. He's been down. He has experience, and you can't replace experience."
In his fifth year at Notre Dame, Kelly finally has his quarterback where he wants him: an experienced, multidimensional threat who is capable of chewing up defenses, chunks at a time.
Kelly may be the tour guide of Notre Dame's offense, possessing all the knowledge necessary to inform the other passengers, but Golson is very much the driver. He has been on this road before, and he knows just where to go.
"I think to the best of my ability I've earned respect from those guys," Golson said. "And they're all receptive of me."
Reason to believe: Golson has the tools to be one of the top quarterbacks in the country. With an efficient offensive line and talented skill players in line to emerge, Notre Dame figures to have one of its best offensive seasons under Kelly.
Reason to doubt: Just how steep will the defense's learning curve be under first-year coordinator Brian VanGorder? That might determine how far the Irish can go. The looming investigation involving three potential contributors on defense — cornerback KeiVarae Russell, linebacker Kendall Moore and defensive end Ishaq Williams — threatens to test the Irish's depth.
The season is a success if ... The Irish make the inaugural College Football Playoff — at least to hear them tell it. The feasibility of that goal, however, took a serious hit when the school launched its academic fraud investigation. The Irish have had time to adjust to the losses on the field, but if they can win nine games on a schedule that includes trips to Florida State, USC and Arizona State, that would be worth celebrating.
Player to watch: Notre Dame coaches have been high on junior Sheldon Day's development as he shifts to defensive tackle in VanGorder's 4-3 scheme. After losing Louis Nix to the NFL, Day seems primed to be the dynamic playmaker the Irish need up the middleCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun