Notre Dame football: Teams must find balance during prep

Evan Sharpley Stayin' Sharp
ND Insider

The 2012 Fighting Irish football season has been an adventure of legendary proportion.

An amazing season filled with intrigue, excitement, exhilaration, and transformation: Ireland, Michigan under the lights, Miami at Soldier Field, Michigan State on the road, Oklahoma in prime time, the goal line stand against Stanford, and USC in the Coliseum with a national championship birth on the line.

If the lights were bright this year, the lights just got brighter!

No other sport has a layover between regular season and postseason like college football. Extended time off is a definite problem that coaches Brian Kelly and Nick Saban have had to deal with.

I was blessed enough to be a part of two teams that played in BCS bowl games (interestingly enough, I am the last Notre Dame quarterback to take a snap in a BCS bowl game), both of which were played more than a month after the regular season ended.

There is a fine line between being too prepared, yet burnt out, versus confident and relaxed.

During preparation for the Fiesta Bowl my freshman year and the Sugar Bowl my sophomore year, we watched so much film, had so many meetings, and were so immersed with bowl prep that by the time the game was ready to be played I was exhausted mentally and physically.

The Hawaii Bowl my senior year was much different compared to my previous two bowl experiences. We took a much different approach, but I attribute this to the level of bowl we were in.

The success we had in the Hawaii Bowl was a combination of a relaxed mind-set and a weak opponent (Hawaii).

I understand the differences in approach between Fiesta/Sugar bowls and Hawaii Bowl, however, for college student-athletes there must be a proper balance. This is especially true for teams with longer layoffs.

One of young men preparing for the bright lights is Irish starting quarterback Everett Golson. His growth, maturity, and confidence have been an ongoing process from the beginning of the season until the final regular season game.

He experienced his first collegiate start, first start at Notre Dame Stadium, was tested in hostile environments, bounced back from getting benched, dealt with an injury, and finished strong putting his team in the position to play for a national championship.

The regular season has prepared him for the spotlight on Jan. 7, but what about the process between the end of the regular season and the bowl game? How much or how little might he have evolved during the long break between games?

Amid final exams, NFL draft chatter, and trips home, players must be able to focus on the task at hand. In Brian Kelly’s words, the Irish must “avoid the noise.” For Golson, bowl preparation is a time to refine and sharpen what he has been doing all year.

In order to do so, he will have had to bring intense focus each practice session. This is not the time to take steps backwards. The same mistakes he made in practice early in the year should be non-existent.

The extended time between the final regular-season game and the national championship game should allow him to limit mistakes and play within the system the coaches have created and implemented throughout the year.

Initially, Golson displayed a very limited offensive package which evolved as the year progressed. “Move the pocket” throws, designed runs, option plays, play-action passes, and audibles seasoned the playbook as he became more familiar and increasingly confident with the offense.

At this point, Brian Kelly isn’t going to change the identity of his team. There might be minor tweaks and adjustments based on what Alabama does defensively, but overall, Everett should feel comfortable with the game plan and with what to expect from Alabama.

Throughout the year, when he has been comfortable mentally, he has played his best football. His mental prep for this game should not deviate from what he has done up to this point. Playing against great defenses like Stanford and practicing against the Irish defense should mitigate anxiety to prepare for the Crimson Tide defense.

The only variation in mental prep is the amount of time to prepare. Everett has had more time to watch film and study the game plan than ever before. Preparation is the key to success, which is why I expect a confident and calm Everett Golson to “wake up the echoes” as the whole world watches.

For years, Irish fans young and old have been praying at the Basilica and lighting candles at the Grotto with aspirations of championships. With each agonizing championship-less season, faith was replaced with shadows of doubt.

Out of those shadows, the 2012 Fighting Irish emerged. From the outside looking in, it would have been very difficult to have predicted a 12-0 season, multiple goal-line stops, the top defense in the country led by a staunch front and arguably the most inspirational player in college football, and a budding star at the quarterback position.

But behind the closed doors of the “Gug,” a winning environment, paralleled to those of Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, and Holtz, sparked a quiet confidence in a group of young student-athletes. Their mission: Unfinished Business. Go Irish!

In addition to his weekly column, former Notre Dame quarterback Evan Sharpley previews upcoming games each Friday at 7:50 a.m. on WSBT’s JT In The Morning Show (960 AM and 96.1 FM). On Mondays, Sharpley co-hosts WSBT’s Notre Dame Football Final, which airs from 9-10 a.m. He’ll also be an occasional contributor to WSBT’s Weekday SportsBeat and Gameday SportsBeat radio programs. He serves as the director of fitness at the Eastlake Athletic Club in Elkhart.

Follow Sharpley on Twitter: @EvanSharpley

Notre Dame football: Teams must find balance during prep