No what-ifs, ands or buts for Notre Dame QB Everett Golson

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The what-ifs from Everett Golson’s past came hurtling at the Notre Dame quarterback this week. Some welcome, some nostalgic, some that have indirectly helped pave his own path to a redemptive season thus far in 2014.

His focus, though, was a situation in his present that he didn’t want to evolve into a regretful kind of what-if — ball security. Golson actually stayed after practices the past two weeks, working with Notre Dame’s running backs to reverse an alarming trend that has re-emerged in his game — fumbling.

And one of the few areas that underachieving preseason-ranked North Carolina (2-3) excels at is forcing turnovers. The 17-point underdogs in Saturday’s meeting with the sixth-ranked Irish (5-0) stand 12th nationally in turnovers gained.

Golson, still by far Notre Dame’s career leader in fewest interceptions per attempt — despite throwing three in the past two games — has three lost fumbles the past two weeks and seven in 16 career starts.

The Notre Dame running backs don’t even have that many in the past three seasons combined (six).

“I think it’s one of those things I’ve just got to get better with, with repetition,” Golson said earlier this week. “You almost have to be unconscious in doing it, just tucking the ball.

“I think just naturally I carry the ball a little loose, but I definitely have been working in practice just to tuck the ball a little bit more.”

Notre Dame Stadium celebrates its 84th birthday on Saturday as the Irish try to reach 6-0 for the 32nd time in program history.

The last 5-0 Irish team that stumbled in game six was the 1971 squad that lost, 26-14 to USC and finished 8-2.

A victory over the Tar Heels — and one Saturday by top-ranked Florida State (5-0) on the road over 24-point underdog Syracuse (2-3) — would set up a showdown in Tallahassee, Fla., next week between the Irish and Seminoles, saturated in national playoff implications.

It’s one in a wave of distractions thrown at the Irish, Golson and head coach Brian Kelly this week, not the least of which is the beginning of the end — finally — of the 75-day-old academic fraud investigation process that started July 29.

None of the five suspended players will see the field Saturday, and, pending reversals on appeal, none are expected to play the balance of the 2014 season. Star cornerback KeiVarae Russell acknowledged as much on his Instagram account on Friday afternoon, vowing to return to play for the Irish in 2015.

“We have a unique blend on this team — a large number of these players have been through a 12-0 season (in 2012), where they had to play (hard) every week,” Kelly said of how his team his handling the mental intrusions. “So we have a lot of players that understand that.

“And then we have a bunch of freshmen who don’t know (any better). They just play. They just want to get to Saturday. So we have a great balance in that respect.

“The quarterback is essential to this. Absolutely essential. And how he practices on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday is huge to our success and our development as a football team.”

Golson did so at a high level, per Kelly, despite still trying to shake a lingering minor illness and a few personal distractions of his own, including playing against the school he was committed to before he flipped to ND late in the recruiting process in 2010.

“Just prayed about it and talked to my family, had some time to think about it,” Golson said of how he arrived at the decision to walk away from the Tar Heels, who at the time were under heavy NCAA scrutiny.

“Obviously, during that time the investigation was going on, things like that. But yeah, just prayed about it, and it turned out to be the right choice for me.”

But a difficult choice, in large part because of North Carolina offered a realistic opportunity to double-up and play basketball — Golson’s first love.

The point guard/QB led his Myrtle Beach High School team to South Carolina state titles in both sports.

“I get hyped when I talk about basketball,” the 6-foot, 200-pound Golson said.

He talked basketball with Irish men’s head coach Mike Brey during the recruiting process and with Kelly, who didn’t rule out the double in his recruiting pitch, but didn’t envision it materializing either.

That didn’t dissuade Golson from playing as much hoops as possible on his own time in 2011, when he was a scout team QB and wide receiver in football while redshirting, and in the winter months early in 2012.

“We’d have to scold him and tell him he couldn’t play basketball,” Kelly recalled. “But I think that that now has changed because of his focus on being the quarterback here. But no, in his first year here, he was a handful. He always wanted to go out and play a little basketball.”

Golson, who regularly played against and held his own in AAU ball against eventual NBA stars during his high school years, played 5-on-5 games with the Irish varsity players his freshman year on a regular basis, but never in a setting that mattered, as he hoped to.

He purports to be able to dunk, that he is clearly the best basketball player on the football team — with 6-8, 310-pound former Pennsylvania prep hoops standout Mike McGlinchey perhaps a distant second — and that his involvement in the sport is now limited to the arcade game Pop-A-Shot.

Kelly doesn’t even allow his football players to participate in the renowned Bookstore Basketball intra-campus tourney, with a history of football standouts among its champions and Irish quarterbacks Tom Clements and Rusty Lisch among its former MVPs.

Tight end Joe Fauria, who finished his collegiate career at UCLA, was the last ND football player to win tourney MVP honors, in 2009, the tourney held before Kelly was on campus.

The most recent ND varsity football player to suit up for the Irish men’s hoops team was tight end John Carlson, who lettered in 2003. Arik Armstead, a 6-8, 290-pound junior defensive lineman for Oregon, is the most realistic candidate in recent years to have doubled, had he picked the Irish.

Armstead’s basketball career at Oregon, though, spanned three weeks in 2013-14, with the big man quitting after playing in one game, because hoops coach Dana Altman wouldn’t promise him a more prominent role.

The last Notre Dame football player to make a significant impact on the Irish men’s hoops team was Joe Howard (now known as Joe Johnson), who took up coach Digger Phelps’ invite his junior year and ended up playing in all 23 games after football season ended.

The 5-9 guard started 11 times in 1984. He scored 14 points in his collegiate debut against Holy Cross and a career-high 15 against Pitt in the NIT with 12 assists. He stands second only to Willie Townsend in single-season scoring among ND “walk-ons.”

Ironically, he too almost signed with North Carolina out of high school, but then-ND assistant coach Greg Blache and Howard’s mother convinced him to change his mind on national signing day.

“I thought I knew it all about basketball when I got to Notre Dame,” Johnson said in a 2004 South Bend Tribune interview, “but I learned so much from Digger. And I played some of the best basketball of my life.

“I had such a good time — not many people know this — but I almost quit football. It got to the point me and (football) coach (Gerry) Faust didn’t see eye to eye on anything. He didn’t like me playing basketball. We had a meeting and there were things that were said that stuck with me so long. The next year I had a reduced role in football.”

Golson has a longing for hoops, but no bitterness. He fills the void now becoming a football junkie, staying up to watch the Thursday night games, like the one between Oregon and Arizona last week.

“I respect him a lot,” Golson said of Oregon QB and fellow Heisman Trophy contender Marcus Mariota. “I respect his game. I’m always attuned to football. I think I’ve really been like that since 2013, just always trying to watch football.

“I think I watch it just to kind of see different things that they’re doing, successful offenses like that, seeing how they go about their business and things like that. Just watching for different things that I could maybe implement in my game as well.”

But that doesn’t include consistently throwing with the laces, a habit Golson tried to form, but has resigned himself to being hit-and-miss with.

“I try to get the laces when I can, when it’s more deep throws,” said Golson, who never threw with the laces until he visited with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr., last fall. “When I’m throwing (in the) quick game, I’ve just got to catch it and get it out. I mean it’s kind of hard to grab it.

“There’s no time for it. I mean those guys are running, one-step and three-step slants. You’ve got to get the ball out, or you’re going to be late on your throw.”

That doesn’t mean he isn’t open to evolving in other areas. In fact, improvement is constantly foremost in his thoughts.

“Consistency,” he said without hesitation of what the next step should look like.

“I think I’ve shown flashes of, ‘OK I can stay in the pocket, OK I can make those throws, OK I could create, I could get to my checkdown.’ I’ve just got to be more consistent with it.”

No what-ifs, ands or buts about it.

ehansen@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6112

Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson looks to pass against Syracuse during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014, in East Rutherford, N.J. Notre Dame won 31-15. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)