FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Everett Golson lacks the catchy nickname and Heisman Trophy of fellow redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel.
But in terms of style, Golson resembles the only quarterback to defeat Alabama this season — athletic, quick, a strong arm, ability to scramble.
“There are a lot of similarities,” said Crimson Tide coordinator Kirby Smart, whose defense was frustrated by “Johnny Football” during Texas A&M’s victory at Tuscaloosa on Nov. 10.
“Both of them are youthful and sometimes youth is a good thing. He doesn’t have a very long memory. He forgets it and he’s right back to the next play and will make another big play.”
People with long memories might recall Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway, the only true freshman quarterback to lead a team to a national title (’85), and Bernie Kosar, who did the trick as a redshirt freshman at Miami (’83).
Golson will be trying to join them on Monday night, when unbeaten Notre Dame (12-0) plays Alabama (12-1) in the BCS Championship game at Sun Life Stadium.
Playing on a big stage is nothing new for the Notre Dame quarterback. After beating out incumbent Tommy Rees before the season, Golson began his college career against Navy (in Dublin, Ireland), Purdue, at Michigan State and Michigan. There also were wins against Stanford, at Oklahoma and at Southern California.
“The difficult thing, but the nice thing for him is, he was thrown into the fire right away,” Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said. “When you come out and play three Big Ten teams your first four games, two or three huge rivals your first four games, he didn’t get to ease into this thing like some young quarterbacks do.
“He’s about as battle tested … take any other quarterback this year and try to figure out if they’ve gone through as much as Everett Golson. To me it’s not even close. Not even close.”
Golson, a 6-foot, 185-pound Myrtle Beach, S.C., product, has completed 58.9 percent of his passes this season for 2,135 yards passing, 11 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Not bad for a guy who spins the ball to avoid the laces when throwing the football.
The Road to the BCS title game, however, has not been an easy one for Golson.
The two-sport high school star (basketball) arrived at South Bend in 2011 eager to compete for the starting quarterback job. Instead of impressing the coaches, Golson found himself on the scout team midway through the season en route to redshirting.
With determination and hard work, Golson regained head coach Brian Kelly’s trust and won the starting job before the season. But Rees, suspended for the Navy game after an offseason brush with the law, relieved Golson to lead late drives against Michigan and Stanford.
Golson remained the starter, though he sat the first series against Miami on Oct. 6 for violating team rules and did not play against BYU on Oct. 20 after suffering a concussion. He returned to direct a huge a win at Oklahoma on Oct. 27.
“It looked like from the (press)box that he was really starting to get comfortable out there vs. Oklahoma,” Martin said, “and not so much based on play and performance, but just based on watching him take the field and watching him direct our offense.”
The performance in Norman, however, did not prevent Golson from being benched briefly for ineffectiveness the following week at home against Pittsburgh — a game the Irish won in three overtimes.
One specific piece of advice has helped Golson cope with the various struggles he has faced. “The race is not given to the swift or the strong … I’m paraphrasing … but it’s given to the one that endures to the end,” he said.
The end to what has been a surprising, remarkable season — and one sprinkled with a little Luck of the Irish — will come against the SEC champion Crimson Tide.
While linebacker Manti Te’o and a stingy defense have earned deserved praise, Notre Dame will need its offense to make plays against Alabama if the Irish are to fulfill their desire of a BCS title.
Although running back Theo Riddick, tight end Tyler Eifert and several offensive linemen expect to advance to the NFL, it all starts with Golson.
“I can see in my mind three plays we watched over and over, he scrambles to his right, throws it all the way across the field to his left to a wide open receiver where a guy just lost him,” Smart said. “They had him covered and they lost him. To that kid’s credit that creates a different angle of the offense that’s hard to prepare for. It’s hard to simulate that, simulate a play that extends that long. You can’t do it, you really can’t.”
Whether its playing music by ear on the keyboard or trying to avoid defenders, Golson knows how to improvise.
“That’s a great weapon for any team,” Alabama defensive end Damion Square said. “A quarterback like that makes them right for anything that he calls. He can call a play that’s probably busted, and then the quarterback can scramble around for five seconds and create things and create havoc for our defense.”
A quarterback like that already beat Alabama. Will it happen again?