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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A year ago, AJ McCarron was Everett Golson.
He was a first-year starting quarterback whose season had been all over the map – some big moments, some bad moments, some moments where fans wondered whether he should be benched. Heading into the BCS championship game, there was a lingering suspicion that he was merely along for the ride while the Alabama defense did all the heavy lifting. And there were significant questions about whether he could make enough plays to win the game against a phenomenal opposing defense.
Then McCarron lit up LSU on the way to the national title, shedding the “game manager” label along the way and establishing himself as one of the better quarterbacks in college football.
Golson very much hopes his 2012 season trajectory continues to follow the 2011 trajectory of McCarron right through Monday. If it does, Notre Dame might be national champions.
And if that happens, Golson will have completed one of the most eventful in-season journeys for a championship QB in recent memory.
“Take any other quarterback this year and try to figure out if they’ve gone through as much as Everett Golson,” offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said. “To me it’s not even close. Not even close.”
The redshirt freshman was named the Fighting Irish starter in August and played the first snaps of his college career in Dublin, Ireland. A week later, he was on the bench at the end of the game watching backup Tommy Rees save Notre Dame’s season with the winning drive against Purdue. He was the guy all game at Michigan State, then he was benched again the following week against Michigan with his parents in attendance from Myrtle Beach, S.C.
The up-and-down pattern continued into October. Golson was great in a rout of Miami, then fairly awful in the overtime victory against Stanford the following week. The Irish beat the Cardinal in spite of his three turnovers, and again they turned to Rees with the game on the line.
“In order to be great, you have to go through some adversity,” Golson said. “That was my adversity. It made me work harder and keep pushing.”
After being battered by Stanford, Golson sat out the following week against BYU. When the Irish went to Oklahoma on Oct. 27 for their biggest test of the season, there were palpable doubts about whether Golson had the goods to win a game of that magnitude.
That’s when the thin, piano-playing kid took over the position, and the team, for good.
Golson was great against Oklahoma in a dominant Notre Dame victory. From that point on, he’s looked less and less like the confused freshman who stumbled through the first seven weeks of the season.
“As the wins were coming, we were like, ‘Is he ready to handle this?’ “ Martin said. “But he kept getting better.”
[Related: Alabama's hatred of Notre Dame runs deep]
In Notre Dame’s first seven games, he averaged 175 yards of total offense, with six touchdowns and three interceptions. In its last five games, Golson has averaged 278 yards rushing and passing per game, with 10 touchdowns and only two interceptions. He went from worrisome to weapon in a matter of weeks.
Asked to rate himself at the beginning of the season on a scale of 1-10, Golson laughed and said, “Probably a zero.” Today he’d have to give himself at least a five – that’s his number, which he started wearing years ago as a fan of Donovan McNabb.
Golson possesses McNabb-like mobility, an attribute that has vexed Alabama’s powerful defense in recent years. The Crimson Tide are No. 1 nationally in total defense, but were carved up by the scrambling and evasiveness of Johnny Manziel in November. Prior to that, dual-threat quarterbacks like Cam Newton, Tim Tebow and Jordan Jefferson have had success against ‘Bama.
The hardest part for Golson might be reading the Tide defense. Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart play a base 3-4 defense, but frequently alternate into a 4-3 look and can disguise blitzes. For a quarterback and his offensive line, the first job pre-snap is recognizing the front and making any necessary calls and adjustments. This won’t be easy Monday, though the interminable layoff from Nov. 24 until now probably was better for Golson than anyone in terms of film study.
Despite his youth, nobody at Notre Dame is worried about Golson’s confidence in this game. He arrived in South Bend last year convinced he could become the starter and was surprised to find himself redshirted and playing on the scout team. Golson has always believed he was good enough to do what he’ll do Monday: start in the national championship game.
“That was his goal and aspiration when he came here,” Martin said. “He’s really talented, and he knows he’s talented.”
His quarterback counterpart does not lack confidence, either. But AJ McCarron still has rabbit ears for criticism to fuel his motivation.
“I use the doubt people always give me,” he said. “We had a lot of doubt coming into this season, people saying the offense wasn’t going to be any good because we lost Trent (Richardson, a Heisman Trophy finalist at running back).
“But that’s always good, so you can hush people up. There’s always going to be doubters and haters, no matter how many games you win. You hear it every day.”
McCarron heard it via Twitter in July from Tyrann Mathieu, of all people. On his way to blowing his college football career, the former LSU All-American got into a brief but spirited Twitter spat with McCarron, who certainly did not back down.
“I stick up for my teammates and us, even if I take a butt chewing for it,” McCarron said. “(Saban) told me he understood, but not to respond like that.”
Since then, McCarron’s response to any and all doubters has been with his right arm. Coming into the bowl games, he’s second nationally in pass efficiency. McCarron didn’t throw an interception until Nov. 10, and has just three of them on the season.
The redshirt junior from Mobile, Ala., hasn’t been called upon to do as much in Alabama’s last three games, throwing a total of just 48 passes in routs of Western Carolina, Auburn and the dramatic SEC championship game victory over Georgia. In those games the Tide ran the ball 138 times.
But there will be no hesitation to let McCarron chuck it around SunLife Stadium on Monday if the running game is faltering against Notre Dame’s stout front seven. Last year he threw it a career-high 34 times against LSU in the title game, with excellent results.
“Last year we put a lot of faith and trust and confidence in him to make plays for us,” Saban said.
After an uneven season, AJ McCarron made plays at a championship level last year. Everett Golson will try to do the same thing this year against a quarterback who already has made his mark and earned his ring.
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