SOUTH BEND, Indiana — The first day of spring practice was a bit surreal for Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson.
It had nothing to do with the 4 below zero temperature outside when the Fighting Irish took the field inside at 7:30 a.m. Monday. It had everything to do with that fact he was putting on his gold Notre Dame helmet and red practice jersey for the first time since being suspended from school last May for academic impropriety.
"I felt accomplished for a split moment, that I went through what I went through, and now I'm back," he said. "I'm moving forward now and still continuing that process of trying to grind and be better."
The Irish are expecting the 6-foot, 200-pound quarterback to be better than he was in 2012, when he helped Notre Dame get to the national championship game by finishing the regular season undefeated for the first time since winning its last national title in 1988. Golson was 187 of 318 passing, a 58.8 completion rate, with 12 touchdown passes and six interceptions as the Irish went 12-1, losing 42-14 to Alabama in the championship game. He also ran for 298 yards on 94 carries.
Coach Brian Kelly, who has repeatedly said he expects Malik Zaire to challenge Golson for the starter's job, on Monday sounded as though Golson would start.
"I think we all know college football and where it is, the quarterback is really going to be the centerpiece of this offense in the way we run. It's going to fall on him. Today was a very good today for him in a first day," Kelly said. "We're going to heap a lot on this kid's shoulders, and he knows that. That's why he came back to Notre Dame, because he wants that opportunity. Clearly, he's going to be the guy that drives this for us."
Golson said that's the way he wants it.
"I want to be in front and have that leadership role and lead these guys to victory," he said.
Golson admitted to being a bit too eager Monday, blaming that for some inaccurate passes early. But he said he believes he returns to school as a better quarterback because he's more mature and polished after spending two months training with quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego.
One of the things Whitfield changed about Golson is he now grips the ball. He now has his hands on the laces, like most other quarterbacks, which he previously didn't. He also weighs 15 pounds heavier than when he left and appears more muscular. Golson said he believes he returns a bit faster and hopes the added muscle will make him more durable.
Kelly said the biggest improvement he sees in Golson is a "conceptual awareness" — a better understanding — of the offense.
"It's an easier conversation for him. The best way to explain it would be, when he would explain his progression, it might take him 10 seconds. Well, you've got 2.6 seconds to throw the ball," Kelly said. "Now he's precise in his communication as to what his progression is. That tells me a lot. He's definitely made some strides."
Golson said what he missed most last season was working with his teammates. Watching last season's opener against Temple on television from Chicago was the low point.
"That's when it really hit me, that you're not there anymore," he said. "I went through the whole process of at first feeling humiliated, for one, to then coming back around to where I am now of me being back here and being ready to go."
Golson wouldn't comment on the reason he was suspended from school for the small semester. He previously told Sports Illustrated in an interview last year it was because of "poor judgment on a test." He said he's been welcomed back to campus by teammates and classmates.
"I haven't received any animosity or anything like that. That's from my classmates, to my professors to my teammates and everything. They've been very accepting of me," he said.
Kelly was pleased with how quickly Golson seemed to settle back in.
"It was really exciting for me to watch him get back in there and look as though he was with us last year," he said.