Two Decembers ago in South Bend, Indiana, amid Notre Dame’s preparations for its BCS championship date with heavy favorite Alabama, coach Brian Kelly made a purposeful effort to publicly praise his quarterback, Everett Golson.
‘‘He knows that we’ve got 100 percent confidence and trust in him,’’ Kelly said.
But Golson and the offense hadn’t really cut it loose all season. On an Irish squad that revolved around its defense, Golson’s play had been solid, dependable. There were occasional tastes of something far better than that, most notably in the regular-season finale at USC.
‘‘He’s got enough seasoning,’’ Kelly said. ‘‘I would be very, very surprised if he can’t handle the moment.’’
As it turned out, no team could’ve handled what Alabama threw at the Irish in Miami. Kelly’s offense was stymied. His defense was utterly manhandled.
But the most important development at the time, for an iconic program on the rise, was still that the Irish had won their way onto college football’s biggest stage. And they had gotten there with Golson — only a redshirt freshman — under center.
He was good enough then — 10-1 as a starter with respectable passing numbers and explosive talent in his legs. Don’t you suppose he’s good enough now?
Notre Dame opens training camp Monday, and its quarterback picture has taken on a different look. Golson is back after being banished all last season for cheating on a test. Kelly said Friday the starting job could go to Golson, who has two seasons of eligibility left, or to sophomore Malik Zaire, who lit up the spring game and has not been shy about declaring his intentions to be the guy.
‘‘I think Malik has the ability to play winning football for us, [but] I want him to play championship football for us,’’ Kelly said.
Emphasis on ‘‘championship,’’ and that’s where Golson comes in. Or at least should.
Consider Golson’s track record on the field. Where has he ended his last four seasons as a starting quarterback? Twice as a champion and twice as a runner-up.
Three of those seasons were in high school in Myrtle Beach, S.C., mind you, but Golson was a superman among men in a recruiting-rich region of the country. He threw for 151 touchdowns and more than 11,000 yards in high school. He was courted hard by the likes of Georgia, Ohio State and Stanford.
Also: He’s a cheater. Yeah, we’re back to that, and, boy, what a mouthful it is. It certainly can’t be forgotten. In light of Golson’s transgression, might it be inappropriate for Kelly to name him the starter already?
Maybe that’s what’s holding Kelly back. Meanwhile, anyone who has followed the arc of Golson’s story since his transgression knows that Golson, now 21, has handled himself exceptionally well.
Quarterback competitions and Kelly have gone hand-in-hand since his arrival at Notre Dame. If making a guy earn it is part of Kelly’s M.O., fine, we can appreciate that. Irish fans hope, understandably, this has even more to do with how good a player Zaire is.
‘‘If that guy shows himself, I’m ready to name him the quarterback on that day,’’ Kelly said. ‘‘I’m not playing a game where we’re trying to create artificial competition within the ranks.’’
But if Kelly has doubts that Golson can handle the moment, well, one can only wonder why.