(CBS) It was late in the second quarter, and the unthinkable was happening Saturday night in Indianapolis: Weary Purdue was beating powerful Notre Dame.
On the sidelines, the Fighting Irish appeared lethargic. It caught the attention of quarterback Everett Golson, normally quiet and reserved. He lit into his teammates.
“‘Look, we’ve got to get focused,” said receiver Corey Robinson, recalling Golson’s loud words. “We’ve got to pull ths back together. We’ve got to rely on each other.'”
Added Golson later, in words hardly audible: “That’s just me understanding my role for this team.”
The flip seemed to switch on and Notre Dame stormed back. Golson led the Irish on an effortless touchdown drive, capping it off with an impressive 15-yard rush for a score. They would tally 20 unanswered points — led by Golson’s 315 yards total yards and three combined touchdowns — and never look back in moving to 3-0.
It was another example of Golson responding to adversity, something he’s mastered in the past year.
Golson is a new man. It took a harsh lesson to get there. After leading the 2012 Fighting Irish to the national championship game, he was kicked out of Notre Dame in 2013 for cheating in class, a flagrant violation of the university’s honor code. Rather than making excuses or shipping elsewhere — because who wouldn’t want Notre Dame’s quarterback? — he accepted the punishment and looked to improve.
Thousands of miles away from South Bend in sunny California, Golson took classes and worked on his craft. He trained with noted quarterbacks coach George Whitfield, who has worked with Tom Brady, Donovan McNabb, Johnny Manziel and many more.
In returning to Notre Dame this past spring, Golson was a humbled man, not the sophomoric kid banished from school.
“He’s grown exponentially as a person,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “In terms of his maturity, his leadership, his ability to communicate on a daily basis, I can go on and on. He’s a man, and he had to go through some tough times to get to that point.”
Leadership is just one of many aspects in which Golson is different. He’s been close to the pinnacle of his game, having led the Irish to the title game in 2012, his first year as a starter. But as Notre Dame was throttled by Alabama, Golson believed he didn’t have full command.
Golson spent time studying sports’ greatest leaders — Brady and Derek Jeter, to name a couple — fascinated by their techniques. He read books, heard stories, all because he wanted to be better, like the great ones.
“Everett’s very, very proactive out there,” Robinson said. “He’s a very strong leader, a very vocal leader.”
The greatest differences in Golson are in his game. He’s a more poised, confident quarterback, and his play reflects it.
What in particular has changed?
“Just everything,” Golson said. “I’m more comfortable out there. In 2012, everything was just rushing. I’m able to be real comfortable out there, just trying to lead the team.”
Every play seems to be in slow motion for Golson, who recognizes the blitzes faster, carefully spots receivers’ routes and works through each read. He’s more collected in the pocket but still has the ability to extend plays with his quick feet.
This is how the great ones operate. It stems from great training and attention to detail, something Golson embraced during his year away from the blue and gold.
“He just understands the game,” Kelly said. “The game’s slower for him than it was when he was here in his first year.”
Golson is now a junkie for the details, a byproduct of his football studies. He longs for the chance to review film and improve.
Take for example that 15-yard touchdown run, still fresh on Golson’s mind after the game. It was a well-executed run that saw him go untouched into the end zone. Yet there was a detail from that play which was lingering.
“But I also missed a wide-open pass,” Golson said.
Just another sign of Golson’s maturity — the drive for perfection.
With a year away from Notre Dame, Golson found a niche that the great ones have. He went from game manager to Heisman contender, flustered to confident, immature to a man.
Golson is back and better than ever.
Chris Emma covers the college sports scene for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter@CEmma670.