NOTRE DAME — Everett Golson pulled on the golden helmet and slipped on the No. 5 jersey, and everything felt as it should.
"I want to say (it was) surreal in a sense," Golson said after Notre Dame's first spring practice Monday, March 3. "I felt accomplished for a split moment, that I went through what I went through and now I'm back and I'm moving forward now and still continuing that process of trying to grind and be better."
Golson has been on campus since January, but Monday marked the first time he spoke publicly since his academic suspension last semester.
After leading Notre Dame to a 12-1 season and an appearance in the BCS National Championship Game, Golson was suspended in May after cheating on an exam. He spent the summer with quarterback guru George Whitfield in San Diego, where Golson said he improved "tremendously."
“I regret it in a sense, but I think it allowed me to grow so much,” Golson said of his suspension. “My maturity level is completely different now. I had some time to sit back and think about what I did and how I can move forward from that. I think I’m a different person because of it.”
The impact of the suspension hit Golson fully during Notre Dame's opening game against Temple last August.
"It hit me before the Temple game,” he said. “I was in Chicago. I saw them getting ready and that’s when it really hit me that you’re not there anymore. You’re watching on TV and you know that’s where you’re supposed to be.”
Through the semester away from campus, Golson never considered transferring or not coming back at all. Returning to Notre Dame was the end goal from Day 1.
"I knew I messed up, so for me I had to come back and complete what I started," he said.
Golson made a strong showing in his first practice back with the team. Head coach Brian Kelly said he was impressed with Golson's size (up from 185 to 200 pounds), conceptual awareness and progressions. Golson is even throwing the ball with the laces, a habit he picked up in his training with Whitfield.
"Everett stepped in there and the tempo of the offense was outstanding," Kelly said. "It was for a first day really exciting for me to watch him get back in there and look as though he was with us last year. It didn’t feel like there was a big gap relative to his lack of not being here last year. Certainly would have loved to have him on the team but I was really pleased with that from an offensive standpoint.”
If there is any drop off, it's Golson's initial chemistry with his wide receivers.
The senior-to-be returns to a young offense peppered with unfamiliar faces. His top targets in 2012 — Tyler Eifert, T.J. Jones and Robby Toma — have since graduated or entered the NFL. Returning top receiver DaVaris Daniels is suspended for the spring.
That leaves Golson with Chris Brown, Will Fuller, Corey Robinson, C.J. Prosise and Ben Koyack — with whom he's combined for just three career receptions (two to Brown, one to Koyack).
But the chemistry will come, as Kelly notes the spring will be dedicated to establishing those connections. Until then, Golson will learn to sync up with his receivers. And they'll have to learn how to catch his passes.
"Not many people can throw a fastball like Everett," Koyack grinned. "I got to get used to that."