"I want to say surreal in a sense," Golson said after the Fighting Irish's first spring practice. "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."
Speaking publicly for the first time since returning to campus in January following a semester-long academic suspension, Golson said he is a new quarterback after spending two months training with quarterbacks guru George Whitfield Jr. in San Diego.
Golson said his initial feeling of humiliation from being exiled quickly turned to one of determination, as he carved out a path back to the program he helped lead to the BCS title game in his lone year as the starter.
He said other schools tried contacting him through third parties about a potential transfer but that he never considered other options.
"No, not at all," he said. "I knew I messed up, so for me I had to come back and complete what I started."
Golson, who completed better than 58 percent of his passes for 2,405 yards during his redshirt freshman season in 2012, is one of only two scholarship quarterbacks on the team's roster this spring, the other being redshirt freshman Malik Zaire.
The Myrtle Beach, S.C., native now has redshirt junior status, and he said he is taking the approach that he has to win the starting job again -- especially against a talent like Zaire, ESPN's No. 6 quarterback from the Class of 2013.
"Nothing is given to you," Golson said. "I've learned that since I was young."
Golson is listed at 200 pounds, 15 pounds heavier than his playing weight the last time he took the field. He said he is more durable now, adding "I think I got a little faster, to be honest" -- a threat that is all the more enticing given that he ran for 298 yards and six touchdowns two years ago, when he started 11 games for the 12-1 Irish.
He would not get into specifics of what led to his suspension for the fall semester, saying that he had explained it earlier. Golson released a statement in May saying he made "poor academic judgment" and later admitted to Sports Illustrated that he cheated.
Golson has been surprised by a reception he says has been unanimously positive from teachers and teammates alike. He said he is open to working again with Whitfield, who refined his mechanics through unorthodox drills and taught him to throw the ball with his fingertips on the laces.
Coach Brian Kelly said he has noticed a different player since Golson's return, and he knows the fate of the Notre Dame offense lies in the hands of the quarterback who took the program to the brink of perfection two years ago.
"In some of the film study I had with [Golson], there was definitely a conceptual awareness that he had lacked at some times with the passing game," Kelly said. "He clearly has that. It's an easier conversation for him. If I could give you the best way to explain it, 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. Now he's precise in his communication."