Everett Golson Returns to Notre Dame: How George Whitfield Built a Better QB

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Everett Golson Returns to Notre Dame: How George Whitfield Built a Better QB
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He's back. 

Paul Browne, Notre Dame's vice president for public affairs and communications, unceremoniously informed the world of Everett Golson's return to the University of Notre Dame early on the afternoon of Dec. 13 with a one-line press release:

"Everett Golson was re-admitted this afternoon to the University of Notre Dame." 

Finally, the waiting is over. Irish fans don't have to wonder anymore whether their quarterback of the future would have one at the storied school. He's back and, perhaps surprisingly, better than ever. 

***

Watching killed him. But that didn’t stop Golson from doing it.

As his former teammates battled this football season, the exiled Notre Dame quarterback watched from 2,000 miles (roughly equal to the diameter of the Moon) away, fleeing to just about the farthest place in the continental United States he could go.

Fleeing isn’t quite the right word. That insinuates Golson ran away from his problems, from the embarrassment that came with a seemingly unparalleled riches-to-rags football story.

Just months earlier, Golson was the toast of college football. The redshirt freshman had just piloted Notre Dame to the BCS National Championship Game in January, waking echoes many Irish fans worried had gone silent forever. Less than five months later, he was kicked to the curb, when Notre Dame announced in late May that Golson was suspended for the fall semester—and the 2013 football season—for an academic violation of the university’s honor code.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

So, instead of quarterbacking a Notre Dame team that many thought was more talented than the one that played for a national title, Golson lived in San Diego for 10 weeks. Away from South Bend, where 80,000 fans pined for his playmaking abilities on Saturdays. Away from his hometown, where local media chased him down last summer.

And while you couldn’t blame him for burying his head in the white sand beaches or relaxing during his semester in purgatory, Golson and his family decided early that they’d use the semester not to wallow in misery, but to make sure that the quarterback’s lapse in academic judgment wouldn’t cost him any more snaps than it already had.

So, while his teammates played this fall, Golson headed west. Instead of wallowing in misery, he rented out a small, one-bedroom apartment in San Diego. Forced to communicate with his coaches at Notre Dame by phone or text, Golson enlisted a different coach to push his game to new levels. 

George Whitfield was the ideal fit for Everett Golson. It wasn't just because of his work with quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Johnny Manziel, clients who turned Whitfield into the highest-profile quarterbacks coach in the football world, but Whitfield’s relentless passion for coaching and the art of quarterbacking was the perfect tonic for a quarterback who hoped to salvage something from a lost season that had so much potential.

So, while his heart was stuck in South Bend, Golson spent 10 weeks working one-on-one with Whitfield, recommitting himself to being a better quarterback, leader, student and teammate than the one who let down a locker room that counted on him.

Even if it killed him to do it.

“He watched every possible thing on TV about Notre Dame,” Whitfield said of Golson. “The pregame show, the postgame show, anytime SportsCenter said Notre Dame was coming, he’d be down there on the screen to watch everything.”

While Golson won’t practice with the Irish in the days leading up to the bowl game like head coach Brian Kelly had hoped (that was when it still looked probable the Irish would be playing in a January game), the Irish will be getting a player that impacts the team’s roster more than any recruit across the country.

“He’s probably our best recruit right now in this recruiting season,” Kelly told Comcast SportsNet. “That’s a five-star recruit for us.”

But what kind of player will the Irish be welcoming back to the program? Between coaching quarterbacks, appearing on ESPN’s College GameDay and preparing to train a handful of promising quarterbacks for the NFL draft, I caught up with Whitfield to find out.

To see George Whitfield is to see a quarterback that looked a lot like Everett Golson earlier in his life. A shade under 6'0", Whitfield has filled out his frame as he pushes through his mid-30s, but the athleticism that had several D-I programs looking at him out of Massillon Washington High in Massillon, Ohio is still there. That talent was intriguing enough for Jim Tressel to take a shot at Whitfield as a quarterback at Youngstown State, when most colleges were looking at him only on defense.

But Whitfield was a quarterback. When he didn’t stick at the position under Tressel, he went to Tiffin University, a D-II school where he played his way into the school’s record books as a passer. After bouncing around arena football, Whitfield committed his life to coaching, establishing himself locally in San Diego as a coach for quarterbacks of all ages.

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports
George Whitfield at work training young quarterbacks.

“A fourth grader literally asked his mom if she would give me a chance,” Whitfield told me, when remembering his first client. “And then it kind of snowballed a bit. As I was working with him, I’d get calls from other Pop Warner and junior-high families and coaches about working with other kids.”

Not too long into Whitfield’s journey as a coach, he met a young San Diego athlete that was transitioning from baseball to football, former Notre Dame quarterback Matt Mulvey. Whitfield became more than just a quarterback coach to Mulvey. He became a brother. 

Whitfield moved into Mulvey's dorm at Notre Dame. He worked Mulvey out the day before his tryout with the Irish on one of Notre Dame's recreational fields. Mulvey, who spent a season as Golson's road roommate, knew immediately where Whitfield would start his work with Golson.

“You’ve got to take the raw talent of Everett, and then start from the ground level,” Mulvey said. “You have 10 weeks to start at the ground level. Starting with the footwork, starting that you make sure you’re stepping into your throws and throwing with a good base.

“He’s so raw of a talent, he would take the snap, grip it and throw it, regardless of where his hands were on the ball. It was incredible. I’ve actually never seen that before, ever.”

In the months since Irish fans last saw Golson, the memories blur from a rookie season that held such promise. We remember the highlights: The dazzling athleticism that led the Irish rushing attack in touchdowns. The arm strength that beat Michigan State and Oklahoma over the top. The running ability that finally let coach Kelly open up his playbook.

Yet, Golson did much of that on instincts. His ability to process what he was doing was never quite on par with his innate ability to simply do it. 

“When you watched him, and he was young, he would just go out there and compete and then just try to make plays,” Whitfield said. “He’s a playmaker, and he’s a competitor, and those are the two things he was going out and winning games with.”

Nobody is going to take those gifts away from Golson. But for 10 weeks, Whitfield challenged Golson to holster the natural weapons that made him so difficult to defend. And the two went back to the basics of quarterbacking, no detail too small.

Some days, that meant hours spent drilling footwork. Others, it meant agility work in the ocean. There were days spent in front of video monitors. Lunch hours spent discussing leadership qualities. 

While Whitfield didn’t have access to the Irish playbook, the duo worked on the basics of understanding defenses and their coverage schemes, teaching a universal language that is better grasped from a 30,000-foot level than in the heat of game preparation.

Often challenged by his head coach to grasp more of the science of his craft than the improvisational art, Whitfield saw a transformation in Golson during their time working together.

“That’s all the diligence right there, and he took to it. He took to it,” Whitfield said. “He just absorbs everything. That’s the longest I’ve ever spent with a quarterback in a one-on-one setting. We just came through a 10-week run. And he just absorbed everything.”

Irish fans were given a sneak peek into what their quarterback’s been doing when Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples went to San Diego and met with Golson. While most focused on Golson's contrition, the Irish quarterback looked broader through the shoulders, courtesy of a daily strength-training regimen.  

“He got quite a bit bigger. He came out here at maybe 189, 190,” Whitfield told me. “He just weighed in at 204. So he’s been dedicating himself and putting it in.”

When dissecting the SI video frame by frame, Irish fans also noticed a change in the way Golson grips the football. For his entire life, Golson’s had the uncanny ability to simply throw the ball, never using the laces of the football to guide his mechanics. Left alone by the Irish staff, Whitfield has gotten Golson to change a lifelong habit by helping the young quarterback understand why using the laces is important.

I said, ‘Listen, I understand, it’s remarkable what you do without them, and you’re going to need that, because sometimes you’re going to need that when you’re under the gun.’” Whitfield explained. “Then, we sort of talked about why the strings are there, and they’re there to help us, and they are there to kind of easy things out, and they allow us to do X, Y and Z with the football.”

Everett Golson vs. Tommy Rees
Year/Player Passing Yards Rushing Yards Comp. % Total TD INT Wins
2012 Golson 2405 298 58.8 18 6 12
2013 Rees 2938 -62 53.7 27 13 8

Sports-Reference.com

The changes Golson made on the practice field this fall will need to be implemented quickly upon his return to South Bend. After watching physical limitations keep this year's starting quarterback, Tommy Rees, from being the optimal field general Kelly needs for his system, a Golson returning with improved off-the-field acumen could bring an essential element back to the engine of the offense. 

“I always said, if Everett had Tommy’s mind, he’d be unstoppable,” Mulvey said.

A media circus will welcome Golson back to campus. But the lessons learned over the most challenging football season of Golson's life will do him wonders.

Earlier this week, Kelly talked about Golson’s handling of the adversity that came his way after a self-inflicted mistake cost him a season that will be remembered as a huge missed opportunity.

“I thought he initially handled it very well,” Kelly said, looking back on Golson’s acknowledgment of academic wrongdoing and pledge to return to Notre Dame. “I had no idea he was going to be doing an interview with Sports Illustrated.

“I thought his comments were forthright. Quite frankly, I thought maybe a little bit too revealing. He talked about some things that I probably wouldn't have talked about. But I think he took it straight on and never backed away from coming back to Notre Dame, wanting to be back here. I think he's been a stand‑up guy in this whole process.”

Returning to a football team that’ll need to replace offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Chuck Martin, Golson will enter a quarterbacks meeting room that won’t have many familiar faces. Yet Kelly is confident that Golson will be up for the challenge.

“I think we're going to get a better person and someone that's even more committed,” Kelly said. “He's going to be so much more committed to being a better student, more committed to everything that he does.

“I think that's going to be a better quarterback at Notre Dame. I can't see a scenario for him not being better at the quarterback position because of that.”

 

*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes in this story were obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter. 

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