A string of impressive performances early last fall put Everett Golson’s NFL draft stock on a hype train that was traveling full speed ahead. That train derailed down the stretch, however, and left Golson without a starting job at Notre Dame and with a need to improve his play significantly in 2015 in order to re-establish himself as a potential pro quarterback.
Golson, whom Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly benched in favor of then-redshirt freshman Malik Zaire prior to last season’s Music City Bowl against LSU, officially transferred to play at Florida State on Tuesday, as first reported by Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman and later confirmed by the school.
Having graduated from Notre Dame last weekend, Golson is immediately eligible to play for the Seminoles, where he will have a chance to replace Jameis Winston, the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft.
Bleacher Report provided Golson's "first look" in a Seminoles uniform:
It’s easy to see why Golson—who also visited Florida, according to Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples, and Georgia, according to Chip Towers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution—ended up choosing Florida State.
Although they lost 11 players from last year’s team who were selected in the 2015 draft, the Seminoles still have enough talent to be a favorite in the Atlantic Coast Conference and a College Football Playoff contender.
As ESPN.com’s Max Olson highlighted, Florida State’s recent history of sending quarterbacks to the NFL—Winston, EJ Manuel and Christian Ponder—likely also helped entice Golson to go to Tallahassee:
That said, Golson must make long strides in a short period of time if he is going to follow in those quarterbacks’ footsteps and be an early-round pick—or even be selected at all—in the 2016 NFL draft.
Golson’s First Order of Business: Win the Starting Job
Being a high-profile graduate transfer like Golson comes with no guarantee of a starting job. For evidence of that, look no further than Jacob Coker.
Hyped as a potential prospect for the 2015 draft at this time last year after pulling a reverse Golson (Coker used his graduate-transfer option to leave Florida State for Alabama), Coker ended up spending the season on the bench after losing the starting quarterback competition to Blake Sims.
For Golson—who is in a more pressing position to play than Coker, as Golson has just one year of eligibility—his competition at Florida State will come from Sean Maguire, a 6’3”, 224-pound redshirt junior.
First impressions of Maguire suggest that Golson is the more talented quarterback, especially from a physical standpoint. Last year, Maguire started against Clemson when Winston was suspended but completed just 51 percent of his total passes in four game appearances.
Still, Golson has to earn the job. The signal-caller will have to quickly learn a new offensive system and playbook. He'll also have to convince Florida State’s coaching staff that he can overcome the turnover issues that played a big part in Notre Dame's losing five of its final six regular-season games last year.
For the purposes of this article, we will proceed while assuming that Golson will win the starting job. If he loses it and spends the majority of the 2015 season holding a clipboard, he will almost certainly go unselected in the 2016 draft.
Should he win it, Golson will have a shot to propel himself back up draft boards.
Priority on the Field: Take Care of the Football
If Golson is going to make NFL teams take him seriously, the No. 1 thing he must do is cut down on giving the ball away. In 2014, Golson threw 14 interceptions and had 12 fumbles, eight of which the opposing defense recovered.
While Golson can be dangerous to defend as both a passer and runner, his lack of ball security can also make him a danger to his own team.
To avoid interceptions, Golson must become better at going through progressions and making active decisions before throwing. Too often, Golson stares down his intended targets, which enables defensive backs to read his eyes, jump receivers’ routes and make plays on the ball.
It doesn’t help his cause that he's short for a quarterback. Listed at only 6’0”, 200 pounds, Golson is prone to having his passes tipped at the line of scrimmage, which results from his combined lack of height and eye movement.
Golson’s fumbles largely result from his being laissez-faire with the football. When running or scrambling, he can often be found holding the ball with just one hand and away from his body. That makes it easier for defenders to dislodge the rock when they hit him.
If Golson continues to turn over the ball at a high rate, he is likely to not only turn off NFL scouts but also end up on the bench in Tallahassee. He has the skills to be one of the best quarterbacks in college football and play the position at the next level, but he needs to curtail his mistakes.
Other Areas in Which Golson Must Improve
As Golson transitions to life at Florida State, he will have to learn how to operate a pro-style offense. That could be a big adjustment and potentially hinder his opportunity to beat out Maguire.
At Notre Dame, Golson worked exclusively out of the shotgun as a passer, almost never lining up to take a snap under center. He will likely need some work out of the gate with catching those snaps consistently, as evidenced by his attempt to run a 4th-and-1 quarterback sneak from under center against Florida State last season.
Additionally, Golson will have to learn the proper footwork for dropbacks into the pocket from under center.
Going into an offense in which even Winston had trouble with interceptions due to questionable decisions and forced throws, Golson—who is not nearly as talented a pocket passer as the former Heisman winner—will need to break his aforementioned tendency of sticking to his first read from snap to throw.
Florida State’s system will demand that Golson is not only able to avert his eyes over the course of a play but to also to consciously find open receivers rather than predetermining his targets.
Golson has excellent mobility, which enables him to elude pass-rushers and extend plays. But that doesn’t always lead him to success under pressure. At his best, Golson can make spectacular plays on the run. However, he often becomes too panicky against the rush, quickly dropping his eyes to run or throwing the ball away rather than confidently making an attempt downfield.
To be a successful NFL quarterback, one must be able to coolly navigate the pocket under pressure, knowing how to move one’s feet to buy time and when to get the ball out. Golson flashes the ability to do this. But he also has a tendency to step into sacks, like he did on the following 3rd-and-7 against Stanford:
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Golson must become more accurate.
Golson has the arm strength to make any throw, but he has not yet demonstrated the touch to be a consistently successful deep passer. He frequently either overthrows or underthrows his intended targets.
Of greater concern, however, is that Golson is also maddeningly inconsistent on shorter throws.
The timing of Golson’s attempts often appear to be out of sync with the intended targets. He also has a tendency to put too much juice on his short throws. This can lead to him skying passes over receivers’ heads or receivers being unable to securely catch it, though the latter should be less of an issue with NFL pass-catchers.
In spite of his past success—he led Notre Dame to a BCS National Championship Game appearance in 2012 before being suspended for an academic violation in 2013—it is evident that Golson remains a project for a collegiate pro-style offense, let alone such a system in the NFL. Even so, there are still reasons for next-level scouts to be intrigued his skill set.
Why NFL Scouts Should Still Be Paying Attention
While Golson’s lack of height will be a knock on him, he has a combination of arm strength and athleticism that has drawn him comparisons to Russell Wilson, even though he lacks Wilson’s polish as a passer.
Arm strength is often discussed in the context of a quarterback’s ability to launch the ball long-distance, and Golson can do that. But where his arm really shines is at the intermediate level. Golson shows an ability, both from the pocket and on the move, to laser the ball downfield with great velocity to its target, allowing him to hit passes against tight windows.
A shining example of Golson’s arm talent came in Notre Dame’s early-season win against Michigan last September.
With the pocket starting to collapse around him, Golson stood tall and delivered a perfect strike to wide receiver Corey Robinson 20 yards downfield on the left hashmark, setting up a goal-to-go situation from which Notre Dame would score a touchdown three plays later.
As a scrambler, Golson exhibits an ability to make magic happen. The following clips from his game against Michigan and Florida State this past season are examples of that. On both plays, Golson moved in multiple directions to evade rushers and buy time before completing a pass on the move.
The ability to create scrambling “magic” does not always translate to NFL success. Michael Vick, Vince Young and Johnny Manziel (at least through one season) are examples of highly touted quarterbacks who routinely made dazzling plays with their movement skills in college but have not had the same success in the NFL due to their deficiencies as pocket passers.
Nonetheless, Golson’s ability to make plays like the pair shown above still heightens his appeal to NFL teams. Most quarterbacks—even those succeeding at the next level—simply do not have the athleticism to make those plays. Golson will not be able to rely on that ability in the NFL, but it can still give him an X-factor that can make him more difficult to defend.
As dynamic as Golson can be on the move, he also exhibits very good mechanics within the pocket. While he is inexperienced with making pro-style dropbacks, he does a nice job of always keeping his feet moving rather than standing sedentarily. When he sets his feet to throw, he is able to effectively transfer his weight forward through his body while delivering the ball with a clean, quick release out of his hand.
Golson’s inconsistency has been well-noted here. But while he has not shown that he can regularly avoid mistakes, he has demonstrated the all-important clutch factor, one of the traits that helped Winston emerge as the No. 1 overall pick despite his own miscues last season.
Perhaps because it enables him to play with more reckless abandon—as ball security becomes less of a priority—Golson seems to be at his best when the game is on the line.
A prime example of that came last October against Stanford. Facing a 4th-and-11, with Notre Dame trailing by four and just 1:09 left in the game, Golson rolled away from pressure to buy time before quickly setting his feet and delivering a perfect strike from the 30-yard line. He connected with tight end Ben Koyack in the left rear corner of the end zone for a game-winning, 23-yard touchdown.
Two weeks later, Golson came up with another clutch effort against FSU. Although Notre Dame’s attempt at a game-winning drive against Florida State ultimately came up short, Golson gave a great effort in trying to make it happen. An outstanding throw on the run, through a big hit, to Corey Robinson for a 4th-and-18 conversion highlighted his performance.
Golson is a flawed, far-from-perfect quarterback, but he has demonstrated the tools to be a special playmaker, at least at the collegiate level. He must progress in many facets to be successful as an NFL signal-caller, but he will have a chance to win over franchises in 2015 as long as he can seize the starting job and keep it for Florida State.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.