Why Everett Golson bolted Notre Dame to win title at Florida State

Can Everett Golson pick up where Jameis Winston left off at Florida State?

Wesley Hitt

SAN DIEGO — Everett Golson steps out of the car wearing a navy Notre Dame sweatshirt and walks onto the field at Mission Bay High School. It is the Memorial Day holiday, but Golson is busy at work. He arrived here with his buddy — and now former Fighting Irish teammate — Amir Carlisle, where they’re spending the week training with private QB coach George Whitfield Jr.

Golson, a South Carolina native, knows the San Diego area quite well. Two years ago, he spent most of his fall down here with Whitfield trying to not only stay sharp but hone his quarterbacking skills while serving a semester-long academic suspension. Golson returned to Notre Dame last year and got off to a terrific start, throwing 19 TDs and just six INTs in ND’s first seven games, but he struggled in the second half of the season that culminated with his backup, Malik Zaire, starting the Irish’s bowl win over LSU.

Golson, though, did accomplish his biggest goal in his return to South Bend. Earlier this month, he graduated from Notre Dame, earning his degree in business administration. Now, Golson is back in Southern California with a different mission: to get up to speed on a new offense for his new team, the Florida State Seminoles, while he tries to replace the QB Whitfield just spent four months prepping for the NFL, Jameis Winston.

In addition to some of his ND gear and his old ND receiver, Golson also brought with him a two-inch-thick binder with the Seminoles logo and his name on the front cover. This is the playbook FSU coach Jimbo Fisher FedExed to Golson right after the QB told him he was transferring to Florida State. Golson said the big binder is pretty much all his life has been about in the week or so since it arrived. Well, that and working out.

The decision to transfer out of Notre Dame, away from so many of his close friends and from a team that many analysts think is more talented than the 2012 Fighting Irish squad that Golson helped lead to the BCS national title game, was a very tough one, Golson told FOX Sports this week.

"I’m out here with my guy (Carlisle) right now," Golson said. "I’m still wearing Notre Dame stuff. It’s something that’s pretty crazy right now for me to adjust to, but I do think it was best for me. I just needed a fresh start. It was me sitting down and thinking, ‘OK, where do I feel the most comfortable?’ It was nothing to knock Notre Dame. I just had to put myself in the best position possible."

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Golson noticed going through the recruiting process was much different this time than it was when he was a four-star prospect in high school. "The good thing about me being in the position — I’m not an 18-year-old kid,” he said. “I asked a bunch of questions. I’m 22 and could really get into where’s the best place that you can succeed and help the team’s success.”

As a graduate transfer, who by rule is immediately eligible to play this fall, Golson was a hot commodity for programs trying to find an answer at quarterback. The 6-foot, 201-pounder had plenty of big-game experience, an exceptionally strong arm and excellent athleticism. However, there was a snag that complicated his situation.

Many of the schools in the mix to land Golson were SEC powerhouses — Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Florida — and due to a relatively new conference bylaw, the QB was going to need a waiver from the league commissioner to get cleared, because one of the stipulations for graduate transfers in the SEC is that they have not served any university discipline at their previous school. Golson learned of the rule right before he embarked on a road trip with his cousin where they visited three schools — FSU, Florida and Georgia — in about 48 hours.

"You didn’t know if you were going to get cleared," Golson said, adding that he appreciated the efforts by Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Florida for trying to make it work.

Another option Golson had considered, Texas, also was out of the picture. The Longhorns, who have had QB issues for a couple of seasons now, actually open the 2015 season against ND in South Bend. According to Golson, ND wasn’t going to release him to Texas. Sources told FOX Sports UT had interest in Golson, and he was intrigued by the ‘Horns, especially since Charlie Strong’s coaching staff had developed Teddy Bridgewater into a first-round draft pick. 

"I would’ve definitely entertained it, but just knowing that I couldn’t, it kinda limited me," Golson said. "It was pretty awkward, but it was kind of expected. It would’ve been interesting to see Texas. They (Notre Dame) basically limited me to the schools that we wouldn’t play. I wasn’t really surprised by it."

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Asked about his reaction when he heard that Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick denied talk that the school blocked any of Golson’s transfer options, the 22-year-old said: "I just kinda left it alone. The biggest thing for me was I wanted to be somewhere down south, too. They didn’t necessarily block me from something I was strongly considering, except maybe Texas."

Golson said he understands why Notre Dame wouldn’t want its former starting QB, a guy who has thrown for almost 6,000 career yards with 41 career TDs against just 20 INTs, going to a team that would face them in Week 1. 

"I might know a little bit too much," he said through a laugh. Besides, he appreciates how ND compliance tried to help him through what was a very nerve-wracking process. 

As much as he liked the other schools he visited — and he was looking forward to visiting Alabama and LSU, trips he might’ve been on this week — he was sold on FSU after spending time in Tallahassee with coach Jimbo Fisher.

"One of the things I was looking for in a coach was for him to be genuine," Golson said. "What he’s built there at Florida State really sold itself before I started really looking. Actually sitting down and talking to him, I felt like he was gonna shoot me straight and he was a genuine guy. If you’re not doing so well, he’s gonna tell you, and if you are doing well, he’s gonna tell you that, too. I can really respect a guy like that.

"For me, it all started with him being genuine and for me to be able to (play) free again. I think that’s what I lost sight of last season. At the beginning of the season, I was playing free. I was having fun. Closer to the end of the season, it kinda came to feel like a burden." 

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Fisher got a good look at Golson last October when he torched the then-second-ranked ‘Noles, going 31 of 52 for 313 yards and three TD passes — including converting on a fourth-and-18 on ND’s frantic last-minute drive. Golson actually threw what appeared to be the game-winning TD pass, but it was nullified by a controversial illegal pick call. FSU won and the Irish and Golson went into a tailspin marred by a run of injuries and turnover-plagued games.

"It was me just not taking care of the ball," Golson said of a season where he accounted for 22 turnovers, including eight lost fumbles. "It was me trying to do too much at times. Not giving up on plays. Me trying to escape the pocket and not keeping two hands on the ball. Just being real careless. Lots of little detail stuff. And that costs us a little bit. At the end of the day what didn’t happen was me getting back to the fundamentals."

Polishing those fundamentals is something Golson is diligently working on in San Diego with Whitfield. Also on this week’s agenda: Improve at throwing through passing lanes and his footwork. Plus, he said Whitfield’s experience working with Winston should also help him get a little more comfortable with the FSU offense. 

Fisher made Golson no promises of playing time or a starting job when he visited FSU. The new Seminoles QB would have to win the starting job, which would mean beating out redshirt junior Sean Maguire, who emerged from spring as the Noles’ clear No. 1 guy. Maguire led FSU to a 23-17 overtime victory over then-No. 22 Clemson last season, going 21 of 39 in his lone start in place of Winston, who had been suspended for the game. Golson said wherever he ended up he knew there would be competition. "That wasn’t a worry for me at all. I think that’s what a lot of people misconstrued. I’m not afraid of competition at all. There’s gonna be competition when I go to Florida State as well. It was about where I can most benefit myself."

Golson also isn’t fazed by any of the footage of an animated Fisher getting after his quarterback. Such images might have reminded some folks of the clips of a red-faced Brian Kelly hollering at his QBs. 

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"Some of the best coaches I’ve had have been the most demanding," Golson said. "My basketball coach (DeAndre Scott) when I was coming in from the eighth grade used to get after me every day. He was tough. I’d come in with earrings in, and he’d kill me. ‘Get out!’ To this day he’s probably my favorite coach because of how he disciplined me and stuff like that. At the same time, I knew he had my back."

Golson anticipates his biggest adjustment with FSU will be learning new terminology to the offense. He’s already well-versed in some aspects of the pro-style system since at Notre Dame he was responsible for identifying protections and in 2012 he took a lot of snaps from under center — probably around 30 percent, he estimated.

"It is gonna be a little adjustment, but I’m ready for it," he said. "I’m trying to learn how they call stuff in the huddle, how they call stuff at the line. I’m really focused on learning this playbook as quick as I can and getting around my teammates. The first thing I did was get (his new teammates’ phone) numbers. I’ve talked to (running back) Dalvin Cook, all the wide receivers. Everyone’s excited. I’m really excited. I’m ready to get to work."

The key, he says: "Just play free and let the game come to me. That’s my biggest thing. I’m surrounded by a great group of guys, from wide receivers to running backs down there, as Notre Dame does, too. I’ve got to learn how to maneuver around that. Every play doesn’t have to be a big play. Take chunk plays. Maybe the back turns a 4-yard gain into a 10-yard gain. It’s about playing within yourself and playing within the system." 

Golson plans to arrive at FSU on June 7. As for his goals, he’s not thinking about trying to become the fourth Fisher QB in a row to leave FSU as a first-rounder. Any of that stuff, he said, will take care of itself. "My goal is very team-oriented," he said. 

It’s national championship or bust.

"It has to be," Golson said. "That’s what everybody strives for, the national championship. I’m not the type of person that settles for less."

Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. He is also a New York Times Bestselling author. His new book, The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, came out in October, 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.