Notre Dame football: Quarterback guru seeks to polish Golson’s skills

South Bend Tribune

He sat waiting in the San Diego airport Tuesday night for Everett Golson’s plane to land, not knowing if the Notre Dame quarterback-in-exile would be arriving alone or with family.

It was about the only uncertainty in George Whitfield Jr.’s vision of what Golson’s rebirth into college football will look like, beyond the precise number of days the two will spend together.

Actual re-entry won’t come until mid-January, but the work behind the comeback began Wednesday at 7 a.m. sharp.

By the time Golson and Whitfield sit down together Saturday night to watch 14th-ranked Notre Dame (1-0) and No. 17 Michigan (1-0) clash in Ann Arbor, Mich., Whitfield will have used yoga, the Pacific Ocean, brooms and beanbags all as props in the process of building on top of the momentous progress Golson had been making last spring.

The unorthodox 35-year-old Whitfield is the new standard and closest thing to a rock star in the private, quarterback-tutoring cottage industry. While his client list still leans heavily toward middle school and high school wannabes, the big names on it are exhaustive.

Both Andrew Luck and Cam Newton leaned on him in the days before they became first-round draft choices. Clemson’s Tajh Boyd and Ohio State’s Braxton Miller are among the current college star QBs who were outsourced to Whitfield.

And then there was 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, who called transformative his eight days with Whitfield in the summer of 2012 before Manziel had overtaken Jameill Showers (now at UTEP) on the Texas A&M depth chart.

Manziel reportedly returned for a three-week reprise this past offseason.

That Golson chose to spend at least half of the span of his university-imposed suspension for academic misconduct with Whitfield was endorsed by Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly but initiated by the Myrtle Beach, S.C., product himself. Golson and his family are responsible for the costs associated with relocating to the West Coast for 60 to 90 days and training with Whitfield.

NCAA rules prohibit Notre Dame from lending a financial hand.

“I understand there was some discussion about maybe going to a junior college this semester instead,” Whitfield said. “But by the time Everett contacted me, that decision had al-ready been made.

“Because he enrolled early at Notre Dame and because he’s been heavy in his summer credits, it seemed to make sense to quietly improve his mechanics and strength in a safe, controlled environment rather than rolling him out on the field at a junior college.

“The academic piece was a factor, too. When he graduates from Notre Dame, he said wants to be able to say all of his credits were earned at Notre Dame.”

He’ll have to earn credit with Whitfield as well, though the quarterback engineer or quarterback builder, as he likes to frame himself, believes Golson’s ceiling is that of an elite college quarterback and an eventual NFL QB as well.

“I was always impressed with his demeanor,” said Whitfield, who by chance saw Golson play in person twice (at Oklahoma and at USC), while scoping out his own clients, and a handful of other times on TV. “I never saw him panic. I liked his commander-like presence, especially being so young. His team was in a lot of fist fights, really back-and-forth games.

“There was a time when the classic quarterback was Jim Everett, Drew Bledsoe, Peyton Manning. The model is changing, and it looks a lot like Everett Golson. Coupled with the school he chose, the leadership and teaching he is getting from coach Kelly, I believe he will proceed to the NFL. He is the game, when you watch him and you see him. He is what the NFL teams are doing.

“Look at Terelle Pryor, E.J. Manuel — it’s being dynamic. It’s not really about your 40 time as much as it is having two dimensions. And he’s already playing against NFL talent at Notre Dame.”

That Golson is coming during a time when most players are in school presented an unusual, but not unprecedented, dynamic for Whitfield in terms of surrounding him with talent in San Diego.

Whitfield set a template working with Ben Roethlisberger when the Pittsburgh Steelers QB was suspended for six game early in the 2010 season and again last season when during Casey Pachall’s banishment from TCU.

“There are a lot of junior colleges in the San Diego area, and a lot of these guys have night classes and they don’t have practice every day,” Whitfield said. “So he’ll throw to some of them. Then there’s a lot of NFL free agents who are down here, guys trying to get signed and who were recently released. So he’ll certainly have guys to throw to. I’m sure he wishes their helmets were gold, but these guys will help him find his way back.”

But it’s way more than throwing. It’s fundamentals. It’s film studying, including Golson watching himself lift. It’s sports psychology. Dr. Michael Gervais, for instance, will be in Golson’s ear. So will Andrew Luck and Cam Newton via telephone.

“He’ll be able to see his game from 30,000 feet rather than just with his feet on the ground,” Whitfield said. “The mental side is so important.”

Whitfield also knows persistence is important from his own quarterback background. Despite being encouraged to play a position other than QB at iconic high school football program Massillon High in Ohio, Whitfield and his linebacker build stuck it out to play QB for a school that produced three NFL head coaches, 14 college All-Americans — including Harry Stuhldreher of Four Horsemen fame — and 22 state championships.

Whitfield’s desire to stay at QB after high school limited his scholarship opportunities. He landed at then-FCS power Youngstown State to play for Jim Tressel (who later moved on to Ohio State). But after a year of sitting and then being encouraged to convert to another position, Whitfield left for Division II Tiffin (Ohio) University, where he splotched his name all over the record books.

A year as a weightroom assistant at the University of Iowa and four years of hits and misses in the Arena Football League helped bring Whitfield to where he is now. What he lacked in NFL résumé and formal coaching experience, he made up in relentlessly cracking the position’s essence.

“I did not get a chance to crank it out on Sundays for all kinds of reasons,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean from the neck up, I can’t understand it and teach it.

“What got me here is No. 1, I love it. I love getting a chance to do what I do. I love the position, what it means in the big picture, what it’s capable of doing, the dynamic of how much this one position generates.

“I decided to immerse myself in the inner workings of it. I’d go and spend time with the Ravens, then up to Stanford with Jim Harbaugh when he was there. I’d get coaches on the phone. I went to the last five NFL Combines. Half of my conversations were with scouts, GMs and coaches: ‘Tell me about the position. Tell me your solutions. What do you find most important? Most overrated?’ You know what?, I’m still learning.”

Back at Notre Dame, the feeling is Golson will not come back just as good as he was when he left, but better than he ever was.

“I think I’ll trust him more,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Chuck Martin said. “I’d like to think that he’s grown from that situation. You don’t know, but we’re pretty blind faithful as coaches. We assume that we’re going to get the best.

“The biggest thing for me is we always talk about we’re teachers and we’re mentors. I know that doesn’t keep our job. (Going) 12-1 keeps your job. (Going) 6-6 gets your fired. I get that. We work very hard not to go 6-6. But the other part that we got into this for is to help these kids to grow up and become better. That’s part of it.

“They have bad days at practice, they get better. They have bad days socially, they get better. They have bad days academically, they get better. They’ve got to learn from those or they never get better. ...

“We had heart-to-heart (talks) all the time. That was almost a daily occurrence a year ago. You think we spent all our time practicing. (No), it was mostly having séances. It might not have been heart-to-heart. It might have been my heart and I don’t know if it was always sinking in. He’s still a pretty special kid. I think he’s going to be a lot better for this whole experience. I really do.”

That was Whitfield’s very impression as well the first time he spoke with Golson.

“I asked him a lot of tough questions during that conversation,” Whitfield said. “I knew he had a lot to overcome, but I think he’s already overcome the biggest one, in terms of responsibility. The first time we spoke, he owned it. What he’s going through is heartbreaking.

“But he passed nothing on as someone else’s fault and he said to me, “I’m going to make those people back at Notre Dame so proud of me when I get back.’ ”

Quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. works with a group of high school quarterbacks.