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Experience doesn't always ease the way for graduate transfer quarterbacks

TALLAHASSEE — The biggest adjustments for Richard Kovalcheck were the little things.

As a graduate transfer quarterback at Vanderbilt, Kovalcheck didn't know what his new plays were called or where he should eat — or even where he should live.

And because he arrived in the summer after graduating from Arizona with a degree in business management, his new teammates had already finalized their housing. Kovalcheck had nowhere to stay.

"You can't turn a three bedroom into a four bedroom," Kovalcheck said.

But ever since Kovalcheck became the first player to take advantage of an NCAA loophole in 2006, programs across the country have been squeezing an extra quarterback into their locker rooms.

Most football and basketball players who transfer have to sit out a year unless they've earned a degree by graduating early or redshirting a year. The NCAA gives those athletes immediate eligibility.

The option has gained popularity since Kovalcheck used it. It will help shape this season's national championship picture, with grad transfers competing for the starting quarterback jobs at Florida State, Alabama and Oregon.

Some graduate transfers have had great success at their new schools. Russell Wilson, the Seahawks' Super Bowl-winning QB, took Wisconsin to the 2012 Rose Bowl, and former Gators QB Tyler Murphy rushed for almost 1,200 yards last year in his only season at Boston College. (Murphy signed with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent.)

But the list of QB busts is long, stretching from Miami (Jake Heaps) to Syracuse (Drew Allen).

At Florida State this year, Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson is battling Sean Maguire to earn the starting job. Other quarterbacks who made the move say the adjustment is so hard because it takes place everywhere — in meeting rooms, in classrooms and off campus — as you race to get ready for the season opener.

"When you transfer, it sounds like a good idea, almost like you're going through the recruiting process again," said Ben Mauk, who starred at Cincinnati in 2007 after four years at Wake Forest. "Then when you get there, it's just like you're a freshman again."

• • •

The transition begins away from the field.

Kovalcheck had to go online to find young professionals looking for roommates during his first summer in Nashville. It wasn't long before he began feeling like a tweener. He was one of the oldest players in the locker room but one of the youngest in an unforgiving business school.

"Typically in grad school, they're not messing around," said Kovalcheck, who now finances real estate in San Diego. "They weren't going to let you get an MBA from Vanderbilt and not show up for class."

Away from school, grad transfers must acclimate as newcomers in an established locker room before fall practice starts.

FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said he intentionally stayed away from the team over the summer so that whatever relationships developed between Golson and his teammates would happen organically.

"That takes time," Fisher said. "You can't force that."

The results can be awkward.

Mauk said he felt some early tension when he arrived at Cincinnati, but he tried to defuse it because any divisions in the quarterback room would destroy the team.

Though he was recovering from an injury and couldn't do much, Mauk hung around workouts as much as he could so teammates would see he was willing to work and help however possible. When another quarterback told him something he knew, Mauk would pretend he had never heard the information, to be polite.

Eventually, Mauk learned how to start over without feeling like an outsider.

"If you struggle with that," he said, "you're going to struggle on the field as well."

And those challenges are hard enough.

Clint Trickett prided himself on being one of the hardest workers in his three years at FSU. Then the quarterback got to West Virginia in the summer of 2013, and the pace was completely different.

"I'm getting murdered my first week," said Trickett, now an assistant coach at East Mississippi Community College. "My body wasn't used to the way they worked up there."

His mind wasn't, either.

Trickett had mastered Fisher's complex pro-style offense, but it took months to grasp the "Air Raid" spread system of Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen. Fans clamoring for Trickett to play immediately didn't understand that he was competing against veterans who already understood Holgorsen's system.

"Everybody expects you to be the starter," said Trickett, who didn't start until his fifth game. "If you don't, it can take a hit on your confidence."

If expectations were high for Trickett, they're even higher for Golson, who took the Fighting Irish to the national title game in January 2013 and joins a program that has lost only once in the past two seasons.

Though FSU quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders said Golson has adjusted well on the field and in the locker room, Golson must still break three seasons' worth of Notre Dame habits. He throws an occasional glance at Fisher in practice, to make sure he made the correct call or the right read. Golson is also trying to learn a new dialect: Even if the schemes are the same, a protection he called "Roger" at Notre Dame has a different name at FSU.

"He can say 'Roger' if he wants to," Sanders said, "but nobody knows what he's talking about."

• • •

Despite the array of challenges, some graduate transfers transition seamlessly. Mauk had only four touchdown passes at Wake Forest but threw 31 at Cincinnati and took the Bearcats to their first 10-win season in 56 years.

Greg Paulus broke a Syracuse record by completing 67.7 percent of his passes in 2009 but still felt unsettled at times as he adjusted from four years of playing basketball at Duke.

"That takes time," said Paulus, now an assistant basketball coach at Ohio State. "When you only have a couple months until the season starts, you want it to happen quicker than the process allows."

That's a lesson Trickett had to learn, too.

Trickett appeared in eight games during his first season at West Virginia — including an upset win over No. 11 Oklahoma State in his first start — but he didn't really feel comfortable until his second season, when he was fifth in the Big 12 in total offense.

Trickett talked with Golson over the summer after his transfer from Notre Dame, where he threw for more than 3,000 yards as a redshirt junior. The one piece of advice he gave Golson was to stay patient.

"Just because right now it's not working doesn't mean it's not going to down the road," Trickett said.

For some, it never does.

Kovalcheck started 11 games at Arizona but completed only 40 passes in two seasons at Vanderbilt. Kovalcheck said that even when everything clicks off the field, the challenge remains steep. You're coming in as a rental player, with only one month of full practice to steal the starting spot from an incumbent who believes the job is his.

"You've got to earn your place," Kovalcheck said. "Nothing's going to be given to you."

Not even to a golden boy from Notre Dame.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

Hits and misses

How the careers of some notable graduate transfers played out at their new schools:

Hits

Russell Wilson (top left)North Carolina State (2007-10) to Wisconsin (2011)
The Seahawks QB was a finalist for the Manning Award, given to the nation's top college QB, after taking the Badgers to the Rose Bowl.
Clint Trickett (middle)Florida State (2010-12) to West Virginia (2013-14)
Largely QB EJ Manuel's backup in Tallahassee, he was among the nation's top 25 in completion percentage and yards last fall with the Mountaineers.
Tyler Murphy (right)Florida (2010-13) to Boston College (2014)
He played in eight games with the Gators in 2013; his 1,184 rushing yards with the Eagles were second in the country among quarterbacks.

Misses

Dayne Crist (top left)Notre Dame (2008-11) to Kansas (2012)
The QB had more than twice as many interceptions (nine) as touchdown passes (four) with the 1-11 Jayhawks.
Drew Allen (middle)Oklahoma (2009-12) to Syracuse (2013)
He lost his stranglehold as the Orange's starting QB, and never regained it, after throwing six interceptions in the first two games.
Jake Heaps (right)Kansas (2012-13) to Miami (2014)
The QB started his career at BYU, then bounced to Kansas. He couldn't beat out true freshman Brad Kaaya to earn the Hurricanes' starting job last fall.

Experience doesn't always ease the way for graduate transfer quarterbacks 08/14/15 [Last modified: Saturday, August 15, 2015 9:04pm]
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