BEAVERTON, Ore. — If all invitees enter the competition with an even grade, it’s common to see three or four prospects quickly freight train to the front of the pack at the Elite 11, the hyped summertime quarterback showcase featuring some of the best senior-to-be talent in each year’s recruiting class.
This isn’t the case in 2014, where 19 quarterbacks have come, played, thrown and remained tightly packed through two days of competition. This isn’t an indictment of a lack of talent — it’s the opposite, in fact, with recruits set for Alabama, UCLA, USC and all points in between alternating turns as the field’s best quarterback.
When Elite 11 counselors Bryce Petty, Connor Cook, Sean Mannion, Everett Golson, Travis Wilson and Davis Webb aren’t participating, at least.
Yet the talent abounds: Drew Lock, Travis Waller, Josh Rosen, Ricky Town and others are impressive alone, to put it lightly, and together this might be the most impressive Elite 11 group since at least 2011 — a group then paced by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston.
“No one has really pushed out in front,” coach George Whitfield said. “Rosen might be the most polished, but no one has really just ripped out front, and no one’s getting left behind. They’re more talented than last year’s group.”
Yes, the talent is obvious. Here’s a breakdown of each invitee, with on-field observations and comments from Whitfield and fellow Elite 11 coaches Trent Dilfer and Jordan Palmer:
Blake Barnett, Corona (Calif.) Santiago | Committed to Alabama
Barnett certainly looks the part, every inch of his 6-4 frame, and seems to fit perfectly into what Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin want from the position — smarts, pocket presence and the ability to deliver the ball from sideline to sideline.
“Blake Barnett has been Steady Eddie,” Dilfer said. “And he’s Steady Eddie with, obviously, major physical traits.
“He’s been so good, but nothing spectacular, but we’re not asking him to be spectacular. We’re asking him to be consistent, and he’s doing everything we’ve asked.”
Dilfer’s on point with his assessment: Barnett hit top gear from the start and never slowed, showing the sort of consistent delivery and mental approach that bodes well for his turn with the Crimson Tide.
Ross Bowers, Bothell (Wash.) | Considering Colorado State and Wake Forest
One thing is obvious: Bowers owns the huddle. In a group packed with five-star talent, Bowers’ take-charge mentality provides a degree of separation. If not the most physically gifted quarterback in the field, Bowers has that certain something, Dilfer said.
“He’s a dynamic leader, and it’s not fake,” he said. “He may not be an NFL quarterback, but he’ll probably be a senator. He was awesome until (Monday), when he was inconsistent. But he’s had a very, very good overall camp.”
Ryan Brand, University of Detroit (Mich.) Jesuit | Committed to Air Force
Brand lacks the scholarship offers of his peers — only Air Force and Indiana State had extended offers as of late June — but he has universally impressed the Elite 11 staff with an almost indescribable poise and production. While still a work in progress, Brand brings enough to the table to drastically alter how Air Force approaches its historically run-based offense.
“I’m excited about Ryan Brand,” Whitfield said.
Echoed Dilfer: “I just think this kid is something special. I would bet, and nobody else has in college football, I would bet on Ryan Brand. I would stake my reputation on that kid. He’ll do it. He will make it. He plays big. He eats up a lot of space physically, emotionally and mentally. When you’re around him, you feel him. I just love this kid.”
Sam Darnold, San Clemente (Calif.) | Considering Duke, Northwestern and Oregon
A fast riser on the recruiting trail — he recently picked up an offer from the Ducks — Darnold wasn’t a standout on Sunday. That changed Monday, when Darnold was crisp during seven-on-seven drills.
“It’s like he knew and he went to bed (Sunday night) and said, ‘OK, just gotta get going,’ ” Dilfer said. “And he came out boom, boom, boom, boom.”
After he battled an ankle injury as a junior, making him a bit of a late bloomer on the recruiting trail, it’s almost certain that Darnold will continue to pick up scholarship offers from a number of big-name programs throughout the rest of the summer.
Deondre Francois, IMG Academy (Fla.) | Considering Auburn, Florida State and Oregon
Each Elite 11 event has its built-in stars — maybe Josh Rosen or Kyler Murray heading into this week — and its under-the-radar success stories. Whitfield calls the latter his “tall grass” prospects, those who sneak up on the competition and flash one unquestioned strength — leadership, poise, footwork — that might have gone unnoticed during the recruiting process.
Francois certainly qualifies. Though somewhat new to the position, Francois’ arm strength — Whitfield calls it “arm talent” — was on display at every drill and in every session; lost in the shuffle was his ability to layer the ball over the top with some touch, though he’s still learning the trade.
“That’s the exciting part, because he hasn’t really been a quarterback,” Whitfield said.
He’s a “quiet assassin,” Dilfer said. “The ball just spits off his hands. He’s making the right reads, it’s just really, really good.”
Torrance Gibson, American Heritage (Fla.) | Considering LSU, Ohio State and Tennessee
One thing is sure: Gibson wants to play quarterback in college. What’s undecided is whether Gibson can actually contribute at the position in college, or whether his future lies at another skill position.
One other thing we know for sure: Gibson is one heck of an athlete.
“He wants to be a quarterback,” Dilfer said. “If he’s going to stay as a quarterback, one he’s going have to really get some real quarterback reps in the next year, or two, he’s going have to be in a true zone-read, run-first offense that will set up the pass.”
But as with any athlete-first quarterback, the fear is that Gibson’s talents won’t translate to the spot in college — or that he’ll never develop the skills needed to succeed at the position.
“He’s really worked hard at this,” Dilfer said. “I’m really proud of that kid. I think he deserves a chance to develop as a quarterback. Because he’s such a great kid. He’s so pliable. He has so much room for growth, and he’ll do the work.”
Ben Hicks, Midway (Texas) | Committed to Houston
Hicks had my favorite quirk of any invitee, a swoop-my-hair-back-from-my-eyes routine after every pass that made follicly-challenged bystanders weak with envy. He’s also a very good addition for Houston and Tony Levine: Hicks acquitted himself well during the two days of drills, not backing down from any of the more highly touted recruits and showing enough arm strength to fit into the Cougars’ pass-based system.
“I think Ben’s had a really good couple of days,” Palmer said. “He seems really confident and steely eyed. I feel like he’s gotten better each day, but I he came in here with one of the better arms and is one of the guys who’s been exposed to more football than the others. He’s a really, really good leader, and I think guys will cling to him and seek him out, and I think in this 7-on-7 tournament, people will see him excel.”
De’Andre Johnson, First Coast (Fla.) | Committed to Florida State
Johnson’s not a finished product, though few are at this point — and few will go on to learn the position under a quarterback tutor quite like Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher. But Johnson has the leadership traits a program such as FSU demands from the position, if his overall skill set will take time to develop once he arrives in Tallahassee.
The opportunity to spend time at Elite 11 has also given Johnson a chance to catch his breath away from the recruiting process, Dilfer said.
“I think De’Andre’s had a rough road in the recruiting process in the sense that there’s a lot of noise around him,” he said. “He didn’t create it, there’s just a lot of noise around him. So he needed this. He needed a safe haven where was he was just one of a lot of alphas, not the alpha. And it’s been fun to watch because I think he came in a little not sure, and now there’s a burden lifted. I’ve seen him really have fun.”
Sheriron Jones, Rancho Verde (Calif.) | Committed to Florida
Jones battled with inconsistency, alternating moments of unbridled athleticism — hence why he held offers from Florida, Tennessee, Arizona State and Nebraska before opting for the Gators — and up-and-down battles with pre-snap reads and coverage assignments. Not that any on-field missteps altered his positive mindset: Jones “makes you feel good about yourself,” Dilfer said. “He’s the guy who’s busting my chops non-stop, and I wish more guys did that.
It might be merely a matter of time before Jones’ game comes together, Dilfer said.
“Consistency’s going to be Sheriron’s thing,” he said. “He needs to be more consistent. He’s very, very talented, and he’s going to get bigger and stronger, so he’s going to get away with being inconsistent, but I don’t want that to ever be said about my guys. I want my guys to be consistent. Surgeons.”
Brian Lewerke, Pinnacle (Ariz.) | Committed to Michigan State
Lewerke would be the first to admit he struggled Sunday, when an unserious calf injury led to some discomfort during drills. “He hasn’t made one excuse, hasn’t blamed anybody, hasn’t whined, none of that,” Dilfer said.
Lewerke also connected well with current Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, one of the Elite 11 counselors, and seems to embody the sort of mentality the Spartans and Mark Dantonio are looking for out of a recruit — even one with this Elite 11 pedigree, a rarity for the Spartans’ program.
“Lewerke’s a guy like Kyler Murray who’s always going to be better with pads on, too,” Dilfer said. “This ain’t his deal. When we invited them, I knew a couple guys that were going to take a little longer to acclimate to this situation. Brian’s one of them.”
Drew Lock, Lee’s Summit (Mo.) | Committed to Missouri
Lock has quietly made his case as the top quarterback at the event. Very quietly: Lock didn’t enter the Elite 11 finals with the cachet of a Rosen, Town or Murray yet impressed each coach and counselor at the event with his physical skills and rock-solid mental makeup. Whitfield called Lock “a Kevlar type of dude,” meaning he was unfazed and unflappable amid the Elite 11 noise.
He’s not stressed by the environment, Dilfer said, just comfortable. Lock has “owned the room, owned each situation” he’s been in, Dilfer said. Lock would arrive on campus at Missouri and immediately be viewed as the program’s future at the position. He has been the greatest surprise of the competition.
Alex Malzone, Brother Rice (Mich.) | Committed to Michigan
Malzone struggled a bit on the second day of the competition after a strong showing during Sunday’s drills. He’s run hot and cold, like several other quarterbacks at the event, but there’s no doubting the talent: Malzone has the frame, arm and makeup to quickly factor into the quarterback competition with the Wolverines.
“He’s kind of your prototypical guy right now,” Dilfer said. “I just need some more consistency, and we’ll get it. If he asked me what do I need to do, I’d say just be willing to just take a profit. Don’t get bored with the boring stuff. There’s a lot of boring stuff with this. Don’t get bored with it. Get excited about it. He’s a good one though.”
Kyler Murray, Allen (Texas) | Committed to Texas A&M
Murray’s dual-threat tendencies don’t necessarily translate perfectly to this sort of drill-based work, though even a casual observer could take note of the athleticism and elusiveness packed into his diminutive frame.
Perhaps like another smaller-bodied Texas A&M quarterback – you know, the Aggies’ last starter – Murray is at his best in pads, or at least in the sort of game-like situations provided during the seven-on-seven drills.
“Kyler Murray made real strides with me today,” Dilfer said. “Kyler’s a guy who is probably going to be better the closer to real football this comes.”
Look for Murray to be one of the top quarterbacks during the team sessions at The Opening.
Josh Rosen, St. John Bosco (Calif.) | Committed to UCLA
Rosen looks built in a mad-scientist laboratory, if not one of NASA’s next-generation research facilities. He’s the perfect quarterback, basically: Rosen is tall, long-armed, strong and as college-ready as any Elite 11 invitee. “Josh Rosen’s probably the most polished,” Whitfield said.
“Josh Rosen is supremely talented. He makes incredibly difficult things look easy,” Dilfer said. “He’s just a highly intellectual kid that understands the game a certain way and now is trying to figure out the way we’re trying to teach it. But he’s thrived. It’s real work, and he’s made it look easy.”
Jarrett Stidham, Stephenville (Texas) | Committed to Texas Tech
As good as Rosen has been — and he’s been phenomenal — Stidham may have been the most impressive quarterback in the competition.
Like Rosen, it’s about consistency: Stidham’s physical gifts were obvious from behind the huddle on Sunday, as the quarterbacks worked through drills, and he really flashed some five-star talent during yesterday’s seven-on-seven action.
As if Kliff Kingsbury needed another top-line quarterback: Texas Tech already has sophomore Davis Webb, one of the youngest counselors in Elite 11 history, and now adds one of the nation’s best in Stidham – and by the way, Webb and Stidham have already built a very strong relationship.
“I thought he was a guy that was consistent through the two drill practices and then today transferred that drill work onto the field, which was hard,” Dilfer said. “He’s a guy that’s definitely stood out.”
Regardless of the final pick – whether or not he gets the nod as the MVP of the competition – Stidham is easily one of the three best quarterbacks at Elite 11.
Ricky Town, St. Bonaventure (Calif.) | Committed to USC
Town is a gamer. This wasn’t evident during Sunday’s drills, when he “was not overly impressive,” Dilfer said, but Town was the star of Monday’s 7-on-7 sessions.
He had the best throw of the day: Town scored on his first attempt, threading the needle between two defensive backs – behind one, in front of the other – to seal the deal with one pass.
“It popped this morning,” Dilfer said. “It was like the weight of the world was taken off his shoulders. He had so much confidence, his personality started coming out; he had some sauce to him. One play and it was like, ‘This is mine. Bye, Coach Dilfer, you can go away. Everybody else can leave, I got this.’ That’s the first time I’ve seen it in him. If I see that in the 7-on-7 games, you’re going to get a special kid.
Travis Waller, Servite (Calif.) | Committed to Oregon
Elite 11 coaches couldn’t stop raving. This Californian is simply phenomenal: Waller is the total package, even if his delivery has a slight lag, and fits to the letter what Oregon wants from the quarterback position. When all is said and done, he might end up with the most successful college career of any prospect at the event.
“Oregon just got their Mariota,” Dilfer said.
“He’s a special kid. He really is. It will be interesting how consistent he is in The Opening when it’s all passing. Because one of his gifts is what he can do with his feet. In this group, he’s the Colin Kaepernick. And I have no problem saying that. He’s going to be the guy who is so physical, and so physically gifted, that because he can also pass, he’s going to be really hard to defend.”
Brady White, Hart (Calif.) | Committed to Arizona State
Like Lock, the Californian has impressed each member of the Elite 11 staff with his composed and unflustered approach to the competition. Again like Lock, he’s also been a terrific surprise as a pure passer: White’s arm is strong, for one, and he excelled during the seven-on-seven drills during Tuesday’s practice sessions.
Whitfield likened White to former Elite 11 standout and current Brigham Young quarterback Tanner Mangum, a technically precise pocket passer who played far better during game-like situations than during group drills.
“Mentality-wise and accuracy, conviction, nothing’s overwhelming,” Whitfield said. “Really secure in who he is.”
Brandon Wimbush, St. Peter’s Prep (N.J.) | Committed to Penn State
Wimbush’s arm, in a word: ridiculous. If Rosen is more precise, Murray a touch more electric and Town more prototypically talented, Wimbush has the ability to rope slants and crosses on a line, threading passes between, over and around defensive backs.
“I love him because he can throw fastballs,” Dilfer said. “Brandon Wimbush has the most dynamic arm in this group.”
If his game lacks refinement – that little touch all quarterbacks need – Wimbush made a strong attempt at addressing his weaknesses during drills.
“He struggles putting touch on the ball,” Dilfer said. “So what has he done? He tried to touch every throw yesterday. He said, ‘This is a weakness, and I’m in a competition, but I’m still going to take the worst thing I do and do it all the time.’ That’s the fun here, is that they get the process. The process is important.”