BEAVERTON, Ore. — Begin with a trivia question: What ties together Matt Leinart, Vince Young,JaMarcus Russell, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, Jake Locker, Matthew Stafford, Tim Tebow, Blaine Gabbert, Andrew Luck, E.J. Manuel, Teddy Bridgewater and Jameis Winston?
Each was a first-round NFL draft pick, for starters. Before that, however, each of these future college stars was a member of the Elite 11, a prestigious, quarterbacks-only club whose membership is determined each July on the melt-your-shoes-hot turf here at Nike world headquarters.
Last summer’s Elite 11 contest was defined by its top-heaviness, from Blake Barnett through Josh Rosen, Kyler Murray, Jarrett Stidham and Drew Lock. Barnett, now a freshman at Alabama, was the MVP of the event; Rosen, the likely starter as a rookie at UCLA, was unquestionably the most gifted.
The 2015 crop of contenders, from which an elite crop of 11 will be harvested from a group of 18, can be described differently: There may be no standout star — no Rosen, no Barnett – but the depth is superb, and thus so is the competition itself.
“This is probably the most natural passing group we’ve ever had,” said Elite 11 coach Trent Dilfer. “These guys make passing look easy, collectively as a group.”
This club is joined by eight college counselors: Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg,Arizona State’s Mike Bercovici, Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, Southern California’s Cody Kessler, Notre Dame’s Malik Zaire, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs and North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz.
Bercovici won the counselors-only skills challenge, topping Dobbs in the finals; yes, Barrett looks completely healthy after last year’s foot injury; Watson is not quite back to full strength, but he’s close; Zaire throws a beautiful ball; and Hackenberg looks every bit like the next first-round pick, last season’s numbers be damned.
But this week’s about the pre-college quarterbacks. Let’s give a little insight into each invitee, going with a self-selected top 11 and then proceeding alphabetically, with some additional thoughts from Dilfer.
In true Elite 11 fashion –— an event where every step, on the field and off, is weighed, measured and calculated by a cadre of coaches — there will be a test to follow. Or is this the test? No one knows the method to this competition’s madness.
1. Shane Buechele, Arlington Lamar (Texas) — verbally committed to Texas
He quickly drew comparisons to former Texas quarterback Colt McCoy after committing to the Longhorns in February, and for good reason: Buechele is not prototypically sized but maximizes his full athletic ability, teaming quick feet and dual-threat tendencies with the best mechanics of any quarterback in the competition. “The way his hips, core, shoulders unwind, the way the ball’s loaded,” said Dilfer, “literally, it’s Aaron Rodgers. It’s Drew Brees good.” There’s a reason why’s he topped the Elite 11 leaderboard after each of the first two days of competition.
2. Jarrett Guarantano, Bergen Catholic (N.J.) — verbally committed to Tennessee
How good is Guarantano? “He’s almost too talented,” Dilfer said. Essentially, Guarantano can make every throw in the book — and do so with unmatched speed and power – but needs to spend more time working on his touch. “Layering,” basically, meaning the ability to put balls over the tops of defenders rather than relying on pure arm strength to defeat coverage. It’s not a huge issue to have at this stage in his development. “He’s got everything you could ever want,” said Dilfer. I would bet on Guarantano eventually being named MVP of this event. Tennessee is getting a superb prospect.