REDONDO BEACH, California — After viewing 24 of the nation’s top quarterbacks in the 2017 class for the past three days, the pressure is now on Elite 11 head coach Trent Dilfer and his staff to whittle that list to the lucky 12 who will punch their tickets to The Opening next month.
The Elite 11 finalists will be revealed exclusively on Bleacher Report at noon ET (9:00 a.m. PT) on Monday.
Dilfer spoke on how challenging it will be to cut the list by Monday morning.
“It’s the best group of passers we’ve ever had," Dilfer told Bleacher Report. "It’s not even close because of their command of the football, in general. It speaks volumes to their high school coaches and the programs the come from and the people they work with. It’s a gifted group for sure.”
Among the helping hands available to the Elite 11 staff were college counselors such as Clemson All-American passer and Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson.
Watson, who made the Elite 11 in the 2013 class, was also impressed with the way the 2017 class acquitted themselves this weekend.
“As a whole, there’s great vibes here," Watson said. "There’s no negative energy here. Everyone is motivated and pulling for each other. They’ve established a great bond and friendship with each other so it’s been a great atmosphere. That’s the main thing I will take away from this weekend with these guys.”
With the on-field activities now completed, what were the main takeaways from the 2016 Elite 11 Finals?
Let’s take a look at some of the main storylines to emerge from Los Angeles this weekend.
Tide Pledge Makes a Splash
One of the more intriguing quarterback talents in the 2017 cycle is 4-star Alabama pledge Tua Tagovailoa.
The 6’1”, 215-pound Hawaii native wowed in posting the best performance in the pro day workout on Saturday.
He backed it up in the seven-on-seven workout on Sunday, which certainly caught Dilfer’s attention.
“Tua made the biggest jump in two weeks that I’ve ever seen,” Dilfer said. “When I saw him two weeks ago in Oakland, I honestly was concerned that he couldn’t function in this type of setting. Not that he wasn’t great in pads, but I just don’t think he’s been put in these type of situations. But he thrived. You can make the argument that he had the best three days of anybody [here]. It blows my mind how much he’s improved in the last couple of weeks.”
While he’s rated the nation’s No. 2 dual-threat passer and the No. 58 prospect overall, Tagovailoa put to rest any concerns about his ability to scare defenses with his arm talent at the next level.
In terms of arm strength, mechanics and accuracy, Tagovailoa put together a consistent body of work that cemented his standing as one of the elite prospects in the 2017 cycle.
Tagovailoa wasn’t the only quarterback who flashed on the radar of the Elite 11 staff and onlookers in attendance.
As noted above, Brennan was the runner-up to Tagovailoa in the pro day workout. On Sunday, he shook off an early interception with a strong touchdown pass on a post route.
“I can’t control those types of things," Brennan said. "Dr. Mike [Gervais], he’s talked to us through this whole Elite 11 process about keeping positive thoughts no matter what. The next play, I let it go and came back with a really good ball on the post. You can’t let bad plays affect what you do on the next snap.”
Brennan notes that he never flinched even when it didn’t look like a trip to the Elite 11 Finals was in the plans for him earlier in the spring.
“I just believe in the process," Brennan explained. "I’m not the highest-rated kid and I don’t have all the stars. The regional process, I didn’t get invited right away. Three weeks later, I got it. Same thing here. I didn’t make the Elite 11 when they did the rankings the first day, but I made it the second day. I just continue to bust my butt and believe in the process and I’ll live with the results.”
Similarly, Devito entered the weekend as the lowest-rated passer at the event. He acknowledged that element gave him all the motivation to make a statement that he belonged with the nation’s elite on the biggest of stages.
“It was motivation to show everyone I shouldn’t be the lowest-ranked guy here," Devito told Bleacher Report’s Tyler Donohue. "Rankings just don’t matter. It does stay in the back of my head and it’s helped push me to come out here and compete with these guys. People are used to the big name kids, but a lot of people don’t look at the smaller kids. They just stick to the ones they know, but hopefully that will change after this weekend.”
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Big Guns Validate Credentials
While Dilfer made it a point to note that he doesn’t look at rankings entering the event, there were a handful of passers who arrived in Los Angeles with plenty of fanfare.
In fact, all seven quarterbacks rated among the nation’s Top 100 players overall were in attendance—including Tagovailoa.
McCaffrey, who drew praise from the coaching staff for his poise and leadership, said the experience was beneficial in letting him know what he needs to continue to work on.
“I just have to keep working," McCaffrey said. "I think there is a lot of room for improvement for all of us that are out here. That’s what it takes to succeed at the next level and I just want to be the guy that takes what I’ve learned here and use it to help me continue to grow as a player.”
The Atlanta native said he tried not to worry about his place atop the standings during the weekend.
“I didn’t try to think about it too much," Mills said. "They posted the list the first morning and I just tried not to think about it. I just tried to compete against myself and push myself to be better with every drill and event we did next. I guess that carried over and helped me show the coaches what I can do. It worked out well, I think.”
Overall, between McCaffrey, Johnson, Martell and Mills, the top end of the class seemed to meet the expectations placed upon them entering the week.
Johnson and fellow 4-star Clemson pledge Chase Brice seized the unique opportunity in getting the chance to learn from the player they could eventually replace for Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney.
For his part, Watson made sure to keep a close eye on both future Tigers.
“[Brice and Johnson] are going in there together and that’s something that makes me really proud," Watson said. "They are pulling for each other. It’s cool to have these guys out here going through what I went through and sharing my advice and my story with them. I’ve also been able to relate to them what I’m going through at Clemson and what they may see when they get there. They have been taking it in and embracing it.”
Brice said he’s soaking in Watson’s words and advice considering the success he’s enjoyed on the college level.
“It’s been awesome to learn from him for me and Hunter," Brice said. "To see where he’s been and the success he’s had, he shared his journey through Elite 11 last night in his confessional. He’s had so much success on the field and he’s on track to graduate in December, so for him to speak with us and teach us, it’s just been a really neat thing. He’s keeping us updated with the coaches at Clemson.”
Watson was impressed with what he saw from both players, and he plans on continuing to be a resource that is available to them whenever they need him.
“I think they will be successful in life and if they stick with their choice to be Clemson Tigers, I will always be here to answer their questions and give advice to them whenever they need me," Watson said. "My line is always open for those guys.”
Other News and Notes
Watson wasn’t the only big name who helped Dilfer and his staff throughout the weekend.
Among the other college counselors were California quarterback Davis Webb, USC quarterback Max Browne and Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer.
Additionally, Elite 11 alum and the top overall pick in April’s NFL draft, Rams quarterback Jared Goff, participated in an exercise designed to prepare this year’s class for interview sessions similar to the ones that take place at the NFL combine.
While Goff was a first-round pick this year, another stud from the Pac-12 who could earn potentially that designation next year is rising USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
The Trojans All-American arrived Saturday with a handful of his teammates to be on the receiving end of passes from the quarterbacks in their simulated pro day sessions.
In addition to vying for a spot in the Elite 11, Martell was busy figuring out his next home on the college level.
On Friday, he announced his Top 6 and made another cut a day later in tabbing California, Colorado, Ohio State, UCLA and USC as his five finalists.
It wasn’t all about competition and intensity for the finalists this weekend. There were a handful of activities that allowed them to let loose.
Among the highlights of the weekend was the opportunity for the quarterbacks and counselors to sink Watson as he sat in a dunk tank.
After a few rounds, 3-star quarterback Jake Haener stepped up to the plate and got the job done.
“Dunking Deshaun was kind of cool,” Haener said with a laugh. “That was something I don’t think I’ll ever forget.”
Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.