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Road to the 2013 Elite 11 finals: Trent Dilfer with the quarterbacks of the future

The Elite 11 coach and ESPN analyst is out to help quarterbacks maximize their talent through his camps so they can survive the shark tank of college football. The numbers say that it works.

Trent Dilfer shares his knowledge with campers at Dallas Elite 11 on Saturday
Trent Dilfer shares his knowledge with campers at Dallas Elite 11 on Saturday
Wescott Eberts (SB Nation)

ALLEN, Texas -- The quarterback takes the imaginary snap from under center, an old-school move in the shotgun era, hits his five-step drop, looks off the imaginary safeties by holding his gaze to the right, then snaps back to his left, keeps his feet alive and underneath him, then unleashes a bullet pass into the hands of his target, all in one smooth, practiced movement.

What makes it all the more impressive is that this quarterback isn't even 10 years old as he puts on this display for Elite 11 coach and ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, who is beaming from ear-to-ear and full of praise for the young signal-caller, who seems mostly unaware of his famous audience.

Unfazed, certainly, a trait that will serve him well under pressure once he starts playing underneath the bright Friday night lights some years from now. There's no question he appears to be on that path.

The field is nearly empty now at massive Allen Stadium, the newly-constructed, $60 million monument to Texas high school football, almost an hour after the conclusion of the Dallas Nike Football Training Camp on Sunday, the final event in a big weekend that saw Dilfer coach up and evaluate more than 80 quarterbacks the day before at the Cowboys facility in Irving for the Dallas Elite 11 Camp, then watch many of them again at the NFTC.

The young quarterback of the future may not know much about the Dilfer's reputation, forged through his Super Bowl-winning turn as quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens, his work with ESPN, and his years of leading the Elite 11 quarterback camps, events that have produced an astounding number of high NFL draft picks.

But rest assured, the attendees at the Elite 11 Camp and Dallas NFTC know about Dilfer and have enough maturity to put their experience into proper perspective.

It's evident from the fact that more than a few of them line up as Dilfer conducts some final interviews, wanting a picture with the former NFL quarterback, to receive a few more words of encouragement before they go along on their way, back to their high schools to continue their quests to get to the next level, and perhaps even the one beyond.

Some even receive some extra coaching from Dilfer, who has time for anyone and everyone, even after a long weekend that will segue into more film evaluations and another big weekend in Atlanta as the Elite 11 tour rolls on leading up to the finals in Oregon that start in late June.

One of Dilfer's favorites, Houston (Texas) Lamar quarterback Darrell Colbert Jr., an undersized SMU pledge who was one of the top performers on the weekend, wants to have a few final words and ends up receiving some more coaching in the bargain.

"Junior Junior," as Dilfer calls the reigning state champion, has a tendency to sink deep into his drop when he hits his fifth step. A stickler for such details, Dilfer talks about loading his front leg on his fourth step to kill all that backwards momentum so that Colbert can be more ready to deliver the pass when he hits the final step of his drop.

Colbert punctuates the teaching points with nods of his head or "yessirs," his focus intense as he greedily soaks up the information.

In the moment, it's easy to see why Dilfer likes the coachable Colbert so much as a player -- he works hard to maximize his potential and overcome the limitations imposed by his lack of prototypical size for the position.

Dilfer warns him that the muscles he uses in that front leg to slow his drop will be sore and that it will take a couple weeks before he feels comfortable. Colbert merely smiles, ready for the pain because it will be a sign of progress.

The lesson is punctuated by a few demonstrations from Dilfer, who claims that his daughter can throw a better ball than he can now, though it only takes a couple of throws before the ball is jumping from his hand once again, as befitting a former NFL quarterback.

Even players at other positions stop by for a brief conversation, including 2015 Texas commit Jalen Campbell, who simply wants to introduce himself and shake hands with Dilfer.

As one of the top young prospects at the event, the Elite 11 coach noticed Campbell during the event and prefaces his teaching by noting that he's not a defensive backs coach, though it doesn't seem to cause the future Longhorn's attention to flag.

Dilfer says that while Campbell sinks deep into his backpedal on his first four steps, after that he has a tendency to raise up out of his stance, causing him to be off balance at times and struggle to change direction. Like an experienced high school teacher, Dilfer sandwiches his constructive criticism with praise, telling Campbell how well he does planting and driving out of those first four steps.

As with Colbert, Campbell listens intently through the brief instruction, clearly ready to use the teaching points to become a better player.

High standards

The theme of the weekend with the quarterbacks is high standards, from the work in the drills to beyond.

The Dallas group gets off to a bad start on Saturday when they fail to bring enough wide receivers, resulting in a tired group of pass catchers by the end of the day, a fact that doesn't help the coaches evaluate potential invites to the finals. And a fact that doesn't please Dilfer in the least.

More than that, there are fewer invites going out to the 2013 group after the 2012 Elite 11 finals featured 25 quarterbacks.

"We're going to be more discerning throughout the process and no one guy was consistently great today," said Dilfer after declining to extend an invite on Saturday to any of the quarterbacks present.

"There were a lot of guys who were great at times, but the valleys were too deep -- that's the thing that separates us from other things is how much we embrace the journey and embrace the process and want kids to do the same."

But there's also a balance here -- with the high-level instruction provided by the Elite 11 camps, it's an opportunity for major advancements for the raw quarterbacks with natural talent.

Should Elite 11 take only the more polished passers who have clearly earned the right as the top campers or take some of the less refined quarterbacks who could grow tremendously during that week?

"That's a question that I'll spend 30 to 40 hours contemplating during this process -- what is the balance between raw, physical traits, emotional-cognitive traits, coachability, and existing polish?"

It's a storyline that will play out over the coming weeks as more camps are held, more invitations go out, and the coaches circle back to review their thoughts on the early campers who are still in the mix to go to Oregon.

Almighty mechanics

While some high school quarterbacks have the opportunity to travel around the country for camps and work with some of the top quarterback coaches in private sessions, many have few chances to receive high-level instruction, a reality that can sometimes continue into college when they get only a handful of reps in their first fall practice.

It's a situation that Dilfer warns about, exhorting his charges to make the most of every repetition because they may not get more than one to prove themselves in what he calls the "shark tank" of college football.

In that regard, the Elite 11 process is an incredible opportunity for quarterbacks to receive the best instruction available, perhaps the only chance that many of them will have.

In the brutally competitive world of college football, where quarterbacks often leave major programs to transfer if they can't get playing time, the other side of the equation is that with limited repetitions, college coaches can't provide high-level instruction to every quarterback on campus.

Hence the need for quarterbacks to enter college with the tools they need to compete mechanically.

"If you're not polished enough, you're not going to survive," says Dilfer, point blank. "They're going to stop coaching you in college, just give up. So you better have enough polish. If you can't be consistent, if you have flawed mechanics, it will limit you from being everything that you are."

"They saw the 40, they saw the shuttle, they saw the 10 throws that you can make that no one else can make, but you're never going to get there consistently if you have flawed mechanics. So you have to have enough mechanical consistency to be at least be tapping into your potential."

And tapping into that potential is that the Elite 11 camps are all about. What Dilfer is all about in this process.

He cites the example of Aaron Rodgers, a player who at one time could only throw the football at one speed, with one trajectory. Now that he's gotten the right information and the right training, Dilfer calls him "perhaps the most complete player we've ever seen."

As a teacher of the game, Dilfer wants to see his pupils maximize their potential.

"I want every kid to get the most out of what they have and they won't get the most out of what they have if they have a limiting factor in their game," he says.

A question about what causes quarterbacks to struggle spinning the football results in a long discussion regarding mechanics and those limiting factors, a deep look into the nuances of the position, centering on the all-important wrist load, a part of a quarterback's wind up that Dilfer believes has been negatively influenced by a movement in coaching to get the ball up by the earhole of a quarterback's helmet on release without considering the potential side effects when other aspects are overlooked.

The problem, it turns out, is the focus on getting to a specific spot where the ball comes out for many of the great quarterbacks, like Tom Brady and Johnny Unitas, instead of focusing on how the ball gets there to enable the all-important wrist snap, the flick of the wrist that all the greats have that often gets characterized as arm talent and Dilfer believes may be the most important part of accuracy.

That wrist load is what makes all those quarterbacks who get recognition as having arm talent able to look like they're painting a masterpiece with the final snap that lets the ball jump out of their hand.

And it's also something that has a tendency to break down when quarterbacks get rushed, sped up, and don't take the time to load their wrist.

Dilfer calls it "organizing the movements," getting the arm, wrist, and core "matched up" to deliver the football.

It doesn't stop there, however.

Mechanics also get down to a quarterback's core, literally. Though Norman (Ok.) North star David Cornwell has the easy delivery of a potential future NFL prospect, in large part due to his cannon of a right arm, Dilfer still sees some room for improvement with him with his strength in his hips as the conversationstakes a sharp turn into biomechanics, an area that Dilfer has studied extensively.

"He's got to get stronger in his hips," Dilfer says of Cornwell. "His hips lag at times, I told him that, he needs to develop his core strength because at times he gets away with so much by being just linear and strong and naturally powerful. That speed will become an issue if his hips don't get stronger, something that I'm going to work really hard with this offseason with him."

"If you don't work on your core, you could have back issues and shoulder issues."

From the intricacies of the wrist load to biomechanics, Dilfer leaves no aspects of quarterback play unstudied.

The natural

The only invitation from the weekend went out to David Cornwell of Norman, Ok., who looked on the verge of an invitation Saturday until Dilfer decided that he wanted to see more work from the 6'5, 230-pounder against live competition.

"He does some things graduate-level because of his gift-edness and his polish that most guys can't do," says Dilfer. "I think at the end of the day, it was his ceiling that got him the invite because his ceiling is Ben Roethlisberger."

Proper wrist load isn't an issue for Cornwell, who has the ball jump out of his hand along with the best, but also shows the ability to change speeds on the two-minute drill on Saturday, altering the trajectory of his throws and taking a lot off to fit the ball over the mock linebacker, then hit his receiver in stride down the sideline to complete the effort with a little time left on the clock.

Besides all the obvious tangibles like arm strength and athleticism, Dilfer also sees some of the intangibles from Cornwell.

"He's a real learner, he cares about getting better, and he's rooting for other guys. But at the same time, he's got that quiet assassin to him. He wants seven reps and the other guy to have two. He wants the best receivers and to go against the best defensive backs."

"There's an edge to him even though he's a polite, sophisticated young man," Dilfer continues. "There's enough edge to him competitively that you know he's going to survive in the shark tank. He's going to be one of the top recruits in the country, so he's going to go somewhere where there are seven other sharks in the tank. That's what it comes down to -- can you survive?"

Cornwell looks ready for the shark tank, though he's yet to finish his junior season of high school. He is a natural, after all.

Love for the little guys

As much as Dilfer is working to hone the mechanics of the raw passers like Tyrone Swoopes in 2012 and potentially Brandon Harris in 2013, he doesn't disregard players because of their height.

He's a huge fan of Mesquite (Texas) Horn quarterback Destri White, who may not even be 5'8, saying that he would take him as a college quarterback and simply design a system around him.

Of course, a lack of height does put a lot of pressure on the more diminutive quarterbacks to do other things well.

"If you don't have the typical high-ceiling stature, then you have to do other things like cut it through the wind, have timing, make sudden movements in the pocket, because they have to create space for themselves."

One prospect who was able to do that over the weekend was Katy (Texas) Taylor quarterback Clay Holgorsen, the nephew of the West Virginia head coach. At around 6'0 and without an offer yet, it was Holgorsen who was highly impressive on the weekend for his ability to do things like throw the deep ball into a stiff wind on Saturday and show composure in the pressure cooker, putting his name on the map in the process as he seeks his first offer.

On Sunday, Dilfer says there are three types of coaches -- "No" coaches, who simply dismiss outside-of-the-box ideas, "Yes" coaches who want to include every idea they come across, but can't synthesis them effectively, and "Yes, but" coaches who are able to take ideas from various sources and mold them together into a coherent whole.

It's clear that Dilfer falls on the "Yes, but" side of the equation with the shorter quarterbacks, choosing to evaluate their skill sets without punishing them because they don't have prototypical size.

The journey to Oregon

And so the Elite 11 Camp rolls on, to another city next week and another after that, and on and on.

More quarterbacks to evaluate, more potential to unlock, more lingering moments on the football field for those extra couple of coaching tips. A picture or two or 10 with beaming kids and parents who are see their children getting one step closer to achieving their dreams.

Evaluation, discussion, countless hours of film study.

At the end of it all, a week in Oregon, where a select few of the top quarterbacks in the country will get a once-in-a-lifetime chance to further unlock their potential as they prepare to take the college football world by storm.

Because taking the college football world by storm is what Elite 11 quarterbacks do.

Johnny Manziel Interview at Dallas Elite 11 Regional Camp (via sbnrecruiting)

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