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Sleeper signal-caller

Arkansas native Neal Burcham is about to see his stock soar after the Elite 11 finals

Updated: July 22, 2011, 5:23 PM ET
By Mitch Sherman | ESPN Recruiting

MALIBU, Calif. -- Neal Burcham lives and plays high school football in Greenbrier, Ark., a town of slightly more than 3,000 people about 40 miles north of Little Rock.

Small, yes, but it's there on the map along U.S. Highway 65, not far from Interstate 40.

[+] EnlargeNeal Burcham
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comNeal Burcham's recruiting stock is sure to rise after his performance at the Elite 11 finals.

Major college coaches don't know the route. Greenbier High School coach Randy Tribble said he's not aware of the last time -- if ever -- a player from the school earned a Division I scholarship.

That's likely all about to change. Burcham, a 6-foot-2, 193-pound quarterback with exactly one scholarship offer -- from nearby Central Arkansas of the FCS -- more than held his own this week among the 24 quarterbacks at the Elite 11 finals.

He earned a high spot each of the past three days on the coaches' 11-man leaderboard and Burcham has regularly outperformed fellow competitors with dozens of glitzy offers from which to choose.

"That shows how stupid some of these people are in college football," said former veteran NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, head coach to the Elite 11 participants at Pepperdine University this week. "If you're in that region and you haven't offered this kid, you're stupid."

Burcham caught the attention of Elite 11 organizers in April at a regional event in Texas.

"I had a really good day," he said.

Ranked 45th nationally at his position by ESPN.com, Burcham perhaps needed the invite to Malibu more than anyone else who made it. When he got word, Burcham saw it as a breakthrough.

"I knew that was the opportunity I needed to get my name out," he said. "I came into here with a chip on my shoulder to show what I can do a little bit."

Consider it done.

Though college coaches can't attend the event, they'll hear plenty about Burcham's performance.

Additionally, ESPN will broadcast one-hour features of the event on Aug. 12 and 19 as part of its Year of the Quarterback programming. Burcham may be a prominent figure.

He turned the head of Ken O'Brien, who played quarterback with the Jets, Packers and Eagles from 1982 to 1993. O'Brien is coaching under Dilfer this week alongside other former players and several college quarterbacks.

"I don't know his story, but I know he rises to the occasion," O'Brien said. "When the competition heats up out here, he doesn't bat an eye. He just quietly, confidently makes the play. That's when you really notice him.

"He delivers the ball really well and he's a competitor. It shocks me, hearing that he's not right in the same situation as the rest of these kids with where he's going to college. Physically, he's got a lot to grow, but other than one or two plays, he's gotten better every day."

Jameis Winston, the nation's No. 2-rated QB and Burcham's Elite 11 roommate, said he knows a plan exists for the kid from Arkansas.

"Off the field, he's relaxed," Winston said. "On the field, he's a great competitor. Neal's just smooth all around."

Burcham's history partially explains how he has gone overlooked. He first played football as a ninth-grader in 2008 and earned his initial varsity start at Greenbrier a year later as a sophomore.

The team finished 1-9 the previous fall, but he helped lead it to a 9-4 mark and berth in the semifinal round of the playoffs in Arkansas' third-largest classification, 5A. Last year, Greenbrier finished 9-3 and made the quarterfinals.

[+] EnlargeNeal Burcham
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comNeal Burcham could be an absolute steal for whichever school that lands him.
Burcham, over two seasons, threw for about 5,700 yards with more than 60 touchdowns while completing better than 63 percent of his throws, according to Tribble.

Still, the coach said, "it's not a place people have come to look for football players."

Burcham has received interest from Arkansas, Alabama, Missouri and Tennessee. He plans to attend a camp soon at Oklahoma State. Arkansas State has considered an offer, Tribble said, but its coaches wanted to see him up close first.

"It's a little bit of a mystery to me, too," Tribble said. "But he's so high on Arkansas, and when your home state team hasn't offered you, that makes people wonder."

Burcham has added nearly 20 pounds in the past year. He said he gained significant weight after his sophomore year, too.

"A lot of those [Elite 11] kids look like grown men," Tribble said. "Neal still looks like a 16-year-old. But somebody's going to end up getting him and say, 'Wow, how did we get this guy?'"

Burcham said he never saw himself as a quarterback until about year ago. He thought maybe he'd play college basketball, collecting offers as a point guard from Harding University and Southern Arkansas.

He said he knows now his future involves football.

Tom Luginbill, ESPN's national director of recruiting, describes Burcham as a classic late-bloomer.

"His delivery and feet are his two best traits and both are something you cannot coach," Luginbill said. "His best football is definitely ahead of him."

Burcham also said he believes his best is yet to come.

"If I play the way I know I can play," he said, "it's going to take care of itself."

Mitch Sherman is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at mshermanespn@gmail.com.

Follow Mitch Sherman on Twitter @mitchsherman