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Monday, July 1, 2013
Learning from the best

By Mitch Sherman
RecruitingNation

BEAVERTON, Ore. -- Two thick rows of green treetops block the outside view of the artificial surface at Bo Jackson Field on the campus at Nike World Headquarters. Only a few parents of the gathered high school quarterbacks and a group of Elite 11 staffers watched Saturday as the college stars who serve as counselors at this event tossed footballs toward the corner of an end zone.

Practice for the young QBs remained more than an hour away. An idyllic setting. No pressure. Relaxing times.

David Cornwell
Practicing with the likes of Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater could have an instant impact on top HS QBs like David Cornwell.
Then, for David Cornwell (Norman, Okla./North) and Kyle Allen (Scottsdale, Ariz./Desert Mountain), Trent Dilfer changed everything. 

Come on down, boys. It's your turn to compete with Tajh Boyd, Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel, the biggest names in the college game. All likely future NFL quarterbacks.

Allen, a 2014 Texas A&M commit ranked No. 99 in the ESPN 300 and third among pocket passers, just about lost it before he took hold of a ball.

"Geez," Allen said. "He just called me and David out. Real quick, I had to get my head on straight."

This is life as a quarterback: uncomfortable moments, unexpected pressure. This was no accident. This was part of the Dilfer experience at the Elite 11 finals.

Other quarterbacks got their moments, too. For some, the pressure is still to come this week at the The Opening, as nearly 150 linemen, backs, receivers and defenders join the quarterbacks in Oregon.

But this moment, this test, allowed Dilfer to use the counselors as his secret weapon. The college quarterbacks, a group that also includes Devin Gardner of Michigan, David Fales of San Jose State and Vad Lee of Georgia Tech, have developed into a key component at these Elite 11 finals.

Manziel, the much-celebrated Heisman Trophy winner as a redshirt freshman at Texas A&M last fall, announced the finals invite of Sean White (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./University School of Nova South) on Twitter.

Boyd, a 2008 Elite 11 finalist alongside Aaron Murray, A.J. McCarron and Geno Smith, threw for 3,896 yards and 36 touchdowns last year in an All-ACC junior season at Clemson. Boyd coveted his counselor invite, and when he got it a few weeks ago, he dropped everything to make it here.

Dilfer, upon joining the Elite 11 program in 2011, maximized the role of the counselors. He said it has served to enhance the overall experience.

"Those guys are here to share their life stories, to be examples in the way they engage the kids, with how they compete," said Dilfer, an ESPN commentator who won a Super Bowl in 2001 as quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens.

Buffalo Bills first-round pick EJ Manuel counseled the Elite 11 finalists the past two years. He especially enjoyed sharing wisdom with the young quarterbacks.

"I told EJ, 'It's great to talk to the quarterbacks, but you'll give them more by going out and showing them how to compete,'" Dilfer said.

So that's just what the older QBs did with Cornwell and Allen on Saturday. Allen misfired with his first throw. It hit his target on the back hip. He regrouped and got better in a hurry. His final two throws, according to Dilfer, were "perfect balls."

"Kyle owned them at the end," he added.

Allen said it bolstered his confidence. Through three days, he was perhaps the most consistent of the 18 finalists.

The college guys helped create that environment.

"You have to remember that you're making a huge impression on these guys," Boyd said. "It's all about interacting with them. You have to let them know that they can reach this level."

Deshaun Watson committed to Clemson and hopes to follow Boyd as the Tigers' QB.

"We have a great connection with each other," Watson said. "He's watching me, and I'm watching him."

The counselors, through experience in college, all arrived at this event armed with advice for the high school quarterbacks.

Bridgewater, an All-Big East QB at Louisville as a sophomore last fall after throwing 3,718 yards and 27 touchdowns, said he would advise the younger players to compete against themselves.

When Bridgewater attended the finals in 2010, he said, he came with one goal -- to prove he was the No. 1 quarterback in the nation. He thought he was better than Everett Golson, Jeff Driskel and Cody Kessler. Bridgewater wanted everyone else to believe it, too.

His outlook three years later?

"Don't worry about the other guys," he said. "If you compete with yourself, you'll push yourself even harder. You bring out the best in yourself better than anyone else. I wish I would have known that coming out of high school."

Fales' best advice simply involves his story. He signed with Nevada out of high school in Salinas, Calif., but got stuck behind Colin Kaepernick. So Fales transferred to junior college, then to SJSU, where he completed an FBS-high 72.5 percent of his passes last year for 4,193 yards and 33 scores.

Perhaps a future spot in the first round of the NFL draft awaits.

The point? You don't need 20 scholarship offers to make it big.

"These guys are blowing up right now," Fales said. "There's a reason they're here, but they've got to keep that drive, that chip on their shoulder. I look at Tom Brady. He looks angry when he plays all the time.

"He looks like he has something to prove. You've always got to be hungry and get out here and compete."

Lee, the Georgia Tech quarterback and Class of 2011 recruit from Durham, N.C., reminds the younger players they're never far from the spotlight.

"You're a quarterback 24-7," Lee said. "That's what I tell young quarterbacks, which means you can't do what your peers do. Everything is going to be scrutinized. The team is constantly looking up to you for the answers."

Dilfer's program emphasizes much more than quarterback play.

"I will fail you miserably if I just make you a better quarterback," he told the high school players Friday night as the finals opened.

It's why, on Saturday, Dilfer and six-year NFL veteran QB Jordan Palmer introduced the quarterbacks to NEGU, a childhood cancer foundation named for Jessie Rees and her motto, "never ever give up." She died in 2012, 10 months after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.

The quarterbacks met her family and 10 pediatric cancer patients. The competition stopped.

"They put a smile on my face just for showing up and being positive," Boyd said.

Watson took pause to appreciate his mother, Deann, who fought tongue cancer recently. She's cancer-free. The kids they met are not. Many won't get there.

"You can't take life for granted," Watson said. "We're out here, having fun, blessed to play football, but you never know when it's going to be your last play."

Some things, you can't learn from a counselor.