The coaches weren’t the only ones who had traveled long distances with big aspirations for the weekend at Ohio State [for the Elite 11 Super Regional event]. Brandon Harris and his family had driven almost a thousand miles from their home in Bossier City, Louisiana, to get to Columbus. Football experts in the Bayou State regarded Harris, at the time a 6ʹ3ʺ, 180-pound junior at Parkway High School, as the most gifted QB prospect Louisiana had produced in more than a decade. The Internet recruiting analysts from Rivals.com, ESPN, and 247Sports each regarded Harris as one of the top five quarterbacks in the Class of 2014.
Two months earlier, Harris had gone to the Elite 11 regional at the Dallas Cowboys practice facility and, by his own admission, struggled. The drills he was put through by the Elite 11 staff were new to him, he said. Harris graded his performance as a C. Harris, though, was optimistic that that weekend he’d earn a spot to the nationally televised Elite 11 finals.
Harris acknowledged that the status of being anointed “an Elite 11 Quarterback,” given its history and exposure—and the fact that so many fans, especially on Twitter, gauge your worth by it— mattered to him. Truth be told, such things—such as whether a kid is ranked as a “five-star” or a “two-star”—are a big deal to most high schoolers, even if some are reluctant to admit it. Then again, the number of one’s Twitter followers often has meaning to people twice Harris’s age.
Regardless, Harris wasn’t lacking for college scholarship offers. LSU, Texas A&M, and Ohio State were among the powerhouses in pursuit. The home-state Tigers waited until after they observed Harris throw during spring practice before offering him.
“[LSU offensive coordinator and former NFL coach] Cam Cameron told me afterward that he’s been out to see four quarterbacks now, and I was the best of the group,” Harris had told reporters earlier in the spring. “He thinks I’ve got big-time NFL potential.”
Harris had arrived a day early in Columbus for an “unofficial” Ohio State visit. He was hosted by Urban Meyer and Buckeyes offensive coordinator Tom Herman.
“Coach Meyer said he really wants me to be the quarterback at Ohio State,” said Harris.
Turned out, Meyer wouldn’t be the only big-time college head coach Harris saw on the trip to Ohio State. LSU head coach Les Miles and his assistant, Cam Cameron, made the trek to Columbus for Elite 11, too. Even though college coaches are not allowed by NCAA rules to attend any such camps, both Tigers coaches were in the clear, since their sons, Manny (Miles) and Danny (Cameron), a pair of high school sophomores in Baton Rouge, also were taking part in the Elite 11.
The Elite 11 staff was curious to see how Brandon Harris performed. There were no doubts about his arm strength or his athleticism, although the staff wanted to see more polish on his passing skills instead of his being a “one-pitch pitcher,” relying on his fastball.
“The big concern with him is about his mental makeup,” said one of the coaches. “When we saw him in Dallas, he kept telling people how he’d never really been coached before. Like, he was using the same excuse, the same crutch, on people. He sounded rehearsed. You wonder if he’s the guy who makes excuses when the chips are all on the table and things aren’t going right. You wonder how he’d carry a locker room. Will kids see right through him?”
The critique, the kind you might hear an NFL scout offering his bosses while sizing up a college prospect, underscored how much the Elite 11 process had changed under Trent Dilfer. Before he took over, the selection process was largely reduced to rounding up the kids with the most recruiting buzz. Dilfer incorporated “war room” settings as part of the Elite 11 and its reality show, where the head coach (Dilfer) and his staff debated the merits of each QB. This can be a tricky proposition, given how many different schemes high school teams use and the wide variance in the level of the competition they play against. Or how good the coaching these kids have had.
The list of quarterbacks who auditioned for the Elite 11 and didn’t make it over the past decade is as impressive as the group that did. Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, and Johnny Manziel all tried out for it but didn’t get selected—although Dilfer and his staff factor in anyone who went through an Elite 11 workout as part of their history. The Elite 11’s pedigree that Dilfer rattled off is heady stuff: 71 percent of the NFL’s quarterbacks in 2012 came through the Elite 11 process, including six of the past seven Heisman Trophy winners and five of the last seven number one overall picks in the NFL draft.
After a forty-five-minute dinner break, members of the TDFB brass addressed the room and threw more staggering numbers at the QB coaches. However, this data didn’t relate to the past but more toward the opportunity in front of the folks in attendance.
Stenstrom returned to the podium to hammer home the TDFB landscape. One of the slides he put up on a big screen read, “Across all sports, coaching is a $5.9-billion industry,” a stat that drew a few “oohs” from the room. He also noted that “75 percent” of coaches below the high school level coach because of availability, not ability.
“That is staggering,” he said. “They’re not bringing expertise. You guys can tell ’em how to coach. You can get them ready and school ’em up.”
Taylor Holiday, a former minor league baseball player, was handling the marketing side of TDFB and the Elite 11. “We’re gonna generate five million impressions in the next forty-eight hours,” he said, throwing out a projection that seemed unwieldy for a group of private contractors, many of whom didn’t even have websites. Still . . . “generate . . . five million . . . forty-eight hours.” Sounded big.
Rick Hempel, an old IBMer, said he’d sold a golf-simulator company he’d built for $100 million. His new company, eCoach, was a TDFB partner. Hempel had seen the potential for his new venture after sending his fourteen-year-old son to a football camp. The week had cost Hempel $695. His kid loved it, but the downside: there was no follow-up with the instructors.
“A lot of business opportunities [have] been left on the table,” he told the coaches. “Now you can tether to them.”
Aside from Trent Dilfer, the speaker who did the best job of captivating the crowd was Jason Sada, the president of Axon Sports, a company billing itself as “the leader in athletic brain training.” Sada’s example of a person driving the same route so often, their mind seems to slip into autopilot mode to the point where they barely recall the act of driving, resonated with many of the coaches. Sada later evoked author Malcolm Gladwell’s ten-thousand-hour rule. In Gladwell’s New York Times best seller Outliers, he wrote that ten thousand hours of practice in your dedicated field is sufficient to be at your peak, citing the Beatles and Bill Gates as examples for his “Ten thousand hours is the magic number for greatness” claim.
Operating off a similar principle, Sada and his colleague Joe Germaine, the former star Ohio State Buckeyes QB from the mid-’90s, showed the coaches a large video screen that flashed defensive alignments and coverages for a quarterback to identify and diagnose in rapid-fire sequencing.
“You can get ten thousand reps without subjecting your body to wear and tear,” Germaine said, adding that many top NFL quarter- backs had trained on Axon Sports products at their headquarters in Arizona.
“Guys,” Dilfer said, “this is really, really cool stuff right here.”
What wasn’t offered over the course of the four-plus-hour meeting were some other sobering stats about the quarterback world: that in the twenty NFL Drafts prior to 2013, fifty quarterbacks had been selected in the first round, and about 40 percent of them proved to be busts, while only six of those fifty ever started—and won—a Super Bowl: Joe Flacco, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, and Trent Dilfer. Or that since 1990, there’d been twenty-seven QBs selected among the top five picks of the draft, and only six of those quarterbacks made it to more than two Pro Bowls.
His Super Bowl ring notwithstanding, Dilfer was haunted by stats of quarterbacking futility. He spoke a lot about being on a “journey” that had begun late in his playing career, in 2006, his thirteenth year in the NFL—seven years after he won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens. He’d looked at Brett Favre and kept asking himself, “Why did he end up great, and I ended up average?”
Dilfer, despite being 6ʹ5ʺ, 225 pounds in high school, probably wouldn’t have gotten a sniff from the Elite 11 people if it were around in his day. Or at least he wouldn’t have in its earlier format. Dilfer played in an option offense in Northern California, where he only threw about ten passes a game. Oregon and Colorado State wanted him as a tight end, but the coaches at Fresno State were intrigued by his arm and his athleticism.
Dilfer blossomed at Fresno, leading the nation in passing efficiency in his junior season. He opted to leave early for the NFL and was selected number six overall in the 1994 draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He made it to one Pro Bowl, in 1997, but ended his career having thrown more interceptions (129) than touchdowns (113).
“I was so disappointed in my career,” Dilfer told the coaches. “You get late in your career, and you go, ‘Man, I wish I would’ve done it differently.’ And, a lot of the ‘Man, I wish I would’ve done it differently’ circled back to knowledge. In 2006, I said I’m gonna go on this journey to figure out all this stuff that I don’t know, from the X’s and O’s side but especially the developmental side.”
Dilfer came to the conclusion that many of the shortcomings of NFL quarterbacks, including his own, were rooted in a perspective that was flawed from the inside, where people, QBs included, got hung up on the wrong things. The young players and the young fans were growing up with a truly false perception of what made great quarterbacks great and how to appreciate very good quarterback play when they saw it, he told me days before heading to Ohio State. “I know this because I bought into it for the first half of my career.”