REDONDO BEACH, Calif. — There are some misnomers involved with the famed quarterback competition known as the Elite 11.
For one, the roster never consists of precisely 11 competitors. At the event’s current stage — the Finals — the head count is actually 24, which includes Sam Ehlinger, the Texas pledge and rising senior at Westlake.
Another misconception: The Finals are not the event’s final phase. For three days beginning Friday, the nation’s best quarterbacks from the class of 2017 will gather in Los Angeles and battle with their arms and minds for one of 12 invitations to next month’s The Opening, which will be held in Oregon. There, finally, the Elite 11 will crown a champion.
Yet amid the confusion is one irrefutable truth: The Elite 11 participants are elite, possessing the best arms the country has to offer. This year’s roster consists of the class’ top-ranked pro style QB (Michigan-pledged Dylan McCaffrey, of Colorado) and the top-ranked dual threat QB (the uncommitted Tate Martell, of Las Vegas).
Additionally, 11 competitors — half of the field — are ranked among the top 150 players in the nation, according to 247Sports’ composite ratings. In coming seasons, there’s a good chance you’ll see these guys taking snaps in college for Florida, Texas A&M, LSU, Clemson, Alabama, Michigan, Stanford, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and other storied programs.
“I’m just trying to get better and show I can hang with the elite,” Ehlinger said. “You’re out here to get better and compete. I want to do both of those things, and it’s gonna be a great experience.”
The American-Statesman will be on site at the Elite 11 finals, providing updates — many of them on Ehlinger, who instantly became a Longhorns fan favorite last summer when he fulfilled his lifelong dream by committing to his hometown program.
This marks 18 years of the competition, which began in 1999 when this year’s participants were in diapers and when future Texas quarterback Chance Mock advanced to a final group that also included current NFL quarterback Matt Cassel.
For its part, Texas has been represented by commitments in seven years — Ehlinger, Shane Buechele (2015), Jerrod Heard (2013), Garrett Gilbert (2008), Jevan Snead (2005), Vince Young (2001) and Mock (1999).
Buechele, who could start for the Longhorns this fall as a true freshman, was leading the Elite 11 field last year until getting passed during the 7-on-7 competition at The Opening by IMG’s Shea Patterson, who went on to sign with Ole Miss.
Now it’s Ehlinger’s chance to carry the burnt orange banner. After being denied an invitation at a Houston regional on April 3, he regrouped, tightened some flaws in his footwork, and landed a roster spot at a May 1 regional at the New York Jets facility.
An instinctive runner who rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a junior, Ehlinger’s versatility won’t do him much good in a passing-only event. For that reason, he’s probably not among the obvious choices to be crowned champion, though it’s not like there is anything flawed with an arm that threw for 50 touchdowns in 2015.
Ehlinger had a marvelous junior season, leading Westlake to within an eyelash of the Class 6A Division I state title. In addition to his 3,833 passing yards, he ran for 1,360 yards and 20 touchdowns and caught a pass for another score. In all, he played a part in 71 touchdowns.
“On tape, Sam is one of the best football players of the group,” said Brian Stumpf, the Elite 11 event organizer. “I don’t think you call him just a quarterback because he does so much with his legs. I don’t know if he’s a precision passer like some other guys in this class, but he’s a playmaker, which is one of the hardest things to coach. It’s just innate.”
Stumpf declined to pick a favorite, but noted Stanford commit Davis Mills of Georgia was the “most consistent performer” at the regional level.
Ehlinger, the nation’s sixth-ranked dual threat quarterback, is joined by five other Texans — DeSoto’s Shawn Robinson (TCU), Mesquite Horn’s Chris Robison (Oklahoma), Pearland’s Connor Blumrick (Texas A&M), Cedar Hill’s Avery Davis (Notre Dame) and former San Antonio Reagan product Kellen Mond, who is transferring to play his senior season at IMG Academy in Florida. On Wednesday, Mond announced he had backed out of his commitment to Baylor over the fallout of the program’s sexual assault scandal that resulted in the dismissal of head coach and quarterback guru Art Briles.
Evaluating the participants on their footwork, playbook dissection and defensive recognition is a coaching staff headed by NFL Super Bowl winner Trent Dilfer. Among Dilfer’s assistants are former Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson, former NFL quarterback Charlie Frye and popular quarterback guru George Whitfield, who has tutored past quarterbacks like Cam Newton, Donovan McNabb and Johnny Manziel.
Ehlinger said he’s spent recent days engulfed in the playbook.
“I know every depth on every play and every formation,” he said.
Notable Elite 11 alumni include Heisman Trophy winners Jameis Winston, Tim Tebow and Troy Smith, as well as current NFL quarterbacks Andrew Luck, Teddy Bridgewater, Mark Sanchez and Jared Goff, the first overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft.
Rivals’ national recruiting analyst Adam Gorney provides his thoughts on Ehlinger in this video: