Elite 11 takeaways: Bruce Feldman on surprise star, Ohio State’s Tavien St. Clair, more

Elite 11 takeaways: Bruce Feldman on surprise star, Ohio State’s Tavien St. Clair, more

MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — This year’s crop of quarterbacks at the Elite 11 had the staff raving; several coaches told The Athletic that the Class of 2025 group was one of the most impressive ever seen at the camp. That’s saying something, given the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit, Bryce Underwood, wasn’t in attendance.

“This is as talented a group as I’ve seen, from 1-20,” said coach Justin Hoover, who has worked with the Elite 11 for the past 12 years. Hoover noted that, typically, the lower-ranked quarterbacks at the camp flounder as they try to keep up with the competition: “Sometimes, it gets bad-bad.” But there “wasn’t much of a gap” this year, as all of the quarterbacks showed they belonged.

The biggest revelation from this year’s Elite 11 was Jaron Keawe Sagapolutele, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound three-star prospect from Ewa Beach, Hawaii, who is the No. 39 quarterback in the 247Sports Composite. Sagapolutele arrived at camp without as much impressive film as most of the other attendees. He also hadn’t faced the same level of talent.

“He was unbelievable,” said coach Devin Gardner, a former starting quarterback at Michigan. “Usually, when you’re in a situation like that and when you’re in a setting like this, when you get to play with the wolves, like how these guys are, you don’t show up. You’re just kind of there. But he came to dominate, and he definitely did. He has everything you want in a quarterback: the arm strength, arm talent, good size. … He’s a fire-breather.”

After the first night, the Elite 11 coaches reconvene and talk about each quarterback. Yogi Roth, one of the coaches and a former USC assistant quarterbacks coach, said: “This is the guy that is going to walk out of this camp and his life is going to be changed. And I think it’s happening because of the amount of (college) coaches that all of us have heard from since then.”

Coming into the Elite 11, Sagapolutele had offers from Boise State, Cal and Oregon State, among others. Expect the conversation about him to pick up significantly.

“I was floored by how talented he was,” coach Quincy Avery said. “This kid is going to get so much better, too.”

“He came out of nowhere,” Hoover said. “He was kind of an unknown. You watch film and he kind of looks bored, but then he gets here in front of all these other guys and he really cranked it up.”

“He came out of nowhere,” Elite 11 coach Justin Hoover said of Jaron Keawe Sagapolutele. (Courtesy of the Elite 11)

Here’s some intel gathered from the Elite 11 about the other quarterbacks. All rankings are via the 247Sports Composite.

Tavien St. Clair (No. 14 overall, No. 3 QB)

St. Clair passes the eyeball test. The 6-4, 225-pound Ohio State commit reminded me of another former Buckeyes commit: Dylan Raiola, who ultimately signed with Nebraska. Both are big-framed athletes who look like they’re 25, and both have tons of horsepower firing the football. St. Clair lived up to the hype during his week at the Elite 11. Unlike others, he was consistent all week, I’m told. One of the coaches said that if St. Clair can learn to play on time, he can be special at the next level: “He may not be quite as electric as Dylan, but he’s really smooth.”

“I think he’s a more gifted passer than Raiola by a little bit,” another coach said. “Dylan was more casual and cool. He looked like a grown man who you could tell had watched hours and hours of (Patrick) Mahomes and was like this big middle infielder slinging it around. Tavien looked more intentional.”

“I think Tavien had the best arm here,” a different Elite 11 coach said. “I think (his arm’s) a little better than Raiola’s, and he’ll be under less of a microscope in his situation. He can make some mistakes without everyone looking for him to be the savior of the program without a lot of good players around him.”

“He is an anomaly,” Roth said. “He’s from an hour away from Ohio State, one of the greatest schools in the history of the game, and he’s never had a personal QB coach. He’s done it in a way I haven’t heard about in, like, 20 years.”

Keelon Russell (No. 38 overall, No. 6 QB)

Russell, an Alabama commit from Texas, won MVP honors. The 6-3, 180-pounder checks every box and should continue to blossom as his frame continues to fill out. Russell displayed some of the best arm talent at the Elite 11. He was good off-platform and demonstrated great spatial awareness. He impressed the staff with his leadership and with what Roth described as an uncanny “awareness that really stood out.”

Hoover coached Russell in Thursday’s seven-on-seven tournament. His first comment about Russell was something he observed after Russell made an on-the-money throw to a wide-open receiver for what looked like a sure touchdown that ended up being dropped.

“Keelon goes to the kid as he’s coming back to the huddle: ‘Hey, it’s all good. Those are the hardest ones to catch when no one’s around you,’” Hoover said. “He just has this great feel and leadership and ability to calm everyone down. He was so impressive.”

After the first night, one of the Elite 11 coaches texted an Alabama staffer, “You guys have the best one here.”

“I think he might have the highest ceiling of anyone here,” Gardner said. “He can make any type of throw, driving it, layering it, from different arm angles.”

Deuce Knight (No. 51 overall, No. 8 QB)

The Notre Dame commit from Lucedale, Miss., shined. Don’t be surprised if his stock shoots up. The coaches loved Knight. He’s almost 6-5, 210 pounds and has the frame to carry 230 down the road. The lefty is a superb athlete with excellent wheels, but he wowed Elite 11 coaches with how much better he looked in Southern California than he did a few months ago at the regional camp the Elite 11 put on. Knight showed up much more polished as a passer and more consistent. The other things that impressed coaches were his magnetic personality and leadership skills, key traits for a quarterback that don’t necessarily show up on film.

“He was super impressive,” Gardner said. “He’s big and strong, and he moves really well. He was as polished as anybody there. And he’s got this personality that’s outstanding. He can walk into a room and will attract teammates no matter their walks of life. He can relate well to guys.”

Notre Dame has had some good quarterbacks over the past dozen years, but it hasn’t had a quarterback drafted in the first round since Brady Quinn went No. 22 to the Cleveland Browns in 2007. Since 2010, the Irish have had only one quarterback drafted in the first three rounds: DeShone Kizer, who went No. 52 in 2017. Knight’s blend of size, speed and intangibles is different. At the Elite 11 regional combine, Knight clocked a 4.53 40-yard dash and had his vertical jump measured at an eye-popping 41.9 inches.

“I think he’s special,” Hoover said. “I don’t think Notre Dame’s ever had a quarterback quite like this. (Kizer) was big and threw it well, but he wasn’t as dynamic as this kid is.”



Has Notre Dame struck QB gold in Mississippi? Inside Deuce Knight’s path to South Bend

Husan Longstreet (No. 40 overall, No. 7 QB)

Longstreet, from Corona, Calif., is committed to Texas A&M. The 6-1, 200-pounder impressed with his arm and grit. Longstreet competed at the event despite a heavily bandaged foot injury. He couldn’t move the way he normally can, but he still excelled.

“He hurt it the day before in practice,” said Brian Stumpf, the general manager of the Elite 11. “He was taking a bunch of ibuprofen. We told him to just take it easy. That first night is two hours of moving around a bunch of throws. Just take it easy. He didn’t. He went out and did everything and crushed it. We knew he was twitchy and athletic, but now we know he’s also one of the toughest quarterbacks that we’ve come across, in terms of battling through injury and how much he wanted to compete.”

Julian Lewis (No. 9 overall, No. 2 QB)

A USC commit from Georgia, the 16-year-old was the youngest player at the event, and he flashed some of the skills that got him that lofty ranking.

“He’s an interesting story,” Roth said. “He reclassified (and moved up into the senior class) and is younger than these guys. He told me that at 7 years old, he was told he was the best quarterback in Georgia. That’s ridiculous that anybody’s telling anyone that they’re the best at anything at 7, especially at that position. We’ve seen a lot of quarterbacks get labeled like that at such a young age, and it’s not healthy. Very rarely do they ever live up to them. What I liked about Julian was (that) as the week went on, he started to relax a bit and let other people in, because he’d never been around them since they hadn’t been in his recruiting class. … I think he grew a lot in three days.”

Added Stumpf: “From a pure passer standpoint, he’s as good as anyone there, and he performed well.”

Tramell Jones Jr. (No. 287 overall, No. 24 QB)

Jones, a three-star Florida State commit, was more impressive than his recruiting hype.

“I really liked him,” Avery said. “He plays at a high level. He threw with accuracy. He threw on time. He’s super twitchy. His arm strength popped out to me.”

“He does everything right,” Roth said. “He was phenomenal. He is a heck of a player. He can spin it and has the right demeanor in this era to play. He was the last guy in the room studying his playbook. He’s that guy.”

Ryan Montgomery (No. 155 overall, No. 13 QB)

A Georgia commit from Ohio, Montgomery showed up well at the end of camp in the seven-on-seven setting.

“He might have been a little overwhelmed early in the camp, but he’s very skilled,” one of the coaches said. “He lit it up in seven-on-seven. He’s good on timing and is very accurate.”

KJ Lacey (No. 86 overall, No. 11 QB)

The 5-11, 180-pound Texas commit was much smaller than most of the top players at the event but still turned some heads throughout his strong week. “He’s a smooth passer,” one of the coaches said. “He doesn’t have an overpowering arm like some of the other guys here, but he looked good.”

Lacey has some Bryce Young in him, and he will play for Young’s former coach, Steve Sarkisian.

“I think he’s more dynamic of a runner than Bryce,” Roth said. “I could see him having great success in that program.”

KaMario Taylor (No. 198 overall, No. 17 QB)

Taylor is an intriguing talent. The 6-4, 215-pounder is a Mississippi State commit. I heard he struggled with accuracy earlier in the week, but he looked terrific Thursday at the end of camp. He has a huge frame and a ton of upside. The coaches said he’s really raw but flashed some elite talent on the last day when he started to cut it loose.

“He hit some easy throws and then started lighting it up against the best defense in the seven-on-seven tournament,” Gardner said. “He’s got so much horsepower and juice. He was really good on the run.”

A different quarterback take: Oregon’s Dillon Gabriel

Gabriel was at the event as one of the college counselors, and he made a big impression. On the first night, Gabriel and Sagapolutele, a fellow Hawaiian, made it to the end of their “rail shot” competition among all the quarterbacks and counselors.

“Dillon would’ve nailed that throw 27 times in a row, but when he got to the end with Jaron, he just kinda threw it up in the air so Jaron could win. He was awesome with the kids. Total rock star,” Stumpf said. “I think he exceeded expectations from what everybody would’ve thought of him from a throwing standpoint. He was a dude and a leader and super charismatic. All the high school kids were just raving about him.”

(Top photo of Deuce Knight courtesy of the Elite 11)

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