“He’s just so smooth.”
It didn’t take the NCAA quarterbacks assisting the Elite 11 staff long to impress the next wave of college arms. Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler, North Carolina’s Sam Howell, UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Liberty’s Malik Willis each spent multiple days with the U.S.’s top high school signal-callers, giving back at an event each once participated in themselves.
Auburn commitment Holden Geriner, of Savannah, Ga., sported a smile from ear to ear even after an intense training-camp-style workout to kick off the competition last week. Paired with Rattler along with four of Geriner’s peers, they took tips from a player they’d like to emulate at the next level. While working a 15-yard throw to the corner of the end zone, Rattler demonstrated a short shuffle step toward the target with a slight drop of his arm angle.
Rattler, winner of the Elite 11 as a rising high school senior, then reached for a batch of field turf, reset his three-step drop and fired the football to the intended target. It traveled just beyond the pylon, where only the wide receiver could snag it.
The week in Los Angeles served as a reminder of what’s to come this fall from the college counselor group—wow throws, precision and a certain ease through a task that may be the most scrutinized at any level or sport. The quartet worked with campers through a drill circuit on the event’s first day, with many here’s-how-you-do-this examples to help set the tone for each group of five prep talents.
On the second day, though, those examples were expanded to a pro-day-style script with all eyes on the Heisman hopefuls. Willis worked a methodical walk-through to illustrate what the Elite 11 staff would want from the college and high school stars that evening before the intensity elevated and a collective seriousness set in from those ready to work 20 specific throws, scored internally by the staff.
The Sports Illustrated staff on hand also took to charting each passer, rewarding accuracy and timing on a simple point system. Each throw was graded between one and three points, with a maximum of 60 through the 20-throw script.
Thompson-Robinson was first to work through at full speed and it didn’t take long to see why there is increased expectation in Westwood. Throw No. 5, a seven-step drop with play action, was on time on a corner route just before the target’s momentum carried him out of bounds. A clean drop and slight dip of the right elbow preceded the easy release despite a distance of some 40 yards through the air. DTR, as he’s known, would excel on many of the passes constructed with movement before the release. The athleticism displayed on additional play-action drops, run-pass-option looks and multiple scripts demanding avoiding initial pressure were where he was most on target.
The multiyear starting Bruin worked best in the pocket or on the move to his right, common with right-handed passers, and he proved consistent in playing square regardless of launch point. It altered his mechanics to a degree, but the anticipation, timing and touch on the football did not suffer. More important, it appeared as if any off-target attempt would be followed by strong recovery. Thompson-Robinson’s best ball was a bang-8, or skinny post, meant to simulate the small window between an underneath defender and a safety. It was on time and arrived with the kind of force high school pass catchers won’t soon forget.
Thompson-Robinson’s score: 47
Howell took a bit longer to settle in, but once he did, the reality met most onlooker expectations. The Tar Heel worked the middle of the script surgically, cashing in on some of the deeper throws called for. He was the first on time with one of the tougher tosses, scrambling to the left and adjusting to a wide receiver rerouting toward the sideline in a dead sprint. His quick feet reacted to a mock pass rusher together, allowing him to burst to his weak side promptly before squaring up. Howell’s eyes shifted toward the near sideline while his arm slot dipped to near Patrick Mahomes–levels before he whipped the ball on a line to the target’s chest.
Perhaps the most deliberate thrower among the college counselors, the ACC’s reigning passing touchdown leader threw from a balanced stance as opposed to playing “tall” in the pocket, good for driving the football but perhaps not best when the ask is for touch. Quite comfortable while on the move, though, Howell had the best combination of arm strength and accuracy while working beyond the pocket among those who worked through the script (Rattler would not).
Howell’s score: 51
Willis closed out the counselor run and he would not disappoint. From a muscular frame that had folks like myself (who studied him in high school not long ago) double-checking to make certain it was really him, to connecting on throws his college peers would not, the hype was real. One was on a play-action choice concept, where not only did the passer need to execute quick footwork through the fake, but needed to get his head around and then fire between two vertical routes depending on the drop of the safety. The defender went wide, so Willis went to the near throw, on time with some zip after a classic three-quarter release.
Maybe it’s because he was the guinea pig for the walk-through, but Willis went scorched earth to close out his pro day script. His final six passes each graded out to the limit of the scale, impressive on its own but more so in that they came off a minimum score throw as he missed on the famed “rail shot,” the throw meant to emulate Tua Tagovailoa’s walk-off throw to DeVonta Smith to win the 2017 national title.
Entering the final throw, he trailed Howell by a point, needing a completion to finish with the highest score. He would deliver on a deep slant designed to show the combination of timing and touch over a pair of outstretched defenders. Willis gathered at the top of the five-step drop, hitched and floated the football less than a foot over the defender and right into the high-point for the receiver with enough time for him to toe-tap in the back of the end zone for six.
Willis’s score: 53
More Recruiting Coverage: