Elite 11 Finals takeaways: Alabama commit Julian Sayin steals the show

REDONDO BEACH, Calif. — The 25th edition of the Elite 11 Finals concluded Friday with an accuracy contest and 7-on-7 showcase at Redondo Union High School, where a crop of 20 quarterbacks competed for the right to be named the event’s Most Valuable Player. 

Five-star Alabama commit Julian Sayin enjoyed a wire-to-wire victory by finishing atop the daily rankings on both Wednesday and Thursday to secure well-deserved MVP honors. Sayin entered the final day with the lead and brought home the victory by finishing second in the target-based accuracy event on Friday morning and coming to life late in his 7-on-7 period to edge a group of competitors led by No. 1 overall prospect Dylan Raiola, a five-star recruit committed to Georgia.

With three days of jockeying in the books, here are 11 takeaways from this year’s Elite 11 event in suburban Los Angeles: 

Julian Sayin, Alabama 

There was little surprise Friday afternoon when the Elite 11 coaching staff announced Sayin as this year’s winner. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound prospect from Carlsbad, California, quickly positioned himself at the top of this year’s field on Wednesday evening with a lethal combination of accuracy, arm strength and poise that reflected his maturity both on and off the field. Sayin is rated the No. 13 overall player in the 247Sports Composite and the No. 2 quarterback behind Raiola, but his performance in California this week demonstrated he’s the better player in the present, even if Raiola might have more long-term upside. A unique three-quarter delivery allows Sayin to release the ball in a flash when necessary, and his heightened understanding of the game was evident during 7-on-7 competition when he explained to receivers how to modify their routes depending on the positioning of defenders. For Alabama head coach Nick Saban, whose quarterback room remains unproven following the departure of Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young, the impending arrival of Sayin in time for the 2024 season will surely be welcome. 

Dylan Raiola, Georgia 

Many of the skill players and fans in attendance this week viewed the 2023 Elite 11 competition as a personal showcase for Raiola, the top-rated recruit and top-rated quarterback in the cycle. Camera phones were unearthed whenever Raiola took center stage, and the number of times he was asked to pose for photographs is best measured by the dozen. It’s possible the pressure bothered Raiola, whose uneven performance included stumbles on opening night and again during Friday’s accuracy competition that were, at times, offset by breathtaking moments during the pro day circuit and a remarkably crisp 7-on-7 display. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Raiola had the most impressive build of any prospect in attendance, and it’s easy to understand why his combination of physical traits and arm talent infatuates evaluators who become obsessed with potential. Raiola’s frame certainly reflects that of his father, Dominic Raiola, who spent more than a decade as the starting center for the Detroit Lions, and in that regard, he might be ready to contribute at the collegiate level far sooner than some of his counterparts. When he was at his best, few quarterbacks could match the level Raiola reached at various times throughout the week. But from a consistency perspective, the future Bulldog left something to be desired. 

Air Noland, Ohio State

A month after edging Michigan commit Jadyn Davis at the Atlanta regional to earn an automatic invite to the Elite 11 Finals, Noland continued to excel with an eye-catching performance this week. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Nolan has excellent size and a sturdy build that made him one of the more physically impressive prospects in attendance. Noland was also the only left-handed quarterback at the Elite 11 Finals and attracted plenty of attention as something of a one-off commodity in that regard. He built on a solid showing in Day 1 by holding his own during a pro day circuit that included bootlegs and rollouts designed to favor right-handed quarterbacks. Noland appeared to have little issue throwing across his body and maintaining a respectable level of accuracy while the rest of his competitors enjoyed an easier script. Rated a four-star prospect and the No. 5 quarterback in the 247Sports Composite, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Noland’s stock receive a boost to surpass the fourth-ranked Davis and, potentially, third-ranked DJ Lagway, who is committed to Florida and endured a spate of interceptions during Friday’s 7-on-7 event. 

Jadyn Davis, Michigan

The questions surrounding Jadyn Davis’ place among the nation’s elite quarterbacks continued to swirl amid an unsteady performance this week. Once the highest-rated quarterback in the 2024 cycle, Davis has slowly tumbled down the rankings over the last calendar year with two recruiting services — ESPN and On3 — now viewing him as a four-star prospect. The latter even dropped him from its overall top 100 list earlier this year. Though his motion is elongated, Davis threw the ball well enough on Day 1 to be ranked among the top 10 by most analysts in attendance. The trademark short and intermediate accuracy that launched Davis to the top of recruiting boards two years ago was consistently evident on Wednesday night. But then the wheels fell off Thursday in a subpar showing during the pro day circuit. Davis completed just 13 of 20 throws accurately and finished among the bottom five in total score to drop out of the overall top 11 entering Friday’s finale. He bounced back slightly with some impressive throws in the 7-on-7 contest, but this week seemed to indicate there’s a noticeable gap between Davis and some of the best quarterbacks in the 2024 cycle. 

Trever Jackson, uncommitted

Though he entered this year’s event without much fanfare, Jackson quickly upended that narrative by winning the “Rail Shot Challenge” to end Wednesday’s session. The drill requires quarterbacks to make an in-rhythm throw down the left sideline that is supposed to connect with the intended target at a certain height and within a certain quadrant near the front pylon. Fizzed line drives that hit the receiver from the neck up are a coach’s delight. And Jackson, an uncommitted four-star prospect from Winter Garden, Florida, outlasted 19 other high school quarterbacks and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams from nearby USC to generate plenty of buzz entering Day 2. Jackson carried that momentum into the pro day circuit, where he finished tied for fifth behind Sayin, Texas Tech commit Will Hammond, Notre Dame commit CJ Carr and Raiola. Measuring a shade under 6-foot-3 and weighing 185 pounds, Jackson has a nice frame for the position and generates plenty of ball speed. He topped this year’s quarterback crop in the BreakAway Data Ball Score that combines average release time and average velocity to measure how quickly a ball is delivered. Pittsburgh, Missouri and, most recently, Miami have made Jackson a priority for their 2024 recruiting classes.

Danny O’Neil, Colorado

Thanks to the arrival of new head coach Deion Sanders and his “Louis” luggage, any player committed to Colorado is going to attract attention — especially at quarterback. And aside from Sanders’ own son, former Jackson State quarterback Shedeur Sanders, it’s O’Neil who is the highest-rated signal-caller to join the party in Boulder. A three-star prospect from Indianapolis, O’Neil is ranked the No. 641 overall recruit and the No. 41 quarterback in the 2024 recruiting cycle. He held scholarship offers from Purdue, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisville, Wake Forest, Illinois, Cincinnati and Houston before the Buffaloes entered the picture on Jan. 4. At 6-feet tall and 185 pounds, O’Neil was noticeably smaller and slenderer than most of his contemporaries in California this week. And when he struggled mightily on Day 1 of this year’s Elite 11 Finals — he appeared deficient in both arm strength and velocity — there were more than a few sideways glances from media members wondering if Sanders had acted hastily in accepting O’Neil’s commitment. But O’Neil rebounded nicely on Day 2 by finishing tied for fifth in the pro day circuit and shined again in the accuracy competition on Friday. His short and intermediate consistency pairs nicely with an ability to throw on the run that drew consistent praise from coaches. 

Ethan Grunkemeyer, Penn State 

The three-star Grunkemeyer was something of an unexpected qualifier and an unexpected standout at this year’s event. Rated the No. 625 overall prospect and the No. 40 quarterback in the cycle, Grunkemeyer’s recruitment only began to blossom in April when he received his first Power 5 scholarship offers from Northwestern, Indiana, Cincinnati, Minnesota, Penn State and Virginia. Though Grunkemeyer was born and raised just 20 minutes north of Ohio State’s campus, the Buckeyes have never shown much interest in the Olentangy High School quarterback despite the fact that his mother played basketball at OSU. He could only watch as head coach Ryan Day and his staff chased Raiola in Arizona and Noland in Georgia, while Grunkemeyer continuing to develop a few miles down the road. Instead, Grunkemeyer developed a fast and strong connection with Penn State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, whose shrewd evaluation of presumptive Nittany Lions starter Drew Allar — another Ohio native and former Elite 11 participant — gave him plenty of credibility in Grunkemeyer’s eyes. His stock will certainly rise after an excellent showing in California this week that widened the eyes of certain evaluators in attendance. 

Ryan Puglisi, Georgia

To better understand the strength of Raiola’s gravitational pull, look no further than Puglisi, the other Elite 11 quarterback committed to Georgia who spent the week answering more questions about his future classmate than himself. A four-star prospect from the Avon Old Farms prep school in Avon, Connecticut, Puglisi committed to the Bulldogs more than six months before Raiola entered the picture this spring. But for Puglisi, who holds additional scholarship offers from Alabama, Miami, Michigan and Ohio State, among others, everything changed when the biggest fish in the pond chose to join him at Georgia. Though he might not have said it, Puglisi’s competitive fire this week suggested a desire to prove he belonged among the nation’s elite the same way Raiola does, and he did more than enough to hold his own. Riding his remarkably strong arm, Puglisi, who has been clocked at 94 miles per hour as a baseball pitcher, ranked fifth in the BreakAway Data Ball Score while hovering around the top 10 all week in overall performance. Despite Raiola’s commitment, Puglisi said time and again this week that he intends to enroll at Georgia because he’s fallen in love with both the campus and head coach Kirby Smart’s program. 

DJ Lagway, Florida

This was an interesting week for Lagway, the five-star prospect out of Willis High School in Willis, Texas, whose influence on the Elite 11 Finals stretched beyond the football field. At an event in which 18 of the 20 quarterbacks arrived in Redondo Beach have already committed to their respective schools, much of the sideline discussion about collegiate decisions centered instead on potential decommitments. In that regard, Lagway became a popular topic alongside five-star Ohio State receiver Jeremiah Smith, who joined Noland, his fellow OSU commit for many of this week’s on-field drills. Gossip about Lagway even reached his father’s ears when a prominent 7-on-7 coach said he couldn’t understand the speculation given how actively the quarterback was recruiting other prospects to join him at Florida. For what it’s worth, Lagway’s father sported Gators gear all week. On the field, Lagway’s performance fell a bit short of his overall ranking. His incredible arm strength and size at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds were obvious in solid showings the first two evenings, but the physical tools weren’t enough to offset an unusual throwing motion and the lackluster 7-on-7 effort in which he threw two interceptions and zero touchdowns.

Hauss Hejny, TCU 

As the only true dual-threat quarterback in this year’s field, Hejny’s performance was particularly impressive given that it only showcased half his skill set. The four-star prospect from Aledo High School in Aledo, Texas, is rated the No. 352 overall player and No. 22 quarterback in the class following a remarkable junior season in which he threw for more than 2,000 yards and ran for more than 1,200 yards with 35 total touchdowns. As a track and field athlete, Hejny was clocked at 10.90 seconds in the 100-meter dash earlier this year. Though he’s undersized at a shade under 6-feet tall, Hejny is built sturdily at 185 pounds and fired pass after pass with high-end velocity this week, ranking third in the BreakAway Data Ball Score. He sat ninth in the official Elite 11 standings after Day 1, moved up to sixth after Day 2 and then finished seventh in the accuracy challenge on Friday. The performance was even more impressive considering the former wide receiver has only played quarterback for a little more than a year. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Hejny blossom into a Max Duggan-esque star for the Horned Frogs over the next few years.

Daniel Kaelin, Nebraska

When Raiola backed off his verbal commitment to Ohio State in December, first-year Nebraska head coach Matt Rhule wasted little time jumping into the fray. Raiola’s father had starred for the Cornhuskers during the program’s heyday, and his uncle serves as Rhule’s offensive line coach. But it wasn’t meant to be for Nebraska, which quickly pivoted to Kaelin, an in-state prospect from Bellevue West High School about an hour northwest of campus. The 6-foot-2, 198-pound Kaelin looks the part of a potential Power 5 starter and generated headlines Friday by winning the accuracy competition over Sayin, who finished second, and Carr, who finished third. He also finished tied for fifth in the pro day circuit on Thursday evening. Kaelin was so accurate with his short and intermediate throws throughout the week that some of his fellow quarterbacks began referring to him as “Danny Dimes,” the nickname of New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones. What Kaelin lacks in overall arm strength and velocity he makes up for with football intelligence and sound decision-making — two skills that should serve him well at Nebraska.

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.

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