QBs get big shot at Gridiron Kings

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- An event such as the ESPN RISE Champion Gridiron Kings is an opportunity for the top players in the nation to continue to display their skills.

For four lucky quarterbacks, it presented a different opportunity, a chance to be on a stage they haven't seen as much of as most of their counterparts here.

In theory, the Gridiron Kings event brings together 64 of the elite from across the country. They are chosen by region and placed on teams representing the Midwest, Southeast, Southwest and West.

The problem at the QB position was the prestigious Elite 11 quarterback competition in Malibu, Calif., which invites 24 signal-callers, overlapped with the start of the Gridiron Kings. But each team here still needed a quarterback, and what you hear is opportunity rapping loudly at the door for 2012 QBs Mike Baker (Fresno, Calif./Central East) and Matt Davis (Houston/Klein Forest) and 2013 QBs Shane Morris (Warren, Mich./De La Salle) and Riley Ferguson (Matthews, N.C./Butler).

"First, it's an honor to be here," said Baker, quarterback on the West team. "I look at this as another great chance to show people what I can do and learn what I can. I am blessed to be on this team. We have some great athletes and great playmakers. I just need to find the open guy and get them the ball. They are the ones that are going to make the plays. I just have to do my job."

Baker had a very productive senior season, throwing for more than 2,600 yards with 25 touchdowns and only six interceptions. Baker, at 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, is a four-star prospect and the nation's No. 21-ranked QB.

He is sitting on scholarship offers from San Diego State and Northern Arizona, but he's hoping his play this season will spark an offer or two from the Pac-12.

"Baker has been the surprise of this event so far," said Tom Luginbill, ESPN's director of recruiting. "He's efficient, very accurate and makes very few mistakes."

Unlike Baker, Southwest quarterback Davis has made his commitment to play for Texas A&M. While he would have loved to be at Elite 11, he's excited to be part of the Gridiron Kings.

"I think I can speak for all 64 players here saying that first and foremost this is a blessing for all of us to be here," Davis said.

"It's a showcase and it's first-class. We get to compete with the best players in our region against the best players in the nation. I get to play with some future teammates and guys that I will be playing against. We are getting coached by some former players like Jeff Blake. He played like 14 years in the NFL and that's where we are all aspiring to be one day. Those coaches are hands-on. Everyone here will leave a better player."

Davis is just happy to be playing quarterback again. He tore his ACL in the first game of his junior season but showed no effects in Day 1 of pool play at Gridiron Kings. Davis (6-2 and 200 pounds) threw the ball well, especially on the move. According to Luginbill, Davis was a player who stood out on Saturday.

"I think Matt Davis finally looks healthy and is throwing the ball well," Luginbill said. "In the right system he can be a very good QB."

Ferguson (6-2 and 190 pounds) is only a junior, but he already has verbal scholarship offers from teams such as Clemson, Michigan, Virginia Tech and LSU. The Southeast signal-caller calls the Tigers his leader. Ferguson has participated in two Nike Football Training Camps (Georgia and Duke) and has even camped with Morris at a few team camps in the past.

"This is a great opportunity for me," Ferguson said. "It's mostly seniors here, so I have a lot to prove. Shane and I have talked a lot. We know we are the young talent and I think we both look at it like a great learning experience. I am enjoying this while I can.

"Hopefully I will be at Elite 11 next year. That's something that Shane and I have talked about."

Ferguson has good size, arm strength and a nice release. And Luginbill sees more.

"What I like about Riley is his swagger," Luginbill said.

Of the quarterbacks here, there's no mistaking Morris is the most polished. This 6-2, 186-pound Michigan commitment can compete in any group.

Morris We both know that being here is an honor. It's a blessing to play with the best.

-- 2013 QB prospect Shane Morris

"If Shane were in this class he would be a top five or six guy in the country," Luginbill said. "He has great arm strength and a wonderful, compact delivery. He has things you can't coach."

That's high praise for the junior southpaw quarterback of the Midwest team. Morris knows his time comes next year. In the meantime, he just wants to make the most of this opportunity. He also knows that this is a chance for him and Ferguson to really make a name for themselves.

"I first met Riley at a Michigan camp last year and we battled it out and had a lot of fun," Morris said. "We both know that being here is an honor. It's a blessing to play with the best. We both want to prove we can compete with the 2012 kids. And we want to have some fun.

"Hopefully we can be at Elite 11 next year, but I don't want to jinx it. I want to just enjoy this, learn and become a better quarterback. This is something great."

One shouldn't expect any of these quarterbacks to come in here and set Disney World's football fields on fire. These guys are all playing with new teammates. In 7-on-7s, it takes time to mesh with your receivers. Everyone has to learn the plays and get their timing and rhythm down. All the while, they are playing against some of the best defensive backs in the country. And these are talented players that they rarely see back home. To make things even more difficult, they have only one two-hour practice session together on the first day of the event. That would be tough on anyone.

"It's pretty tough to come out here cold," said Nick Patti, an Elite 11 quarterback from Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Fla., who was watching the event on Saturday after flying home from California. "I have played with and thrown to many of these guys at camps and combines. It takes a little bit to get on the same page.

"At the same time, these are some of the top guys in the country so it should be quicker than your average guys. But one thing I can say as a quarterback is that you have to have the ability to adapt. A good quarterback will."

Still, considering all the variables these guys have had to deal with at Gridiron Kings, they have had their shining moments.

"These quarterbacks have been great," said Matt James, the head coach of the Nike Football Training Camp. "With the Elite 11 blowing up to 24 guys this season, we knew there was still some talented guys left over. Mike [Baker] was a guy on the Elite 11 bubble and we knew we couldn't take that many West Coast guys, so this worked out great for him. He's done so well so far. I haven't seen much of Matt [Davis] here yet, but I know what he's capable of. He can really spin the ball. The two young guys look super and this event gives them a chance to get their feet wet in this type of setting and it's a great experience for them. And next year they both have a very good shot at Elite 11."

Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting both in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at jamienewbergbw@yahoo.com.