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July 28, 2011How would you like to be mentioned in the same breath as Pittsburgh Steelers' Super Bowl MVP quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, or Auburn's most recent Heisman Trophy winner Cameron Newton, and only be an upcoming high school senior?
After a week of grueling competition at the Elite 11 quarterback camp in Malibu, Ca. last week, Auburn commit and Rivals100 prospect Zeke Pike finished the week stronger than any other competitor, and in turn drew some of those exact comparisons.
Well-known NFL quarterback coach George Whitfield Jr., who coaches Roethlisberger and Newton, was one of the coaching mentors on hand during the week. Whitfield had the opportunity to coach and spend time with Pike, and feels like the 2012 prospect from Kentucky has a bright future.
"With Zeke, Auburn is going to be in the mix for some years to come," said Whitfield.
Pike's physical attributes are obvious, he stands 6-foot-5, 240-pounds, but more than that impressed Whitfield last week.
"He's a great kid, great personality, very competitive, extremely coachable," said Whitfield. "I always say when you talk about talent, is it impressionable talent, or locked in talent. Locked in talent will tap out, impressionable talent is big. When you've accomplished as much as he has, it's easy to say, 'OK, I'm here and I'm going to work hard, but I'm not letting go of my current system'. The exact opposite was true with Zeke.
"He's fun, coachable, kids really love him, but he hadn't had a lot of formidable training and he was game for it. It's a tough position to learn in a lot of ways."
Unlike previous years, the concept for the Elite 11 camp changed this year, as 24 quarterbacks were brought in to compete as opposed to the normal 11. The added talent ramped up the level of competition, and also created a fluid leaderboard.
After day one, Pike was ranked No. 20. Whitfield made a conscious effort not to watch film on the players beforehand, so he could make his own assessment. Whitfield feels like his decision paid off, as prospects like Pike needed time to adjust during the week.
"I'm leaving the field, and there's Zeke walking through, throwing out routes, trying to say on balance, now we're talking," Whitfield said. "You don't want a pose down or a pageant, they needed time to evolve."
Evolve is exactly what Whitfield saw Pike do during the five-day camp. Pike entered the event ranked by Rivals.com as the nation's No. 3 quarterback, but Whitfield feels like Pike has developed into something more.
"He was a big guy just playing quarterback," said Whitfield. "He progressed through the week, and now after the week, he's a quarterback that just happens to be a big kid. That's a big distinction."
Beyond Pike's progress as a signal caller, Whitfield said he saw something else in Pike that excites him. In a heated competition of quarterbacks, where egos run rampant, Pike displayed a "sense of team" that Whitfield said was unique to witness.
"If somebody needed a guy to jump in the huddle, he'd jump in and go run a tight end seam, sprint 30 yards downfield in a competitive situation where the quarterback is relying on him to do well," said Whitfield. "He did that five or six series for other quarterbacks. There were very few guys were even willing to do anything other than play quarterback and help another guy out."
At Dixie Heights High School in Edgewood, Ky., Pike and his teammates run a fast-paced, number-based system offense. Similar to Auburn's attack, a number in Pike's offense represents an entire play and the routes being run. Transitioning from Pike's high school offense to a NFL playbook with distinct NFL plays in a week is difficult for anyone.
Maybe more so with Pike, who even Whitfield would attest to, lacked the formal training as many other quarterbacks in attendance.
"I brought this example up to people when we were talking about Cam," Whitfield said. "It's a lot like driving stick, and if you've been in an automatic and you haven't driven a stick shift from a pro-style standpoint, you are going to burn out the clutch a lot and get frustrated. It's not going to be something you get over night."
Whitfield described Pike's high school offense as a type of 'pick and stick', giving the quarterback an option of reading one defender and making the throw based on that read.
"It's the mechanics of discipline that makes the difference. It's tough. When we came in, I think Zeke had a number system and that one word represented everything to everybody," said Whitfield. "He struggled, but he worked at it and improved.
"This kid, though, I'm telling you, there is no ceiling on him with his God-given attributes."
BEING SUPERMAN...AND CLARK KENT
That is how Whitfield described what some camps and quarterback competitions can be like. Quarterbacks stand around, throw nice passes with no pressure and are deemed special. That may be the preferred setting for some, but not Pike.
Whitfield believes Pike is at his best when pressure and the need to make a play are at their peak. Whitfield is familiar with coaching and developing a prospect with creativity given his two most high profile clients, and according to Whitfield, Pike fits that mold.
"What we went through is not in his strength," said Whitfield. "From knowing him personally and being around him, he is Ben Roethlisberger. He's exactly Ben, and they were calling him, 'Baby Ben' when he was up there. We watched some of his film after we got there, he's a rhino. Running over people, jumping up and blocking extra points, throwing with touch, it was like he was playing with eighth graders."
The advice Whitfield gives Roethlisberger and Newton, is the same advice he gave Pike: "Be special, but only when the time calls for it."
While escapability and elusiveness are crucial qualities, Whitfield's goal for Pike was to take the next step in his evolution of being an all-around quarterback.
"When you are playing against bigger guys you don't need to be Superman, you just need to be Superman when everything breaks down," Whitfield said. "When things are calm, just keep your suit and tie on and shoot your way through things.
"He's going to be special, not because he's so big and athletic, but because he's so impressionable. I hope he keeps that because with all the alpha personalities at this camp, he was the Pied Piper. These guys loved him, he got some of the stiff kids to loosen up and put their hat on backwards by the end of the week."
Combine the physical tools with the continued development, and add in personality traits shown, and Whitfield believes Auburn has a future quarterback built for the most hostile environments in the country.
"He's exactly what you want if you are going to line up between the hedges at Georgia, or line up in 'The Swamp' (Florida), or line up at 'Death Valley' (LSU)," Whitfield said. "You want to come out of the tunnel with this kid."
WITNESSING A TRANSFORMATION
After a successful Wednesday where Pike had delivered his best performance yet, he was on cloud nine arriving back at his hotel room with the others around 11:30 p.m. It was then that Elite 11 coach and former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer said the players had to learn the remainder of their 36-play playbook by the next morning.
Pike had only been asked to memorize eight plays up until then.
Feelings of joy quickly turned to feelings of anxiousness for Pike, which began an almost sleepless night of preparation.
Whitfield said he was still unsure of how Pike would handle the off-the-field mental challenges of being an elite quarterback after two days. At 2 a.m. Thursday morning, he got his answer.
"I'm sitting upstairs with Trent and we were changing some things based on how quick the kids picked up things. I went downstairs to the lobby to get a bottle of water and I walk in on Zeke," said Whitfield. "It's about two in the morning, he's in the lobby, T.V. is turned off, and he's got his playbook over by the wall.
"He's standing over it, and he's calling the play out to himself and he would walk back like a drop back. He would go all the way back like a five-step drop, point to the left wall and say, 'there's my curl'. Then he would point and say, 'there's my dig, there's my outlet, there's my swing'. Then he'd walk back up. I watched him for about five minutes, rest of the kids are asleep or in their rooms. He's out there two in the morning, after a long day, and I thought this kid is going to be special."
The NFL guru calls it the "nerd element". Whitfield knows every quarterback has to have the drive to study, carry your books to class and be a note taker.
"Big kid, hat on backwards, he's the coolest of all the guys, and you think all that stuff is well and good, but how does he study and approach the classroom piece of this," said Whitfield. "The better quarterbacks are surgeons, and the other ones are butchers. The difference between the two is a level of precision and how you go about it."
Whitfield was admittedly stunned, so stunned in fact, that he went back to his room to tell Dilfer what he had witnessed. Whitfield said Dilfer guessed eight names of who he thought was practicing, none of which were Pike. It was then that Dilfer himself walked down to the lobby to see Pike's diligence in action.
The next day, Pike was the only quarterback that turned in a perfect performance during 7-on-7 work, that included calling out the plays, reading the progressions and completing the pass.
"From a kid that plays completely, 100 percent in the shotgun, he did all that under center for the first time," Whitfield said. "Trent told the coaches that day that he had just witnessed a transformation, and we just had the chance to see it in the middle of the night when it was taking place."
Whitfield said Pike's confidence was at an all time high following the session, and it showed more than ever on Friday.
"The last day, he's running down the field completing passes in the two-minute drills, runs the length of the field and his confidence shot up and his skill set was bolted down," said Whitfield. "That's what's so fun to watch young guys morphing into what they can be. He's awesome."
PREPARING FOR AUBURN
Despite the athletic prowess of players like Roethlisberger and Newton, Whitfield knows when it comes down to it, they are not aliens. They are rare finds, but learning how to win and succeed are crucial.
"You just have to teach these big guys and train them how to be successful as if they were 5-foot-10, 190-pounds," said Whitfield. "Imagine if you could get them in that mindset of succeeding like Jeff Garcia or Drew Brees, who can't do everything you can do. If you had that skill set they had, but you wake up with the armor and everything God gave you, now you have the best of both worlds and there aren't too many solutions how to stop you."
Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is recognized as one of the nation's premier offensive minds, evidenced by his high-powered, high-ranking offenses his first five seasons as a college coach. What makes Malzahn's accomplishments even more impressive is that he has accomplished those things with five different quarterbacks.
"Coach Malzahn only had Cam for one season and one fall," said Whitfield. "Now you're talking about getting a kid that can potentially get to Auburn, hopefully redshirt and learn everything, and then turn him loose."
In fact, of all the 24 prospects that attended the camp, Whitfield believes Pike's combination of God-given ability plus his drive to succeed, puts him in rare air among the quarterbacks of the class of 2012.
"I just thought he was the most dynamic guy and prospect up there," said Whitfield. "He's definitely going to be a youngster that I'll be looking over and I'm going to guide him all the way through this thing."
Whitfield and Pike plan to reunite this winter in California and continue to train, as Pike prepares to possibly enroll early at Auburn.