|Tony Avelar/Associated Press|
|Oregon State QB Sean Mannion will have to adjust to life without Brandin Cooks in 2014.|
BEAVERTON, Ore. -- They don't invite just anybody to be a part of the prestigious Elite 11 quarterback competition, and this year that rang true once again.
Hanging out at the first day of competition were a pair of 2014 NFL Draft first-round picks (Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel) and a No. 1. overall selection from a few years ago (Sam Bradford). One college quarterback on hand had played for a national title, while another has a shiny Rose Bowl ring back at home. Among the high school recruits, nearly every one of them is committed to a major FBS program and sports the potential to be a star player at the next level.
Yet the one who impressed the most on the first day of on-field competition was the one who literally had the shortest road (just under an hour and a half drive) to the event -- Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion. Thanks to a strong arm that could rifle in passes when needed on the fields at Nike's World Headquarters, the lanky signal-caller won the Elite 11 Counselors' Challenge to announce he's more than capable of holding his own with any level of quarterback who lines up alongside him.
"It's been a great time working with all these quarterbacks, all these coaches, and trying to help out the high schoolers," Mannion said on Sunday. "I'm just trying to keep refining as a quarterback, keep working on footwork, working on being accurate and quickening my release. Really it's everything you can do to improve. Quarterback is a very multifaceted position and there's room for me to improve in all areas."
That's a sentiment that rings true for any quarterback, but the 6-foot-5, 220-pounder doesn't have too much to refine after throwing for 4,662 yards and 37 touchdowns last season to be among the national leaders in each category. Mannion, who has already graduated and will be a redshirt senior athletically the upcoming season, is a well-known name among NFL scouts as a quarterback with the size, arm and requisite tape in a pro-style system to be a possible first- or second-day pick in 2015. He flirted with declaring earlier this year, but returned to school determined to improve the Beavers' record and boost his own stock.
Considering that most believe Mannion is one of the top two or three best senior prospects at the position and in the top six or seven overall, there's not a ton of improvement he needs to show in the fall, but that hasn't stopped him from doing all that he can to become a more polished passer this summer.
"I got the evaluation from the advisory board and it said a third-round grade," he told CFB 24/7. "There are not a lot of specific critiques, so I spoke with my coaches and they told me the things I could work on. For me, I feel like I can grow in all areas so I try to be the best player I can be. I really want to help our team have a great season this year."
Life will be a bit more difficult under center, however, as Mannion's go-to option in the passing game, Biletnikoff Award-winner Brandin Cooks, has moved on to become a target for Drew Brees with the New Orleans Saints. Head coach Mike Riley and three-year captain Mannion have been through the loss of such a major weapon in the passing game before when Markus Wheaton was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013. This time around, though, the quarterback believes things will be a bit different than before with a plethora of options available to replace Cooks' 128 catches on offense.
Thanks in part to a collection of players like tight end Connor Hamlett, flanker Victor Bolden and likely No. 1 receiver Richard Mullaney, Mannion thinks he has plenty of options to look for when he drops back and doesn't seem to be all that worried about a potential drop in offensive efficiency despite missing a first-rounder in the lineup.
"Collectively as a group, I think everybody will kind of step it up to fill that void. It will be good to see some of the younger guys step it up and see what they can do," said Mannion. "That's what was great about spring ball and we'll continue to do that into fall camp.
"We have a great group of tight ends and receivers and I think it will be a group effort to fill those shoes."
That could pay off for Mannion in the eyes of scouts by showing he isn't just a quarterback who is lucky enough to have a special talent at wide receiver that he gets the ball to in order to put up big numbers. Spring practice was a positive step in the right direction for him and the team, but the extra passing work at the Elite 11 and, later this month, the Manning Passing Academy will go a long ways in helping the Beavers' starter improve what he wants most before fall camp rolls around.
"Accuracy," he said. "I have to keep being accurate. Any given day, I have to go out and be an accurate passer."
Mannion certainly was early on at the Elite 11 and turned a few heads while he was at it despite a number of bigger names competing, as well.
Follow Bryan Fischer on Twitter @BryanDFischer.