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January 24, 2012Last March 25, Robert Weiner found himself lost in a sea of almost 1,200 high school football coaches attending an Alabama spring football practice as part of Nick Saban's annual coaching clinic.
But while most were taking mental notes on the drills being conducted or on the renowned efficiency of a Nick Saban practice, Weiner was watching Phillip Ely.
"He had said, 'Coach, just watch me when they blow the horn,'" said Weiner, who was the Alabama freshman quarterback's coach at Plant High in Tampa. "He said 'I don't have any idea where I'm going, but I'm going there fast.' It was the funniest thing. He jumps up and down and looks around, and wherever he sees the rest of the quarterbacks going, he's going on the sprint as well."
Ely redshirted in 2011 as Alabama's No. 3 quarterback. As one of several UA freshmen to enroll last January and participate in spring drills, he got an early introduction to the college game. The pace of a college practice was just one of many things that were new to Ely.
But winning wasn't one of them.
Dating back to his sophomore year at Plant, the BCS National Championship Game marked the fourth consecutive year that Ely has been part of a championship game. As a sophomore, he won seven consecutive games subbing for injured starter Aaron Murray, now at Georgia and one of the Southeastern Conference's best quarterbacks, for Plant High. Murray returned in time to lead Plant to a state final appearance, but Ely's play bridged the opportunity.
"Phillip is an unbelievable worker and always has been one. He is a very talented quarterback who is going to put the time in in order to be successful," said Murray. "And this will make sure the team is successful too. ?I still stay in touch with Phillip now and wish him in the best of luck in the future."
As a full-time starter over the next two years, Ely took Plant to the state championship game twice more, winning in 2009 and losing in 2010. A year later, albeit with no playing role, he found himself part of the BCS National Championship Game.
Winning, it seems, follows Ely.
"He's just naturally a tremendous leader. Guys gravitate to him because he's got such respect from the people around him," said Weiner. "There was nobody on our campus, football player, student, faculty member or parent, who didn't just like Phillip but respect him as well. People like to be around him, and he can mobilize the troops."
During spring practice and for part of fall camp, Ely competed with Blake Sims for Alabama's No.3 quarterback role. Once Sims settled into a role at running back, however, Ely became UA's primary scout-team quarterback. And that meant a lot of game-week action against the top defense in the nation.
"I got pushed up to a level where I played with the threes a little more. But Blake likes where he's at, and I like where I'm at," Ely said. "He'll come over and do the option stuff with his speed. I definitely like my position and I like giving the defense a good look every time. They make me better. It's a great learning experience."
Ely (6-1, 187 pounds) is a true student of the position. He's part of a succession of quarterbacks from Plant High that has stuck together long after high school graduation. Before Murray, Plant produced Purdue quarterback Robert Marve, who was recruited by Alabama both before and after the transition between former coach Mike Shula and Nick Saban.
"Aaron worked directly with Phillip as a sophomore, but all three of them are in constant contact," said Weiner. "They come back here and go through footwork drills and other things we've done throughout the year. There's a very tight bond. Their mentorship of each other, their sharing of ideas, it's impressive. When they all come back together, we'll go out to dinner or whatever, and it's an evening of quarterback talk. It's a fun deal to listen to these guys talk about the game and their experiences."
Now, Ely's got yet another mentor with a strong resume in UA starter AJ McCarron, who steered the Crimson Tide offense to a national championship as a sophomore in his first year as a starter.
"AJ is a great guy. We're kind of the same style of quarterback. I've learned a ton of things from him, mostly just leadership stuff," Ely said. "I try to take that over to the scout team field. I do my part and he does his. I'm over to the side watching him and trying to learn some things from him."
Weiner described Ely as even-keeled; never too high, never too low, and always setting an example of poise. Back at Plant High, despite his winning ways, questions about whether Ely had the size to play at the major college level hounded him. Size doesn't always match strength, however, and Ely was bench-pressing nearly 300 pounds before enrolling at Alabama. Since then, Ely said he has made significant strides with UA strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran.
As for his skills?
"His accuracy and his timing were really amazing," Weiner said. "As good as any quarterback we've had in those areas. "He always had a knack for getting the ball out on time and understanding what we were trying to do with the passing game."
Former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain not only was Ely's position coach last year, but recruited him from Plant as well. Ely's hunger for knowledge impressed McElwain as well.
"I think the biggest thing for him is learning the system and understanding the speed of the game as he moves up the ladder a little bit," McElwain said before the BCS title game. "He'll do a really good job of learning the offense in time, once that's behind him he'll let his talents take it from there."
Reach Chase Goodbread at email@example.com or at 205-722-0196.