When Aidan Ellinger arrived at Crystal Lake Central in the fall of 2016, new Tigers offensive coordinator Dirk Stanger knew where the freshman needed to be.
Since Ellinger longed to play a different position than he played in youth football with the Crystal Lake Raiders, he was thrilled to switch.
“I always wanted to play quarterback, I just never got the chance,” Ellinger said. “I played wide receiver, running back or tight end, anything but quarterback.”
At Central, Stanger and head coach Jon McLaughlin quickly determined, that would change.
“He was an athletic kid and a leader,” McLaughlin said. “Dirk knew him from St. Thomas and the Raiders. He just felt that Aidan had the intangibles to be a good quarterback.”
And Stanger knows quarterbacks, after working as Marian Central offensive coordinator and turning out four consecutive NCAA Division I quarterbacks.
Ellinger has thrived in his new position, as was evident when he recently was invited to an Elite 11 regional. Elite 11 bills itself as “The Nation’s Premier Quarterback Competition.” Players can attend any number of regional competitions, where they are graded and the top 11 move on to the national finals.
In 2010, Richmond-Burton quarterback Adam Pittser made it to the national finals. Ellinger, a left-hander who led the area with 2,744 passing yards, will attend the Houston Regional on March 17.
“I’m just grateful to be a part of it,” Ellinger said. “Being a part of Elite 11 is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to me to be able to compete with the best quarterbacks and wide receivers in the country. My work has paid off. This whole thing is really important to me.”
The Tigers finished only 3-6 but won two of their last three games, and the offense became more dangerous each week with Ellinger firing passes to receivers such as Anthony Beck and Drew Jenkins.
In their final regular-season game, the Tigers beat Jacobs, 64-60, and Ellinger threw for 527 yards and five touchdowns. McLaughlin wrote Ellinger a recommendation to Student Sports LLC general manager Brian Stumpf, who organizes the Elite 11 events. Stanger also used his connections from the Marian quarterbacks he had taken to Elite 11 competitions.
“You get an idea,” Stanger said. “Obviously, everybody there is a good quarterback. You get an idea where you stack up and what you need to work on, things like that.”
Ellinger was moved up to the sophomore and junior varsity team as a freshman quarterback, meaning he worked with Stanger and previous starter Jake Staples.
“It helped a lot being able to work with Jake and him being two years older than me,” Ellinger said. “Just getting that experience from what he’s been a part of and experienced. He was able to talk me through everything, like how to get my footwork and little details.”
McLaughlin said the coaches did everything to stay positive with Ellinger and a young offense, especially opening with defending Class 6A state champion Prairie Ridge, then having eventual 6A state champion Cary-Grove and eventual 6A playoff team Crystal Lake South in the first three weeks.
“We were just a bunch of young pups and had to grow up real fast,” McLaughlin said. “I was hoping to see some flashes, and all of a sudden, about halfway through the season, he just started putting up unbelievable numbers.”
Stanger is uncertain what level of NCAA schools will look at Ellinger, who is 5-foot-11, because of his height. Ellinger completed 55.1 percent of his passes (165 for 299) for 22 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He also rushed for 282 yards and 12 scores.
“If he were 6-2, he’d have Division I schools all over him,” Stanger said. “He had a real good junior season. He probably threw for the most yards of any quarterback I’ve had.”