- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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It amounted to fast-break basketball on grass: a summer tournament seven-on-seven football game.
Stratford High School coach Eliot Allen watched it unfold from his usual spot in the back of an end zone, not interacting with the kids representing his school against Dez Bryant and Lufkin High.
Over two 20-minute halves with a running clock, at a furious pace at which he had to throw the ball within four seconds of the snap against coverages that had no concern for the run, Andrew Luck didn’t throw an incomplete pass.
“He’s accuracy was unbelievable,” Allen said. “That one game he didn’t have an incomplete pass. I’ve never see it before or since. He throws such a catchable ball.”
When the Indianapolis Colts inevitably make Luck the first pick in the draft on April 26, the Stanford quarterback will enter the league rated by many scouts and evaluators as the most pro-ready quarterback since John Elway.
While Luck’s refined his remarkable touch as the leader of the Cardinal, he honed it early on in Texas seven-on-seven summer ball. He participated even as a rising ninth-grader, and Allen says Luck easily played 75 such games before moving onto college, contests that were crucial to the early development of good habits and exquisite ball placement.
As coach of Cypress Falls High, David Raffield regularly saw Luck play during the summer, then coached against Stratford in regular season and playoff football during Luck’s junior and senior years.
“Watching Andrew grow and develop into a quarterback was nothing short of amazing,” said Raffield, who now coaches A&M Consolidated High School in College Station. “The seven-on-seven allowed him to really develop his game. When you are out there as a quarterback running the offense, it’s not plays being called by a coach. You’re the guy doing it. You’re becoming your own offensive coordinator. …
“His junior and senior year he had an amazing ability to place the football. The accuracy was phenomenal. He understood pass coverages. It gave him such advantages. I didn’t know he’s wind up being an NFL first-round draft pick, but I knew he was special.”
The summer before Luck’s senior year in 2007, his team finished second in Texas and played in a national tournament in Los Angeles. There, football staffs of high schools from California and Florida coached their players, Allen recalled.
It doesn’t work that way in Texas, where a state organization runs the leagues and tournaments. A high school’s coaches might help arrange leagues, tournaments and officials, but players work under the watch of others. Stratford uses former players from its team as summer ball coaches.
Texans coach Gary Kubiak was a St. Pius X High School (Houston) and Texas A&M quarterback well before seven-on-seven summers started. He joked if he had a chance to play that much, people would have discovered he wasn’t any good.
Klein Kubiak, a former Strake Jesuit High School receiver who graduated in 2009 and now plays at Rice, played in the same district and overlapped with Luck. So as Gary Kubiak followed his son, he saw Luck play in tournaments. He’s also seen just how much the competition and setting have done for Texas signal-callers.
“He was very impressive,” Gary Kubiak said. “I think there is a lot of growth going on in those leagues right now. On a Saturday afternoon, those kids might play six of those games.
“I just think you can’t get enough of those repetitions. It’s almost like having two spring balls. It’s almost gotten a little bit year-round, kind of like baseball.”
Such summer-league play takes place in a lot of states now. But Texas was a pioneer.
“Think about these names,” said Tennessee Titans quarterback coach Dowell Loggains, who started at quarterback for Cooper High School in Abilene, Texas, in 1997 and 1998 in both summer seven-on-seven and regular fall football. “Ryan Mallett, Andy Dalton, Colt McCoy, Christian Ponder, Andrew Luck, Matthew Stafford, Kevin Kolb, Robert Griffin, Case Keenum.
“I mean it’s huge. That’s why all these Texas high school quarterbacks are coming out and doing really well. They are so much further along than the rest of the states, plus they get 15 dates for spring practice just like a college. They are getting so many more reps than the rest of the country.”
Other states may be taking note and trying to copy, Loggains said. But it’ll be tough for many to match or top Texas because of the facilities and money high school football has in the Lone Star State.
Added ESPN analyst Jon Gruden when asked about Texas’ production of quarterbacks: “Obviously if you go to Texas, you can probably find passing tournaments going on right now, and if they're not going on right now, they'll be going on later this afternoon and for sure tomorrow and the next day. They throw the ball and have organized passing camps more than any place I've ever been.”
Allen said seven-on-seven forces quarterbacks to figure out ways to beat man-to-man coverage with two-deep safeties and that doing so at an early stage of their football careers is invaluable. Against such a look from the secondary in an actual high school game, a quarterback would hand off most of the time.
“You don’t win those games playing defense,” Allen said. “It reveals a quarterback’s accuracy and I don’t think you can simulate stiff coverage in a better way. Andrew was very good at it. He can throw the deep ball. A lot of people give him a hard time about not being able to throw the deep ball. He was great at it. But his deal is, he just wants to get first downs.”
As a high-schooler, Loggains said he thought the summer opportunity was “awesome.”
And it made it a heck of a lot easier to get time and work with receivers, who might not show up for an informal session on a Tuesday night but wouldn’t miss a chance to play in a game with a score and a title on the line.
The proliferation of seven-on-seven play actually influenced the game at all levels.
Coaches found they had quarterbacks equipped to run spread offenses in high school and moved away from traditional run-heavy, defense-centric schemes. They then fed those quarterbacks to colleges, where the spread continued to spread.
And when those quarterbacks landed in the NFL, teams had no choice but to employ some spread concepts, willingly or unwillingly, to try to take advantage of their quarterbacks’ strengths.
“When we had Vince Young, we had to mix in a lot of that with [offensive coordinators] Norm Chow and Mike Heimerdinger,” Loggains said.
Rather than an NFL idea trickling down, a byproduct of a high school idea trickled up.
And one scout I spoke with said he sees no end to it.
“That’s the new craze, the seven-on-seven stuff,” he said. “Texas has been doing it longer and it’s the most organized state. How many good quarterbacks have come out of Texas the last 10 years? A ton. The more reps you get at anything, the better you’ll be at it.
“It’s why I stink so bad at golf.”