The Stanford predicament

...Or how you distinguish a player's NFL future from his team's combined talents

Updated: April 20, 2012, 4:24 PM ET
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in the April 30, 2012 NFL Draft issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

EVERY FOOTBALL PLAY tells a story. Many stories, actually: those of players, of teams, of the play itself, all intertwined like the wires in a messy circuit box. It's a scout's job to make sense of these stories, distilling them to distinguish the great players from those who only appear so, ultimately seeking to answer the multimillion-dollar question: If players' pasts are woven together, what's the story of each of their futures?

David Shaw, Stanford's coach, sits in his office on a sunny March afternoon with his own story. Shaw, the 39-year-old with a shiny head and a soft voice, spent nine seasons as an NFL assistant and then returned to his alma mater as offensive coordinator in 2007 before succeeding Jim Harbaugh last year. He helped develop, then inherited, what some consider the most talented college offense ever, one that produced 43 points per game last season.

The depth of that prolific offense has now created a historic opportunity. Never before have a quarterback, guard, tackle and tight end from the same college been selected in the first round of the NFL draft. On April 26, that may change. Cardinal right guard David DeCastro is considered the draft's nastiest offensive lineman; left tackle Jonathan Martin is 6'6" and 312 pounds and runs like a tight end; tight end Coby Fleener, 6'6" and 247, runs like a wide receiver. And then there's that Andrew Luck guy.

[+] EnlargeCoby Fleener, David DeCastro, Andrew Luck and Jonathan Martin
Dustin Snipes for ESPN The MagazineFrom left: Fleener, DeCastro, Luck and Martin combined for seven first-team Pac-12 selections.

Theirs is a singular story: seven combined first-team all-Pac 12 slots, three first- or second-team All-America selections and the legacy of turning Stanford from a 5-7 also-ran in 2008 to a back-to-back BCS bowl invitee. Still, years from now, their collective story will almost surely be one of unmet expectations. It's just the way these things go: Of the 15 Miami Hurricanes drafted in the first round from 2002 to '04, only three -- Ed Reed, Vince Wilfork and Andre Johnson -- became superstars. In 2006, five USC players, including Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, came off the board in the first 45 picks. Combined Pro Bowls: zero.

As hard as it is to forecast any college player's future, it's even more difficult when the talent is spread wide, because the success of many masks the failings of a few. Did star LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne cover well because of the pocket pressure by superstar defensive tackle Michael Brockers? Or maybe vice versa? Are the four Alabama defenders who are expected to go in the first round worthy of that distinction? Or did Nick Saban's masterful coaching mask their flaws? And in Stanford's case, is each of the four potential first-rounders truly great -- or did a once-in-a-decade quarterback make them appear so?


Shaw presses play, and there, on an oversize flat-screen connected to his computer, appears Stanford's offense, huddling before a first-and-10 play from its own 28-yard line. It's early in the third quarter of a mid-October game against Washington State, with the Cardinal holding a 10-7 lead. Stanford is 5-0 on the season, but today its offense has struggled, its lone touchdown coming after a fumble recovery put Stanford on the Washington State 20.

In the huddle, Luck calls a play: X Dagger Y Corner Takeoff. Two receivers spread right; Fleener lines up tight left in a three-point stance. At the snap, Luck fakes a handoff, drops back, scoots into the pocket and fires over the middle to a wide-open Fleener, who catches the ball 24 yards downfield and sprints another 38 yards before he's tackled at the Cougar 10. The play lasts 10 seconds and covers 62 yards. When it's over, Shaw leans back in his chair, like a proud father.

That's it? Where are the clips of Luck bailing out his offensive line as he did in an early September game against Duke? Or of DeCastro or Martin pulling to the other's side and delivering a knockdown block? Or of Fleener's one-handed snag of an errant Luck pass for a touchdown against UCLA? Shaw doesn't budge. "That play is one of the best examples of all of them working together," he says. And the better they work together, the harder it is to untangle them. Shaw presses rewind and cues X Dagger Y Corner Takeoff again -- intent on showing the play within the play.

It all begins, he says, with the formation. It's a pretty common set, but Stanford hadn't run this particular play from it before. That's because no other team had defended it the way the Cougars did. As Shaw points out, they play man-to-man coverage while shifting a safety to the two-receiver side -- a tendency Stanford's coaches had noticed on film. Wazzu cornerback Daniel Simmons is left alone on Fleener. "A mismatch," Shaw says.

But to get the ball to Fleener, Luck needs time. As the coach starts the replay in slow motion, he zeros in on Martin, the left tackle. Martin backpedals from his stance, "punches" defensive end Travis Long, then dances opposite him, hands up, ready to strike again. It's that quick move -- punch, dance -- that has been the greatest evolution in Martin's game. When he arrived in Palo Alto in 2008 from Harvard-Westlake School in Studio City, he weighed 261 pounds, too skinny to push anyone around. Says Shaw, "We had to get him to be a more physical blocker."

[+] EnlargeCoby Fleener, David DeCastro, Andrew Luck and Jonathan Martin
Dustin Snipes for ESPN The MagazineThe quartet turned Stanford from a 5-7 also-ran into a back-to-back BCS bowl invitee.

First, Martin had to beef up. As a redshirt freshman, he bet center Sam Schwartzstein a steak dinner that he could reach 270 faster. (Martin won and later added 42 pounds.) Then he had to get nasty, practicing punching and critiquing himself on video until the move felt natural.

On the Wazzu play, though, Shaw spots a small but crucial flaw: Martin's punch is slightly high, off Long's shoulder instead of into his chest, allowing the rusher to scoot around him and take dead aim on Luck.

Shaw stops the video. Rewinds. Presses play. Now he's focused on the quarterback. Shaw notes that Fleener's route -- Y Corner Takeoff -- is designed to develop slowly. Quick pressure will kill it. It was Martin's job to buy time for Luck, but as Long sweeps by the left tackle, Martin now needs Luck to bail him out. To do that, the QB uses a move he likely wouldn't have executed a year ago.

Back at Stratford High in Houston, Luck ran a shotgun offense. He arrived at Stanford untrained in the nuances of pocket presence. When he would reach the top of his 7.5-yard drop during his first two years as a starter, instead of pushing up he would often float back -- 9, 10, sometimes even 11 yards from the line of scrimmage. That made it harder for his linemen to pass protect. When TV commentators would stroke Luck for avoiding the rush and firing downfield -- feeding the storyline of his singular greatness -- he was, in fact, often fleeing a disaster of his own creation.

Last spring, Shaw's first task was to break Luck of his bad habit. They devised a drill: Shaw and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton would scatter five stationary receivers around the field, clogging Luck's passing lanes with blocking dummies. After Luck dropped back, four of the five receivers crossed their arms, signaling that they were covered. Luck had to find the open one -- and scoot up in the pocket at the precise time he would habitually fade. To drive the point home, Shaw would rush off the edge and smack the back of Luck's knees with his hand. They ran this drill 50 times each practice, until sliding forward became reflexive, "so I wouldn't think about it during a game," Luck says.

Against Wazzu, all the work pays off. Luck bounces forward at the perfect time -- just as Martin loses Long -- and scans downfield, his eyebrows arched, his scraggly beard bursting from his chin strap like a muffin top, skillfully avoiding the blindside sack that wouldn't have looked good on Martin's scouting report.


QUIZ TIME: WHICH Stanford player is considered by many scouts to be the team's safest NFL bet?

Sorry, Colts fans, it's not Luck. It's right guard DeCastro. Shaw again cues X Dagger Y Corner Takeoff, this time to show how DeCastro makes every other lineman's job easier. On-screen, DeCastro locks onto Cougars defensive tackle Anthony Laurenzi, jabbing and pushing, the type of nasty, relentless blocking that makes coaches and scouts swoon. DeCastro reeks of can't fail, from his enforcer glare to his Mack-truck jaw to his all-shoulders-and-forearms build to his coachlike knowledge of Stanford's pro-style offense. He dominated from his first days at practice, when he was nicknamed King Stout because nobody could move him.

It's DeCastro, Shaw says, who helped enable this Cardinal play -- and hundreds of others -- to work. Washington State lines up in a four-man front, and because DeCastro and Martin can typically block their rushers without help, Stanford's three other linemen are responsible for only two rushers. It's a numbers game, and it all adds up to the 3.3 seconds it takes for Luck to drop back seven steps, push up, hold the ball and wait for Fleener to shake free -- an eternity in football time. "Double D allowed us to take a lot for granted," Shaw says, referring to DeCastro.

It wasn't always this way. DeCastro learned the game in a run-oriented offense at Bellevue (Wash.) High, so once at Stanford he had to learn to pass protect. That came naturally, but vocal leadership didn't. Normally that responsibility fell to Luck, who often reminded the team after practice that football was the "ultimate meritocracy" -- and this being Stanford, no one had to look that up. But when Shaw asked DeCastro to set an example, he tailored the role for him: "I don't need you to give speeches. But I need you to demand that the guys play to your level. If they don't, they need to be afraid of you."

DeCastro smiled and said, "I can do that." And he did, sparing no one. During one game last season, Luck, who typically called three plays in the huddle and picked one at the line of scrimmage depending on the defense, missed a run-check as the play clock was winding down. DeCastro was not happy: "Andrew, what the f--, man? Get us in a good play." Luck explained that he ran out of time, to which DeCastro replied, "Don't do it again."


SHAW REWINDS THE PLAY one last time, turning his attention to Fleener -- and how, on this play, Fleener's football IQ helped make his famously good quarterback look even better.

To the naked eye, the pattern Fleener runs appears to be a simple post, but as Shaw notes, the play actually has 10 variations, depending on the alignment of the cornerback. Fleener had to practice it every day for months before he could run every version at full speed. Only then did the coaches feel comfortable calling it.

[+] EnlargeCoby Fleener, David DeCastro, Andrew Luck and Jonathan Martin
Dustin Snipes for ESPN The MagazineScouts actually say DeCastro (second from left), not Luck, is the safest NFL bet.

That determination, Shaw says, "was a measure of growth" for the tight end. Stanford players are used to picking up instruction quickly, and early in his college career, Fleener had grown discouraged from repetition without reward. He arrived at Stanford from Lemont, Ill., tall and skinny, nicknamed Fleener the Tweener because the coaches couldn't decide whether he was a receiver or a tight end. He had to battle against others who had always played tight end. If a player above him on the depth chart got to run a route that Fleener didn't, he would doubt himself. "It's a constant battle to reassure yourself that you're good enough to play, good enough to start," he says. "I lacked confidence at times."

But when it came to this play, he and Luck practiced it until they could both anticipate its options. The key, Fleener says, is selling the corner route, then cutting either underneath or over the defender. It's a scientific gamble. On Shaw's screen, Fleener runs upfield and fakes the corner. At that moment, with his head turned away from Simmons, he must guess the cornerback's position. "Conceptually, I knew where he should be," Fleener says, believing the corner was in tight man and would try to force him inside. He cuts underneath Simmons, making the right guess -- just as Luck's protection begins to dissolve.

The QB freezes the secondary by looking right before firing left. Fleener catches Luck's pass and gallops downfield. And Luck's 24-yard toss to a wide-open man goes in the books as a 62-yard pass, more padding for an already stuffed résumé.

The coach places the clicker on his desk. His cellphone rings, as it does every few minutes. These days, scouts call at all hours. They ask whether Martin will fill out -- at his pro day, he benched 225 pounds only 20 times -- and if he can overpower NFL rushers. They ask if Fleener can block and if he likes to. They ask if DeCastro is as good as advertised. As for Luck, scouts jokingly ask whether Shaw might leak some dirt on him, in the hope of prompting a draft-day slide.

But in the end, those questions are moot. After all, most teams already have awarded the four prospects first-round grades. What haunts scouts is the sense that years from now, not all of them will be as great individually as they were as a team. Really, it depends on their future teammates as much as their past ones.

And nobody understands that more than Luck, who, despite carrying the burden of greatness, thrived the past two years by relying on his surrounding cast. Everybody loves the romantic notion of a great quarterback lifting commoners. But Luck knows better. That's why he stayed after his pro-day workout to watch his teammates perform -- a move that didn't go unnoticed by scouts.

Luck gets it. And he might as well be speaking for all of his Stanford teammates when he predicts that his NFL success will be completely based on the 10 guys with whom he shares a huddle, just as it was in college. His future, in other words, is as complicated as the plays that scouts spend months untangling, hoping to predict how the stories of all the players involved will unfold.

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Seth Wickersham

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs. Email him and follow him on Twitter at @sethwickersham.