Foles' native Texas becoming new cradle of quarterbacks

Posted: November 18, 2013

A picture of Nick Foles taken a few weeks after his January 1989 birth shows him holding a football with the same grip he uses today as the Eagles' starting quarterback.

As a teenager in Austin, Texas, Foles played high school football in a 10,000-seat stadium that was used for some of the filming of Friday Night Lights.

By Foles' own admission, it's as if he was a character in Friday Night Lights.

The NFL is filled with quarterbacks who can share similar stories. Nine of the 32 starting quarterbacks played high school football in Texas, which is more than 28 percent of the most coveted spots in the league. Of the 1,696 total players in the NFL to begin the season, 10.8 percent were from Texas. The discrepancy shows there's something unique about quarterbacks from Texas.

"One thing could be there's a lot of pressure at a young age to play football," Foles said. "And not just to play it, but you play in front of a lot of fans. . . . I don't know how it is in other places, but I can't imagine in the playoffs at other places you're getting 60,000 people at a game. You learn to play in front of crowds. You learn to play in that atmosphere where you really have to be bold and sort of zone everything out."

Both starting quarterbacks in Sunday's Eagles-Redskins game are from Texas. Foles graduated from Austin's Westlake High School in 2007. One year later, Robert Griffin III graduated from Cooperas Cove High School, 70 miles away. Foles had never heard of Griffin in high school, and both excelled in other sports - Foles in basketball, Griffin in track.

If Foles continues playing the way he has this season, the two Texas-bred quarterbacks could develop an NFC East rivalry for at least the next few seasons. Foles also has a close connection with Griffin's backup, Kirk Cousins, who was Foles' teammate at Michigan State before Foles transferred to Arizona.

But before Foles ever competed for a job with the Eagles or at Michigan State or Arizona, he was part of a growing crop of Lone Star passers about to infiltrate the NFL.

Change in philosophy

Of the nine starters from Texas, only New Orleans' Drew Brees is older than 26. Foles is 24. Griffin is 23. The average age of the eight quarterbacks besides Brees is 24.7. This is not a coincidence.

"Up until about 10 years ago, there probably weren't that many quarterbacks from Texas," said Derek Long, who coached Foles at Westlake. "There were a lot of run-oriented offenses, holdovers from the wishbone and midline running. And then in the last 10 years, the offenses have really opened up and gone to the spreads and the West Coast passing offenses."

The trend started in the 1990s and has become more sophisticated in the last decade. Former Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb started his high school career under Art Briles, who is now the Baylor coach with college football's top offense. Briles ran the spread in high school and continued building it at different college stops throughout the state.

When Eagles coach Chip Kelly coached Oregon, he devoted noticeable recruiting attention to Texas. Darron Thomas, who quarterbacked the Ducks to the national title game, is from Houston. Kelly tried to lure current Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, who won last season's Heisman Trophy and is a potential first-round pick.

Eagles practice squad quarterback G.J. Kinne, once a heralded recruit from east Texas, is the son of a coach and said he was running an offense with concepts similar to the Eagles' in the ninth grade.

"It just put us ahead of the curve," Kinne said.

Randy Rodgers, a former recruiting coordinator at Illinois and Texas who owns and operates the Rodgers Recruiting Report and worked with Foles, said many spread teams are putting their best athlete at quarterback. Rodgers noted two other big reasons for all the Texas quarterbacks.

In Texas high schools, there is an "athletic period" instead of physical education class. So a football player can meet with his coach and work with his teammates.

"It's basically like having a practice every day of the year if they want to use it," Rodgers said. "So if you're a quarterback . . . you may be spending more time throwing and catching with your receivers, you may be at film study."

Rodgers also pointed to the growth of seven-on-seven passing programs during the summer. Rodgers said they started to gain steam in the mid-1990s and had previously been in place in California. Texas quarterbacks now throw the ball with their receivers in organized environments throughout the year.

"It accelerated the development of quarterbacks," said Rodgers, who emphasized that talent trumps any of these conditions, regardless of where the player resides.

The last few years offered a particularly fertile group of Texas-bred quarterbacks. Detroit's Matthew Stafford was the top pick in 2009. Minnesota's Christian Ponder was a first-round pick in 2011, and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton went one round later. Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, Griffin, and Miami's Ryan Tannehill were the top three quarterbacks taken last year, with Foles going in the third round. Houston's Case Keenum was an undrafted rookie for the Texans who has since taken over as No. 1.

Of the expected top quarterbacks in the next draft, only Manziel is from Texas. Baylor's Bryce Petty, a junior, is also gaining steam for whenever he declares. But the conditions exist to continue this proliferation of Texas quarterbacks.

"The training that high school kids get at Texas, in my opinion, is far superior than anywhere in the country," Rodgers said. "The coaches are coaches - not biology teachers who show up to coach football at the end of the school day."

Texas dominos

Ryan Mallett, now Tom Brady's backup in New England, was the top quarterback in Texas in the class of 2007. As juniors, Mallett, Kinne, and Foles were all in the same room visiting the University of Texas. Kinne said they offered a scholarship to Mallett, who eventually committed to Michigan. Kinne later received a scholarship offer from the Longhorns.

Foles was under the radar at the time. It was not until his senior year that he broke Brees' Westlake records. Long told college coaches that Foles had the same qualities as Brees, whose only major scholarship offers were from Purdue and Kentucky.

"He was really concentrating on basketball up through his sophomore year," Long said of Foles. "I wasn't really sure if he was going straight basketball or what he was going to do. I think he's been kind of a late bloomer. He was under the radar. I don't know how at 6-5 and 230 and completing 70 percent passes you could be under the radar, but for some reason, he was."

Rodgers said Foles had the second-best arm in the state behind Mallett in 2007, but needed to work on his footwork and lower-body mechanics. Foles originally committed to play at Arizona State until coach Dirk Koetter's staff was fired. (Koetter, now the Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator, was an Eagles coach candidate in January.) Foles signed with Michigan State, but transferred to Arizona after one season for personal reasons. Cousins became the Spartans quarterback.

To illustrate how small a world it is in the Texas quarterback community, Kinne connected some more dots this past week. Kinne had originally committed to attend Baylor, where his father was coaching, but eventually signed with the University of Texas. Briles left Houston for Baylor the next season, and Griffin signed with Baylor instead of Houston to play for Briles. Keenum became Houston's quarterback and now starts with the Texans.

The dominos affected three Texas-bred starters and four quarterbacks who will be at the stadium on Sunday. Foles paid little attention to the recruiting rankings, and said he never followed sports that intensely growing up in Austin.

Foles also applies a pragmatic approach to all the quarterbacks from Texas. He mentioned the pressure and the level of interest and enthusiasm. But he also had a theory that might trump anything else.

"There's a lot of people in Texas, too," Foles said. "That could be another reason."


zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm

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