In an interesting twist of fate, the seeds of a Texas quarterback factory were planted at a Holiday Inn less than four miles from Andrew Luck's high school in Houston.
Coach Dick Olin, now the offensive coordinator at Stephen F. Austin University, set up a meeting in 1996 for all high school coaches from the city to discuss starting a seven-on-seven passing league to be run in the spring and early summer. The meeting was held in a conference room at the hotel.
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"We had maybe 15 or 20 coaches show up," Olin said. "It's like anything new that you're trying, people are resistant at first. They needed to be convinced."
On Thursday, the NFL will provide proof positive that Olin and his first group of coaches were on the right track. The top three quarterbacks expected to be selected in this year's NFL draft, including the top two overall selections, will all have deep roots in Texas.
That starts with Luck, the Stratford High and Stanford University star who the Indianapolis Colts announced Tuesday will be the top pick. Then there's projected No. 2 pick Robert Griffin III of Baylor, who is from Copperas Cove, a rural town of 32,000 roughly 200 miles northwest of Houston. Ryan Tannehill, from a little farther out in Big Spring, could end up with the Miami Dolphins at No. 8 overall.
The trio of young passers is part of a growing and historic trend. This will be the third time in the past four years, starting with No. 1 pick Matthew Stafford in 2009 and including Christian Ponder last year, a quarterback from Texas has gone in the first round.
The trend is showing in the stats. Last season, seven of the top 31 rated quarterbacks in the NFL were from Texas high schools. That included Stafford, Ponder, Drew Brees, Andy Dalton and Kevin Kolb. Overall, there are roughly a dozen active NFL quarterbacks from Texas and almost all of them are under 30 years old.
By contrast, none of the top 31 passers in the league in 1991 were from the Lone Star State.
Essentially, the nation's most football-crazed state was a passing wasteland for decades. While Texas has had its share of great quarterbacks, guys like Sammy Baugh, Bobby Layne and Y.A. Tittle hardly evoke images of the modern game. The top modern players from Texas are guys like Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson, LaDainian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson and Billy Sims … all running backs.
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To put it another way, it wasn't long ago that if a coach threw much more than 14 times a game, there might be serious concerns about his political leanings.
"If you did that, you were a communist," said Don Clayton, the head coach at Cinco Ranch High in Katy, Texas, just west of Houston. Clayton, 55, is a Texas native with 31 years of coaching experience. With his slight drawl and tinge of sarcasm, Clayton is joking.
At least it sounds like that. Any football man in Texas with a shred of dignity can still hear the words of former University of Texas coach Darrell Royal ringing in his head.
Royal was legendary for his run-first, run-second and run-third mentality. He once opined on the passing game that three things can happen to you whenever you throw the football, and two of them are bad.
"Three yards and a cloud of dust, play defense and don't give up field position," said Greg McCaig, the coach at Cypress Creek High and a 27-year Texas coaching vet. "To do anything else was heresy."
But in the 1990s, as teams like the Houston Oilers with Warren Moon and the University of Houston with Andre Ware and then David Klingler were starting to throw the ball around, high school coaches recognized the need to keep up.
After some initial resistance, it was quickly, "Houston, we have liftoff."
"Once it got going, the whole thing really took off," McCaig said. "Football is king here to begin with, but this type of game really got even more people excited. It's fast and it's fun."
"You hear people say that 7-on-7 is basketball on grass and that's true," Clayton said. "All those kids who want to play the up-tempo style that you see with basketball, we're still getting those kids instead of losing them."
Currently, schools regularly have teams enter tournaments from the middle of May until the state tournament in mid-July. The game is touch-only with no blocking or tackling and a set clock for plays (and for the quarterback to get rid of the ball). Most importantly, while high school coaches obviously help organize the teams for the two-month season, they are not allowed to be on the sideline or coach at all during the games.
And that's a good thing. A very good thing.
"I basically called all the plays," said Stafford, one of three NFL quarterbacks to throw for more than 5,000 yards last season. "That's part of the point of it. First off, you're playing 12 months a year, which can only help. You're learning route progressions and coverages. It really forces you to dissect the game and understand what the defense is trying to do to you."
Said Clayton: "It forces kids to learn the concepts we're trying to teach, not just how to execute a play. If you're on first-and-10 and you throw a curl-flat route underneath the defense, that's OK. But if you come back on third-and-8 and run that, you learn pretty quick that you're probably going to come up five yards short, so you need to do something else that works."
Ponder said the constant learning was vital for him once he got to Florida State and now in the NFL.
"One of my favorite route combinations to throw is the 'smash,' where the outside receiver runs a hitch and the inside guy runs a flag or a post," said Ponder, who replaced Donovan McNabb as the Minnesota Vikings starter last season. "I learned how to throw that against man, Cover 2 and Cover 3 by running it again and again [in high school]. By the time I got to college, I had a really good feel for how to execute that route."
Arizona Cardinals backup quarterback John Skelton, who grew up in El Paso, said one of the best parts of 7-on-7 was the unencumbered view he got of the defense once the linemen were taken away.
"You got to understand how the linebackers and the safeties will flow depending on the defense," Skelton said. "You could actually see it without all the bodies in the way so that once you got back into an 11-on-11 situation you still had a pretty good idea where everybody was."
"At a certain point, football is football," Stafford said. "Sure, the stuff at the NFL level is more sophisticated, but the concepts from high school to college to the NFL are pretty much the same. The more exposure you have to it, the better you are going to be."
And there is constant exposure.
Between playing two games during the week and at least three during a weekend tournament (all teams are guaranteed at least three games at tournaments), teams can easily play in the range of 35 games. Each of those games will feature at least 60 offensive plays, all of them passes.
Ultimately, it starts to add up. A talented high school passer who plays three years of 7-on-7 football will get roughly 6,300 passes over that time. Throw in another 1,500 throws during his three years as a high school starter in the fall and another 3,000 throws in practices for the fall and suddenly top high school quarterbacks are getting more than 10,000 throws.
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"You have kids who have seen pretty much every situation by the time they get to college," Olin said.
Clayton knows that personally. He was a wishbone quarterback in high school who went to Wyoming to play for Fred Akers (an offensive coordinator under Royal at Texas and eventual successor to Royal). In college, Clayton was coached at one point by Jimmy Raye, an eventual long-time NFL assistant and brilliant strategist in the passing game.
"When I met Jimmy Raye, it opened my eyes to a whole different way of thinking about the passing game," Clayton said. "Those are the things we're teaching kids in high school now. The stuff we're giving them is very complicated, but you see them handle it. We have Freshman B teams who are running the spread and doing it well.
"That's why when you hear from college coaches, they talk about how much they appreciate getting kids from Texas because those kids really understand how to play. It's not that they're just physically gifted."
And it's not just the colleges that are seeing it. It's the NFL.
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