Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - September 16, 2011

Fleener now a slam dunk as tight end

Cardinal receiver once had hoop aspirations, but football is his true calling

by Rick Eymer

Some claim Stanford tight end Coby Fleener might be the second-fastest player on the football team. The fastest, wide receiver Chris Owusu, won't comment. He doesn't want anyone mad at him.

There's one thing that neither receiver can deny — they're both important parts of the passing game. Fleener has three touchdown passes among his five receptions. Owusu leads the team with 14 catches for 182 yards.

Fleener and fellow tight end Zach Ertz are tied for second. None others have caught at least one pass through Stanford's first two games.

The sixth-ranked Stanford (2-0) opens Pac-12 Conference play at Arizona (1-1) on Saturday night in Tucson, with a scheduled 7:45 p.m. kickoff (ESPN).

The Cardinal takes a 10-game winning streak into the fray, the school's fourth-longest streak ever and the longest since a 13-game streak ended in 1941.

First-year coach David Shaw will be looking to become the first Cardinal coach to start his career with three wins since Jack Christiansen did it 1972.

Fleener earned one of Stanford's game balls for his play in a 44-14 victory at Duke last Saturday. Chase Thomas was the defensive winner and A.J. Tarpley was the special teams winner.

Fleener (6-6, 254) once had dreams of playing Division I basketball before realizing football was more his forte. Some of his basketball skills have translated to the gridiron.

"There are certain aspects," Fleener said. "It translates well as far as body position when going for the ball. It's more helpful than a hindrance."

As a high school player in Illinois, Fleener pushed for a basketball scholarship but realized he had better odds at a football scholarship.

"It is kind of a dream to play both," he said. "But I don't dwell on it."

Shaw was among the few who tried to play both football and basketball at Stanford. Menlo School grad John Paye did it successfully in the mid-1980s. Mark Bradford and Evan Moore were the most recent (2005) to play, though Tavita Pritchard joined the basketball team late in his senior season.

Fleener did get a chance to show off against Shaw in his freshmen year during a coaches-players game.

"Let's just say I got the better of him that day," Fleener said.

His height and bulk hide the fact he's also a speedster. Fleener has a 60-yard touchdown catch this season. In last year's final three games, Fleener scored six times on his final nine receptions — five of them for 38 yards or longer. Three of his TD receptions came in the Orange Bowl.

"People do forget he's fast," Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck said. "He's very fast. He also does a great job of body control when he's in the air. He uses his athleticism to the fullest while the ball is in the air."

Linebacker Chase Thomas can see it from the sidelines.

"He has unbelievable speed for a guy his size," Thomas said. "He creates mismatches all over the field. Having Luck throw to him is also nice. When I guard him I can't let him get a free release or it's bad news."

Fleener says going up against guys like Thomas in practice only helps.

"I enjoy battling with him," Fleener said. "To say he's tough to block is an understatement. He's made me a better player by going up against him."

A lot of people think this game will feature two of the top quarterbacks going at it in a high-scoring offensive display.

Shaw is high on Arizona quarterback Nick Foles, for one.

"In all my years evaluating quarterbacks, the best ones make quick decisions, have a quick release and throw the ball with accuracy," Shaw said. "(Foles) does all those, and he does all those repeatedly and has for years.

Luck and Foles became friends at the Peyton Manning camp and the friendship continued at conference media days. Luck got the better of him in a throwing accuracy contest at the ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., last year.

"Nick is a great guy," Luck said. "I found out later that we lived 20 minutes apart for a couple of years in Austin."

Shaw also said Luck has made improvements in his game since being named the Heisman Trophy runner-up.

"He's just more vocal with everything," Shaw said. "He has really taken this offense on his shoulders. He's really mastering not just his job, but everybody else's job."

Luck said he reviews the playbook once in awhile to make sure he's directing a certain play correctly.

"I feel I'm understanding our game plan more, why it's built to attack this defense, and why it changes for this opponent," he said. "Instead of going into the huddle and calling a play and thinking, What am I doing here? It's much more fluid now. I know what I'm doing now and know how the defense will adjust to this play."

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