Seniors put on a show for NFL at Pro Day

Only five years ago, what happened Thursday on the Peninsula seemed impossible. Stanford football's practice field was the center of the NFL universe, with representatives and executives from all 32 franchises descending upon The Farm to evaluate Cardinal seniors.

The spectacle that was Stanford's 2012 Pro Timing Day was especially grand for top prospects Andrew Luck and Coby Fleener. While Luck's perfect 73-yard heave into the teeth of a 15 mile-per-hour wind was eye-popping, Fleener's performance was the most notable: the six-foot-six, 247-pound specimen was clocked at an insane 4.45 in the 40-yard dash.

In many ways, Pro Day was a bittersweet culmination of one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history. Luck, together with the great recruiting class of 2008 that resurrected the Cardinal program, participated in an organized football setting for the last time at Stanford.

"The Truth" was spectacular. In a rare and gutsy move, he - by choice of his own - decided to throw into a chilly 10-15 mile per hour wind. Luck's footballs carved through the gusts with ease, and only one of his 51 throws fell off the mark. When all was supposed to be said and done, an NFL scout pulled a Phil Simms and still questioned Luck's arm strength.

Maybe he just wanted to prolong the show.

Andrew's answer: nothing less than one extra throw, a precise bomb to a sprinting Chris Owusu, three quarters of the field away in the end zone. It traveled a perfect 73 yards. With that, Simms can proceed to eat crow.

It was Fleener's outstanding performance, though, that brought everything full circle on this watershed day for Stanford football. When the bruising tight end ran faster than a bevy of receivers did at the NFL combine, memories of an integral part of Stanford's renaissance resurfaced.

Harbaugh's tight end revolution comes full circle

Former coach Jim Harbaugh orchestrated the "tight end revolution" shortly after he took over the Cardinal program in 2007. As would so often prove the case, Harbaugh's methods seemed curious at first, but were ultimately successful.

In 2007, immediately after being hired to reverse the fortunes of a 1-11 team, he called out Pete Carroll and powerhouse USC, brashly announcing, "We bow to no man, we bow to no program here at Stanford University."

Then, instead of being on the expected receiving end of a retaliatory whipping, Harbaugh's Cardinal shocked the Trojans at the Los Angeles Coliseum, winning 24-23 in one of the biggest upsets in college football history.

The former coach also frequently insisted that Stanford could become a national power, despite the conventional wisdom that any institution which put academics ahead of sports would never be able to admit the athletes necessary to field an elite football team.

In response, Harbaugh signed Luck, who quickly became the nation's best quarterback, led Stanford to a dominating Orange Bowl championship, and thumbed his nose at the NFL to finish his degree in Architecture.

And though the coach has moved on, another of the ripened fruits of his foresight sparkled during Thursday's Pro Day. Enter Fleener, who - along with 6-foot-6 Zach Ertz and 6-foot-8 Levine Toilolo - became part of a unique, devastating Farm assault.

In an era during which college football migrated to spread offensive schemes featuring smaller, faster, wide-open, and sometimes exclusively aerial attacks, Harbaugh stuck to his college and NFL pedigree. He stocked the Cardinal roster with big, physical talent centered around the pro-style offense and overloaded on tight ends.

Initially, the strategy drew skeptical smirks.

Thursday, the Stanford program got the last laugh as the first of the Cardinal's stable of massive tight ends was officially clocked. Coby Fleener ran inhumanly fast.

How fast? Well, his 4.45 40-yard dash is speedy enough for any NFL position, and it makes him one of the fastest effective run-blockers ever. Consider this: Fleener ran his 40-yard dash two tenths of a second faster than record-setting New England tight end Rob Gronkowski, whose combination of size and speed was already considered revolutionary. In comparison to Fleener, though, Gronk is a turtle.

In the new-age NFL, where receivers are heavily protected by contact rule changes on passes to the middle of the field, Fleener has the potential to be darn near unstoppable. His development is all evidence of the ingenious, once-doubted recruiting blitz that Jim Harbaugh made, one that was the reason for a bit of gloating after the 2012 Orange Bowl.

"People ask us why we recruit tight ends?" Harbaugh asked San Jose Mercury News beat writer Elliot Almond after his tight ends went on a rampage that keyed a 40-12 drubbing. "That's why."

Thursday's Pro Day showed the nation yet another reason.

Other notables

Defensive back Johnson Bademosi looked in amazing and agile shape, with his blazing 40-yard dash time of 4.32 proving as much. Even if the NFL doesn't work out, Bademosi wants to try to play rugby at the Olympic level.

Interior defensive lineman Matthew Masifilo was also excellent, churning out 38 repetitions of the 225-pound bench press and combining that strength with a 4.9 40-yard dash. Each of those marks should gain him significant NFL leverage.

Michael Thomas has gotten stronger and faster, but he will still likely have to make a shift from safety to cornerback at the next level.

Griff Whalen also ran a solid 40-yard dash, clocking in at 4.52. With his excellent hands, he is very much alive for a shot to continue playing.

David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin are projected to go in the first round, along with Luck and Fleener, who immensely boosted his stock with his epic sprint.

Perhaps the biggest question entering the draft is whether or not Chris Owusu will ever play again. His 4.3 40 at the Combine was tantalizingly fast - near the top of the chart for receivers - but his concussion history is just as scary.

All in all, though, 2012 Pro Timing Day was another watershed moment for Stanford football.

About the Author: David Lombardi is a Stanford and Pac-12 Conference enthusiast. He has broadcast the Cardinal on KZSU for several years and is currently contributing to the Cardinal Channel. You can check several of his Stanford calls out at, where you can also read his West Coast-oriented blog via this direct link. For Stanford baseball insights, follow David on Twitter at davidmlombardi.

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