During a wild week for Stanford Football and Stanford recruiting, there was a new and somewhat surprising addition to the official visit roster that brought more prospects to The Farm than any December visit weekend we can remember. And it could not have come at a more helpful position on the Cardinal recruiting board.
We wrote last month about the last grains of sand passing through hourglass of Stanford 2007 tight end recruiting. We spoke too soon. A surprise performer erupted onto the recruiting radar for Stanford in recent weeks, on the heels of a tape with some of his senior season footage. Tight end Coby Fleener from Joliet (Ill.) Catholic Academy enjoyed a true breakout season this fall, and the Cardinal are one of many schools suddenly hot on his trail.
"It's really been a pretty quick process with Stanford, to be honest with you. Everything has gone pretty quickly," Fleener explains. "I can't tell you when it started or how they got my tape, but what I can tell you is that I had talked with Coach [Tucker] Waugh, who is my recruiting coach, a few times. He came to watch one of my basketball games [November 20]. In that game I had 20 points and 10 rebounds. That went well. By the end of the night, they officially offered me a scholarship by giving my football coach the letter. It's been a pretty cool process."
Fleener picked up just one offer prior to the start of his senior season. Illinois State took a look at the 6'6" athlete and pegged him as a wide receiver for their program, extending to him his first and only scholarship. Fleener upgraded his speed and athleticism in the off-season, and Joliet Catholic changed their offense to pass to the tight end. The result was a splendid season for Fleener that yielded new offers from Nebraska, Minnesota, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Colorado State, Western Michigan, Miami (Ohio), Connecticut, Rice, Tulsa, Vanderbilt, Boston College, Arizona State and Stanford.
The Hilltoppers ran the ball in 2005, while Fleener sat on the bench. In one of the more dramatic turnaround stories of a player's emergence, Fleener was the centerpiece to his team's 2006 season.
"We were a really young team this year, so Coach utilized me a lot more in the passing game and used the passing game in general a lot more than he has in the past. We tried to play to our strengths," the tight end tells us. "Being 6'6" and 220 in high school with a 31-inch vertical, there are not too many guys who can jump up and get all over me. We played to our strengths, and that worked out well."
"We had me running everything and anything you could think of," Fleener continues. "I would be used to stretch the field. I would run a basic post pattern right past the safety and outrun the safety. They might split me out, and I would run a fade and just jump over the corner. I could run a quick out, where I would beat the corner to the cut. It's really fun, to be honest with you."
At the season's end, Fleener totaled eight touchdowns and over 700 yards receiving, with over 20 yards per reception. Those are stunning numbers for a tight end in high school, and in a 10-game season at that.
The fireworks exploded right out of the gate for Fleener's breakout season. Playing on the biggest stage any Chicagoland prep could dream, he opened his senior season at Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears. The Hilltoppers went toe-to-toe with power Mount Carmel High School, and Fleener was the spotlight performer. He caught six passes for 107 yards and a touchdown in the narrow 13-6 defeat that was a tie game until the final two minutes of the fourth quarter.
"At first they, they tried to cover with corners and safeties. By the end of the game, I was getting triple-covered," Fleener says of the season opener. "That was kind of an attention-grabber, right off the bat. I played similar to that, although not always quite that well, the rest of the season."
At 6'6" and 220 pounds, Fleener is not a your typical tight end. He is a natural running down the field, and admittedly less accomplished a blocker at this stage of his career. What most defines him, however, is his speed.
"I can pretty much guarantee that I'm faster than a good majority of the tight ends in the nation," says the Lemont (Ill.) man.
Fleener competed this summer in an area "fastest man" competition and ranked first among the wide receivers in attendance. His 4.39 time in the 40, clocked handheld on an outdoor track at Romeoville High School, was second fastest overall. At a different combine prior to his senior season, Fleener had a 4.41 electronically times on an indoor track. He runs in the 4.5s on grass.
Those numbers and that size may suggest that Stanford has found its "next Evan Moore," and some schools indeed are giving Fleener a look as a wideout. Kansas and Illinois State both explicitly offered him as a wide receiver, while Minnesota has told him that he could play either position for them.
"Tight end is what I prefer because I think I'll have a better shot at the pros at the tight end position," Fleener offers. "That's way down the road, but you have to have dreams, you know?"
The past few months have certainly been a dream for Fleener and his family. He has been transformed from a nearly invisible college prospect into a hot commodity and verifiable blue chip recruit. His stock has blown up in a relatively short span of time, but Stanford still was one of the later schools to jump on the bandwagon. Fleener says that he sent out film of his first two games to a number of schools in the Midwest, but nothing to Stanford. The Cardinal discovered him a little later than other programs, so will that timing hurt them?
"They're definitely going to be considered," the recruit replies. "As of right now, they're one of my top schools. For some schools, it [timing] has factored in. For other schools, it hasn't. It's relative to each school. You can't beat a Stanford education on a scholarship. Ivy League schools don't offer athletic scholarships, so Stanford is pretty much the number one academic scholarship that offers full rides."
As proof that the Cardinal are in the game, Fleener this weekend traveled to The Farm for his third and final official visit. He also is digging into the Stanford admissions application he has newly received.
"I'm going to try my best to get the application completed within the next week or two," Fleener offers. "Before anything else is done, I have to be accepted. I can't commit somewhere I'm not going to be accepted. That's kind of a daunting task, but that's something that has to be done."
"I've been swamped," he adds. "I take all honors and AP courses, so if it's not hours and hours of homework a night, it's coaches stopping by or coaches calling. I sound like I'm exaggerating, but I also live a half an hour away from the school I attend, so really it's been pretty hectic."
While his work on the application comes at the 11th hour, Fleener presents a promising applicant. He carries a 4.34 GPA on his school's convoluted grading scale, which translates roughly to a 3.6 on a conventional four-point scale. Fleener is also the owner of a 27 on the ACT.
Getting Fleener admitted to Stanford is only half the battle. With a breadth of scholarship offers from which he can choose, the Cardinal must outshine many suitors. The Chicago tight end had already taken his Arizona State official visit in November by the time Stanford threw their hat in the ring, and his Nebraska trip came just 48 hours later. It's quite a game of catch-up for the Cardinal. Recent events in Tempe have made that effort a little easier.
"Before Stanford came into the picture, it was Arizona State and Nebraska," Fleener says of his favorites. "It really hurt Arizona State's chances when Coach [Dirk] Koetter got fired. I do love the whole coaching staff over there. I really do. It would be hard for me to commit there, not knowing what I'm going into and with Coach having approved the scholarship that was sent to me. It may be a new offense, and that was one of the big selling points for me - the offense that they ran plus the coaching staff they had there. Depending on who comes in, who he keeps and who he lets go, that will have a big impact as to what my top couple of schools will be."
That leaves the Huskers atop Fleener's leaderboard.
"Nebraska is number one at this point," he declares. "One of the best pieces of advice throughout this whole thing that has been given to me came from Coach Sharp, my head football coach. He said, 'You want to go somewhere you are wanted.' And I feel that Nebraska truly honestly wants me to go there. I felt that everybody was sincere there. I loved the atmosphere - how much the fans get into the game. It seems like a genuine place. It doesn't seem like anybody is trying to put a show on."
Immediately after Stanford offered, Fleener called the Cardinal one of his "top four" favorite schools. Stanford on paper may have been expected to take a hit not unlike that the Sun Devils suffered, now that head coach Walt Harris similarly has been fired, but Fleener has had continued recruiting interactions with recruiting coordinator Nate Nelson, which have left a positive impact.
"He still has a positive outlook on things," the recruit reports. "He doesn't seem to ever have a bad day. He's just one of those guys. He says that the coaching situation should be resolved within the next couple of weeks, pretty quickly, and that they will hopefully be up and running as soon as possible."
Shortly before embarking on his Stanford official visit, Fleener declared the Cardinal "a close number two" behind Nebraska.
"At this point, it's really close," Fleener offers. "It's not really been a factor. Coach Harris and I had talked maybe once on the phone, and that was when I received the offer. It wasn't like we had gotten to know each other and had a great relationship. I was thankful for the offer, and he seemed like a great guy. But we didn't really have that many personal ties."
"I'm still taking my visit to Stanford, regardless of the coaching situation. With one win last year, I knew that could have been a possibility. But a Stanford education is still a Stanford education, regardless of who's coaching," the recruit continues. "I do feel bad in that it was only Coach Harris' second year. I hoped he would have more time to get on his feet and get the program up and running. But with how college football is these days, there's a lot of pressure for coaches to win and win fast. Obviously there are not too many programs that can compete with a Stanford education, and that was a main reason why Stanford is in such a good light in my eyes."
And just four days after seeing the head man fired who would have orchestrated the Stanford offense which excited him, Fleener moved ahead with his official visit to a school without a head coach.
"I obviously won't get the position coach meeting or get to talk with the head coach, but that's stuff that I can either do on the phone, or as soon as he is hired he can come out here," the recruit relates. "It's not like I won't be able to get to know the coach really quickly. Obviously it's going to be somebody reputable, so I can do some research on him and what offense he runs. It's rumored that they are going to bring in a really offensive-minded coach. We'll pick his brain pretty quickly, as far as that goes."
'Quick' is the order of the day for Fleener, whose head is spinning from all of the recent activity. He hopes to soon put an end to this wild ride.
"I plan on getting this done as soon as possible because, as nice as this attention has been, it's just becoming a little bit of a hassle, to be honest with you," he admits. "I love the calls from the coaches, but at a certain point it just gets a bit overwhelming. Then trying to schedule all 20 sets of coaches so that they aren't in my home at the same time."
"And then those damned Scout.com guys calling," he jokes.
All kidding aside, he has welcomed us to check with him soon on what should be a packed next couple weeks. Coby Fleener will look to digest his final official visit, finish his admissions application and get to know the new Stanford head coach. All of that while commuting to and from his high school, handling a full load of honors and AP courses, conversing with a wide collection of college coaches and playing his senior season of basketball.
It's easy to see why Fleener is anxious for this all to end. We'll keep you abreast of updates as his story races toward its conclusion.
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