Tracing Nick Foles' Path from Texas to the Top Spot on Philly's QB Depth Chart

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistNovember 14, 2013

USA Today

There are more than 37,000 public and private high schools in the United States, according to the U.S. Dept. of Education, and only 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL, but two of those quarterbacks came from the same high school in Texas.

In fact, you could argue that Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints and Nick Foles of the Philadelphia Eagles, who were awarded diplomas from Austin's Westlake High exactly 10 years apart, are currently the two hottest quarterbacks on the planet.

A snippet from the "records and achievements page" on the Westlake Chaparral football website.
A snippet from the "records and achievements page" on the Westlake Chaparral football website.HomeTeamsOnline.com

Brees is the third-highest-rated quarterback in the league and coming off a record-breaking performance that landed him NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors. Foles, who has the No. 1 passer rating in football, won the very same award one week ago. In fact, the two Westlake grads have won the award four out of 10 weeks to start the 2013 season.

Neither Foles nor Brees was selected in the first round of the NFL draft, which places them in the minority among starting NFL quarterbacks already. But Brees' story has been told time and again. He's 34 now, with a Super Bowl MVP in his back pocket. He owns the all-time single-season record for passing yards and is well on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

What about this Foles character? The media and fans don't usually take the time to get to know a guy until it's apparent he's going to be sticking around. Until his recent surge, we couldn't say for sure that Foles wouldn't become another failed non-first-round Philly quarterback like Kevin Kolb or Mike Kafka. 

Now that it looks as though Foles is the city's quarterback of the present and future, the B/R NFC East blog dug a little deeper to gain a better feel for where the 24-year-old Texas kid came from. Besides Texas, which is kind of a big place. We'll do so using the adjectives that those from his past and present most often use to describe him.

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Dude's tall

In the mid-2000s, Trent Hunt, who owns a restaurant half a mile from Westlake High School, had a unique way of checking on the status of his ice machine, the top of which is positioned beyond his reach. Hunt, who is 5'7", would ask Nick Foles. 

Foles and his family were and still are regulars at Hunt's spot, called the Texas Honey Ham Company, so whenever the high school basketball and football star would stop by for some eats, Hunt would jokingly ask him for an update on his harder-to-reach appliances.

"Needs a little cleaning," he'd say. 

Foles is 6'6". He, Mike Glennon, Terrelle Pryor and Joe Flacco are the only NFL quarterbacks at or above that height.

"He wasn't that tall when we first opened," said Hunt, who started the restaurant 10 years ago, when Foles was just a freshman. "He was probably six-foot or less when he first started coming in. And then boom. All of a sudden he walked in one day and it was like, 'Damn, Nick, you're growin' buddy.'"

It's also the key attribute he possesses that Brees never did. At 6'0", Brees is the second-shortest starting quarterback in the league. When he came out of Purdue in 2001, his height might have been his biggest concern. 

Outside of that, though, and beyond their shared alma mater, they have a hell of a lot in common. Which leads us to two more adjectives.

Dude's both a leader and smooth under pressure

Derek Long was at Westlake long enough to coach both Brees and Foles. He had to face Brees in practice as the Chaparrals' defensive coordinator during the program's heyday in the 1990s, with the two sharing a state championship in 1996. He was head coach when Foles was quarterback a decade later.

And Long believes the same basic ingredients went into making both Brees and Foles successful quarterbacks.  

"There are some really key similarities between Nick and Drew," Long said. "And I said this as I talked to college coaches who were recruiting Nick: There are two things that stood out about them both to me. The intangible is that they're great leaders. Both of them had that ability to divert the attention to the offensive line, the defense. They make everybody realize that even though they're the quarterback, it's not all about them.

"And second, there's lots of guys that can throw a football a long way, there's lots of guys that can throw a football hard. But the thing I noticed about both of them is that when they were under heavy pressure, when somebody's trying to take their head off and they might have to scramble or they're in the pocket, they can still find a receiver downfield. That's so critical to being successful."

Foles hasn't necessarily taken on a leadership role in the Eagles dressing room, but those types of things take a little time. Michael Vick is still the elder statesman, and so Foles has basically kept his head down and gone to work. 

On the field, we've seen that grace under fire that Long alluded to. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) reports that Foles has been the league's fifth-most-accurate quarterback while under pressure this season, exactly 0.1 percent less accurate than Brees, who ranks fourth. 

"He improved as he went along," said Long, "but he always kind of had that presence. He's not fast, and Drew was not fast, but they always kind of had that sense of where pressure's coming."

By the way, Long is now retired, which he says gives him time to finally watch Brees and Foles on Sundays. When asked who he'd root for if/when the Eagles play the Saints, he only said, "I'll hope the offenses score a lot of points."

Dude's strong

Next to Michael Vick, everybody throws like Carly Rae Jepson. The guy has a missile attached to the left side of his body. But Foles has enough arm strength to sling with the best of them, including Vick. 

In fact, California head coach Sonny Dykes, who played a major role in bringing Foles to Arizona when he was the Wildcats' offensive coordinator in 2008, has extremely high praise for Foles' right arm, as well as the efficient way in which he uses it.

"He threw the best deep ball of anybody I've ever been around," Dykes said. "He could throw balls on a line, he could throw balls with loft. Whatever he needed to do. I thought he was the best quarterback I've ever seen throwing the ball down the field."

"He's got one of the stronger arms we've had here," noted then-Eagles head coach Andy Reid last December, per the Philadelphia Inquirer, "one of the stronger arms in the league."

It shows. On deep passes this season, Foles has been the third-most-accurate passer in the NFL, according to PFF. He has a league-high 11 touchdowns on passes of 20-plus yards, and he's yet to throw an interception, period, let alone on deep balls. 

Dude was a late bloomer

Just like Brees, Foles was also a standout basketball player at Westlake. In fact, he was recruited by Georgetown, among others, before deciding instead to play football at Michigan State (where he lasted only a year before transferring to Arizona). 

It's not unusual for football playersespecially tall, rangy onesto letter in multiple sports during their high school days, but Long wonders if that's why Foles didn't really start to look like the type of quarterback who could lead an NFL franchise until he was already in the league.

"He was more geared to basketball, so he was kind of behind with the speed training and everything," said Long, noting that basketball players don't train the same way football players do. "He had such a huge upside because he hadn't been lifting weights all through school and doing the agility work like a straight football player would."

So what has improved since high school?

"He's gotten faster," Long said. "Watching the games, I'm pretty impressed the way he pulls the ball down and runs."

Dykes saw that progress firsthand when Foles arrived at Arizona a year later.

"He worked really hard at Arizona to improve his footwork," he said. "He's improved that part of his game."

Added Dykes: "I think he's shortened his throwing motion a little bit, too. He gets rid of the ball more quickly than he did [when he arrived at Arizona]."

"The work ethic has to be factored in there," added Long. "A lot of people have that ability, but they're not willing to put in the work, whether it's watching film or throwing to receivers after practice. Nick has done a tremendous amount to improve himself physically since he graduated from high school."

Dude's competitive

That was what Dykes admired most about Foles when he brought him from East Lansing to Tucson. Dykes and head coach Mike Stoops were looking for a new quarterback, so Dykes did his due diligence and started dialing up people in Austin. 

"All of them said he's one of the most competitive people in the world," said Dykes. "And I kept hearing that and kept hearing that and kept hearing that. I obviously liked him as a football player but what won him over for me was the way he competed."

Foles has been competing ever since leaving Westlake. At Michigan State, he left a crowded quarterbacks room that included future NFLers Brian Hoyer and Kirk Cousins, and he entered the 2009 season at Arizona behind Matt Scott on the depth chart. 

But he took Scott's job four games into the season and never gave it back. That, of course, sounds somewhat familiar to what he's done to Vick. It hasn't been as smooth a transition, and there have been some growing pains, but Dykes wonders if that experience, combined with the competitive drive he already possessed, helped Foles finally win the starting job in Philly. 

"I think having gone through that and seeing that perseverance and hard work pays off, I think that was a great experience for him," said Dykes, who added that when Foles was competing with Vick, he'd send him text messages encouraging him to emulate what he did during that first season with the Wildcats. 

"He probably did the exact same thing," said Dykes.

It worked.

He's a good dude, and a smart one

When we talked to Hunt about what Foles was like in high school, we were envisioning Friday Night Lights. Instead, Hunt described the kid as "solitary."

"Obviously you've got an entourage that kind of follows you around," said Hunt, "but he was just kind of a normal kid who turned over a three-year period into this huge star athlete. You wouldn't know he was [the] bad-ass that he is, except you see him on TV now."

We heard the same words over and over from Hunt, Long and Dykes: humble, soft-spoken, friendly, low-key, hard-working, smart.

That last one's big, because it really carries over to the field. Quarterback is a cerebral position in a cerebral sport. 

Let's fast-forward to the present day, when Foles' current head coach, Chip Kelly, has on several occasions gushed over how smart Foles is on the field.

Just this week, from the Philadelphia Inquirer

Nick's just really, really smart with the football. Very rarely do you see Nick throw a ball where all of a sudden it's tipped, you know, when it's almost intercepted. I think going the other way, our defense, there's a couple times we probably should have made some more plays defensively on the ball and didn't. But you don't see that out of Nick. I think he has a really good understanding of what we're doing. He doesn't really ever put the ball in harm's way.

Foles is rarely sacked and has thrown zero interceptions on 293 dropbacks. That requires smart play, and we should have seen it coming. 

Here's how Hunt first described Foles to us: "Real hard worker, and smart. He's a really, really intelligent kid and just humble, intelligent, tall, smart."

Yeah, but is he sharp, brainy or brilliant? 

"I was fortunate enough to coach a lot of outstanding young men," said Long, "and he's one of the tops. You like to see good things happen to good guys. Well, I'm just tickled about how things are going for him right now."

Dykes says nothing changed in college: "He's just a really, really good person. He's got his head on straight. No ego, just team. Never about him. That inspires people to play better when they're playing with a guy with that great of an attitude."

Vick didn't necessarily have that reputation, so this will be a whole new experience for Philadelphia football fans. I mean, Donovan McNabb was known as a nice guy, but he went through the wringer in that city, even while playing at a Pro Bowl level. 

The next test for Foles might be regarding his ability to handle Philadelphia, which is a different animal than Westlake, East Lansing and Tucson. 

Dude might one day be good enough to convert Cowboys fans to Eagles fans

Michael Vick and Norm Snead came from Virginia, Randall Cunningham was from California, Ron Jaworski was a New Yorker, Donovan McNabb was born in Chicago and Sonny Jurgensen started out in North Carolina.

Ty Detmer was a Texas guy, but the Eagles still have never really had a true franchise quarterback who hailed from the Lone Star State, which is of course overrun by fans of Philly's archrival, the Dallas Cowboys

Hunt says people talk about Foles on a daily basis in his establishment, noting that many are bitter that neither he nor Brees went to the University of Texas, whose campus is about seven miles to the east. 

"That's a big topic of conversation when people are sitting around eating their breakfast tacos or their ham and eggs," said Hunt. "Why didn't we have Drew Brees or Nick Foles here?"

In a place where they're as proud of their high school and college players as they are their pro teams, that might also mean that guys like Foles could possess enough power to cause people from Cowboy Country to actually cheer for the Eagles.

"Heck yeah," said Hunt, when asked if that's possible, "because Westlake's a really tight community. There's a lot of moms and dads and sons and daughters coming in here who have turned into Eagles fans. Some say, 'Ya know, I love the Cowboys, but I hope Nick beats them.'" 

That alone might be all Foles needs to win over the hearts of Philadelphians. 


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