(AP) — Coby Fleener first dominated on the hardwood as a high school basketball star. When he gave football a try, coaches stuck him at safety. Then receiver. Finally, tight end.
Safe to say he has grown into the position.
At 6-foot-6 and 244 pounds of muscle, Fleener's size and speed are making the Stanford tight end one of Heisman hopeful Andrew Luck's go-to targets. Fleener leads the sixth-ranked Cardinal (2-0) with three touchdowns, and he's looking to do more damage against an undersized Arizona (1-1) secondary Saturday night in the Pac-12 opener for both teams.
"I don't think people realize how fast he is," Luck said. "He's a big guy. But he's also fast."
"The second-fastest offensive player we have," safety Michael Thomas said, ranking him behind only receiver Chris Owusu, one of the best kick returners in the nation who will likely clock one of the top times at the NFL Combine next spring.
Fleener has the perfect build for his position.
He towered over other kids growing up, although he didn't put on weight until his late teens. When he was in high school, he could dunk a basketball before his freshman year. Fleener's mother, Michelle, and sister, Briana, used to get so upset that he stayed so fit while eating anything and everything.
In fact, he was even named after another big body.
While pregnant with Coby, Michelle first spotted the name "Jacoby" on a jersey while watching a Washington Redskins game — it was left tackle Joe Jacoby, part of Washington's famous "Hogs" offensive line in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The name stuck.
"I just think it's so funny," she said. "He's probably bigger than him now, too."
Fleener certainly uses his size well.
The long-haired, muscular tight end is too fast for linebackers and too big for cornerbacks or safeties. A matchup nightmare for almost every defense, he also has the backing of a strong-armed quarterback in Luck to deliver the ball with precision.
Easy to see why the two have quickly become a dynamic duo.
Going back to the Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech last season, the fifth-year senior has scored on six of his last nine catches. And they are hardly goal-line lobs. The touchdowns have come from 60, 58, 41, 39, 38 and 3 yards.
"He has unbelievable speed for a guy his size," outside linebacker Chase Thomas said.
Until his final year in high school, Fleener figured his athletic career would take another path.
He would push and pound players on the basketball court with ease, morphing into a rebounding machine at Joliet Catholic Academy in the Chicago suburbs. While he still calls it "his dream" to play both sports, it became apparent that he'd have a better chance for a scholarship in football.
His mother told him and Briana, now on a volleyball scholarship at East Carolina, when they were in high school that she simply couldn't afford to send both to college as a single parent. At the time, neither seemed talented enough to earn an athletic scholarship.
"Honestly, we were just hoping for any school at that point," Michelle said.
Things quickly took off in football.
Fleener was the top-rated tight end in Illinois his senior year, and he picked Stanford over schools such as Nebraska and Arizona because of the academics, the near year-round sunshine on The Farm and the way then-coach Jim Harbaugh — and now David Shaw — valued tight ends. In particular, Stanford sold Michelle and Coby while at a breakfast gathering for recruits and professors. None of the coaches even attended.
"Each one of the professors that talked outshone the other's credentials," she said. "We were blown away."
The only concern each had was being so far from home.
While Michelle makes it to a few games each season, her son hasn't been home in at least a couple of years, she said. Considering how well he has developed — both in football and in academics — neither can complain about the decision now.
And Fleener still shows off his other talent on occasion.
During his freshman year at Stanford, the coaches faced the players in a friendly basketball game. Fleener swatted several shots in a game players still laugh about. Even Harbaugh, who would constantly brag about his playing days on the hardwood at Palo Alto High School, apparently had some sent back in his face — although Fleener plays coy about the game.
"Let's just say I got the better of the matchup," he said, laughing.
Fleener usually does.
Along with 6-foot-6 Zach Ertz and 6-foot-8 Levine Toilolo, Fleener is part of what might be the best — certainly the biggest — tight end corps in the country. Guarding against those three presents some unusual challenges.
Teammate Michael Thomas, a 5-foot-11 safety who is also expected to be drafted in the spring, is often matched up against Fleener in practice. So when he watches Fleener make opposing defenders look foolish leaping over them for touchdowns, Thomas almost feels a little sympathy.
"We love it when we see him score and get over," Thomas said. "But we're like, 'Yeah, we understand.'"
Fleener's end zone prowess has given him the slight edge among the tight ends.
He's expected to be a high pick in next year's NFL draft and, in typical Stanford fashion, already has started working on his master's degree after earning his bachelor's in science, technology and society. A powerful blocker and key cog in the running game, about the only thing missing from Fleener's repertoire are more receptions.
Fleener has five catches for 116 yards in two games this season — of course, three are for TDs — making his receptions-to-touchdowns ratio going back to last season off the charts. With Luck spreading the ball around to up to 10 different receivers per game, Fleener has certainly made every chance count.
"I'm always lobbying for more catches," he said, smiling. "There can never be enough. I guess I'm greedy in that sense."