David Fales' unlikely journey into the national spotlight
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Late last month, while serving as counselors at the Elite 11 high school quarterback camp in Beaverton, Ore., some of the nation's top returning college quarterbacks -- guys like Johnny Manziel, Tajh Boyd and Teddy Bridgewater -- competed in a formal throwing competition. During a series of five drills that included seven-step drops, passes on the run and deep balls, each threw at a set of targets and was scored on the accuracy of his placement.
Manziel, the reigning Heisman winner, fared well, but his score was only good enough for second place. Neither he nor the other nationally known stars could match the accuracy of another counselor: San Jose State quarterback David Fales.
Mike MacIntyre, Fales' coach with the Spartans last season, had not yet heard about the result when contacted a few weeks later. "That doesn't surprise me one bit," said the current Colorado coach of the outcome. "If [Fales] was at one of those other schools right now, it wouldn't have been such a big surprise because people would be seeing him on television every week. He's that good. That's a fact."
Fales, then a redshirt junior, completed a national-best 72.5 percent of his throws for 4,193 yards, 33 touchdowns and nine interceptions as a first-time FBS starter in 2012. He finished behind only Alabama's AJ McCarron and Georgia's Aaron Murray in the country in pass efficiency (170.8), and he led San Jose State to its first 11-win season since 1940. Playing for a program that hasn't had a high-profile star since Jeff Garcia -- who played there 20 years ago -- Fales, 22, is still far from a household name. But many within the sport have taken notice. He recently appeared on the Maxwell Award watch list and is shooting up early 2014 NFL mock drafts. SI.com's Chris Burke considers Fales "in the top handful of senior quarterbacks" and a "borderline first-rounder at this point."
While it may seem like a meteoric rise for the previously unknown quarterback, in reality, Fales has taken a long, circuitous path to stardom. A former two-star recruit according to Rivals.com, the Salinas, Calif., native spent time on three other college campuses before his standout 2012 campaign. Prior to an 11th-hour scholarship offer from San Jose State in December 2011, he had planned to enroll at FCS program Indiana State. Yet for Peter Goodson, a part-time quarterback tutor in the Monterey, Calif., area who has worked with Fales for eight years, it was always a matter of when -- not if -- his pupil would break through.
"Overnight success is usually the result of 10 to 15 years hard work," said Goodson, a retired private equity manager-turned quarterbacks coach who initially served as a volunteer coach at Fales' high school, Palma High. "I had no question he'd be successful. I figured there can't be that many poor coaches or offensive coordinators that can't see talent."
Still, even MacIntyre didn't fully realize what he had a year ago, taking until the week of the season opener against Stanford to name the 6-foot-2 juco transfer his starting quarterback. Early in that game, which was tied 17-17 heading into the fourth quarter, a Cardinal pass-rusher got free and leveled Fales. Unfazed, Fales got back up and completed the next pass. "I said on the headset, 'We might have something special,'" said MacIntyre.
Fales finished the game 24-of-35 for a modest 217 yards, a touchdown and an interception, but it wasn't long before he was tossing three or four touchdowns nearly every week. In a 12-0 win against Navy on Sept. 29, he completed 85.3 percent of his throws. In the Spartans' Military Bowl win over Bowling Green on Dec. 27, he went 33-of-43 for 395 yards, two touchdowns and no picks. By year's end, he'd set seven single-season school passing records.
However, Fales' most unique line of the season came in an Oct. 13 loss to eventual WAC champ Utah State. Bent on pressuring Fales, the Aggies sacked him 13 times. He still finished 38-of-50 for 467 yards, three touchdowns and no picks.
"In the games, he is as cool as Cool Hand Luke. Nothing bothers him whatsoever," said MacIntyre. "The game slows down for him. He gets better when the game starts. He gets even more accurate. Not many can do that. It's so fun to watch."
For the first three years of Fales' college career, though, few people got to watch him play. Following a fruitless camp tour to schools such as Oregon State and Kansas State during the summer before his senior year of high school, Fales committed to the first FBS program that made him an offer, Nevada. It was 2008. Future San Francisco 49ers star Colin Kaepernick was already entrenched as the Wolf Pack's starter. Fales, groomed as a traditional drop-back passer, seemed an odd choice for coach Chris Ault's Pistol offense.
"Fall camp, all the plays I was doing were zone-read, naked [bootlegs]," said Fales. "I wasn't a runner to begin with and I'm not going to outsprint anybody so I didn't have the best fall camp that year."
Shortly before Nevada's trip to the Hawaii Bowl, Fales got a wake-up call. "Coach Ault, he looked at me in the face and said, 'You're probably not going to play here,'" Fales recalled.
After that redshirt season, Fales returned closer to home to enroll at Monterey Peninsula College, where he had an existing relationship with coach Mike Rasmussen. But even there, playing time wasn't a sure thing. "Going to JC and you know you're leaving a Division I scholarship, you're getting questioned -- are you doing the right thing?" Fales said. "And then when I was at JC, I was rotating the first five games with another local quarterback, so I was wondering, well, did I mess up?"
Once he became the full-time starting quarterback, Fales earned first-team all-conference honors and led his team to a co-conference championship in 2010. The following summer, at the behest of his father, David, who lives in Torrington, Wyo., Fales accepted an invite to walk on at Wyoming. But the Cowboys had just signed two quarterbacks, including Brett Smith, who would wind up starting as a true freshman. Fales arrived in time for summer school. He lasted less than a month.
"I was a just-in-case-it-didn't-work-out guy, basically," said Fales.
Wyoming coaches eventually offered to save him a scholarship for 2012, but Fales opted to return to Monterey for another season. "If [Wyoming] wanted me, they would have offered in the spring," he said.
Junior college proved beneficial to the soft-spoken quarterback, who said he "matured a lot" during his two stints at Monterey. But after completing another all-conference season, it appeared that his lone suitor was Indiana State. Then San Jose State's staff learned that its presumed 2012 starter, Michigan transfer Tate Forcier, would not return to school the next year. It began a hurried hunt for an available juco quarterback.
Then-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, now with the Oakland Raiders, took the 75-minute drive south to watch Fales throw. "I called [MacIntyre] as I was leaving and said, 'This is the guy I want, and it's not even close,'" DeFilippo told the San Jose Mercury News last year.
When MacIntyre and offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren realized the extent of Fales' accuracy, they tailored their shotgun-spread offense to include "more short-yardage passing that's like a run," said MacIntyre. That contributed to Fales' lofty completion percentage. Fales' arm strength is not dazzling. Still, his former coach insists that he "can make any throw ... I can see why pro scouts like him, because they want a guy that can stay accurate but doesn't necessarily need a clean pocket. He doesn't always have to have his feet set just right to make accurate throws."
Entering his senior season, Fales will have an opportunity to try out a pro-style offense. MacIntyre's replacement, Ron Caragher, who previously succeeded Jim Harbaugh as the head coach at San Diego, employs a Bill Walsh-style West Coast scheme. Fales will also get to play with his brother, Austen, another well-traveled quarterback (he has played at Hartnell College and Colorado Mesa College and briefly enrolled at Central Connecticut State) who walked on the Spartans' roster this spring.
"It's kind of a dream come true to be set up in this situation at this school going into my senior season," said Fales. "[The NFL] is the dream. So obviously, when they're talking about you, that's exciting. It's easy to get kind of lost in that and see where you're ranked but you've got to stay focused and understand what the priorities are. You've got to win this year and perform again and it will fall into place if you're winning and doing that."
There is one other subtext to Fales' final college campaign. The long-overlooked quarterback is on a revenge tour of sorts, something that started in last year's bowl game. Fales said when he camped at Kansas State as a high school senior, then-Wildcats' offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero offered to help him find an FCS or Division II school. Four years later, Ruggiero held the same post at Bowling Green. "I was pretty excited to beat him," said Fales. This season, with San Jose State joining the Mountain West, Fales will face Wyoming on Oct. 26 and return to Nevada on Nov. 16.
"He'll always walk with a chip on his shoulder," said Goodson. "I don't think this [success] will ever got to his head."
Once completely off the grid, Fales has emerged as one of the most promising quarterbacks in the country. With six San Jose State games already slated for national television this season, there will soon be no one left to overlook him.