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  • As the former OC for Nick Foles and Rob Gronkowski at Arizona and the former receivers coach for Danny Amendola at Texas Tech, Sonny Dykes has a unique perspective on Super Bowl LII.
By Bruce Feldman
January 24, 2018

Sonny Dykes may be the least surprised person in the country to see Nick Foles thriving again. The new SMU head coach had a front-row seat for the turning point in Foles’s prolific career at Arizona as the Wildcats’ offensive coordinator from 2007 to ’09.

Strong-armed Matt Scott had actually won the quarterback battle in 2009, the year Foles became eligible after transferring from Michigan State. But in Week 3, Scott struggled at Iowa and was replaced by Foles.

“Nick came in and just took over,” Dykes told SI Tuesday while on the road recruiting in West Texas. “He was just so mature. That’s what made Nick different really than 90% of the quarterbacks that I’ve had. He’s just so mature. When you were talking to him, it was like talking to a grown man. He was very mature. Very methodical. He always had a plan for everything. And that’s what I think set him apart.”

Foles didn’t rally the Wildcats to a win that day, but he was impressive enough to take the job for good and lead Arizona to as high as No. 18 in the rankings that year, which marked their first trip to the AP Top 25 since 2000. Dykes left to become Louisiana Tech’s head coach after that season, but Foles spent two more years as the starter in Tucson before entering the draft, where the Eagles made him the 88th overall pick in 2012. He did produce a Pro Bowl season in 2013, putting up ridiculous numbers for the Eagles with a 27–2 touchdown-to-interception ratio, but things tailed off in Philadelphia a year later, and Foles proceeded to bounce from the Rams to the Chiefs over the next two years before returning to Philly this season to back up Carson Wentz. An injury to the Eagles’ budding star gave Foles another shot in the spotlight and he has shined, producing a 122.1 passer rating this postseason and a perfect passer rating (158.3) in the second half of the 38–7 NFC Championship Game win over the Vikings on Sunday.

“Nick’s so mature,” Dykes says—he and his former QB still text regularly. "He’s just one of those people that’s always believed that if he worked as hard as he could work, and gave his best, in the long run, he’s gonna come out successful. The stuff that young people end up getting upset about—not winning the starting job—that didn’t bother Nick. He just kept working. ‘Hey, I am gonna get an opportunity and when I do, I’m gonna be prepared and I am gonna make the most of it.’ So I think there’s a real carryover from what he went through at Arizona and to what he went through with the Eagles. Heck, a year ago, he was considering retiring. But he took that same approach, ‘I’m gonna get an opportunity and when I do, I’m gonna be prepared and I’m gonna run with it,' and obviously he has.”

Foles isn’t the only Super Bowl LII participant the 48-year-old Dykes tutored in his three seasons at Arizona. He also overlapped with the Patriots star tight end Rob Gronkowski’s three years in Tuscson, and at his previous stop as Texas Tech’s receivers coach Dykes worked with standout wide receiver Danny Amendola, who caught the touchdown that sent New England to the Super Bowl. While the straight-laced Foles doesn’t seem all too similar to the more boisterous Patriots receivers, Dykes notes a common thread: “Those guys are all ultra competitive people and they just burn hot competitively.”

Amendola has gone from undrafted free agent to one of the most reliable receivers in the NFL. “The gift that Danny had was that he got to watch [former Texas Tech star receiver Wes Welker],” Dykes says. “Danny’s dad was a high school coach. He was always ultra competitive, always full speed all the time. Like Wes, you almost had to tell him not to go as hard as he did just because he was gonna hurt himself in practice. He learned from Wes, which was a big deal.”

In Gronkowski, whose status for the Super Bowl is uncertain after entering the concussion protocol during the AFC title game, Dykes found a transformative talent, the kind of weapon he’d never seen before.

“I always wanted to figure out how to get the best players on the field,” Dykes says. “At Arizona, we didn’t have a lot of receivers, and from about Rob’s second month on campus you could tell he was gonna be a special guy. He hadn’t caught a lot of balls in high school. He was so unique. He could be in a three-point stance and block a Pac-12 defensive end or you split him out as an inside receiver and he’d get open on linebackers. Or put him out there by himself and put trips away from him and he’ll get open. Our whole red zone and short-yardage package became, if Robbie is split out by himself with one guy on him, we’re getting him the ball. He could beat that cornerback physically and win.

“The really great thing with him was you could flex him out opposite of the trips and then you motion him and put his hand back on the ground. Then all of a sudden you’ve got a numbers advantage in the box. He was fun because every play you had in the offense was good with Robbie. That’s when we started running power because he could block a defensive end and that changed our offense. He made us a downhill running team and allowed us to play-action pass into the middle of the field. That was probably the most fun I’ve ever had as a coach because of the versatility of Robbie.”

As Dykes begins his third head coaching stint, his challenge is to try and find more talents like Foles, Gronk and Amendola that could someday fit in on football’s biggest stage.

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