Ryan Lindley takes care of those who take care of him. And like most quarterbacks, the San Diego State senior's primary caretakers are his linemen.
Lindley began looking out for the guys who keep his jersey clean when he was a big-armed but under-recruited quarterback at El Capitan High School in suburban San Diego. Once a week Lindley invited the linemen to his house to eat pizza and watch game film. Lindley served as host, server and sometimes-punching bag, accepting such nicknames as "Captain America" and "Golden Boy" because of his sunny disposition and need to play the hero.
The special treatment paid off. Lindley led the Vaqueros to a 10-0 regular season, the best in school history. When he signed with San Diego State, one of Lindley's linemen, Tommie Draheim, decided to join him there. "He's always understood something important," Draheim said of Lindley. "He knows to treat his linemen well."
The tradition has continued, though in college, the linemen's palates have evolved. Now they go out each Monday for pasta. For Lindley, it's an investment. "He's going to be a millionaire someday," Draheim said. "He can afford it."
Probably so. SI.com draft analyst Tony Pauline wrote that Lindley "could be the most underrated senior prospect in the nation." Accurate and intelligent with an NFL-ready arm, Lindley has grown into one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Aztecs offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig compared Lindley to former No. 1 draft pick David Carr, whom Ludwig coached at Fresno State. "Of everyone I've coached, he's the most like Carr in his arm strength and style of play," Ludwig said. "I've coached a lot of guys who can't throw the ball like Ryan can, so we had to draw back the playbook. With Ryan, every play is available."
Lindley ranked 10th in the nation with 295 pass yards per game as a junior, throwing for 28 touchdowns and leading the Aztecs to nine wins, their most in a season since 1977.
Brady Hoke, SDSU's coach for that historic season, now coaches Michigan. When the Aztecs travel to Ann Arbor on Saturday, Lindley insists Hoke's presence on the opposite sideline will have little impact on the Aztecs' play. "I don't think I've ever looked at a head coach on the other team," Lindley said to the San Diego Union-Tribune. "You're always checking out the 11 guys on the other side of the ball. ... We're looking at people with helmets on, no one else." Hoke, however, has admitted to the strangeness of facing his former players. After accepting the job at Michigan, he joked with athletic director Dave Brandon about canceling the matchup.
At a program shaken by instability, Lindley has been the Aztecs' constant. As a freshman playing under then head coach Chuck Long, the quarterback's play became the lone bright spot for the Aztecs in an otherwise abysmal season. SDSU finished 2-10, reaching bottom in a 70-7 loss to New Mexico. "That game is a blur," Lindley said of the loss, in which he completed 18-of-37 passes for 156 yards. "It's a nightmare."
Long was dismissed at the end of the season, and SDSU hired Brady Hoke from Ball State to turn the program around. The man responsible for the worst afternoon of Lindley's career, New Mexico coach Rocky Long, resigned at the end of the 2008 season. Almost immediately, Hoke brought him on board as San Diego State's defensive coordinator.
Quickly, Hoke and Long delivered on promises to turn the program around. The Aztecs were far more competitive in 2009, finishing 4-8, and they made the leap to nine wins in 2010, earning Hoke the Michigan job. While many assistants left with Hoke for Ann Arbor, Long stayed in Southern California to become the Aztecs' head coach.
Long welcomed the opportunity to take another head coaching job, but the chance to coach Lindley made his decision even easier. "He's an unbelievable young man," Long said of his quarterback. "He's someone who's really worked hard to develop his skills and develop his leadership ability. On this team, there's no doubt who the leader is. He's earned that respect."
Ludwig calls Lindley "the best leader I've ever been around." The Aztecs' top two receivers were drafted by the NFL this April, and Lindley focused his offseason attention on developing their replacements. "He made the task of developing them into a personal challenge," Ludwig said. "He's been clear about telling them what to do and how to do it."
Now in his seventh season as Lindley's teammate, Draheim has seen the quarterback evolve. "He's more businesslike," Draheim said. "He still knows how to have fun with it, but he's serious. He treats it like a job."
And for Lindley's linemen, the job comes with perks.