ANDERSON — Thanks to Jon Gruden, no play is more associated with Andrew Luck than “Green Right Slot Spider 2 Y Banana.”
That’s the formation the former NFL head coach had the Stanford quarterback draw on the whiteboard last spring during an episode of ESPN’s “Gruden’s QB Camp.” The Super Bowl championship coach asked Luck to take the viewers through his read progressions on the play.
After the quarterback had finished, Gruden re-emphasized that the fullback was the No. 1 read and received Luck’s confirmation. Moments later, the coach rolled tape of a 2011 game between Luck’s Stanford Cardinal and USC.
The Cardinal ran Spider 2 Y Banana, and Luck ignored the open fullback. He threw instead to his “alert” route, the “Venus” receiver, and the pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown.
The play has become so famous, it’s spawned its own parody account on Twitter. But if Luck knew it so well, why did he make the wrong read at a crucial moment?
Later in the show, Gruden suggested the cause was familiarity with the Venus receiver — Luck’s roommate Griff Whalen. He showed footage of the two hitting the alert route for big gains in previous contests and suggested the quarterback might have gotten a little too greedy.
Visitors to Indianapolis Colts training camp this summer understand why. It seems as though Whalen is always open.
The former Stanford walk-on is in his second training camp with the Colts and his college QB. Whalen led the team with 12 catches and 125 yards in the preseason last year despite suffering a foot injury in the second game at Pittsburgh that ultimately landed him on injured reserve.
Healthy now, Whalen has picked up right where he left off and taken the early lead in the race to be the Colts’ No. 4 receiver to start the season. That spot once belonged to LaVon Brazill, but he will start the year with a four-game suspension after a second violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
On the football field and off, it appears, whenever Whalen sees a seam he bursts through it and finds clean air.
“Yeah, Griffer,” Luck said after a recent practice. “He’s always surprised people. I remember [him] coming in as a freshman, as a walk-on, we thought [Stanford] had the best scout team in America because sort of throw the ball up to Griff and he would go run and catch it. He’s always surprised people. He ended up earning a scholarship. He’s just a good, solid, steady guy, and he’s working his butt off. So it’s good.”
It’s not just Luck singing Whalen’s praises. And it’s not just Luck he’s catching passes from.
Whalen has been equally effective whether he’s working with backup Matt Hasselbeck, third-stringer Chandler Harnish or getting a rare rep with the first unit.
“He is just a reliable guy,” head coach Chuck Pagano said. “He studies his craft. He’s a gym rat. He’s here all the time. He’s working. He knows what to do. He doesn’t make mental mistakes. It’s going to be really hard to get rid of a guy like that. So he is going to make it hard on us to try to get rid of him. So he is doing a great job.”
Whalen joined the Colts as the NFL’s version of a walk-on — an undrafted free agent. Now he’s drawing comparisons to a young Wes Welker, Julian Edelman or Austin Collie from Pagano, and he’s turning heads on the practice field.
It’s a familiar position for the 23-year-old from Sylvania, Ohio, who has played the underdog role for most of his football life.
“Yeah, you could say that,” Whalen said. “In certain situations, especially going into college the first few years there, absolutely, and then again right now I kind of have that feeling. I don’t really have all the hype and the big name. So I feel like I have to work extra hard.”
One thing he does have is a familiarity with new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton and his scheme. Hamilton began his time at Stanford as the wide receivers coach before taking over offensive coordinator duties when then-head coach Jim Harbaugh left for the San Francisco 49ers and took Greg Roman with him.
So Whalen has a comfort and rapport with Hamilton that is rare for young professional athletes. And Hamilton has a healthy respect for the young wide receiver.
“I’ve been watching Griff play football since he was 19 years old, and he’s having a good camp so far,” Hamilton said. “He still has a ways to go, but we’re excited about Griff.”
This is another area where Whalen and his coordinator are on the same page.
As happy as he’s been with his work in camp so far, he understands there’s still a lot more to be done. At the same time, Whalen already feels like a winner this season. Just by getting back onto the field.
“For me it was just big, psychologically, that I am back where I want to be,” he said. “That whole offseason, there was a little bit of worry like, ‘Am I really going to be back? Is my foot going to be OK?’ But everything feels great. I’m happy with that.”