What a difference the full use of a limb makes.
Stanford outside linebacker Blake Lueders played well at times during his first two seasons on The Farm (2010 and 2011), but a chronically injured shoulder prevented him from maximizing his talents. Instead of using his arms to disengage from blockers and attack ball carriers, Lueders had a tendency to plow forward head-first, trying his best to make plays despite being limited physically.
"I wasn't able to use my hands every well," Lueders said. "I wasn't able to get extension. A lot of times I'd just lead with my head and hope to hit people that way, which obviously is bad for my head and just poor technique."
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Lueders was unable to pinpoint when, exactly, he first suffered the shoulder injury, but estimated it was the result of "wear and tear over the years".
"Once I got here to Stanford and started going up against 315-pound linemen it kind of got exposed," Lueders said.
Lueders had surgery to repair the injury before the 2012 season, and took a redshirt year to recover. The difference has been noticeable this spring.
"(I'm) feeling great, 100 percent," Lueders said. "My upper body has never felt this strong and stable before… the surgeries and the rehab really helped a ton."
With his health intact, Lueders is now engaged in a heated competition to win the outside linebacker spot opposite Trent Murphy that was occupied by Chase Thomas last year. Lueders' primary competition is James Vaughters, who made the move from inside to outside backer this spring.
"It's going great," Lueders said of the competition. "(James is) a great player. We've always had amazing depth at the outside linebacker position. Every day all the outside linebackers are pushing each other and making plays. It just goes back and forth."
Lueders' improved health has allowed him to become a more versatile player. While the Indiana native has always been strong against the run, Lueders displayed improvement in coverage and rushing the passer this spring.
"I think beforehand Lueders was a physical guy," Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason said. "He loved contact. Obviously he played through injuries. But now what you see he's doing great things with his pass drop and his pass rush. He's worked to improve his entire game, his complete game. He's not just a guy who can get out there and who's good versus the run. You still have to be able to drop, you still have to be able to rush the passer, along with playing the run. That's what he's shown he can do."
Lueders has embraced the challenge.
"A strength of mine has always been my ability to stop the run," Lueders said. "I think I've gotten even better at that. I'm as stout as I've ever been. The weakness that I still need to improve is my pass rush ability. That's still not completely natural to me. I guess the more experience I get the better I'll get at that."
In an interesting parallel to Vaughters, Lueders also spent time at middle linebacker earlier in his career at Stanford. In 2010, when he first arrived on campus, Lueders actually began his Cardinal career at the position, before moving outside following an injury to Trent Murphy.
"I played middle linebacker during camp and then first couple of weeks of my freshman season, then Trent Murphy got hurt so they moved me to outside linebacker behind (Tom) Keiser and I stayed there," Lueders said.
Lueders said that he feels more natural playing outside than outside.
"Yeah, definitely (it's my more natural position)," Lueders said. "I'm too big, too slow to be a middle, probably."