When the football zips out of Stone Labanowitz’s right hand to a wide receiver, it is often on time, accurate and arrives in a speedy fashion.
“That’s who he is,” Southern Illinois head coach Nick Hill said of his junior quarterback. “Going back to high school, he was the same way. He’s completed a bajillion balls in his career.”
In the unique spring FCS season, which Labanowitz started as the team’s No. 3 quarterback, he has completed 78% of his passes – the highest single-season percentage in school history – while leading the Salukis into today’s first-round playoff game at Weber State (3 p.m., ESPN3).
Just as he’s accurate and plentiful as a passer, he’s on another level as a talker.
“Stone’s personality is one of one,” SIU senior wide receiver Lance Lenoir said. “I’ve never seen someone so confident.”
“He’s easy to talk to,” Hill said. “He’s opinionated about a lot, so it doesn’t matter what the conversation is, he’s going to have an opinion about it. That goes a long way. He’s got a good feel for the locker room and his teammates. He always has a smile on his face and gets along with everybody.”
And when Labanowitz’s time at SIU comes to an end, Hill expects their relationship to be long lasting.
“Stone’s a guy you want to hang out with,” Hill said. “I hope he lives back in South Florida, and in five or six years when I’m down there recruiting, I’m going to stay with Stone.”
From No. 3 to No. 1
As a sophomore in 2019, Labanowitz started SIU’s first three games. When an injury cut his season short, Kare’ Lyles took over as the starter and never yielded.
This spring, Labanowitz began the season as the No. 3 QB on the depth chart, behind Lyles and Nic Baker, who is Labanowitz’s roommate.
“It was super difficult, I’m not going to lie,” Labanowitz said. “When it was going bad for me, it was easy to talk down on people. But I’ve not wanted to do that in a long time.”
A silver lining during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the time he has spent with Lyles, in particular, and the rest of his teammates.
“At one point, it struck us all,” Labanowitz said. “It had to have been the pandemic, seeing guys go through things. It was life hitting us. This wasn’t about us at this point in time. It’s about trying to put Ws in the win column. How are we going to do that?”
For Labanowitz, the answer was simple – make sure his relationships with others were as crisp as his passes.
“it’s about having good relationships and being honest with guys and having their genuine support,” he said. “That’s been the coolest thing. My relationship with Kare’ has really grown. It’s been cool to tell my parents about that.”
Labanowitz became the starter midseason after Lyles suffered broken ribs in the season opener at North Dakota and Baker sustained a season-ending left foot injury against Northern Iowa.
During his recent run as the starter, Labanowitz has acknowledged the value of input from fellow quarterbacks on the roster. He credits Lyles with giving advice and helping him prepare as best as possible for each game.
“(Kare’) is someone who takes preparation very seriously,” Labanowitz said. “Me and Kare’ watch a lot of film together. He sees a lot of things on film that I don’t.”
From film room to game day
When Labanowitz comes off the field, Lyles is often the first teammate to meet him and discuss plays.
“He’s constantly in my ear out there on Saturdays, just being a good teammate,” Labanowitz said. “It’s helped so much. He sees the game different than I do.”
Last Saturday in a 55-48 win against Southeastern Louisiana that SIU had to win to make the playoffs, Lyles was there again with critical advice.
“He asked me if I saw a certain way a corner was playing something,” Labanowitz said. “He told me to attack when he does it.”
On the second play of the third quarter, Labanowitz connected with Lenoir for a 28-yard gain on a comeback route that led to a touchdown.
“I went that way because I saw what the corner was doing,” Labanowitz said. “I came off the field after we scored and looked at Kare’ and I was smiling. I told him that I saw what he saw. It gives me an extra set of eyes.”
Talking up teammates
Along with sharing his opinions, Labanowitz is the first to admit he shares credit and critiques on the field as easily as he completes passes.
“I’m an upbeat guy,” he said. “I joke, and at times too much. But I feel that’s how I work. I don’t take too much seriously, at all. I think guys can see that and get a sense of calmness from me.”
On game days, when teammates are battling nerves, Labanowitz leans on his chatty sense of humor.
“Guys look so wound up, so nervous in the moment,” he said. “I feel like I have a good read on the guys we have out there and who needs to be spoken to at certain times. I’m that guy. I’m the therapist out there on the field for the guys who I think need it.”
While his relationships with teammates have strengthened over time, Labanowitz said his bond with his head coach was solid when he stepped on campus.
“Our relationship is awesome,” he said of Hill. “It’s different. There’s a certain free flow of dialogue between us over the years that not a lot of people have. There’s a sense of trust and openness. He’s said that I say things to him that he wouldn’t hear from anybody else. I do it because I trust him.”
And of course, that includes some jokes.
“He tends to rag on me, and I rag on him,” Labanowitz said. “He’s into running lately and he’s lifting less weights than he used to, so I call him out. I’ll tell him that he’s losing muscle. He’ll always come at me for what I’m wearing. It’s super-fun, light-hearted stuff.”
When he takes the field against Weber State as the starter in SIU’s first playoff game since 2009, the moment won’t be lost on Labanowitz.
“This opportunity is huge for me personally,” he said. “We feel like we’re in attack mode. I think we’re ready for the moment.”
And in five or six years when Labanowitz gets the call from Hill, will he answer?
“A hundred percent,” he said with a laugh. “I’m going to hold him to that.”