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Cover Story
Luck has the look to lead Stanford to Rose Bowl
By Michael Murphy
Photos by John Lloyd

“You look at Andrew Luck and you wonder what makes a youngster that good. You know it has some to do with Mom, Dad, God, because he has such talent. He has tremendous arm strength. He is as accurate as any quarterback I’ve seen. He is athletic and can run with the football. In his first year last season he passed for over 2,500 yards and he rushed for 350-plus yards. He is a brilliant kid, not just book smart, but also with football. We are very glad he is on our team.”

Known for an abundance of exuberance, Stanford football coach Jim Harbaugh might be excused for his enthusiasm if his analysis wasn’t spot on. But Andrew Luck is that good, and the head coach isn’t the only one saying so.

From Bristol, Conn., home of ESPN headquarters, to the Pac-10 Conference defensive situation rooms, the aura of Andrew Luck is spreading. In fact, the only football person on the planet who might think less of Luck than Harbaugh is … Luck himself.

“One part of all the attention is great,” said Luck. “The Stanford name is getting out there a little more.

Whenever anyone brings up my name they bring up Stanford, too, and I hope that helps the program.
“But I try not to pay attention to all of the hype. I understand that I’ve done squat on the football field, so I have to take care of that. Then, when and if I get a big head, the teammates will keep me well-grounded. They won’t let me get away with too much.”

Growing up with a dad who was an NFL quarterback no doubt helped create Luck’s football DNA, but understanding the game in and around football seems to have given the sophomore a level of maturity not common in the average college student.

“My dad always told me that if you are going to feel pressure, make sure the pressure is from inside you,” said Luck.

One of Harbaugh’s favorite mantras for his team and star quarterback is: “We have high expectations.” This season, more than ever in the coach’s four years at Stanford, there is a sense around the country that bravado might be warranted.

The Cardinal returns 18 starters (eight on offense, seven on defense, and three specialists) from a team that finished tied for second last year in the Pac-10 with a 6-3 record (8-5 overall), earning the program’s first trip to a bowl game since 2001.

Included in Stanford’s win total last season were three victories over Top 25 teams, including No. 7 Oregon and No. 11 USC in back-to-back weeks. Both teams were giving up an average of only 18 points or less entering the games, but Stanford poured 50–point assaults down each team’s throat: 51 against the Ducks in Palo Alto and 55 on the Trojans in L.A. – at homecoming, no less.

  The 55-21 loss was the Trojans’ worst since a 51-0 defeat at home against Notre Dame in 1966. Coach Pete Carroll lost in November for the first time at USC after 28 straight victories.

  “I’m not sure I have the right words to describe being humbled like this,” Carroll disclosed afterward. “I don’t really know where to put it. You have to give Stanford a lot of credit.”

Four of the five Stanford losses last season were by seven points or fewer.

On offense, four of the five starting offensive linemen return from a unit that gave up only seven sacks, second-best in the country. The highly regarded receiving tandem of senior Ryan Whalen and junior Chris Owusu will play a major role in deciding whether Stanford can improve on the school record for points scored in a season (461).

The defense, under new coordinator Vic Fangio, an NFL assistant the past 24 years, promises to bring more pressure and athleticism than Stanford’s usually sieve-like unit is known for.
Stanford’s All-American running back and Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart has taken his gifts to the Minnesota Vikings and left big shoes to fill but, says Luck, “The offense is not going to change a lot. We have a lot of great players back and we will do a lot of the same things we did last year.”
Of course, Harbaugh believes finding a running back replacement is not only doable but expected, and Luck is adamant it won’t be an issue.

“Toby’s output has to be replicated whether it’s one back, two backs, three backs. We need that production,” the coach asserted.

Added Luck, “I think I got over the strangeness part of Toby not being here in spring ball. Toby was great, but I don’t think we can dwell on him forever. I mean, I love the guy to death but we’ve got to move forward from him.”

Luck paused for a moment.

“Maintain last season?” Luck asked rhetorically. “I think we would like to not maintain it but exceed it. No wide receivers graduated, O-line is looking great, backs are young, healthy and running hard. As an offense we will strive to be better than we were last year. We don’t want to maintain or sustain the status quo.”

Luck developed his football acumen and confidence playing ball at 5A level Stratford High in Houston, where he passed for 7,139 yards and 53 touchdowns in three seasons.

“In high school I learned not to beat myself up when something went wrong,” he said. “I had great high school coaches who helped me with confidence, poise and just understanding the next play is the most important play.”

Luck also added over 2,000 rushing yards in high school and was the Cardinal’s second-leading rusher last season.

“Coach Harbaugh really stresses in this offense that the quarterback is going to have to be able to pick up a first down at some point in the game with his legs. Be that a designed run or a pass that sort of breaks down, I don’t know,” Luck said.

Harbaugh seems convinced his quarterback will be doing more running.

“A QB that can use his legs to make yards and pick up first downs is a tremendous asset for your football team,” he professed. “It comes with instincts and willingness. Andrew has shown he has the instincts and courage and the field awareness to pull the ball down and run.”

In Harbaugh, Luck has met the perfect match, as if his older brother were coaching the team. Both have a sly, somewhat ironic view of the world and laugh unexpectedly at themselves. But most important, they share a passion for being a football player.

“Every game is important in college football. It’s like a playoff race from Week 1,” Harbaugh contended. “When was the last time you were huddled beneath a stadium that fits 50,000 people with a group of 105 guys, heart pounding, eyes bulging, sweat running down your neck? It’s a feeling like no other to go out on that football field and perform.”

Luck not only gets the talk but also knows the walk of his coach, aka Captain Comeback, from the outstanding leadership he displayed rallying his NFL teams to victory from seemingly insurmountable fourth-quarter deficits.

Luck was too young to see Harbaugh on the field but said, “I’ve been hearing about him play from other guys and watching his clips. He was tough. He never gave up on a game. At some point he had the nickname, and I think his personality shows in a lot of the guys on the team, too.”

This summer Luck participated in the highly regarded Manning Passing Academy and came away impressed with the NFL stars.

“It was a great experience,” he reported. “There were a lot of college players there and we got a chance to talk – not just about football but everything. I made acquaintances and friends with a lot of guys from around the country that you watch on Saturday and Sunday afternoon. The Mannings are great players, obviously, but they are also great teachers of what they know. They really helped me out, so it was awesome.”

According to University of Washington head coach Steve Sarkasian, “Historically in this conference, the teams that have won Pac-10 championships or have been in that race at the end have had veteran leadership at the quarterback position.”

Stanford’s successful history mirrors that statement. The lineage of great players at that position started with Frankie Albert and continued with John Brodie, Jim Plunkett and John Elway.
Will the 6’4” Luck be the next great quarterback to stand in that line?

When asked how he would rate Luck now against himself as a senior at Michigan, where he was first-team All-American and Big Ten Conference Player of the Year, Harbaugh said, “I hate making comparisons, but that is an easy one. He is much better, no question. Stronger. Stronger arm. Stronger stature. He’s 230. I was 195. He’s just better. Smarter.”

Harbaugh has the best quarterback he’s ever coached, and with USC banned and unpleasant tidings cascading from Eugene, the Cardinal has emerged as a prohibitive favorite to win the Pac-10 this season.

“Andrew has no red flags, no deficiencies,” Harbaugh gushed. “He’s strong. He’s really smart. He’s physically mature. Mentally mature. Athletic. Instincts. He’s got great accuracy.

“You try to improve everything in terms of strength, speed in terms of understanding defenses, but I said it last year and I’ll say it again: I think he’s the best in the country.”

Given he had the opportunity to walk away from Stanford after being courted by NFL and BCS-type teams, Harbaugh laughed when asked if this was his last year with the team. “This is my three-year-old baby and I want to see it mature and develop,” he assured.

With Andrew Luck as his quarterback, Stanford’s growth just might bring the pain to the Pac-10.


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