- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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STANFORD, Calif. -- Poor Andrew Luck. He just doesn't get it. Quarterbacks are supposed to understand that the world revolves around them. College is supposed to be about getting ready to be a player on Sunday.
You'd think he would figure this out. Luck needed only one season on the field to illustrate why he is the quarterback that Stanford hasn't had since John Elway left in 1982. As a redshirt freshman, Luck beat out a fifth-year senior to start last fall. He then led the Cardinal to the school's first winning season (8-5) in eight years and a tie for second place in the Pacific-10 Conference.
Luck led the Pac-10 in passing efficiency (143.47), throwing for 2,575 yards, 13 touchdowns and only four interceptions in 12 games (he missed the Sun Bowl with a broken finger).
The guy's got all the tools -- an NFL arm and an NFL rest-of-him (6-foot-4, 234 pounds) -- to hug it out with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in any of the next three Aprils. Luck already is rated as the first pick of the 2011 draft. You don't need Todd McShay to tell you that. Any agent worth his platinum Rolex Yacht-Master can see it.
On the other hand, rating him first after one season means the cart may have about a six-length lead on the horse. It's just as well. Luck isn't ready for the NFL. For one thing, he doesn't understand that going to class is for suckers.
Take last week. Luck had to cut short an interview because he had a class -- on Friday afternoon. This violates the first commandment of college scheduling: Thou shalt not go to class on Friday (and certainly not after lunch). Friday afternoons at Stanford are for chilling, or fountain-hopping -- wading through the various fountains around campus -- or sprawling out on some open grass.
But Luck went to class. And this wasn't any class full of teammates funneled into it by academic advisors looking for professors-cum-babysitters. Luck is planning to major in architectural design. He has textbooks that make reading Cover 3 look like Dr. Seuss. Here's the description of the class that Luck attended last Friday:
Engineering 14: Applied Mechanics: Statics
The mechanics of particles, rigid bodies, trusses, frames, and machines in static equilibrium emphasizing the use of free-body diagrams. Frictional effects and internal forces in structural members. Lab in Autumn; no lab in Spring. Prerequisite: Physics 41 or consent of instructor.
I'm guessing you couldn't exactly have held a team meeting in Physics 41, either.
The NCAA had Luck in mind when it began to shove the term "student-athlete" down the gullet of the American sports fan. Duane Voigt, the academic director in the Stanford athletic department, said the university strives to challenge the players academically as well as athletically.
"The great majority of athletes take on strong course loads," Voigt said. "He's in the upper tier."
Maybe Luck isn't to blame for that academic stuff. His father, Oliver, played quarterback at West Virginia, where he became a National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. While playing five seasons for the Houston Oilers, Oliver Luck began going to law school at Texas. He graduated -- with honors.
At Stratford High, a suburban Houston school with mean SAT scores some 15 percent above the national average, Andrew finished as valedictorian of a class of 441 graduates.
Luck came to Stanford as head coach Jim Harbaugh's most heralded recruit. After a redshirt season, he won the job over the veteran, Tavita Pritchard. It is one thing to be projected as a savior. It's quite another to have that responsibility thrust upon you as a freshman, redshirt or no.
"When you haven't played a snap in a game," Luck said, "you're never truly going to be able to get the complete respect of everybody, no matter how hard you work. You have to be in a game with someone to get that bond forged."
Luck began to forge the bond six plays into his career. In the opener at Washington State, he scrambled up the middle of the field, broke to the sideline and, rather than step out of bounds, took a defensive back head-on at the end of a 31-yard gain to the Cougar 11. That violates every rule in the quarterback handbook. After Harbaugh all but needed paramedics to put the paddles to his heart, he called Luck over on his way back to the huddle.
"Don't do that,'" Harbaugh said.
"Coach," Luck said, wearing a face-mask-sized grin, "I just wanted to take my first hit."
"OK, Andrew," Harbaugh said, straining to pretend to be calm. "Don't do that.'"
Harbaugh knows something about the care and feeding of a quarterback's ego. Harbaugh played 15 seasons in the NFL. His outsized personality can suck up enough oxygen to cause the masks to drop on a Boeing 767. Harbaugh recalled Luck coming to the Stanford summer camp before his senior season.
"Obviously, he was a guy we were recruiting," Harbaugh said. "I kept calling him up and saying, 'Andrew, you start us off on this drill.' After the third time or so, he said, 'Coach, we have a rotation to where everyone gets a turn. We'll go by the rotation.'
"That was shocking," Harbaugh said. "That was really impressive that he had that sense of those around him. It's a leadership quality. He's got that natural humility. Everybody's got their antennae up. They're watching you. The one thing you're trying to figure out is what's in another man's heart? Is he about himself? Or is he about the team? He builds everybody else up. He makes everybody around him huge.
"The opposite of that," Harbaugh said, "is the guy who tears everybody else down and builds himself up."
There is an argument that Luck thrived last season because the presence of tailback Toby Gerhart prevented defenses from stopping Luck. It's called keeping defenses honest. Now that Gerhart has taken his Doak Walker Award to the Minnesota Vikings, the argument goes, defensive coordinators will devote their 16-hour days to frustrating Luck.
Buried in the logic of those assertions, however, is the simple fact that defenses couldn't load up on Gerhart, either. He rushed for 1,871 yards and 28 touchdowns because of the presence -- and the threat -- of Luck. In the 51-42 upset of No. 8 Oregon, Gerhart rushed for 223 yards and three scores, while Luck completed 12-of-20 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns.
During Rose Bowl week, Ducks coach Chip Kelly looked back at that game and said, "Gerhart didn't beat us. Luck did."
On the day of the first round of the NFL draft, I texted Kelly that I would be interviewing Luck the following day. Kelly's reply: "Tell him to go pro. The draft's tonite."
Luck said Gerhart allowed him to overcome the freshman jitters.
"Toby was like a security blanket for me last year," he said. "If something was going wrong, you'd think, 'Toby's here, it's OK. Sometimes I'd get around after a play fake or drop back and have no clue what was going on in the secondary or what the linebackers were doing. I would just hope that I could make a play, find an open spot."
It's nothing that hours of watching video won't fix, which Luck has been doing.
"But also, in practice, it's processing info quickly," Luck said. "That comes from seeing it all the time. Coach [Vic] Fangio [the new defensive coordinator] has used some different looks, so it's nice to see some exotic things I haven't seen before and try to process that. It's been fun. It's like a little game within the game.
"By no means have I mastered it," Luck said, laughing. "At all. I should add that."
You see as many NFL quarterbacks with that kind of humility as you see NFL quarterbacks driving Honda Accords. Luck may be a leader. He may build up everyone around him. But Luck doesn't fit the NFL image. When will he ever learn?
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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