Commentary

Luck be a Cardinal this season

Originally Published: August 25, 2009
By Ted Miller | ESPN.com

Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh might be the best coach in America when it comes to colorful slogans, and redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck is juggling two of them as he prepares to make his first start at Washington State on Sept. 5.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezAndrew Luck takes over at QB despite no in-game experience under center in college.

Luck, of course, wants to take on "this endeavor with enthusiasm unknown to mankind." But he also doesn't want to get "emotionally hijacked."

Luck needs to fall somewhere in between, which in large part mirrors the advice his father, former West Virginia and NFL quarterback Oliver Luck, gave him as he became an elite quarterback recruit out of Houston.

"He sort of stayed out of coaching while I was growing up," Luck said of his father. "He let the coaches coach and was just my dad. The one lasting impression he made was just keep a level head. There's no reason to get emotionally hijacked, as Coach Harbaugh says, and lose control of what's going on."

Pardon Stanford fans, typically a mellow lot, for getting emotionally hijacked by Luck's upside, which was best on display when he completed 18 of 25 passes for 352 yards and five touchdowns in the spring game, a performance that pushed him ahead of senior and 19-game starter Tavita Pritchard.

Luck, No. 61 on the ESPNU 150 in 2008, is a 6-foot-4, 235-pound piece of the puzzle that could get Stanford to a bowl game.

At least.

"This team has a chance not only to win more games than we did last year, but if we get enough breaks, enough times when the ball goes in our direction, we'll compete for the Pac-10 championship," Harbaugh said.

Wow. Harbaugh obviously expects to get Lucky and good.

That's not just bluster, though. The Cardinal went 5-7 last year and lost three games by seven points or less. Despite the much-touted "revenge angle" when USC came to town -- recall the 41-point underdog that stunned the college football nation in 2007 -- Stanford played a surprisingly competitive game with the Trojans before being overwhelmed in the second half.

One culprit for the losing record was poor pass defense. Harbaugh expects a more athletic secondary to trim a 63 percent completion percentage from opposing quarterbacks.

But a bigger issue was the terrible passing offense that couldn't complement a strong, physical running game led by 237-pound tailback Toby Gerhart.

Stanford only averaged 152 yards passing in 2008 and tossed 15 interceptions versus just 11 touchdown passes.

Into that glaring weakness stepped Luck.

Terms and phrases Harbaugh used to describe his quarterback during a 10-minute chat: poised, loose but focused, humble, confident, smart, adept at reading defenses and a guy who learns from mistakes.

"He's got a lot of things going for him -- a lot of physical talent," Harbaugh said. "My wife says he throws lasers. And they are right on target."

The physical skill is obvious, but so are the smarts. Luck was his class valedictorian and plans to major in architectural design. He could have played for a lot of big-time programs, but he was eyeballing Stanford even before the school was on to him.

Jim Harbaugh
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezJim Harbaugh thinks Luck has all the tools to succeed this season.

"Stanford was the school I wanted to go to all along," he said. "I talked to a lot of people during the recruiting process, and a tip that seemed to recur was, 'Imagine yourself at a school where you can't play football anymore and go to that school.' Stanford is definitely the place for that. If you get injured, a Stanford degree is worth its weight in gold."

Actually, gold should be so valuable. An undergraduate year of tuition and room and board at Stanford with no financial aid costs nearly $49,000.

Obviously, there's a lot of pressure on Luck. For one, he's clearly uncomfortable talking about beating out Pritchard, whom he praises effusively. Expectations are stratospheric for a guy who has yet to throw a pass in a college game. And his first two starts will be on the road, with the Cardinal going coast-to-coast for a Sept. 12 date at Wake Forest, which should be revealing about the Cardinal's chances to make some noise in the Pac-10.

It won't, however, just be about Luck on offense. The line is replacing two starters and has a couple of injury questions, most notably Chris Marinelli. And Luck needs help from his receivers.

That's another area of substantial upgrade. For various reasons, Stanford played much of last year with only three receivers. This year, they started camp with 12, and Ryan Whalen and Chris Owusu should be able to stress secondaries far more than past Cardinal receivers.

"More weapons, more athletes," is how Harbaugh put it.

If Luck makes it all work, and leads Stanford back into Pac-10 contention, it's not hard to imagine he'll emotionally hijack fans who haven't witnessed a bowl game since 2001.

Ted Miller is a college football writer for ESPN.com. He covers the Pac-10 for ESPN.com's blog network. Send your questions and comments to him at tedmillerespn@gmail.com.

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