Originally published April 2008 (vol. 6, no. 5) in The Bootleg Magazine. "Luck O' The Cardinal" by Matt Squeri
On the morning of February 6, 2008, the Stanford Football office played its part in the annual rite of pressure known as National Signing Day, the first day the nation's elite football recruits can sign Letters of Intent binding them to the colleges of their choice. Prepared for a crush of 18 faxes that would add 17 high school seniors and one transfer to the Stanford Football team, the coaches received their first new addition at 4:01 a.m. local time as recruits from the Eastern Time Zone got the day started. By 9:40 a.m., all 18 expected faxes had arrived and Stanford had wrapped up a class that adds balance across position units and speed on both sides of the ball. While each recruit offers something appealing to the Stanford coaches, perhaps no fax brought as much satisfaction as the sixth one that arrived. At 5:50 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, Stanford Football became officially linked with Andrew Luck.
A 6'3", 215-pound quarterback from Stratford High School in Houston, Luck headlines Stanford's 2008 recruiting haul and represents the embodiment of the scholar-athlete Stanford Head Coach Jim Harbaugh habitually praises. Ranked at the top of his 500-person high school class, Luck has maintained a level of focus in the classroom that has produced a sparkling 6.5 grade point average on a 6.5 scale. His 1960 three-part SAT score ranks among the highest in Stanford's incoming class of football players. These accomplishments have earned him numerous academic and civic honors, including valedictorian recognition at his high school and an award as the Touchdown Club of Houston's Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
But it is Luck's accomplishments on the football field that make him a marquee name in national recruiting circles and the signature recruit of Stanford's most recent class, the first that Jim Harbaugh has shepherded from start to finish. As the star quarterback for Stratford, Luck became a yearly fixture of the Texas prep scene with three standout seasons that saw him pass and run for over 9,000 yards of total offense. Through the air, he racked up 53 career passing touchdowns and completed over 59% of his passes. He earned recognition in both his junior and senior seasons as the District 19-5A Offensive MVP. Before his senior season, he was selected as one of the Elite 11 quarterbacks in the nation, a designation that earned him a spot at the famed Elite 11 camp held in June in Southern California. After the season, the lofty recognitions continued to pour in as he was honored as a U.S. Army All-American, making him the lone player in Stanford's recruiting class to play in the showcase event in San Antonio that serves as the most prestigious high school football all-star game in America.
These exploits on the football field made Luck one of the most highly-rated quarterbacks in the 2008 recruiting class. In the recruiting world, the cognoscenti reached a clear consensus: Luck rates as either a 5-star prospect or among the top 20 of the 250 or so four-star prospects. Every major recruiting service agreed that the future Stanford signal caller ranked among the elite quarterbacks in the nation and among the top ten prospects in all of talent-rich Texas.
Scout.com National Recruiting Editor Allen Wallace provides a glowing scouting report of Luck that suggests why he received his five-star rating from Scout.com.
"Andrew Luck throws with excellent accuracy running to either side," Wallace notes. "He's got a nice, fast release and gets the ball off with good touch and accuracy. He shows early ability to hit receivers in full stride. When necessary, he's more than an adequate runner who also has good mobility and escapability when in the pocket. Lastly, Luck manages a game intelligently and is a tough leader who commands the respect of his teammates on the field."
Many of the nation's top programs validated these judgments by extending scholarship offers to Luck. By the end of his junior year of high school, he had received offers from all over the country including at least three of the top eight teams in the final Bowl Championship Series rankings for the 2007 season (LSU, Missouri, and Kansas) as well as three of the top eight teams in Scout.com's ranking of top 2008 recruiting classes (recruiting champion Alabama, LSU, and Florida State).
Despite this wealth of options involving traditional football powers, Luck ultimately narrowed his list to choices that he believed offered him a better fit academically. In June, he announced Stanford, Northwestern, Rice, and Purdue as his top choices, making those four schools the finalists in his recruitment. By the end of the month, Luck had come to a decision. On June 30, he announced that he would commit to Stanford over Northwestern and end his recruitment.
While the decision surprised some followers of the more traditionally dominant programs that had offered Luck, it was a choice rooted in Luck's balanced approach to academics and athletics and was in keeping with his long-term focus toward life.
"Well, I know there's life after football," the acclaimed recruit explains. "College is a great stepping stone into the professional world in whatever you go in. I wanted to go to a school with a good football program and also a good academic [side]. From the academic standpoint, I wanted a challenging school that has great degrees and will motivate me to learn and grow."
Luck believes he has found that school in Stanford. Interested in studying either civil engineering or history in college, he says Stanford's superior academic reputation attracted him more than the various pitches made by the many other schools that recruited him.
"It's awesome," he exclaims in discussing Stanford. "A degree from Stanford gets you so many places. It's a great school with a lot of reputation and a lot of tradition. That part excited me about it."
As excited as Luck is to come to Stanford, the most excited person in the wake of Luck's June commitment and subsequent signing with Stanford must have been Harbaugh. After beginning his Signing Day press conference with an extended discussion of the high character scholar-athletes in the freshly-inked recruiting class, the first question Harbaugh fielded was to comment on Luck. Harbaugh relished the first public opportunity to praise his future quarterback.
"I would love to talk to you about Andrew Luck," the head coach began before speaking at length about the recruit's academic credentials ("a starter in the classroom"), football attributes, leadership ability, and even basketball skills. Perhaps most poignant in Harbaugh's affirmation of Luck's importance in the recruiting class was a vignette he shared regarding a visit the late, great former Stanford and San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh made to the football office just months before his death.
"It was about March of last year that Bill Walsh came into the office and we happened to be looking at the quarterbacks that we were recruiting," Harbaugh shares. "I just turned to him and asked him, 'What's the number one thing you look for in a quarterback, Coach, when you're studying and evaluating quarterback talent?' He said, 'instincts, number one.'"
It is Andrew Luck's instincts that Harbaugh highlights most frequently. In the coach's mind, Luck possesses superior instincts demonstrated not only by his performance on the football field, but also by the way he carries himself on the basketball court. This judgment appears to have been solidified at a Stanford Football summer camp that Luck attended only two weeks before committing. During that camp, the players participated in a game dubbed "Cardinal Ball" that Harbaugh describes as an "almost Ultimate Frisbee type of game with a football."
"Andrew really excelled that day," Harbaugh praised on Signing Day. "You could just see the instincts, the field presence, the awareness he had of everybody on the field, and his also his demeanor, his leadership qualities."
A week after Signing Day, his enthusiasm had hardly dissipated. Continuing to emphasize Luck's instincts, Harbaugh rattled off a laundry list of positive characteristics that he sees in his future quarterback.
"He's got all the attributes you look for in a quarterback," Harbaugh says, specifically extolling Luck's leadership ability, work ethic, "quick-mindedness," accuracy, stature in the pocket, and arm strength. In addition to the instincts that Harbaugh discusses most frequently, he describes Luck as "off-the-chart" in terms of his leadership, quickness of mind, and ability to process information.
For his part, the praiseworthy recruit declines to offer any thoughts on his principal strengths, saying, "I don't know if I'm qualified to answer that question." Typically modest and self-effacing, Luck is even cautious to boast about his success in the classroom.
"I just try my hardest and hopefully get good grades," he says. "From my experiences, I've learned that teachers are willing to help people who want to learn. And my parents have helped me and I've got good friends that motivate me. It's not just me, there are a lot of other people [involved]."
In contrast to his modesty regarding his abilities on the gridiron and in the classroom, Luck remains much more comfortable discussing areas for improvement rather than areas in which he shines.
"Overall, I'd like to work on everything," he insists before singling out "footwork and becoming more of a student of the game" as areas of improvement on the football field.
For Harbaugh, the synergy between Luck's ability to process information and his desire to become even more of a student of the game makes the prospect of working with Luck all the more alluring in the coach's eyes. Luck shares the anticipation of his future position coach and head coach.
"I'm excited," he offers. "I know there's a wealth of knowledge in his mind about football, and hopefully, I can tap into that and learn as much as I can for the next four or five years."
When he does get to The Farm, Luck will be no stranger to learning from a former NFL quarterback. While his future college coach first became famous as the quarterback for the University of Michigan and then as a quarterback for four NFL teams, Luck's own father is also a former NFL quarterback.
Oliver Luck started at quarterback for three years at West Virginia, earning Academic All-American recognition twice, becoming a finalist to be a Rhodes Scholar, and racking up so many passing yards that to this day, he ranks second on the Mountaineers' career list behind current NFL star Marc Bulger. He played five seasons in the NFL for the Houston Oilers. For three of those seasons, he backed up Warren Moon, the only person ever inducted into both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. After retiring from the NFL, he obtained a law degree from the University of Texas and served over 10 years as an executive in the NFL, holding jobs such as Vice President of Business Development and President and CEO of NFL Europe. He currently holds the position of President and General Manager of the Houston Dynamo, a Major League Soccer team.
Having grown up with Oliver Luck as his father, then, Andrew Luck maintains the perspective of having already being mentored by somebody who played the quarterback position at the highest levels of professional football. Indeed, he clearly cherishes his bond with his father.
"My dad has been great," the younger Luck professes. "He's never pushed me to do anything I didn't want to do. He understands that I have to live my life and he has his own life. I'm grateful for that. But he's also helped me when I needed help and pushed me in the right direction."
When Andrew Luck does arrive at Stanford, he will have a new NFL quarterback to learn from. Notably, coach and quarterback will not be starting from scratch in forging a relationship that could prove to be among the most important for Stanford Football in years to come. The two have already started to develop a bond through their interactions on the recruiting trail.
"I've gotten to talk to him and went to camps and had the home visits," Luck says. "It's been a very nice experience with Coach Harbaugh."
The experience has included not only conversations throughout the past year, time spent together during home visits, and time spent during Luck's September official visit, but also actual time together on the football practice field in the June camp setting. That experience gave Luck a taste of the relationship he would have with Harbaugh as an instructor and mentor and proved valuable in helping Luck make his decision back in June.
"It was awesome," he says of the instruction time with Harbaugh at camp. "He's very energetic and he knows how to teach well."
By all indications, the coach enjoyed the experience as much as the pupil did. The camp also gave Harbaugh a glimpse of the personality of his new charge. In particular, the Stanford coach was impressed by the unassuming and selfless demeanor of a recruit who by all rights should view himself as special.
"All the attention usually centers around him," Harbaugh observed on Signing Day. "[But] that's not the kind of guy, the kind of teammate that he is, the kind of leader that he is."
At least one seasoned observer of Andrew Luck believes that Luck grew to become even more of a well-rounded leader during his senior season of football. Alan Zepeda, the Texas Recruiting Analyst for Scout.com, proclaimed before the season that he viewed Luck as the top quarterback prospect in Texas for 2008 and at or near the top of the list of quarterbacks in Texas in the last decade, a group that has included Vince Young, Reggie McNeal, and Matthew Stafford. Nonetheless, Zepeda felt that Luck had some room for improvement.
"What Andrew needed to work on going into his senior season was not trying to do everything by himself," Zepeda opines. "He had to get his teammates more involved, especially since he lost all his top receivers. Watching him during the season he did a great job of doing that. He got his teammates involved. [Ben] Bredthauer ended up being his top target and he had some other pretty nice receivers. When you have a quarterback who will throw the ball right in your hands, it will make receivers look pretty good."
In this way, Zepeda believes that an already team-oriented Luck grew into even more of a team player as a senior. In part, he did so in Zepeda's mind by being more judicious about his proclivity to scramble out of the pocket.
"He didn't take off running as much as he did his junior and sophomore years," Zepeda notes. "He stayed back in the pocket and worked his teammates in. It's a good thing when a quarterback is selfless. He has this drive to win and did a good job of working on his shortcomings, which really weren't much."
One of the few other shortcomings that Zepeda did identify before the season was the lack of data points regarding Luck's ability to excel with long passes. With Stratford's spread offense, Luck's body of work did not include as much evidence regarding his ability on deeper routes, but one moment from July 2007 sticks out in Zepeda's mind in alleviating this concern.
"As far as the deep game, he didn't have the receivers to throw deep but in the 7-on-7 state championship game you could tell he just got mad and chucked a ball 50 yards in the air and nailed his receiver mid-stride. It was a perfect pass and it was one of those where all the high school coaches in the stands were in awe about that one pass dealing with any questions about whether he could throw the deep ball."
"He had the intangibles going in," the Texas expert continues, "and there should be zero questions after his senior season about what kind of quarterback he is, especially after the Army All-American Bowl. He had some great days in practice and really just everyone who watched him loved him."
Zepeda's reference is to Luck's much-publicized week in San Antonio, when Luck won the passing skills contest among the nation's best quarterbacks. During the game that capped off the week, he threw a 38-yard touchdown pass that connected with future Notre Dame wide receiver Michael Floyd in the end zone, a moment that perhaps further served to demonstrate Luck's ability to make deep throws that were rarely part of his repertoire at the high school level.
While Luck's senior season ended with notable team and individual success, some skeptics have noted the decline in statistical production between Luck's junior year, when he threw for 2,926 yards and 27 touchdowns with only six interceptions, and his senior year, which ended with 2,684 passing yards and 19 touchdowns with nine interceptions.
"There were different players, different personnel," Luck explains. "It's funny that while I might have had better statistics junior year, our team went deeper in the playoffs my senior year. Statistics are great but what truly matters are wins. But, you know, they were both great seasons. I got to play with great players and I guess that's just part of high school football. Players graduate, new players come in, offenses change based on the personnel."
As Luck notes, even in a year in which his personal statistics dipped from otherworldly to merely terrific, his team achieved greater ultimate success by advancing deeper into the playoffs. Although Stratford won their district in each of Luck's last two years, they advanced further in his senior year by winning two playoff games before falling in the Class 5A (the highest classification in Texas) Division II Region III semifinals.
"It was awesome," Luck says of going deep into the playoffs in his final season of high school football. "It was a blast. Every day was special, every practice, every game. Unfortunately, we lost in the third round to Clements High School. But it was a blast."
Given Andrew Luck's much-touted physical skills, intangible attributes, and leadership ability, Stanford fans undoubtedly wonder when they might first see him step on the field for the Cardinal. According to Harbaugh, it might be sooner than some imagine.
"He's going to take two classes in the summer session," Harbaugh begins in laying out the immediate plans for Luck. "This will allow him not only to get a head start on his academics but also a head start on his football. He'll be working out with the team. The plan for Andrew will simply be for him to compete for playing time. It would be hard for him, probably, to earn the starting job in August, but if he can get to a backup position, if he can be the #2 guy by the end of training camp then we would play him as a freshman. If not, we would look to redshirt Andrew."
Stanford fans will certainly be eagerly awaiting the day Andrew Luck steps on campus. If his profile coming out of high school is any indication, he will be one to watch at Stanford.
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