For the last year, one of the recurring questions in the NFL wasn't whether Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck was going to be the first overall pick in April's draft, it was who was going to have the worst record and be in line to take him?
As it turned out, the Indianapolis Colts were without Peyton Manning and answered that question pretty early on, as the Colts didn't win their first game of the 2011 season until only three weeks remained in the year, effectively setting up Luck to be Manning's replacement after he was released in the spring – ending one of the most prolific marriages between a player and a fan base in NFL history.
As the Vikings prepare to face Luck in his home opener at Lucas Oil Stadium, they consider themselves somewhat fortunate that they're catching him in just his second NFL game. Anointed by just about every draft scout as being the most gifted quarterback to come out of the college game since John Elway 30 years earlier, few quarterbacks have had as huge a "can't-miss" tag placed on them as Luck.
The Vikings defense knows that young quarterbacks can get rattled, especially early on in their careers, but they're sticking with their time-honored philosophy of stuffing the run game, making the opposing offense one-dimensional and then pinning their ears back and creating havoc. The fact it's only Luck's second career start makes that defensive hallmark even more pronounced.
"It's always good to get to him early," defensive end Brian Robison said. "That's what we always plan on – we've got to stop the run and then be able to get after him early and often. If we can do that with a young quarterback, it normally frustrates them. But he's got a good head on his shoulders, so we're just going to have to keep coming after him and pounding away."
Luck's debut was a mixed bag at best. He was pressured constantly by the Chicago Bears defense and, while he threw for 309 yards, he completed just 51 percent of his passes (23 of 45), was sacked three times and, most importantly, threw three interceptions.
By his own admission, it wasn't the debut he was looking for, but it was the first step in what many believe will be a maturation process that will have him going to Hawaii for Pro Bowls on a consistent basis and eventually leading the Colts back to the Super Bowl. Following a Hall of Famer like Manning can be daunting and he still has a lot to learn, but Luck said he wasn't overwhelmed at all by playing on the NFL stage and that he's learning as he goes.
"I knew there were going to be some things that I wasn't prepared for and there were little things," Luck said. "I definitely got over the fact that it was my first NFL game and all that stuff. It felt just like another football game after the first series."
While his mistakes were glaring – three picks in a game rarely leads to a victory – the Vikings have been impressed with what they've seen of Luck on film and expect that he will get better as the season goes along, which may be a bonus for the Vikings getting him early on in the process.
"He looked pretty good," cornerback Chris Cook said. "I know he had a rough game last week against the Bears, but week to week is different. They're going to take a step up just as we're going to take a step up. I'm looking forward to playing him. He'll progress as the season goes on. He's still a rookie, but he's going to be a good quarterback regardless of being a rookie. Everyone has a growth period in the whole process when they come into the NFL. I expect him to grow fast and pick up the game fast."
Of all the Vikings defenders, the one who is the most familiar with Luck and what he is capable of is rookie safety Harrison Smith. While both Luck and Smith have played just one NFL game, they played against each other every year in college. Notre Dame has an agreement with Stanford – which may end now that Notre Dame has agreed to move to the ACC and the football team has promised five games a year against ACC opponents – so Smith has seen more than his share of Luck in college. He came away from the experience impressed with what he saw.
"I played against him three times in college," Smith said. "He's obviously a good player. He's very accurate and he's a smart player. He's also athletic and can run a little bit. He's one of those guys that you have to defense against everything because he does a lot of things well. From my experience, he's a very good player. I have a lot of respect for him."
There is little doubt that Luck is going to add his name to the list of the premier quarterbacks in the league. Fortunately for the Vikings, after Sunday it will be four years until they see him again. By then he will be a polished product who will be entering the height of his career. But, for now, he's an unpolished rookie who can get rattled and make mistakes now that he won't make down the line. In NFL terms, Luck's career in still in the baby steps phase and the Vikings are encouraged that they have the chance to shake him up before he learns the nuances of the NFL game and turns the tables on them.
"Hopefully we'll get in his face enough and make him uncomfortable," Robison said. "But the bottom line is that he was the No. 1 pick for a reason. He's going to be a good player and he's got a bright future ahead of him. Hopefully that will start after this week."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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