Stanford's Luck relishing senior season, chance to improve
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- The weather, as is often the case on Stanford's oasis of a campus, was perfect for Monday's opening preseason practice: 75 degrees and sunny. The Cardinal's star quarterback, on the other hand, was not.
"He missed a couple of throws today," coach David Shaw said of Heisman frontrunner Andrew Luck's performance. "He's got things he's got to get better at."
Seven months ago, the surefire No. 1 pick in the NFL draft stunned the football world by announcing he would return for his senior season. Luck wanted to finish his degree in architectural design, but he also wanted more chances to do exactly what he did Monday: Throw the football around with his friends.
"I've been looking forward to this [preseason] camp for a while," the freshly shaven quarterback said after Monday's practice. "I have a lot of fun playing football. Even practice. Maybe it won't feel that way in a few days, when I'm lying in bed and can't move, but you have to enjoy it. You have to."
Luck was all business as he went through drills at the start of practice, first working on rollouts and three-step drops, then barking out play calls to his offensive line. There's work to be done. Coming off a historic 12-1 Orange Bowl season, Stanford landed a No. 6 ranking in last week's initial coaches' poll, its first preseason Top 10 ranking since 1970. But the Cardinal must replace three veteran offensive linemen (including All-America center Chase Beeler) and Luck's top two receivers from last year, Doug Baldwin and Ryan Whalen.
Luck spent the summer working with Baldwin's and Whalen's potential replacements, but the competition begins in earnest later this week when the Cardinal don pads for the first time.
"That's what these next three weeks are about -- to put those guys in as many tough situations as we can and find out who those starters are," said Shaw, who succeeded Jim Harbaugh in January. "It may take a month, it may take a few days."
Stanford's offensive line has set an impeccably high standard for protecting Luck, allowing 13 sacks over the past two seasons. Two standouts, guard David DeCastro and tackle Jonathan Martin, return, while many of the candidates for the vacated spots are upperclassmen. Few seem concerned about a drop-off in talent.
For Luck, however, the next few weeks are about building chemistry with his protectors.
"It's little things like getting familiar with the cadence, the snap, making sure we're on the same page in our protections," Luck said. "Simple things that require a lot of repetition."
While Luck is considered the season's presumptive Heisman frontrunner (he came in second to Cam Newton last season), there's no guarantee he'll top his 2010 production of 3,338 yards, 32 touchdowns and eight interceptions. His ability to do so will depend on what identity the 2011 Stanford offense takes.
Two years ago, when Luck was a redshirt freshman, the Cardinal rode bruising runner Toby Gerhart. Now, like then, Stanford has a more proven commodity at tailback -- 1,137-yard rusher Stepfan Taylor -- than it does at receiver. Luck's most reliable target may be tight end Colby Fleener, who caught 28 passes for 434 yards last year. Shaw is counting on a return to form from veteran Chris Owusu (who missed much of last season with injuries) and increased production from career reserves Griff Whalen and Drew Terrell.
"We're coming to the part where, as an offense, we get an understanding of who we are," said Luck. "You want to find out where your weaknesses are and hopefully play to your strengths."
As Luck talked to about a dozen reporters after practice Monday, an assortment of random campus visitors walked right by the field, either oblivious or apathetic to the potential NFL franchise player standing there. A junior swim meet across the street drew more spectators. That's just how it is at Stanford, where even the most decorated athletes enjoy virtual anonymity on the academic-driven campus. It's easy to see why the decidedly low-key Luck enjoys it so much.
On the national scene, however, Luck and the program will be placed under an unprecedented spotlight this fall. Much like when former household quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Matt Leinart and Tim Tebow returned for their final seasons, pundits will likely pick apart every aspect of Luck's game. Both Luck and Shaw have repeatedly played down the significance of the high preseason ranking, knowing that, as Shaw put it, "This year's team hasn't earned a darn thing."
But Luck is as avid a college football fan as he is a player. He knows what's been written and said.
"Depending on what you read," he said, "we've been picked as the surprise team to win the Pac-12, and the most overrated team in America."
As for his own game, Luck won't need Mel Kiper or Todd McShay to tell him what he's doing right or wrong. He's already his own worst critic.
"I've got a lot of work to do to have a successful season," Luck said. "I made a lot of mistakes [Monday]. I'm definitely not perfect."
But he's enjoying the heck out of trying to get better.