By Jonathan Okanes
No wonder Andrew Luck returned to Stanford. The university needs him.
While Luck was preparing to do an interview with a reporter this spring at the on-campus Arrillaga Sports Complex, a woman entered the foyer and asked him to point her to the ladies room.
“It’s over there,” he motioned. “But I think someone might have just gone in to clean it.”
He was right on both counts.
While Luck apparently has a handle on the university’s plumbing, he’s even better at the controls of Stanford’s offense. And because of the junior’s decision to stay in Palo Alto for one more season, that offense should once again lay waste to any defense it lines up against on Saturdays.
Luck surprised most outsiders — but nobody inside the Cardinal program — when he announced he was staying at Stanford for the 2011 season. Luck was the consensus projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, and since he had seemingly mastered the college game, the conventional wisdom held that he would leave for the riches of the NFL.
Luck answers questions about his decision to stay and earn his degree in architectural design in the same unassuming fashion that characterizes the rest of his personality.
“I just figured I should finish it if I’m out here,” he says with a shrug of refreshing innocence and naivete. “I definitely want to improve on last year and finish my academics up as well. Everybody is entitled to their own opinion, and I understand that some people probably thought I was an idiot. But I love it here and I still have a lot to learn.”
How much Luck can really improve remains to be seen. He finished third nationally last year in passing efficiency (170.2) and was the runner-up to Auburn’s Cam Newton in the Heisman Trophy voting. Luck’s biggest challenge will be adjusting to changes around him, from the coaching staff to his teammates.
The biggest change at Stanford this offseason came in January, when head coach Jim Harbaugh decided he would go to the NFL — to take the San Francisco 49ers job. The Cardinal achieved some measure of continuity by promoting offensive coordinator David Shaw to head coach, and while Shaw says he expects there to be a lot of similarities under his stewardship, there still is a level of uncertainty that won’t be sorted out until Stanford takes the field for the 2011 season.
“I think you’ll see a lot of similarities,” Shaw says. “What’s been established here is the competitive nature of this team. We’re going to go out and we’re going to compete. We’re not going to look at the scoreboard. We’re not going to worry about stats. We’re going to go out there and give you a good fight every game. That’s where it starts. That will be the same. That’s just who we are and how we play.”
Still, Harbaugh established a certain tone and culture in Stanford’s program, a mental and physical toughness that was lacking before he arrived on The Farm. But Shaw downplays what Harbaugh might have taken with him, pointing out that every year produces a new team anyway.
“You’ll probably see some of my personality coming out at different times. That might be a little different than the way Jim was,” Shaw says. “But those will be subtle. No matter what anybody says, there’s no such thing as momentum that gets carried over from one year to another. We have to come into training camp and establish a new identity. This is a new team with new guys and we have to establish exactly who we are, which is the same thing we did a year ago.”
The transition will clearly be made easier because of the presence of Luck, who was recruited by Shaw out of Houston. They have a strong relationship, another reason why the coaching change may not have a dramatic effect.
“I wasn’t sure if he was coming back, but I wasn’t surprised because I know how strongly he feels about his teammates and how strongly he feels about this university,” Shaw says. “He came here to get his degree. He loves it here, and he and I know each other pretty well.”
Luck’s season will be sort of like a Major League Baseball player on a rehab assignment in the minor leagues — you know he’s too good to be there, but he has to get his work in. Having already proven he can play at a higher level than any other quarterback in college football, Luck has taken on a new challenge this spring — coaching.
New offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has turned Luck into a pseudo-quarterbacks coach, having him ask questions of the team’s other signal-callers in positional meetings.
“Andrew gets to ask the question to the other guys in the room,” Shaw says. “He’s not just the guy who knows all the answers, but he facilitates some of the meetings as well.”
The woman searching for the restroom didn’t seem to know she was talking to the Biggest Man on Campus, even though he was wearing his practice gear with the familiar No. 12 on his jersey. You get the feeling Luck was OK with that.
He’s not exactly an attention-seeker or self-promoter. He laughs off a suggestion that Stanford is now a national power in football, insists he has “a lot to work on” and says he’s not recognized any more than he was before making the trip to New York for last year’s Heisman ceremony.
When told that a lot of players in his situation would have left school and come back to finish their degrees later, Luck quickly agrees that that is a perfectly understandable way to handle things as well.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that,” Luck says. “A lot of people do that. It’s not something I’m against.”
Luck sincerely dismisses the notion that Stanford is now among the national elite in football, but the Cardinal appear to have the pieces in place to make another run at a BCS game. If that happens again, it will be hard for Luck to deny Stanford’s place among the elite. And he says that is another reason he returned to campus — to see if the team could do it again and leave with an even greater legacy.
“That’s something we’d like to do, establish a winning legacy,” Luck says. “That’s something that the guys I came in with want to do, be the winningest program in Stanford history. Nobody wants to be in a losing program. I thought we could be a winning program. I thought we could go to a BCS game, and I think we can do even better.”