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With college teams still a month away from their first fall practices, Insider begins a regular series that will identify some of the top prospects in the 2011 NFL draft and look at what makes them of such great interest to NFL scouts and coaches.
When Insider requested an interview with Andrew Luck, Jim Young, Stanford's director of media relations, set about tracking down the potential first-round draft pick. A week went by and Young suggested a Plan B.
"He's usually good about getting back, but I'd say he's probably tired of hearing from me," Young said with a laugh. "Or maybe the kid just needs a summer vacation."
It's hard to blame Luck for either. Young has been bombarded by college football writers across the country calling to get the scoop on the 20-year-old, one of the most talked about third-year sophomore quarterbacks since a guy named Sam Bradford. Well, that and the "kid" does have quite a course load.
But the attention is well deserved: In his first and only season as the Cardinal starter, Luck threw for more than 2,500 yards and his efficiency rating (143.47) led the Pac-10. NFL scouts are already saying Luck has the skills to be the first player taken in the 2011 NFL draft -- if fellow Pac-10 slinger Jake Locker doesn't hear his name called first.
The debate will rage on up until the first team hands NFL commissioner Roger Goodell its pick. Ask one scout and he'll tell you if Locker proves a pure passer for Washington this season -- not just a strong arm with a good set of legs -- then he's a shoo-in for No. 1. Another will tell you that teams won't be able to pass on Luck's accuracy and poise. And don't forget the likes of Arkansas' Ryan Mallett or Florida State's Christian Ponder.
Of course, Luck's numbers are not nearly at Bradford's level -- more than 3,000 yards and a freshman-record 36 touchdown passes -- but the rub for NFL teams pouring over Luck's small body of work is the fact his numbers came with a little help from a Heisman runner-up in the backfield.
The amazing thing about Andrew Luck is how, within the Stanford system, he passed the eye test to an exceptional degree last year as a redshirt freshman. That's because while he has extremely solid fundamentals, good footwork and a strong arm, we got to see it all within Jim Harbaugh's pro-style offense. When you see a kid not just execute, but consistently make great decisions, go through his reads and check down at this stage in his career, it makes scouting really easy.
Luck's challenge now is to show growth in all these areas even as the offense shifts a bit and, presumably, with the absence of Toby Gerhart, more of the pressure falls on Luck's shoulders. But we should say this: For one, Harbaugh has greatly improved the talent level on that roster, so the subtraction of one great player isn't going to derail this team; and for another, the film shows Luck was already able to take on a bigger load last year. There was just no good reason to mess with the success the Cardinal was having on the ground.
Toby Gerhart rushed for a Stanford single-season record 1,871 yards and accounted for 28 touchdowns, giving analysts reason to believe he, not Luck, was the main reason the Cardinal made its first bowl game since 2001, a loss Luck had to miss because of an injury to his throwing hand.
Not only are scouts anxious to see the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Luck without what he often referred to as his human "safety blanket," so are Pac-10 defenders.
"The toughest thing about Luck was Toby Gerhart because he could fake the handoff and all your help was gone," said Arizona cornerback Trevin Wade, who had a career-high 11 tackles to match Luck's career-high 423 yards in a 43-38 win for the Wildcats. "But he's such a good decision-maker. Playing in the Pac-10, I've seen him and Locker -- Locker may have the arm strength, but you don't see Luck make bad throws very often."
With Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh telling reporters "it's fair to say we'll probably throw the ball more than we did last year," Wade's just one of more than a dozen corners on the West Coast who will be keying in on Luck's every eye movement. As well as those scouts craning to notice a chink in the armor. If Luck hadn't grown up with a pro quarterback for a father, he might actually be nervous.
"Andrew has certainly elevated his game at the college level," said his dad, Oliver, who was a star QB at West Virginia before backing up Warren Moon with the Houston Oilers in the 1980s. "I'm not sure I can tell you he's improved one particular part of his game. He's always been a pretty good decision-maker, but that's got to improve when you get to the next level."
The older Luck is actually more impressed with his son's decision-making off the field. Like the high school valedictorian's call to pick Stanford coming out of talent-rich Houston, Texas, knowing he'd be part of the new Harbaugh regime.
"I'll tell you one thing: He's got great coaching, and I have no reason to think they won't continue making him a better player," said Oliver, who was hired as athletic director at West Virginia in June. "That's why he chose Stanford: Not only because of it as an academic institution, but you can't get a much better coach for quarterbacks in college football than Jim Harbaugh."
Harbaugh, the 14-year NFL vet, gives the same praise to Luck. Even though every college QB will inevitably be compared somehow, someway to Tim Tebow in 2010, Harbaugh thought he had the best quarterback in the nation last season. And he hasn't been given any reason to change his mind.
"Well, since you are asking my opinion, I do think he is the best quarterback in the country," Harbaugh said following the Cardinal spring game.
The question then is why would he stay for a junior season? Perhaps because recent history isn't on the side of first-round underclassmen quarterbacks. In the past 11 drafts, 11 QBs have been taken early. Before 2009, when Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman went in the first 32 picks, 2005 was the only draft since 2000 to have two underclassman QBs (Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers) go in the first round.
Of the 11 early entrants -- Smith, Rodgers, Stafford, Sanchez, Freeman, JaMarcus Russell, Vince Young, Ben Roethlisberger, Rex Grossman, Michael Vick and Bradford -- only Young, Roethlisberger and Sanchez started more than seven games and were above .500 during their rookie seasons. Two are no longer starters (Grossman and Vick), one lost his spot for a season (Young) and Russell is out of the league.
Maybe Luck pulls a Locker, hearing whispers of "not Day 1-ready," and decides to stick around for more seasoning. Maybe he'll want to strengthen his legacy, cementing himself alongside Cardinal greats like John Elway, Jim Plunkett and Trent Edwards. Or maybe he falls short of a BCS bowl, failing to lead Stanford on its first run to the Roses in more than a decade.
Dad certainly wouldn't see any problem with the choice, especially considering those heightened NFL expectations.
"If you're a No. 1 or No. 2 or even a first-round pick, you're going to be expected to contribute right away," Oliver said. "That's much different than when I was drafted. There used to be this idea that a guy needs five years to develop."
Like the 11 preceding him, Luck obviously won't be given that large of a window if he leaves. So is he ready? Let's see him without his safety blanket first.
LaRue Cook is a reporter and researcher for ESPN The Magazine.