Sept. 14, 2011
STANFORD, Calif. - He's strong, he's accurate, he's smart, and he's the best quarterback in the country.
So, how is the Heisman Trophy runner-up even better this season?
"He's just more vocal with everything," Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football David Shaw said at Tuesday's weekly press gathering. "He has really taken this offense on his shoulders."
As a result, the coach sees Luck correcting teammates if they are not lined up properly, advising receivers on the direction and depth of their pass routes.
"He's really mastering not just his job, but everybody else's job," Shaw said.
Luck said he feels he's made no conscious decision to be a better leader, but acknowledges he's more confident under center in his third season as a starter.
"I feel I'm understanding our game plan more, why it's built to attack this defense, and why it changes for this opponent," he said. "Instead of going into the huddle and calling a play and thinking, What am I doing here? It's much more fluid now. I know what I'm doing now and know how the defense will adjust to this play."
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Saturday night's Pac-12 opener against Arizona in Tucson is being billed as a matchup of two of the nation's top quarterbacks. Indeed, Arizona's Nike Foles will have his share of fans on the Stanford sideline.
"The thing with all my years evaluating quarterbacks, the best ones make quick decisions, have a quick release and throw the ball with accuracy," said Shaw, a quarterbacks coach with two NFL teams. "He does all those, and he does all those repeatedly and has for years.
"Hopefully, he'll start getting the credit he deserves, because he's a heck of a football player."
Luck got to know Foles at conference media days, and bested him in a throwing accuracy contest at the ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., last year. They even lived within 20 minutes of each other in Austin, Texas, for a time.
"Nick's a great guy," Luck said. "I wish him the best in everything, except on Saturday."
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Stanford's last appearance in Tucson resulted in a 43-38 loss after the Cardinal was unable to hold a 15-point lead on Oct. 17, 2009. Luck's fourth-down throw to Chris Owusu in the end zone in the final seconds was batted down.
"I remember we blew it," Luck said.
"It was one of the toughest losses I've ever had," Owusu said.
The game was a shootout, with Luck passing for 423 yards and Foles for 415. Toby Gerhart rushed for 123 yards on 28 carries, but Stanford was relatively controlled on the ground.
"Hopefully, we'll run the ball better than we did two years ago," said Shaw, who added that Stanford has better defensive players as well.
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Perhaps the most prominent mental images of Stanford's 44-14 victory over Duke on Saturday was Luck getting hit for the first time this season. He was sacked twice and knocked down several other times.
"I'd love for him never to get touched," Shaw said. "But what I love about him is he doesn't care. We care a lot."
Duke was active with stunts and delayed blitzes, which caused some confusion on blocking assignments, but the two redshirt freshmen linemen reacted well for the most part.
"(Left guard) David Yankey played a very very good game," Shaw said. "He had pretty much one bad play early in the game, but the rest of the game was very good, very physical.
"(Right tackle) Cam Fleming was markedly better. Didn't make the big jump Yankey did. But every game is going to be a step forward for the line as a whole."
The key to keeping the rush off Luck is to maintain a balanced offensive attack. The run must be effective to draw pressure away from the pocket.
Said Luck, "I guess it's good to get hit a couple of times to get used to it again."
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Luck blamed himself for a high throw toward Owusu on the ball that was tipped, intercepted, and returned 76 yards for a touchdown by Duke in the second quarter.
However, Owusu said the pass was right on the money.
"I was trying to get under the route, and my legs got tangled with the defender," Shaw said. "I was falling when the ball got to me. He put the ball where he needed to put it. The ball wasn't high."
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Shaw recalled his first impression of Owusu during a recruiting trip to Oaks Christian School in Westlake Village, Calif.
"High school, junior year, he took a slant across the corner's face and outran two safeties for a touchdown," Shaw said. "I just said, Wow. We haven't had someone here at Stanford who's done that in a long time."
Shaw was impressed with Owusu's combination of strength and speed, which was apparent even then. The next step, said the coach, is "to make those tough catches with a defensive back right there, to just attack the ball and bring it in."
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Tight end Coby Fleener has caught six touchdown passes in his past three games, on 11 catches, dating back to the Orange Bowl.
The 6-foot-6 fifth-year senior from Lemont, Ill., said he fashioned himself as a college basketball prospect until his junior year in high school when he realized there might be better scholarship opportunities in football.
"I know he played basketball in high school so he has great body control in the air in terms of catching the ball and staying on his feet and running," Luck said. "He uses his athleticism to the fullest when the ball's in the air and that's why he's scoring touchdowns."
Fleener offered that basketball skills are "more of a help than a hindrance," in becoming a good tight end, but "there's no blocking and hitting."
But perhaps the most surprising aspect of Fleener's game, at least to opponents, is his speed.
"People forget sometimes that he's really very very fast," Luck said.
"He's definitely got unbelievable speed for a guy his size," linebacker Chase Thomas said.
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Just as Stanford's defensive players enjoy watching the Cardinal's high-powered offense, the offensive players get inspiration from the defense.
"The hits he makes ... It makes you want to hit somebody, even when you play offense," Owusu said.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics