He had a eureka moment with Luck while reviewing a project with him earlier this quarter. "We were sitting in front of the computer," he recalls, "and I watched him juggling whole layers. He was seeing it in three dimensions—the program integrated with the architecture, the material integrated with the structure. He has a gift for seeing all these pieces at once, breaking them apart and putting them back together again. And I thought, That's what he can do on the field."
Luck will play on Saturdays this season because he values, deeply, the experience he's having, the education he's getting. "This is a special place no matter how the football team is doing," he says. "It's exciting to go to school here." Another major factor: the deep sense of loyalty he feels to the guys who, like him, took a flyer on a losing team. Scattered in various rooms on the same floor, mixed in with other students, are a dozen football players who came in with Luck in 2008: his roommate, the former walk-on and receiver, Griff Whalen; offensive linemen David DeCastro, Jonathan (Moose) Martin and Sam Schwartzstein; defensive backs Johnson Bademosi and Delano Howell; and linebacker Chase Thomas, to name a handful. These guys are exceptionally close because they all took the same leap of faith. Two seasons before their arrival Stanford went 1--11. The Cardinal improved to 4--8 in 2007, the first year under Harbaugh, who'd undertaken the football equivalent of a multiple organ transplant. A former NFL quarterback who'd played for Bo Schembechler at Michigan, Harbaugh replaced the Cardinal's "finesse" offense with a smashmouth scheme, then recruited hard-nosed, athletic players to make it work.
Around Harbaugh's third year at Stanford, something remarkable and unprecedented happened. The football team started beating up on opponents, physically dominating them, defeating their will. These sons of Ph.D.'s and professionals, this band of future doctors, engineers and lawyers, punished teams with a blue-collar style Harbaugh dubbed "class with cruelty."
No Stanford player better embodies that ethos than the gentlemanly Luck. ("He's always smiling on the field," notes his father, "even when he's getting drilled.") And yet, to see him fillet a defense is to witness an act of cold, clinical cruelty. Says Harbaugh, "What he does on the field—he's an assassin."
Following a fine redshirt freshman season in 2009 (2,575 passing yards, 13 touchdowns), Luck blew up last year, completing an absurd 70.7% of his passes for 3,338 yards, with just eight interceptions and a school record 32 touchdowns. The previous record was 27, held by Steve Stenstrom and some guy named Elway. "He's very smart, very good at reading the field," says USC defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who has 26 years of NFL coaching experience. "It seems like he's been in the league for six or seven years already. He was ready to come out this year. In fact, I was pulling for him to."
Surely, Luck would move on, right? The top pick in the 2010 draft, Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, had signed a six-year contract for $78 million, $50 million of it guaranteed. True, a new labor deal is likely to include a rookie salary cap. Instead of signing for an obscene amount of money, Luck stood to collect a sum that was merely...incredibly lucrative. But by staying at Stanford, he was leaving stacks of cash on the table. Remarkably, his decision to stay in school provoked a fusillade of criticism. He ran the risk of catastrophic injury. (Luck is now insured for millions, in case of such scenario.) He might not play as well, depressing his draft stock.
Barton was struck by the blowback when Luck announced his decision. "A lot of people have a hard time with this," he says, "but Andrew is a student, then an athlete. He came here for an education. He's going to be a very good football player in the NFL. But after that, he's going to be an architect."
So Luck will not only earn his B.S. at one of the world's best universities, he'll also "complete the mission," as Harbaugh puts it, with a bunch of guys who bought what the coach was selling. Notwithstanding the current mess in which it finds itself, the NFL will probably still be there when he graduates next year. And it's not as if Luck is going to suddenly forget how to read a defense. "Andrew could go into a coma for five years," says former Cardinal cornerback Richard Sherman, who was drafted in April by the Seahawks, "and when he came out of it, he'd still be the Number 1 pick."
Luck is not Jake Locker, in other words. Projected by some as the first pick in the 2010 draft, Locker drove down his draft stock by returning to play his final season at Washington. (The Titans surprised many by taking him with the eighth choice this year.) But there is a wide gulf between them. Locker is leaving college as much more of a project than Luck, whom Harbaugh describes as "an NFL-caliber quarterback still playing college."
That, too, is the opinion of Mike Mayock, the former Giants safety who is now a highly respected draft analyst for the NFL Network. Mayock observed Luck at the Manning Passing Academy last summer and says he has "a pretty good feel for the kid." Mayock describes Luck's footwork as "excellent"; his arm as "not great, but very good—better than necessary to play in the NFL and make every throw." (As an aside Mayock says, "Arm strength is the most overrated factor in an NFL quarterback. I've never seen a kid throw a football like JaMarcus Russell.")