By Mark Giannotto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 2, 2011; 1:05 AM
FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. - The headaches that Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck gives opposing defenses are well known at this point. He finished second in Heisman Trophy voting this season, winning a school-record 11 games and leading the Cardinal to its first-ever Orange Bowl appearance Monday against Virginia Tech.
But try facing him every day in practice, a mind-numbing proposition linebacker Chase Thomas simply calls "frustrating" since touching their own quarterback is off limits even as he picks apart their defense.
"He's the superstar, he's the quarterback, he's the man, he's the captain," senior defensive end Brian Bulcke said of Luck. "But at the same time, there's that burning desire to lay that lick on him, and none of us have been able to."
When told of this Friday morning, Luck, a redshirt sophomore, smiled from his seat atop a small podium. He understands his teammates' sentiments, but "what they're not telling you is that they pick me more than not, too."
This sort of statement is what makes him so special, according to those around him every day. His talent throwing the football is so prodigious that even his own coach, former NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh, says "God put the finger" on him. But ultimately, the signal caller many around the country believe is the next great NFL quarterback doesn't consider himself as anything more than one of the guys.
"When he makes plays, we don't really think about [the fact] his body is worth $50 million," wide receiver Doug Baldwin said. "Obviously he's a very phenomenal athlete, phenomenal quarterback, but I think what doesn't get talked about enough is Andrew's personality, his character. That's what I think is the most important thing that people need to get."
Born in the District, Luck spent the first nine years of his life in London and Frankfurt, Germany, as his father, former NFL quarterback and current West Virginia Athletic Director Oliver Luck, ran NFL Europe. The experience gave him "a different appreciation for different cultures," and a love for the game of soccer.
When his father moved the family back stateside to take a job as president of Major League Soccer's Houston Dynamo, Luck took to the gridiron as a defensive lineman and running back. Even though his pedigree would suggest playing behind center immediately, Luck says he made the position switch only because "I guess I had a decent arm."
But by the time he graduated as valedictorian of his class at Stratford High in 2008, Luck was one of the top quarterback recruits in the country and a player Harbaugh realized could be the linchpin in transforming a program that went 1-11 in 2006. It was during this recruiting process, though, that the coach got the first hint he may have found an "anti-superstar."
"I can remember one time on the phone, I was in the habit of calling Andrew every week and Andrew said, 'Coach, I'm coming to Stanford and you don't need to bother with calling me every week,' " Harbaugh recounted earlier this month. "It was just refreshing. . . . He wasn't one of those guys that needed constant attention."
This, it seems, is why the past few weeks have been especially annoying to Luck. He's eligible to declare for the NFL draft following the Orange Bowl, a decision he says hasn't been on his mind except when reporters bring it up.
An architecture major with a 3.5 GPA, Luck is more likely to talk about his desire to one day design stadiums instead of what the plans for his football future may be. Luck's been so focused on ending the season with a victory, he didn't even realize it was New Year's Eve when the topic was brought up during his session with the media Friday.
"I'm trying to avoid it," said Luck, cringing at the mere mention of his professional career. "I don't want it to get in the way of the team, of our chances in the Orange Bowl. I think if I start thinking about it too much, it'll be a detriment and my head will be in the wrong place. . . . But I guess it's just part of playing quarterback for a major team and being an underclassman. It's part of the gig."
And after completing more than 70 percent of his passes, throwing 28 touchdowns for more than 3,000 yards, and even running over a California defender on a 58-yard-run, the speculation surrounding Luck continues.
Earlier this month, Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster likened Luck's combination of accuracy and mobility to a cross between Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb when they were in college. ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski thinks a more apt comparison may be current Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan - as in a player ready to lead an NFL team right away.
"He will be the No. 1 pick in the draft if he decides to come out," Jaworski said. "His skill set projects beautifully to the NFL."
But Luck refuses to let this notion alter his decision-making process. He wants to wait and see what Harbaugh - who has also dealt with rumors that he may leave Stanford for Michigan or an NFL heading coaching job - will do.
More important, buying into his own hype would mean putting himself ahead of his teammates. And no matter how many people prematurely anoint him, Luck would never allow that to define him.
"I would like to think I'm a good team player, put the team in a position to succeed and don't detract from anybody else on the team while lifting everybody up," Luck said. "It's a team game. The quarterback's gonna get the attention, but maybe it's not so deserving all the time."