NCAA FB

Luck's one-handed catch an eye-opener

Thayer Evans on why Andrew Luck should win Heisman Trophy.
Thayer Evans on why Andrew Luck should win Heisman Trophy.
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Thayer Evans

Senior College Football writer Thayer Evans previously wrote for The New York Times and Houston Chronicle, as well as contributed to The Economist, USA Today, The Washington Post and more. Follow him on Twitter.

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PALO ALTO, Calif.

At Stanford’s student recreation center, there’s plenty of talk about Andrew Luck.

They discuss the humble star quarterback who stayed in school this season to lead the Cardinal to the Fiesta Bowl, the academically prestigious university’s second straight BCS bowl appearance. There’s also been talk about the senior likely being the first pick of April’s NFL draft and, most recently, about whether he will win the Heisman Trophy on Saturday night in New York.

But the legend of the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Luck extends beyond the football field. There’s still talk about Luck’s electrifying game-winning tip dunk a couple of years ago while playing pickup basketball at the recreation center.

After a teammate’s missed shot, Luck flew in and dunked the rebound over 6-3, 195-pound Richard Sherman, then a Stanford cornerback, who now is a rookie for the Seattle Seahawks.

“Everybody was going nuts,” says Stanford wide receiver Griff Whalen, Luck’s roommate. “That was pretty crazy.”

But that's what Whalen and others at Stanford have come to expect from Luck. They are as used to him dunking a basketball and scoring on a high-flying header in pickup soccer as they are to him throwing a touchdown pass.

It’s why Stanford students weren’t nearly as awestruck as the rest of college football when Luck made an acrobatic, falling-out-of-bounds, one-handed catch earlier this season on a reverse pass in a win against UCLA. The highlight went viral.

It was an eye-opener for many because of all the talk about Luck’s incredible intangibles and the comparisons to Peyton Manning. The two are the same type of quarterback, but the difference is Manning can only dream about having Luck’s 37-inch vertical jump, 4.67-second time in the 40-yard dash and 10-foot-3 standing broad jump.

First-year Stanford coach David Shaw believes in Luck's athleticism so much that his circus catch came on a play similar to one called six years ago for Kordell Stewart, one of the most athletic quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL. It’s just often overlooked because of Luck’s mechanics, intelligence and leadership.

“The guy’s a phenomenal athlete,” former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel says of Luck. “There’s no better college football player than that kid.”

But it’s unlikely Luck will be recognized as such when the Heisman Trophy winner is announced Saturday night from a field that also includes Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, Alabama running back Trent Richardson, LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu and Wisconsin running back Montee Ball. Luck was the runner-up to Cam Newton in last year’s Heisman race and is projected to finish second again this year to Griffin.

So while Luck’s dazzling 13-yard catch against UCLA in October doesn't look like it will indeed be what was then thought to be his Heisman moment, the play is a peek at his uncanny athleticism.

“A lot of people overlook it,” Whalen says. “He’s just a good all-around athlete. You really don’t realize it a lot of times with him just sitting in the pocket.”

Shaw did, though, and it’s why he dusted off the play for Luck’s catch. Shaw was wide receivers coach for the Baltimore Ravens in 2005 when they ran a similar play unsuccessfully.

Stewart handed the ball to a wide receiver, sneaked out of the backfield for a pass and got both hands on the overthrown ball, but couldn’t hold on to it.

“Andrew has got great hands,” Shaw says. “He’s got big hands. He catches the ball very easily.”

In preseason drills, Stanford practiced Blue Devil, the play on which Luck caught his pass against UCLA. Luck would take the snap under center and pitch the ball to a tailback, who would hand it to a wide receiver, who, in turn, would pass to Luck.

When Shaw and his staff prepared for UCLA the last week of September, he brought up Blue Devil. It was ideal against UCLA’s Cover 3 defense with a cornerback playing soft coverage and weak-side linebacker tucked inside.

“We’ve got to call it this week,” Shaw told his staff.

Shaw’s assistants didn’t say anything and looked at him oddly.

“We’re calling it,” Shaw told them.

Blue Devil’s triggerman would be Drew Terrell, the best passer among Stanford’s wide receivers. When the Cardinal decided to run the play on first-and-10 at the UCLA 28 in the first quarter, it all went as planned until Terrell’s throw sailed on him.

“I was upset with myself because I really thought I’d overthrown him,” Terrell says.

But having already beaten a UCLA linebacker down the field, Luck lunged near the right sideline, grabbed the ball with his right hand and got his left foot down inbounds as he crashed out of bounds. Initially, the 13-yard catch was ruled incomplete, but Shaw knew better.

He was standing less than 10 yards from Luck’s catch and was so confident it was good he already was talking to his team about which play to run after the call was reversed.

“It doesn’t matter,” Shaw says of Terrell’s overthrow. “If the ball’s close, he’s got it.”

Across the field, while Luck’s catch was reviewed, Neuheisel jokingly told his coaches, “They’re going to rule this in because the guy’s a Heisman Trophy candidate.”

After the incompletion call was overturned and Luck’s catch was ruled good, the home Stanford crowd roared. Neuheisel shook his head in disbelief.

“It was a phenomenal play,” Neuheisel says.

But Luck views it differently. He says the play has been blown out of proportion, which he describes modestly as “just a first-down catch.”

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“It was very lucky,” says Luck, who this season won the Walter Camp (player of year), Maxwell (most outstanding player) and Unitas (top senior QB) awards.

“It was lucky to stick to my hands. I was excited for the opportunity to maybe do something other than the typical quarterback duties of handing the ball off and throwing the ball. I knew I had an opportunity to make a catch and I didn’t want to blow it.”

The catch has only added to Luck’s legend at Stanford, where he broke John Elway’s school records for career and single-season touchdown passes. (Luck has 80 and 35, respectively).

He is also known for soaring headers while playing pickup soccer on the university’s fields. He developed a love for the sport while spending part of his childhood in Europe.

“He can really get up and is pretty nimble for how big he is,” Whalen says of Luck's soccer ability. “He looks pretty funny out there next to all these 5-9 kids.”

Luck hasn’t played pickup basketball or soccer recently because of football. He's unlikely to do so any time soon considering he is set to declare for April’s NFL draft after the No. 4 Cardinal (11-1) play third-ranked Oklahoma State (11-1) in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2 and then plans to take a quarter off from classes.

Stanford students, however, will keep talking about Luck’s athletic prowess — and not just on the football field.

Tagged: Stanford, UCLA, Drew Terrell, Andrew Luck, Griff Whalen, Wisconsin, Baylor, Montee Ball, Auburn, Cam Newton

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