On Jan. 3, I sat across from my television, watching a talented and smart Stanford Cardinal team, led by soon-to-be NFL head coach Jim Harbaugh, put a beat down on a (usually) disciplined, tough and physical Frank Beamer-coached Virginia Tech team. During the game, I sat in amazement as I watched a methodical, sophisticated and well-developed Stanford offense pick apart the Hokies defense, which is one of the best in college football year in and year out.
The offense, designed by Harbaugh, heavily relied on the power running game to help set up many West Coast Offense passing game principles, which include many concepts in between the hashes, such as Hi-Lo concepts. The Cardinal motioned and shifted several players pre-snap to base out the defense before running it down their throats. This opened up the run game as it left Hokies’ defenders dazed and confused, consequently leading to the play-action passing game orchestrated by quarterback Andrew Luck.
Luck scanned the field, from left to right and right to left, before placing it into his targets’ hands on several of the dropbacks. This was a typical game for the highly-acclaimed signal caller, and one of his best qualities I noticed when assessing him as a prospect for the NFL Draft. The offense uses a lot of three and five-step drops, and each drop has different reads. On his three-step drop, Luck is reading one side of the field as opposed to reading multiple receivers across the field, like he does on his five-step drop. The latter dropback is used quite a bit by Stanford, which makes Luck an impressive prospect. On the dropbacks, he did a good job of getting the ball out of his hands once his foot planted. This is important because its a rhythm throw, as it is timed with the route run by the receiver, and if he second guesses, he ends up being late throwing the ball and risking a turnover.
After watching this game and Luck’s impressive showing, I watched about 240 more throws of his from previous games and games still to be played. While watching these throws, many other qualities stood out that make him arguably the best quarterback prospect in this class. It starts with his technique and mechanics. Before he throws the ball, Luck does a great job of securing the ball as he is dropping back. What the image below illustrates is a triangle setup, which is where the elbows point down as well as the nose of the ball, which makes a triangle. This keeps him proportioned and, more importantly, keeps the ball secure.
Furthermore, Luck’s mechanics are very good. This is one of two important qualities (the other being handling pressure, which I’ll touch on later) that are tough to coach, making it crucial that a quarterback has it right. When he goes to throw a pass after a three- or five-step dropback, his elbow is in front of his shoulder while the ball is back with the thumb to the ear.
Another quality trait Luck possesses is his ability to throw on the run. He’s very good at this, and what’s impressive about it is that he can throw well on the roll out in either direction. Luck’s accuracy is quality on throws outside the pocket because he does a good job of squaring his shoulders and hips before releasing the ball. Sometimes quarterbacks will fail to square their shoulders when throwing on the run, either by scramble or designed roll out, which leads to poor ball placement. This is not the case with Luck, as you can see below.
Moving on to the Luck’s arm, he has good arm strength as well as the ability to put touch on his passes when delivering in a window surrounded by defenders. An example of this came against Colorado this season when he dropped a pass into the middle of the field over two defenders in front of his target and one closing in behind, as the image shows below. These types of passes can be problematic for some quarterbacks because they sometimes don’t put enough air under the ball, which then ends up in the hands of the opposition.
As noted earlier, one of the tougher things to coach that Luck possesses is the ability to keep his eyes down the field under pressure. The reason I feel that this is tough to coach, or really uncoachable, is because we, as people, are wired to react in a chaotic way when under pressure. However, some people are able to react in a calm manner by getting out of the way of the people (or animals) charging them. This is the case here with Luck, as he is flushed out of the pocket and keeps his eyes down the field despite likely taking a beating after he releases the ball. In case someone is wondering, Luck did complete this pass to his target. He possesses good pocket presence on his dropbacks, but he’s also calm when he’s flushed out of the pocket because of pressure in the interior, for example.
There are more traits that he has which make him one of the top prospects for the 2012 or 2013 NFL Draft. Luck’s accuracy is one of them, and he has quality ball placement on a lot of his throws. He delivers the ball so his pass catchers can do damage after the reception. From what I gather on film, he also takes in the coaching points that are given to him in practices. For example, when he is throwing a ‘Go’ (also known as a ‘Fly’ route), he throws it at the back of the defender’s head if the receiver does not have clean separation from the defensive back. This puts the ball in a place where only the receiver can get it because the defender likely doesn’t have his head turned around.
Another aspect of his game is his football intelligence. He is a patient quarterback who really understands the game, which is why the Stanford coaches have put a lot on his plate when at the line of scrimmage, pre- and post-snap. He has good mobility, which he uses when he’s escaping pressure or when he sees that it’s man coverage and the defenders have their backs to him.
Assessing the Phil-osophy
“But the one thing I don’t see, I just don’t see big time NFL throws. I don’t care what anybody says. I’ve watched a lot of him. He never takes it and rips it in there.” That’s what former NFL quarterback Phil Simms said about Luck earlier this week. This opinion is contrary to what many are saying about Luck as a NFL prospect. It’s also something I don’t completely agree with, despite Simms saying he watched a lot of film on Luck.
My biggest issue with his comment is that he states Luck “never rips it in there,” which implies that he does not have good velocity on his throws. Luck does not have the strongest arm, however he does get velocity on his throws when he has his footwork down pat. This is an issue for many quarterbacks in both college and the NFL, as they will either not step through their throws, fail to bring their shoulder over and in front when they deliver the ball or they simply throw flat-footed. These three characteristics lead to decreased velocity. Luck has all three of these issues at times, which is why he may not throw a pass intended to a receiver who ran a deep comeback route, which would be an “NFL throw” for the quarterback to make. However, this is correctable, which is why I’m not concerned about it.
While Simms’ criticism of Luck is somewhat valid, there are multiple instances over the last two years in which Luck has made an “NFL throw” with quality velocity. Examples can be seen in the game against Duke of this year, Colorado this year, as well as against Oregon last year. These games include quality deep outs, posts and corner routes.
Last but not least, Simms also said “you can say what you want but, man, you’ve got to be able to crease that ball every once in a while”. I agree with Simms: the quarterback has to be able to make a throw in a tight window. However, this criticism of Luck falls short because it is something I’ve seen him do numerous times over the past couple of years. He’s made throws into a tight window where there was bracket coverage, such as against Arizona this year. Another example of a tight throw was when Luck threw a pass on a deep post to his receiver with the deep safety breaking in front of the target. The pass was incomplete only because of the velocity — it was going too fast.
Luck possesses a lot of talent and smarts that will help him be successful at the next level. As much talent as he possesses and as much hype as he gets, he is still a college prospect that has to develop, and he’ll have to clean up his technique. He has not completely developed as a quarterback, which is why he is such an exciting and impressive prospect for the future. He has a plethora of talent, and if he gets in the right situation in the NFL, he should be very successful.