The 49ers’ clash with the Indianapolis Colts will be the first meeting between coach Jim Harbaugh and his former quarterback Andrew Luck since the duo teamed up at Stanford and turned the Cardinal into one of top college football programs in the country.
But this isn’t just a Luck-Harbaugh reunion: five members of the 49ers’ coaching staff helped Stanford win the 2011 Orange Bowl, including offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Newly acquired fullback Owen Marecic was also on the squad, along with Colts tight end Coby Fleener, wide receiver Griff Whalen and safety Delano Howell. Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton was on the staff, too, as the Cardinal’s wide receivers coach.
“It’s going to be quite a bit of a reunion this week with some of the guys that played at Stanford that we know well,” Harbaugh said. “Not necessarily a good thing.”
Luck and Hamilton are intimately familiar with the 49ers’ coaching staff and the style of football they like to play. Harbaugh, on the other hand, knows every strength and weakness the Colts offensive brain trust brings to the gridiron. They came of age under his umbrella.
Does either side hold the edge?
“I don’t know because you’re so used to, NFL-wise, tweaking things week to week, changing things week to week,” current Stanford coach David Shaw said.
Shaw, who coached Luck and worked for Harbaugh at Stanford, said both teams will make adjustments based on their awareness of each other’s tendencies.
“There’s a bit of a chess match, but it also comes back to execution,” he said.
Despite the familiarity, Harbaugh said it will be difficult to find ways to exploit his former quarterback.
“There’s not a lot that confuses him or rattles him,” he said. As a college quarterback, Luck occasionally visited the office of then-Stanford defensive coordinator Fangio just to pick his brain. What did he learn?
“I wish I’d paid more attention to those conversations,” Luck joked. “They whooped our butts every now and then in practice and I just [wanted to] figure out why the defense is doing so well and what are our weaknesses and, maybe, what are my weaknesses.”
But Luck dismissed the suggestion that he might have some insight on how to debunk the 49ers’ defensive schemes.
“There is some carry over — the basic shape of everything,” he said. “But this is a different ball game. The players on the Niners D are unbelievable — a lot of Pro Bowl players out there.”
Fangio said the battles on the Farm between his defense and Luck’s offense could get heated.
“It was competitive, particularly in the spring ball time of the year and early in preseason camp,” Fangio said. “That was the culture we wanted over there.”
Luck is also familiar with 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whom he complimented to Harbaugh after meeting him at the Manning Passing Academy prior to his junior year at Stanford. “I must have said something [to Harbaugh] because I remember people talking about that as a story when he got drafted,” Luck said.
The Colts quarterback said Kaepernick’s size, speed and arm strength stood out, as well as his lack of ego.
“He lit up talking about Colin — was the first name out of his mouth,” Harbaugh said. “I thought that spoke volumes.”
As well as the 49ers know Luck and Hamilton, the Colts’ acquisition of running back Trent Richardson this week throws a surprise variable into the mix. Richardson rushed for 950 yards and scored 12 touchdowns as a rookie with the Cleveland Browns last year.
Fangio said Richardson will allow Hamilton to run a Stanford-like power rushing attack.
“I’m sure that’s the way they visualize him,” he said.
But once the pigskin is kicked off, football is football. The game will be determined by what happens in between the lines, not the history between the actors.
“It’ll be sort of fun to see those guys. I feel very fortunate to have played under them in college — they taught me so much about football,” Luck said. “But at the end of the day it will just be another game.”