STANFORD, Calif. — Brett Nottingham and the rest of Stanford's backup quarterbacks figured out how to impress the coaching staff by the end of the first fall practice.
All they had to do was mimic Andrew Luck.
"Because if you're following Andrew, you can't be doing anything wrong," Nottingham said, chuckling. "It's tough to follow him at any point and then ever be in trouble."
Easier said than done.
If anything were to sideline the Heisman Trophy favorite for more than a few snaps this season, the Cardinal would be in serious trouble. The other quarterbacks on the roster have attempted a combined two collegiate passes, and there's not a clear front-runner to become Luck's eventual successor.
New coach David Shaw made it a point in his first team meeting to call out three key areas this year: offensive line, defensive line and backup quarterback. The latter has easily been his most difficult challenge.
"The hardest part is not trying to hold them up to Andrew's standard," Shaw said. "It's too high. We have to kind of take a deep breath when Andrew comes out and adjust our expectations."
The three-man race to be Luck's backup is one of the most unsettled situations on a stacked Stanford team.
Nottingham, a redshirt freshman, is competing for the job along with redshirt sophomores Josh Nunes and Robbie Picazo. Nunes' one pass for 7 yards is the only completion any of them have.
Not that there wouldn't be a significant drop-off behind Luck.
With so much of the offense revolving around Stanford's standout quarterback, the Cardinal are merely trying to close the gap between starter and backup. The goal is more to offset an in-game emergency than a season-ending injury, which would derail any championship hopes this season anyway.
"If Andrew breaks a shoelace, it could be in the middle of the fourth quarter in a must-win situation," Shaw said. "Whoever that guy is that steps in, he's got to have the confidence of the huddle and of the coaching staff."
Right now, nobody other than Luck commands that attention.
The three have all split time behind Luck after more than a week of training camp. Shaw doesn't expect to name a winner until the first week of the season, which begins at home against San Jose State on Sept. 3.
For the players, the daunting task of replacing a quarterback that was the NFL draft's likely No. 1 pick can be a painful and frustrating one. It does, however, have its perks this season: the three backups all have a chance to learn from Luck in the film room, weight room and on the field.
"I might be annoying him a little bit with so many questions," Nottingham said. "I've been trying to pick his brain and find out what he does when no one is looking that makes him so successful."
Of course, sometimes observing Luck so often only shows how much they have to improve.
"He's so technically sound, not just physically," Picazo said. "That's what makes him so good. Just being able to watch him on film and in person, watch his drops, watch his reads, watch how he affects safeties. Just watch it and do it however close to it as you can."
Shaw isn't preaching patience with his backups, either.
Although Luck is the most solid starter at his position in the country, the unthinkable is always one play away. Luck has spoken only kind words about his backups, saying all the things starting quarterbacks always do.
Luck took out an NCAA insurance policy that could protect him for up to $5 million, and his family also bought private insurance that could cover him for millions more should an injury occur. Stanford is still searching for its own fallback plan.
Even if it's hard to imagine cashing it in this season.
"We kind of view him as Superman. He seems like he's indestructible out there," Nottingham said. "But at the same time, you got to approach every day as if you're going to be the guy. You have to prepare, because if you get thrust into playing, you can't just be a deer in the headlights."
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP
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