The success of the last two season of Stanford football will be hard to ever match. The Cardinal was 23-3 in the 2010 and 2011 seasons with BCS bowls at the end of each campaign. Last year’s 11-2 record included a 41-38 overtime loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl
The rise to national prominence began under the guidance of the outspoken Jim Harbaugh, who coached his last game in Palo Alto to move across the bay to take over the San Francisco 49ers. Stanford’s success continued last year with rookie head coach David Shaw on the sidelines.
Of course, the common thread between the two was the quarterback – Andrew Luck.
Shaw enters his second season with the unenviable task of continuing Stanford’s recent success without Luck, whom the Indianapolis Colts strapped with the unenviable task of replacing Peyton Manning when they made him the No. 1 overall pick in April’s NFL Draft.
Luck is far from the only significant player Shaw and Stanford must replace heading into 2012, but he is at the top of the list.
Dave Fowkes, who covers Stanford football for Stanfordfootballreport.com, provided great insight on the Cardinal for this report.
Luck’s 9,430 career passing yards rank second in school history. In just three seasons he also set Stanford school records for touchdown passes (82), completion percentage (.687; 713-1064), passing efficiency (162.76) and total offense (10,387).
Luck passed for 3,517 yards (71.3 percent) with 37 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions in his final season on The Farm.
Fowkes calls the 2012 race to replace Luck “wide open”, with redshirt junior Josh Nunes and last year’s back-up, redshirt sophomore Brett Nottingham, as the primary contenders. A pair of redshirt freshmen is also in the mix, but Fowkes expects the two veterans to battle it out.
“Because the offense they run is so complicated it’s not just going to be the guys that’s got the physical tools,” Fowkes said of the criteria for determining Luck’s successor. “It’s going to be who manages the offense the best and makes the fewest amount of mistakes.”
With Nottingham and Nunes at the top of the list, Fowkes says limiting those mistakes will likely be the biggest factor in who starts at quarterback at the start of the fall.
“Right now both of them are still trying to learn even though they’ve been in the system for a couple years,” Fowkes said of Luck’s former understudies. “No one can run the offense quite like Andrew Luck did. The guy that wins the job is probably going to be that guy who makes fewer mistakes, because there’s just not that big a difference physically.”
“We’re (media covering Stanford) guessing it’s gonna be Nottingham, but the competition will go into training camp (for) probably at least the first two weeks for sure.”
There is significant turnover at receiver as well. Ryan Hewitt was just Stanford’s fourth overall receiver last year, but he is their top returning receiver this fall. The senior to be caught 34 passes for 282 yards and five touchdowns last season. Fellow senior, tight end Zach Ertz, is the only other returnee of Stanford’s top five receiving targets in 2011. Ertz had 27 grabs for 346 yards and four TDs last season.
In addition to replacing the number one overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft and top receiving options, the Cardinal must also find replacements for first and second round selections from the offensive line.
Guard David DeCastro was selected 24th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers, while left tackle Jonathon Martin went to the Miami Dolphins with the 42nd overall pick. The Cardinal lost three starters after the 2010 season, but was able to keep things together because of those two.
“This year there are some real depth issues in the offensive line,” Fowkes apprised. “They had a great recruiting class coming in. Arguably Stanford’s all-time best offensive line recruiting class. There’s a real chance Stanford could have a true freshman starting at left tackle this season.”
Fowkes also expects Kevin Danser should win the job at right guard.
The upside for Stanford on the offensive side of the ball is the return of running back Stepfan Taylor. The senior from Mansfield, TX provides a nice security blanket for his team’s next quarterback. Taylor ran for 1,330 net yards (5.5/carry) last year while totaling just 33 negative yards all year.
The Stanford coaching staff considers Taylor to be the best back in the country, and they will likely look to ride him with an inexperienced quarterback at the helm. Running back is also the offensive position that is the deepest on the depth chart.
“This is gonna be a running football team,” Fowkes said flatly. “They are gonna had the ball to Taylor and then it’s power football and play good defense.”
There is a familiar name that will suit-up for Stanford this fall. 1988 Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders’ namesake, Barry Sanders, Jr. will be a freshman this year. Fowkes expects him to see time at running back and possibly even receiver.
Last year’s leading tackler, Jerek Lancaster, is back to lead a front seven that Fowkes expects to be “very good”. Lancaster had 70 tackles with 3.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss in 2012. Outside linebacker Chase Thomas (52 tackles), who could have gone to the NFL after last season, is also back to help anchor a stout front seven. Thomas led the Cardinal with 17.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks a year ago.
Another inside linebacker, senior Shane Skov, gives Stanford even more pop at inside linebacker. He went down last September with a knee injury, but Fowkes says his recovery has gone well. Skov is one of the few injuries Fowkes says Stanford was dealing with during the spring.
While the front seven should be Stanford’s defensive strength in 2012 the secondary is another story. Three of the Cardinal’s four starters at defensive back from 2011 are gone. Fowkes believes the difference between Stanford having just a “good” defense or a “great” one will be determined by whether or not it can match-up with the wide receivers across the Pac-12.
“They’ve always had trouble with speed,” Fowkes said of Stanford’s biggest issue in the secondary. “Especially when you match-up with the USCs and the Oregons. There is some talent there. We’ll probably see one or two freshmen get some time in the rotation in the secondary this year as well, but it’s a real question mark.”
Shaw has plenty of work to do in his second season as Stanford head coach. His coaching staff remains mostly intact from last year, although there have been a handful of changes.
Last season’s co-defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach Jason Tarver is now the defensive coordinator for the Oakland Raiders. Derek Mason, who was calling defensive plays last year, remains as defensive coordinator.
David Kotulski is the new inside linebackers coach on the staff and Pete Alamar is the new special teams coach. Former Notre Dame special teams coordinator is also gone from the Cardinal staff. After two seasons there as special teams coordinator, he now holds that position as well as tight ends coach at Texas A&M. He was hired after former Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin was named to head the program.
The only possible concern anyone might seem to have about Shaw is his good guy vibe – especially compared to the in your face bravado that his successor and former Stanford boss, Jim Harbaugh, has.
“Shaw comes across as such a nice guy,” Fowkes said. “Shaw is such nice guy, and sometimes you worry about that. Maybe he doesn’t have that edge. In year one that wasn’t a problem at all.”
Though he might not have as much bark as Harbaugh, Shaw has something that even Harbaugh didn’t have – Stanford pedigree.
“He really understands the Stanford way,” Fowkes said of the second-year head coach. “He is a Stanford graduate. He has been in and out of this program for his entire life. His dad was an assistant coach for Stanford twice. That’s what everyone here loves about him-he understands what it takes to succeed at Stanford.”
Fowkes conceded that it would be easy for a lot of coaches to be easy going with the likes of Luck calling the signals and two high round NFL picks to protect him.
“I think this year really is a big test year for him,” Fowkes added of how year two at the helm might go for Shaw. “Now it truly is his team. With a new quarterback this is his team, so I think this is gonna be a real test year for him.”