Stanford is coming off the best two-season run in school history – 23 wins, five more than in any other two-year stretch, and two BCS bowls – but it's a fair question to ask how long the Cardinal can keep this going.
The Cardinal lost four All-Americans off last season's squad: quarterback Andrew Luck, guard David DeCastro, tackle Jonathan Martin and tight end Coby Fleener. Three-fourths of the starting secondary is gone, as well as the leading receiver. Thus, there is a school of thought that the Cardinal are going to fall a long way.
Truthfully, a long fall shouldn't happen. The Cardinal last season weathered the departure of coach Jim Harbaugh – who promptly worked his turnaround magic on the San Francisco 49ers – and should be able to overcome the departures of Luck and his buddies. Now, expecting Stanford to again contend for the Pac-12 North title might be a bit much, but an eight- or nine-win season looks to be in the offing.
Last season: 11-2 overall, 8-1 in Pac-12
Spring practice dates: Feb. 27-April 14
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season):
Offense (6): F Cameron Fleming, FB Ryan Hewitt, C Sam Schwartzstein, TB Stepfan Taylor, TE Levine Toilolo, G David Yankey
Defense (7): CB Terrence Brown, E Ben Gardner, LB Jarek Lancaster, LB Trent Murphy, T Terrence Stephens, LB A.J. Tarpley, LB Chase Thomas
Special teams (1): K Jordan Williamson
The defense should be better, as a whole, than it was last season. For one, linebacker Shayne Skov is back after missing all but three games with a knee injury. He and Chase Thomas should team to give Stanford one of the nation's best linebacker duos.
Offensively, it's obvious Luck will be missed. There is no one currently on Stanford's roster who will come close to matching his production. But there is a deep group of running backs, and while DeCastro and Martin will be missed, three other starting linemen are back. And for all of Luck's skills, Stanford has been a team built around a power rushing attack, and that is not going to change.
In addition, don't overlook the team's mindset. Stanford expects to win now. Harbaugh was super-intense on the sideline and his players fed off that energy. Second-year coach David Shaw is much more laid back, but the intensity level on the field didn't wane last season; Skov's return will help even more in that regard.
In short, Stanford has gone from a cute, feel-good story ("Hey, these brainiacs are good!") to a team that bludgeons foes with its physical nature. Stanford also is a program that has turned its on-field success into a recruiting bonanza. Stanford finished fifth in recruiting this cycle, and, on paper at least, signed the best class of offensive linemen in history.
Rick Jones of CardinalReport.com – a Rivals.com website that covers Stanford – provides a more in-depth look at spring practice.
The biggest problem: Who's the new quarterback? With Luck off to the NFL, Stanford begins the monumental task of finding his replacement. There are several candidates who will battle for the job this spring. Sophomore Brett Nottingham has a slight lead over a crowded field of Josh Nunes, Evan Crower, Robbie Picazo and Kevin Hogan. Shaw insists the offense won't change with the new quarterback; he says Stanford will continue to rely on a power running game and play-action passing. That's a scheme that fits Nottingham well.
On the spot: LB Blake Lueders. Lueders was a five-star recruit for the Cardinal in 2010. He switched from Notre Dame and signed with Stanford amid high expectations. Now entering his junior season, Lueders has yet to make the impact that everyone expected. He played in all 13 games in 2011, recording 23 tackles, including two sacks. A big contributor on special teams, Lueders will be pressed even more this fall by James Vaughters and the arrival of five-star prospect Noor Davis. Lueders needs a big spring.
On the verge: WR Ty Montgomery. Late in the 2011 season, Montgomery showed flashes of his talent, enough that coaches are hoping he will be the next Cardinal deep threat. When a series of concussions sidelined Chris Owusu last season, Montgomery was thrust into a starting role. He had a spectacular Fiesta Bowl performance, catching seven passes for 120 yards and one touchdown. Montgomery (6 feet 2/210 pounds) not only has the size to be a physical wide receiver but also the speed to be a deep threat.
General overview: Stanford has made back-to-back BCS appearances but has to replace three first-round picks off its offense. DeCastro and Martin join Luck as projected first-rounders, and finding someone to fill those slots will be a priority this spring. While Nottingham heads into spring drills as the starter at quarterback, the competition at the position likely will last until fall camp opens. The defense will be as talented and deep as any Cardinal unit in many years, but coaches still have to replace both starting safeties. One thing to watch this spring is where two-sport star Tyler Gaffney ends up. Listed as the No. 2 tailback, Gaffney also is a starting outfielder on the Stanford baseball team. He is projected as a third-round pick in the MLB draft, and many feel the diamond is where Gaffney will land for good.
For in-depth coverage of Stanford athletics, go to CardinalReport.com
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