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August 13, 2011
OVERVIEW: The nation's best quarterback, a 1,000-yard rusher and two returning first-team all-conference linemen pace an offense that last season scored a school-record 524 points and ranked ninth in the nation in scoring offense. Some holes must be filled along the line and consistent receivers must emerge, but perhaps the most uncertain aspect is how the offense will fare under new coach David Shaw rather than Jim Harbaugh, who left to lead the NFL's San Francisco 49ers. Shaw had been offensive coordinator, but he did not call the plays. Still, with Andrew Luck at the controls, the offense figures to be among the country's most productive.
BACKFIELD: Luck is the best quarterback in the country and was the Heisman runner-up last season. Over the past two seasons, Stanford is 20-5 in games he has started. Last season, he ranked third in the country in passing efficiency while throwing for 3,338 yards and 32 touchdowns with a 70.7 completion percentage. And as
RECEIVERS: Stanford is in great shape at tight end. Coby Fleener is coming off a solid junior season in which he had 28 catches and seven touchdowns. Three of those touchdown grabs came in the Orange Bowl rout of Virginia Tech. One of his backups will be junior Levine Toilolo, who is back from an injury that forced him to miss almost all of last season. He has the potential to make big plays in the middle of the field. Wide receiver is more worrisome, with the top receivers from last season having completed their eligibility. Senior Chris Owusu is a deep threat who has 67 career receptions for 1,158 yards, but he has been injury-prone. Senior Griff Whalen had 17 catches in a backup role in 2010 and will get more chances this season. The other wide receivers on the roster combined for just six catches last season.
LINE: Last season, Stanford ranked second in the nation in sacks allowed and had a 1,000-yard rusher. In addition, the Cardinal have allowed just 13 sacks total the past two seasons. That doesn't happen without a dominant line. But only two starters return, though both will contend for All-American honors. T Jonathan Martin is viewed as a potential first-round NFL pick, while G David DeCastro is a mauler who has started 26 consecutive games. The rest of the line is in transition, though. The loss of All-America C Chase Beeler leaves a major void that will be filled by junior Sam Schwartzstein or sophomore Khalil Wilkes. The other spots feature competition between young players and fifth-year seniors. Senior Tyler Mabry or one of two redshirt freshmen, Cameron Fleming or David Yankey, will start at tackle, while senior Matt Bentler is vying with sophomore Kevin Danser at guard.
OVERVIEW: The Cardinal was 10th in the country in scoring defense in 2010. Stanford posted three shutouts and held each of its last six opponents to 17 points or less, including Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. This season, Stanford is without All-Pac-10 lineman Sione Fua and hard-nosed inside LB Owen Marecic. The defense's greatest loss, though, may be coordinator Vic Fangio, who left to join Harbaugh in the NFL. Derek Mason takes over supervision of the defense that returns its top four tacklers from last season.
LINE: Having lost two starters from its three-man front, Stanford is counting on players previously in backup roles to step in and raise the quality of their performance. Junior Terrance Stephens spent two seasons learning behind Fua at nose tackle. Stephens posted three tackles last season; he obviously will be more productive this season, but can he come close to replacing Fua's production? Cardinal fans can only hope. Sophomore Ben Gardner had a strong spring and earned a starting role at end opposite returning starter Matthew Masifilo, who had 33 tackles and four sacks in 2010.
LINEBACKERS: Mohawk-wearing sophomore Shayne Skov is an All-American candidate on the inside. A fearless player and a powerful hitter, he posted 84 tackles and 7.5 sacks in 11 games last season. He just needs more consistency. Marecic's loss is going to hurt. Fifth-year senior Max Bergen likely will step in, but true freshman James Vaughters will challenge. On the outside, Chase Thomas aims to build on an impressive sophomore season in which he had 70 tackles and 7.5 sacks. Trent Murphy, an imposing 6-foot-6, 242-pound sophomore, is coming back from injury and should start on the other side.
SECONDARY: Delano Howell and Michael Thomas aren't the biggest safeties around, but they have tremendous chemistry, are sure tacklers and are playmakers. Howell won All-Pac 10 acclaim last season after recording five interceptions and 60 tackles. Senior Johnson Bademosi made significant improvement and emerged as a solid starter at cornerback last year. Sophomore Barry Browning moves in as the other starting corner after playing well in a backup role in 2010.
In '09, Owusu returned three kickoffs for touchdowns and averaged more than 30 yards per return. He's dangerous. He's also subject to injury, which explains why Stanford coaches are considering removing him from the return team. If that happens, Usua Amanam or Jeremy Stewart will handle kickoff returns. They're not bad, but they're also not as good as Owusu. Drew Terrell averaged more than 12 yards per punt return last season. The Cardinal are also set at punter with either Daniel Zychlinski, who averaged 41.8 yards in 2010, or David Green, who averaged 43 yards on eight kicks. Kicker is a position of concern. All-Pac-10 pick Nate Whitaker completed his eligibility. Redshirt freshman Jordan Williamson, who twice hit from 50 yards as a high school senior, is Whitaker's probable successor. The coverage units need improvement; the punt coverage was awful last season.
Vaughters isn't just big (6-2/235) and talented. He also plays a position of need need. Vaughters was a high school All-American and was ranked the nation's No. 4 inside linebacker. Stanford is seeking a replacement for Marecic. Obviously, those who already have been in the program have an edge, but Vaughters may be too good to keep on the sideline.
Stanford is set up for a fast start. Five of its first six opponents are coming off losing seasons and none of its first seven opponents managed more than seven wins a year ago. Four of the Cardinal's first six opponents were 96th or worse in pass defense a year ago. That should bring a smile to Luck's face. The schedule gets much more treacherous in late October and November, when Stanford faces USC, Oregon, archrival Cal and Notre Dame. This season, Stanford is at home against Oregon in a game that could determine the North Division winner.
Although Stanford is depending on new starters along the offensive line and at receiver, any team with a quarterback of Luck's caliber has to be taken seriously as a championship contender. The advantageous early schedule sets up the Cardinal for a fast start and will give the new starters an opportunity to settle in. Truthfully, replacing lost starters may not be as much an issue as losing Harbaugh, who took Stanford from a 1-11 disaster to a 12-1 national title contender in four years. If Shaw proves as capable as Harbaugh, the Cardinal again could be a top-five team - provided Luck stays healthy, of course.
For more on Stanford now and throughout the season, check out CardinalReport.com