By Rock Mayock 10:00 p.m. | The last three years at Stanford have been nothing short of miraculous. Jim Harbaugh transformed the Cardinal from cellar dweller geeks to a hard nose in your face physical football powerhouse. Harbaugh led the Cardinal to the Sun Bowl and Orange Bowl before opting to take his talents across the Bay to coach the San Francisco 49ers. After Harbaugh’s departure first year head coach David Shaw led the Cardinal to a 12-2 season that ended with a narrow loss to the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the 2012 Fiesta Bowl. Pundits question whether or not Shaw’s success was born from his own coaching prowess or the stockpile of talent left behind by Harbaugh. Let’s take a look at what the Cardinal have in store for 2012.
OVERVIEW: No Pac-12 team lost more NFL caliber talent than the Stanford Cardinal. Stanford lost 4 players, including 2 in Round 1 and 2 in Round 2, to the 2012 NFL Draft and numerous others to graduation. As a result the Cardinal are facing the unenviable challenge of finding a new starting quarterback, rebuilding an offensive line and retooling the defense. With these obstacles in front of him, second year head coach David Shaw will have to guide his team through a very difficult Pac-12 North schedule. The good news is that before his departure, Jim Harbaugh amassed a pool of talent that will carry Stanford for the next 3 years.
OFFENSE: The most notable absentee from the 2011 Stanford team is quarterback Andrew Luck. As we know Luck was the number one pick in the Draft as he was universally regarded as the best QB prospect since John Elway. Replacing Luck will be no easy task because his grasp of Stanford’s pro-style offense elevated him to the status of an on the field coach. Fortunately for David Shaw, Jim Harbaugh was an excellent assessor of QB talent and recruited two highly prized prospects, Brett Nottingham (So) and Josh Nunes (Jr), to be Luck’s eventual successor. Because of his extra year in the system and his grasp of the offense, Nunes has the slight edge in this still very tight competition.
Up front the Cardinal lost stud linemen Jonathan Martin (OT) and David DeCastro (OG). The breadth of talent and experience lost with Martin and DeCastro’s early departure cannot be overstated. On the plus side the Cardinal will return starters Sam Schwartzstein (C), David Yankey (LG) and Cameron Fleming (RT) to the line. Fleming will likely get moved to the left in order to protect the blind side to allow true freshman Kyle Murphy (OT) to break into the rotation. At 6 ‘7”, 275lbs, Kelly needs to bulk up and play big in order to keep a starting spot.
The Tight End and Wide Receiver positions also significant contributors. 2011 All Pac-12 Tight End Coby Fleener and his 34 receptions, 667 receiving yards (19.6 YPC) and 10 TDs have gone on to join Andrew Luck on the Indianapolis Colts. Apparently Harbaugh was as good at assessing Tight End talent as QB talent because the super tandem of Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo will cushion the loss of Fleener. The Cardinal also lost senior WR Chris Owusu and his numerous concussions to graduation and possibly (but hopefully not for the sake of his health) the NFL. The senior WR tandem of Jamal-Rashard Patterson and Drew Terrell have been disappointing thus far in their collegiate careers but they will see action. If Patterson and Terrell falter then other dynamic athletes such as Ty Montgomery will definitely get playing opportunities.
The hallmark of both Harbaugh’s and Shaw’s offense has been the strength of the rushing attack and this year will be no different. Last season’s leading rusher Stepfan Taylor returns in an effort to become the first Stanford running back to rush for 1,000+ yards in three consecutive seasons. The addition of true freshman Barry Sanders Jr. (yes, that Barry Sanders) will provided an added dimension to the backfield. Expect the Cardinal to run hard and run often to grind out games until they can get their new starting quarterback comfortable in the passing game.
DEFENSE: The Stanford defense will compliment the grind it out offense. Up front the D-line will be thin at experience but will feature 2nd Team All Pac 12 DE Ben Gardner. True freshman DE Aziz Shittu has looked great in both Spring and Fall practice and he will make an immediate impact as the bookend to Gardner. The line backing corps will be the strength of the team and will feature Chase Thomas, James Vaughters, Noor Davis as well as the return of 2010’s leading tackler Shayne Skov. Skov missed all but three games of the 2011 season due to a season ending knee injury. Although Skov is fully recovered and medically cleared to play he is facing disciplinary action due to an off season DUI arrest (OOPS!).
The secondary will be a point of concern as both safeties, Delano Howell and Michael Thomas, were lost to graduation. Incoming freshman S Alex Carter and his 4.33 speed all but locked up one of the open positions during Spring practice but the other spot is still up for grabs. Terrence Brown and Wayne Lyons are projected to start at corner but Lyons is coming off a season ending foot injury from 2011. Unfortunately for the Cardinal a young inexperienced secondary is a liability in a conference that features no less than 5 quarterbacks that will be playing in the NFL within the next 3 years. Good luck fellas.
FINAL THOUGHTS: 2012 Will be the first true test of David Shaw’s brief tenure at Stanford as he will be without safety blanket superstar Andrew Luck. Although he will have ample talent throughout the roster it is debatable whether or not Shaw can hang with the other innovative coaches in the Pac-12. Coaches such as Chip Kelly, Steve Sarkisian, Mike Leech, Lane Kiffin, and Rich Rodriguez are all on Stanford’s schedule this year. Making things worse is that majority of Stanford’s difficult games are on the road. Contests against Washington, Notre Dame, Oregon and rival Cal will all be played on the road. They also have the pleasure of playing presumptive Pac-12 South champion USC at Stanford Stadium on September 15 (start planning your Weekender travel plans now). This brutal schedule coupled with a new quarterback and a rebuilt offensive line does not bode well for a great season. Don’t be surprised if Stanford takes a step back in 2012.
Season Prediction: 7-5, 4th in the Pac-12 North