Jim Harbaugh may have followed in the great Bill Walsh's footsteps by leaving the Farm for one of the best franchises in all of sports, but he left Stanford football in excellent shape. Despite returning only 5 starters on offense, 6 on defense, no kickers, as well as losing their head coach and defensive coordinator, Stanford is currently ranked #4 in the USA Today Poll and #6 in the AP Poll.
Stanford ranks in the top 10 in the country in both points scored (9th) and points allowed (4th). They are balanced on offense, passing for 285 yards per game (28th in the nation) and rushing for 196 yards per game (35th in the nation). They're holding opponents to 1.23 yards per carry on the ground, and have only allowed one touchdown pass through the air. They are as complete a team as UCLA will face all year.
WIth Harbaugh gone, former offensive coordinator David Shaw takes over. Shaw served as Jim Harbaugh's offensive coordinator in 2006 at the University of San Diego, and was Stanford's offensive coordinator from 2007-2010. Prior to coaching in the college ranks, he spent nearly 10 years in the NFL. In fact, Shaw was wide receivers coach in Baltimore in 2005 at the time when Rick Neuheisel served as quarterbacks coach. Baltimore hired Mike Johnson to replace Shaw in 2006 after Shaw left for the University of San Diego to coach with Jim Harbaugh.
Shaw played under Bill Walsh during Walsh's second stint at Stanford. Shaw credits Walsh with the foundation of his offensive philosophy, which was later sharpened under Jon Gruden in the NFL. While Pep Hamilton is the offensive coordinator in title, this offense is clearly Shaw's.
Vic Fangio followed Jim Harbaugh to San Francisco, leaving the defense to co-defensive coordinators Derek Mason and Jason Tarver. Mason was the secondary coach last season, and spent the previous three years as a defensive backs assistant under Leslie Frazier of the Minnesota Vikings. Tarver had spent the previous 10 years in San Francisco, spending the previous 5 years as outside linebackers coach under Mike Nolan, Billy Davis, and Greg Manusky. Tarver was a graduate assistant at UCLA from 1998-2000 and has a master's degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from UCLA.
Andrew Luck. You may have heard of him. He is the best collegiate quarterback since Peyton Manning. He's better that Phillip Rivers was. He's better than Aaron Rodgers or Carson Palmer was. He's better than Matthew Stafford, Sam Bradford, Blaine Gabbert and Matt Ryan. Andrew Luck is the real deal.
At 6'4, 235 lbs., Luck certainly looks the part. However, it's not just the eyeball test that he passes. Last season, he completed 70.7% of his passes for 3,332 yards, and threw 32 touchdowns compared to only 8 interceptions. He's off to an even better start this year, completing 67.1% of his passes for 786 yards with 8 touchdowns and 1 interception.
Backing up Luck is RS Fr. Brett Nottingham. Yes, that Brett Nottingham. He beat out highly touted RS So. Josh Nunes and former walk-on So. Robbie Picazo for the job. At 6'4, 210 lbs., Nottingham also looks the part, and completed 3-4 passes for 55 yards and a touchdown in his only action this season.
Former 4 start recuit Jr. Stepfan Taylor is off to a hot start this season. The 5'11, 208 lbs. tailback has 289 yards and a solid 5.35 yards per carry. Had Stanford not blown the first three opponents out, his stats would be more impressive as he carried less than 50% of Stanford's team rushing attempts to date. Taylor rushed for 1137 yards last season, including 15 touchdowns, and is a decent threat out of the backfield as a receiver as well.
So. Anthony Wilkerson and Jr. Tyler Gaffney provide a solid 2-3 punch off the bench. The two are both big (6'1 220 lbs. and 6'1 216 lbs., respectively) and talented (4 star recruits). Wilkerson has 12 carries to Gaffney's 10, but Gaffney has two touchdowns to Wilkerson's one. Gaffney has also caught four balls out of the backfield.
Fifth year Sr. Jeremy Stewart returns as well. At 6'1, 218 lbs., he's a load to bring down, but he has fought injuries his entire career.
At fullback, Stanford replaces Owen Marecic by committee. RS So. Geoff Meinken was recruited out of high school as a defensive end, and he's built like an offensive tackle. At 6'4, 274 lbs., he has more than enough girth to create holes for the Cardinal running backs. Jr. Ryan Hewitt (6'4 238 lbs.) is more versatile and can be used more as an H-Back. He has 9 receptions on the year for 105 yards and a touchdown.
Receivers and Tight Ends
Of the 63 total team receptions, only 25 have been by wide receivers this season. Twenty-eight of the receptions are split between tight ends Sr. Coby Fleener (6'6 244 lbs.), Jr. Zach Ertz (6'6 249 lbs.), Jr. Levine Toilolo (6'8 263 lbs.), and H-Back/Fullback Jr. Ryan Hewitt. In comparison, Stanford's tight ends accounted for 67 of last season's 266 team receptions.
Fleener, Ertz, and Toilolo all have NFL talent. Despite their size, they are not plodding tight ends; Fleener averages 22.67 yards per reception, Ertz averages 14.11 yards per reception, and Toilolo averages 25.50 yards per reception. Fleener is was one of Luck's favorite targets, catching 28 balls for 434 yards last year. He excels in the red zone, where he caught 7 touchdowns last season and has 3 already this season. Ertz and Toilolo are both former 4 star recruits. Ertz has broken out this year, catching 9 balls for 136 yards and 3 touchdowns. Toilolo missed most of last season with an ACL injury, but he has excellent leaping ability and has caught 4 balls for 102 yards and a touchdown.
At receiver, Stanford loses top receivers Doug Baldwin and Ryan Whalen. In their place, the Cardinal will start Sr. Chris Owusu and Sr. Griff Whalen. Owusu has decent size (6'2 200 lbs.) and has been a dynamic playmaker throughout his career as both a receiver and return man. Unfortunately, he has also suffered a number of injuries that have slowed him down. His yards per reception have dropped from 18.43 to 15.84 to 14.19 since 2009. When healthy, Owusu is Stanford's biggest playmaker
Griff Whalen may be a former walk-on, but he is Luck's roommate and is one of those collegiate receivers that manages to help his team win. At 6'1 185 lbs. and lacking top end speed, he squeezes out every bit his talent. He caught 17 balls for 249 yards last year, and has 6 receptions for 72 yards this season.
Whalen's story is in direct contrast with third receiver, Jr. Jamal-Rashad Patterson. The former 4 start recruit has all the size (6'3 205 lbs.) and speed a wide receiver could need, but he hasn't managed to turn the talent into production. Last season, Patterson caught 5 balls for 67 yards. This season, he has caught 2 balls for 16 yards.
Other receivers who may see action are Fr. Ty Montgomery (6'2 205 lbs.) and Jr. Drew Terrell (5'11 180 lbs.). Montgomery has been brought along fairly slowly in his freshman campaign, but the 4 star recruit has big time talent that may be opened up a bit following Stanford's bye week.
Stanford's offense is largely predicated on the maulers up front. This is the biggest offensive line UCLA has faced all season, and while the line may not be as good as last year's, it is still the engine that drives the Stanford offense. Led by returning stars RG Jr. David DeCastro (6'5, 307 lbs.) and LT Jr. Jonathon Martin (6'6 297 lbs.), the Cardinal offensive line has played extremely well this year, giving up only 2 sacks and paving the way for 196 rushing yards per game.
The other three spots on the line are all new starters. Of them, C Jr. Sam Schwartzstein (6'3, 278 lbs.) is the most experienced. The other two spots are manned by redshirt freshmen. RT Cameron Fleming (6'6, 299 lbs.) beat Sr. Tyler Mabry (6'7, 300 lbs.), and LG David Yankey (6'5, 305 lbs.) beat SO Kevin Danser (6'6, 284 lbs.) for the job. Mabry and Danser remain in the rotation, as does C So Khalil Wilkes (6'3, 280 lbs.) and G Sr. Matt Bentler (6'5, 297 lbs.).
That concludes Part I of the preview of the Stanford Cardinal. Fire away with any further comments and thoughts, and be sure to check back in for Part II of the preview, where we'll take a look at Stanford's defense and special teams.