2011 Stanford Preview – Offense
Stanford WR Chris Owusu
CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Stanford Cardinal Offense
Preview 2011 - Offense
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What You Need To Know: Stanford is in the midst of its best two-year offensive run in school history. When QB Andrew Luck opted to return for his junior year, it increased the likelihood that that trend will continue in 2011. The Cardinal has been unstoppable of late and almost perfectly balanced, getting production from the passing of Luck and a power running game, most recently from Stepfan Taylor. The objective will be to keep the locomotive on the tracks in a year that the staff has turned over and there's a need for help at wide receiver and along the offensive line. The fact that new head coach David Shaw was the program's offensive coordinator for the last four seasons is a huge plus in the area of continuity. The tight ends, led by Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz, and Levine Toilolo, are among the deepest in America, but the passing game still needs gamebreaker Chris Owusu to be healthy for an entire year.
Star of the offense: Junior QB Andrew Luck
Passing: Andrew Luck
162-288, 2,575 yds, 13 TDs, 4 INTs
Rushing: Andrew Luck
61 carries, 354 yds, 2 TDs
Receiving: Ryan Whalen
57 catches, 926 yds, 4 TD
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior RT Tyler Mabry
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore RB Anthony Wilkerson
Best pro prospect: Luck
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Luck, 2) Junior G David DeCastro, 3) Junior T Jonathan Martin
Strength of the offense: Quarterback, power runners, tight ends, red zone scoring, protecting the ball, pass protection
Weakness of the offense: Turnover on the offensive line, uncertainty at wide receiver
State of the Unit: Jan. 6, 2011. It's a day that Cardinal fans remember fondly. It was the day that All-American QB Andrew Luck broke with tradition, passed on being the likely No. 1 overall NFL Draft choice, and returned to the Farm for his junior year. The fortunes of the 2011 squad improved markedly. Instead of breaking in an unproven hurler, Stanford retains the services of the nation's premier passer, the 2010 Heisman runner-up and Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year. The 6-4, 235-pounder was brilliant in 2010, going 263-of-372 for 3,338 yards, 32 touchdowns, and eight picks. A sneaky-good runner, he also rushed for 453 yards and three scores. From the arm and the athleticism to the smarts and leadership, he has everything a program looks for in a franchise quarterback.
One of the more interesting competitions in camp will be for the No. 2 job. Alex Loukas is gone, creating a race to be Luck's backup and get a head start on becoming his successor. Coming out of spring, 6-4, 209-pound sophomore Josh Nunes had the slight edge. One of the nation's top recruits of 2009, he's a polished passer who fielded offers from the likes of Florida, Tennessee, and Oklahoma. The 2010 version of Nunes is 6-4, 210-pound redshirt freshman Brett Nottingham, a big, strong-armed passer with ideal zip on his passes. While not as heralded as Nunes two years ago, sophomore Robbie Picazo, a 6-3, 202-pound former walk-on is not shrinking from the competition.
Watch Out For … the staff to do a better job of getting reps for the backups this season. Luck can't possibly return for his senior year, right? The Cardinal will prepare as if that's the case, giving Nunes and Nottingham chances under center when it's prudent. Last year's No. 2, Loukas, threw just five passes despite 10 Stanford games being decided by at least three touchdowns.
Strength: Downfield passers. Beginning with Luck, naturally, the Cardinal is loaded with gifted passers who can make all the throws. One of the many legacies of Jim Harbaugh was his ability to attract top-flight quarterbacks from around the country, which will keep the school flush with big-time passers for years to come.
Weakness: Proven backups. There's Luck and then there's a lot of competing quarterbacks with virtually no experience at this level. Of last year's 379 passing attempts, only seven weren't flicked by No. 12, which could become an issue if he's forced to miss any time.
Outlook: Luck has been the engineer of the two highest scoring offenses in school history. As long as he's upright, there's no reason to believe he can't make it three. His return in 2011 is a gift for a program already adjusting to the departure of Harbaugh to the NFL. Pay attention to the race for the backup job. If it doesn't become relevant this season, it should be a year from now.
Unit Rating: 10
State of the Unit: All things considered, Stanford could not have done a better job of replacing Doak Walker Award winner Toby Gerhart in 2010. Aided by blocking back Owen Marecic and a terrific offensive line, the Cardinal produced another 1,000-yard rusher, averaged 5.2 yards a carry, and ranked 17th nationally on the ground. With last year's top four ground-gainers back, more of the same is expected in 2011.
Junior Stepfan Taylor admirably filled Gerhart's shoes in his debut as the feature back, rushing for 1,137 yards and 15 touchdowns on 223 carries. He added 28 catches for 266 yard and another score, providing Andrew Luck with a reliable safety valve. A 5-11, 210-pound north-south runner, he does his best work on the inside, patiently waiting for an opening and then looking for someone to hit. Quick to the hole, he's averaging more than five yards a carry for his career and is always moving forward.
Taylor has no shortage of cover off the bench. Sophomore Anthony Wilkerson was second among running backs last fall, running for 408 yards and three scores on 89 carries. At 6-1 and 215 pounds, he attacks the hole and is tough to bring down. While 6-1, 216-pound junior Tyler Gaffney still spends springs with the baseball team, he's all football in the fall. An in-line runner, who plays as if he's channeling Gerhart, he has two letters, running for a career-best 255 yards and four scores in 2010.
For good measure, fifth-year senior Jeremy Stewart has been granted another year of eligibility. An oft-injured four-time letterwinner, he brings leadership and a great work ethic to the backfield.
Who replaces Marecic, an all-conference fullback? That's the big question in the backfield. A very tight battle is being waged between 6-4, 240-pound sophomore Ryan Hewitt, 6-1, 247-pound redshirt freshman Lee Ward, and 6-4, 255-pound sophomore Geoff Meinken . Hewitt is the most versatile of the trio, and could also see playing time at H-back.
Watch Out For … Wilkerson to command more carries. Taylor remains the opening act of the running game, but Wilkerson has earned a chance for more exposure. He'd be a starter on a handful of other programs, running with good power and an undeniable sense of purpose.
Strength: Power backs. Taylor, Wilkerson, Stewart, and Gaffney can move a pile and are all north of 200 pounds. They have the necessary size, strength, and attitude to batter opposing defenses between the tackles and soften up opponents. They form a perfect complement to the precision passing of Andrew Luck.
Weakness: A change-of-pace. Yeah, Taylor will snap off big plays on occasion, but the Cardinal backfield is flush with very similar parts. Where are the scatbacks or gamebreakers, who can get around tackle and down the sidelines in a flash? It's been years since Stanford has had that type of big-play back.
Outlook: One year. That's all it took for the Cardinal to rebuild in the backfield. Taylor is one of the Pac-12's top backs, and there's an embarrassment of riches behind him.
With the passing game commanding so much attention from other teams, the ground game figures to churn out big chunks of yardage again this fall.
Unit Rating: 8
State of the Unit: Andrew Luck may be back, but the passing attack won't be without issues. The Cardinal needs to replace last season's top two receivers, Doug Baldwin and Ryan Whalen, an extremely reliable pair that caught 99 passes and were consummate professionals. Loaded with some of the best tight end talent in America, the coaching staff will turn most of its attention to a set of young receivers with a massive opportunity—and responsibility—ahead of them.
If he's healthy, 6-2, 199-pound senior Chris Owusu is guaranteed of winning one of the starting jobs. The problem is that he's had a history of injuries, missing six games last year and recovering from a knee injury in the spring. He wound up with just 25 receptions for 396 yards and three touchdowns, a far cry from his potential. When at 100%, he possesses a combination of size, straight-line speed, and quickness that makes defensive backs sweat and NFL scouts drool.
In 6-6, 244-pound senior TE Coby Fleener, Andrew Luck found a favorite target down the middle of the field last season. A rangy seam-buster, with a long stride, he collected 28 catches for 434 yards and seven touchdowns as a part-time starter. While no pile-driver as a blocker in the running game, he's the kind of pass-catching tight end who could go very high in the 2012 NFL Draft.
So who else fills out the receiving corps? Senior Griff Whalen, Luck's roommate, is a very strong possibility. A former walk-on, who does all of the little things well, he caught 17 balls for 249 yards and a touchdown a year ago. Junior Jamal-Rashad Patterson is a flashier option in the passing. A former can't-miss recruit from Georgia, he has the 6-3, 205-pound frame and athletic ability to enjoy a breakout year. He's been quiet so far, catching five passes for 67 yards last fall. Although he only caught two passes in 2010, the staff likes the big-play potential of 5-10, 179-pound junior Drew Terrell . One of the more elusive players of this group, he's turned head on special teams as a punt returner.
Fleener is far from alone at tight end. Sophomore Zach Ertz is a similar threat in the passing game, another 6-6, 244-pound target, who caught 16 passes for 190 yards and five touchdowns in his first season of action. Oh, and last year's opening starter at the position, 6-8, 255-pound sophomore Levine Toilolo is on the mend after suffering a season-ending ACL tear. Before getting hurt his size and leaping ability had the staff eager to test out his potential.
Watch Out For … the recovery of Owusu. With Luck around, Stanford is going to move the ball through the air no matter what. However, Owusu is a game-changer and the kind of field-stretcher who spreads out a defense and makes everyone's life a little simpler.
Strength: The tight ends. If the Cardinal doesn't house the best group of tight ends in the country, it's certainly in the discussion. There's talent, depth, and size, with none of the three primary players standing less than 6-6. Fleener has All-America potential, and Ertz and Toilolo would start for a lot of schools.
Weakness: Wide receiver. If Owusu can play 13 games and pick up where he left off in 2009, the wideouts won't be so much of a concern. If he gets dinged, which history says is likely, the Cardinal is going to be shorthanded on the outside. It's incumbent upon the likes of Patterson and Terrell to begin delivering on their high school rankings.
Outlook: So who wants to be a star in 2011? While there's some uncertainty within this unit, it should be fine by October. The tight ends can carry a lot of the weight and the receivers will be buoyed by a competitive atmosphere. Plus, everyone looks a little sharper when their batterymate is someone of Luck's caliber.
Unit Rating: 7
State of the Unit: The largely unsung heroes of the program's offensive success over the last two seasons, the line has been a fortress on the Farm. And although the unit is being remade in the wake of the graduations of C Chase Beeler, LG Andrew Phillips, and RT Derek Hall, hope can be found in the lone returning starters, both of whom earned a spot on the All-Pac-10 first team.
One of the top young blockers in America, junior RG David DeCastro returns for his third season as a starter. He elevated the level of his play a year ago, routinely dominating his man with superior strength, fundamentals, and footwork. At 6-5 and 307 pounds, he moves extremely well and has an enticing enough package of skills to consider early entry into the 2012 NFL Draft.
DeCastro's equivalent at tackle is 6-6, 297-pound junior Jonathan Martin, who's done a remarkable job of protecting the backside of Andrew Luck. The Cardinal allowed just six sacks all year, in large part because of Martin's ability to get out of his stance in an instant and seal off the edge. A terrific athlete, with a good punch, he's the epitome of a franchise left tackle at the next level.
The uncertainty up front revolves around the determination of the other three starters. Replacing Beeler, last year's other All-Pac-10 first teamer, at the pivot will be the toughest task. Going head-to-head are 6-3, 278-pound junior Sam Schwartzstein and 6-3, 280-pound sophomore Khalil Wilkes. Both earned their first letters in 2010. If there's a lead, it belongs to Schwartzstein, but this is a race that won't be finished until August.
Sophomore Kevin Danser is on the verge of locking down the opening at left guard. A 6-6, 284-pound backup a year ago, he plays with a nasty streak and is coming off a solid spring. Although he's getting challenged by 6-6, 299-pound redshirt freshman Cameron Fleming, 6-7, 290-pound senior Tyler Mabry appears to be a safe bet at right tackle. A three-time letterwinner, he has the experience to be this year's Hall, rising up when duty calls in his final year of eligibility.
Watch Out For … the outcome of the fight at center. It'll be up to Schwartzstein and Wilkes to ensure that the fall-off from Beeler is as minimal as possible. Both are capable linemen, which is a huge reason why the staff has had a difficult time anointing one over the other.
Strength: Pass protection. Yeah, there's some heavy turnover from a year ago, but this is a unit that's allowed just 13 sacks over the last 26 games. With the returns of Martin and DeCastro and the pocket savvy of Luck, the Cardinal will again be among the league leaders in sacks allowed.
Weakness: Depth. The return of senior G Matt Bentler should help, but the second unit will be loaded with first-time players. The Cardinal is going to be extremely young and unproven beyond the starters, which could be an issue as a long season unfolds.
Outlook: There are holes to be filled, but with DeCastro and Martin forming a foundation, Stanford should once again be fine up front. The first unit will continue to protect Luck and open holes for the big backs, but trouble could be on the horizon if the team's fragile depth gets tested.
Unit Rating: 8
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