2012 Stanford Preview – Offense
Stanford QB Brett Nottingham
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Stanford Cardinal Offense
Preview 2012 - Offense
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What You Need To Know: If David Shaw knows who the heir apparent to Andrew Luck will be, he hasn’t told anyone. Hey, at least the head coach narrowed a five-man battle in the spring to two combatants, junior Josh Nunes and sophomore Brett Nottingham. Although Nottingham has the edge in potential and overall physical ability, no one is quite ready to hand him the keys to the offense. No matter who gets the nod, the Cardinal will still feature a physical brand of football that accentuates the team’s strength at running back and tight end. Not only will RB Stepfan Taylor finally get the bigger spotlight he richly deserves, but he’ll be closely monitored by the NFL scouting community as well. Add in Anthony Wilkerson and Stanford houses a deep stable of backs capable of wearing down defenses. At tight end, the team parted with elite talent Coby Fleener, yet will remain dangerous on intermediate routes to Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo. Nottingham and Nunes must pay extra attention to the tight ends since, Ty Montgomery aside, the wide receivers are a gray area. While not as painful as the departure of Luck, the Cardinal will find it difficult to move on without LT Jonathan Martin and RG David DeCastro, repeat First Team All-Pac-12 performers. Up-and-coming David Yankey is making the move from left guard to left tackle, one of a number of offseason developments worth watching in the summer.
Star of the offense:Senior RB Stepfan Taylor
Passing: Brett Nottingham
5-8, 78 yds, 1 TD, 0 INTs
Rushing: Stepfan Taylor
242 carries, 1,330 yds, 10 TDs
Receiving: Ryan Hewitt
34 catches, 282 yds, 5 TDs
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore WR Ty Montgomery
Unsung star on the rise:Junior TE Zach Ertz
Best pro prospect: Taylor
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Taylor, 2) Junior TE Levine Toilolo, 3) Sophomore OL David Yankey
Strength of the offense: Power running game, depth of the backfield, tight ends, pass protection, protecting the ball
Weakness of the offense: Inexperience at quarterback, wide receivers, turnover on the offensive line
Andrew Luck graced the program with his presence during his junior year. His senior year of eligibility belongs to the Indianapolis Colts. Few players leave bigger shoes to fill than the Maxwell Award winner and No. 1 overall pick in April’s NFL Draft. The race to replace No. 12 has been intense … and undecided. The coaches will need at least the summer session to decide on Luck’s successor. The good news is that a field of five has been narrowed down to two combatants. Sophomore Brett Nottingham began the spring with a narrow edge based on the fact that he appeared in six games as Luck’s backup, even if he only attempted eight passes. The 6-4, 216-pounder can really snap off his passes, and throws with the accuracy that the coaching staff is after. Despite his ideal size for a pocket passer, he’ll also make things happen by breaking containment and surging toward the sticks.
Hanging tough with Nottingham throughout the spring was 6-4, 216-pound junior Josh Nunes. His only two passing attempts at this level came two years ago, yet another example of the Cardinal’s issue with experience at the position. The coveted recruit from the 2009 class has been boxed out of any relevancy up to this point, but has a terrific feel for the system, and possesses the poise and maturity that the program cherishes at the position.
Junior Robbie Picazo is one of the veterans at the position, but is in danger of being passed for the No. 3 job by one of two redshirt freshmen, Evan Crower or Kevin Hogan. Both were Top 25 recruits from 2011, with Hogan having the overall physical package that has the staff very excited about his future.
Watch Out For … Nottingham to get the nod from head coach David Shaw. The sophomore is the most complete quarterback on the roster, and best suited to handle the task of succeeding a legend. Shaw has wisely opted to shield his young heir apparent from getting too far under the microscope before a single game is played. Nunes is by no means out of the race, but he has ground to make up.
Strength: The future. Nunes was a four-star recruit from 2009. Ditto Nottingham in 2010. And Hogan in 2011. The bottom line is that the Cardinal is home to a lot of live arms, with bright futures, especially now that there’s a genuine need for one of them to step up and take ownership of the opportunity to win a marquee job.
Weakness: Inexperience. It’s sort of an obvious weakness, but the durability and excellence of Luck prevented his backups from picking up any meaningful minutes over the last two seasons. Nottingham has eight career passing attempts. Nunes has a deuce. There’s no way to properly simulate what the eventual starter is going to experience once he’s at the controls of a ranked team in September.
Outlook: It’s the start of a new era, one that’s beginning a year later than just about everyone expected. No one is going to be channeling Luck, and 2012 will be flush with rocky moments at the position, but the future is rosy nonetheless. The upcoming season will be all about developing the young passers, making sure that the game slows down considerably by 2013. With so much young talent on one campus, a transfer shouldn’t be ruled out once the starter is anointed.
Unit Rating: 7
Now that Andrew Luck is in the NFL, senior Stepfan Taylor is poised to assume the role of the face of the Stanford offense. The heir apparent to Toby Gerhart, he has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of the last two seasons, and has scored 30 career touchdowns. In 2011, he carried the ball 242 times for 1,330 yards and 10 scores, adding 25 catches for 182 yards and two more touchdowns. At 5-11 and 211 pounds, Taylor has the size and strength to batter defenses with tough inside runs. More of north-south operator than someone who’ll dance around, he hits the hole with authority, rarely getting stopped behind the line of scrimmage. In short-yardage situations, there are few better back backs in the game than No. 33.
The hope was for 6-1, 216-pound senior Tyler Gaffney to be a factor. A tough and physical runner in the mold of Toby Gerhart, he established career-highs a year ago by running 74 times for 449 yards and seven touchdowns. However, drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates, he chose to leave to play baseball.
Also firmly in the mix will be 6-1, 215-pound junior Anthony Wilkerson, yet another of the powerful backs in the stable. He’s played plenty over the last two seasons, displaying excellent power, yet a little more giddy-up than Taylor and Gaffney. A year ago, he finished third on the team with 56 carries for 282 yards and three scores.
The program continues to develop quality fullbacks to help keep the ground game rolling. Underrated junior Ryan Hewitt has been a real find since being converted from tight end. The 6-4, 243-pounder keeps evolving as a prototypical blocker at the position, but is also a weapon as a safety valve in the passing game. In fact, he finished third on the team in 2011, catching 34 passes for 282 yards and five touchdowns.
While Hewitt blurs the line between fullback and H-back, 6-4, 256-pound junior Geoff Meinken is an old school masher. Mostly a blocker in this system, he can also be unstoppable when given the ball in short yardage situations. His dozen carries went for 90 yards in 2011.
Watch Out For … Taylor to leave the Farm as Stanford’s all-time leading rusher. Currently No. 4 in the rankings, the senior needs 1,263 yards to leapfrog former Cardinal great Darrin Nelson. He’s been durable and indefatigable, but running room will be harder to find now that Luck and a couple of First Team All-Pac-12 offensive linemen are gone.
Strength: Power backs. Taylor, Wilkerson and the fullbacks are all well north of 200 pounds, and sure can move a pile. They have the necessary size, strength, and attitude to batter opposing defenses between the tackles, and soften up opponents. They are the identity of an offense that wants to establish an assertive ground game to help set up the pass.
Weakness: A change-of-pace. Yeah, Taylor will snap off long-gainers on occasion, but the Cardinal backfield is filled 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, one of the many reasons it’s excited about the arrival of four-star recruit Barry Sanders, son of the legendary Oklahoma State and Detroit Lions back.
Outlook: While the offense is bracing for life without Andrew Luck, it can take solace in a running game capable of carrying the attack for as long as it’s necessary. With Taylor leading the way, Stanford should still be able to play ball-control offense, working the clock, and keeping the quarterback from having to do too much in the early going. The Cardinal wants to ground-and-pound, and has the backs to accomplish that goal in 2012.
Unit Rating: 8
From a group that had already played to mixed reviews, the receivers are in a position to replace last year’s top three pass-catchers, including All-American TE Coby Fleener. The staff hopes it has that long-awaited rising star at wide receiver in 6-2, 210-pound sophomore Ty Montgomery. He played well in his debut, earning four starts, and catching 24 balls for 350 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Beyond harboring the desired blend of size and speed, he also has good hands, and the body control to make difficult catches on poorly-thrown balls. The expectation is that Montgomery will be the program’s best receiver over the next three years.
The coaches are searching for someone to take heat off Montgomery as he emerges. Senior Jamal-Rashad Patterson would make sense as his career winds to a close. The one-time blue-chip recruit from Georgia has never panned out, catching three balls for 38 yards in 2011 to bring his career total to nine grabs for 104 yards. At 6-3 and 205 pounds, he has always had the great size that many felt could be molded into a playmaker on the outside.
The Cardinal could also go a little smaller with 5-11, 180-pound senior Drew Terrell. Known mostly for his work as a dangerous return man, he peaked on offense with eight grabs for 81 yards and a touchdown in 2011. He’s tough and fearless, and does a nice job of blocking downfield, which will earn a receiver snaps in this offense.
Fleener may be gone, but Stanford still has plenty of terrific weapons at tight end. Junior Levine Toilolo, in fact, still found a way to earn honorable mention All-Pac-12 as the second option at the position in 2011, catching 25 balls for 343 yards and six touchdowns. Impossible to miss at 6-8 and 255 pounds, he’ll be a favorite target on third downs and near the end zone for the new quarterback. Not just tall, he also has the big mitts to pluck the ball out of the air.
The offense will also employ 6-6, 247-pound junior Zach Ertz, often on the field at the same time as Toilolo. Ertz won’t bust the seam the way Fleener used to, but he’s tough, physical and sure-handed. Despite starting just four games over the last two seasons, and missing part of 2011 with an injury, he has been able to turn his 43 receptions into 533 yards and nine touchdowns. Like Toilolo, Ertz has a career trajectory that’ll wind up in the NFL.
Watch Out For … heavy use of two-tight end sets. The Cardinal actually flourished putting three tight ends on the field at the same time last year, so the team is hardly against flooding the field with sizable targets. Toilolo and Ertz are too talented, and the receivers too questionable, for Stanford not to get its best set of hands on the field at all times.
Strength: The tight ends. A testament to the players at the position, Stanford lost an All-American to the NFL, yet remains rock solid at tight end. Toilolo and Ertz are both capable of earning all-league recognition, while combining for somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 catches and at least a dozen touchdowns.
Weakness: The wide receivers. New year. Same nagging issue. Montgomery is the new go-to guy, but he is still very young, and lacks consistency. After the sophomore, the situation worsens in a hurry, consisting of no sure-fire starter, and a mix of marginal wideouts who are going to struggle to stretch the defense regularly.
Outlook: The tight ends are an A, and the wide receivers are no better than a C, meaning the Cardinal receivers will be a mixed bag in 2012. The intermediate passing game will be fine, with Toilolo, Ertz, FB Ryan Hewitt and RB Stepfan Taylor doing a lot of damage in the flats and the middle of the field. Montgomery is the top candidate to get behind the secondary, but he’ll need a lot more help from his teammates.
Unit Rating: 7
The departure of QB Andrew Luck makes most of the headlines, but the offense is really going to miss a pair of All-American linemen, RG David DeCastro and LT Jonathan Martin, who were also picked high in April’s NFL Draft. A unit that has prided itself on attracting and developing top-notch blockers will be tested this fall. Toward the end of spring, 6-5, 302-pound sophomore David Yankey was taking a lot of reps at left tackle, testament to his versatility and the length the team will go to fill the spot. He started all 13 games of his rookie year at left guard, playing well enough to earn honorable mention All-Pac-12 and Freshman All-American recognition. He has the long arms, good feet and flexibility to continue excelling at either position on the left side.
The Cardinal would prefer it if 6-6, 302-pound redshirt freshman Brendon Austin rose up and seized the left tackle job. The four-star recruit from the 2011 class used last year to get bigger and stronger in the weight room, while getting a better grip on the playbook and blocking schemes.
If Yankey stays at tackle, it’ll create an opening at left guard for 6-3, 287-pound junior Khalil Wilkes, a letterman in each of the last two seasons. After losing the competition to start at center in 2011, he freelanced as a backup on the interior. He’s a heady blocker, who’ll have no problem adjusting to the starting lineup if the opportunity presents itself.
Wilkes was unable to beat out 6-3, 290-pound senior Sam Schwartzstein, the returning starter at center. He held up well in his first year as a regular, bringing leadership and clean snaps to the pivot. The elder statesman of the starting unit, he’s being counted on to evolve into even more of a mentor and vocal presence in 2012.
The right side of the line appears to be pretty set heading into the summer. Right guard should be the domain of 6-6, 288-pound junior Kevin Danser. He was on the verge of becoming the left guard a year ago, but was beat out by Yankey, and wound up serving a key role as a reserve off the bench.
At right tackle is the unit’s third returning starter, 6-6, 308-pound sophomore Cameron Fleming. Like Yankey, he stood out in his first season of action, getting named honorable mention All-Pac-12 and Freshman All-American. At this stage, his strength is pass protection, one of the key cogs of a group that allowed less than a sack per game in 2011. Fleming will continue to improve over time as his number of snaps increases.
Watch Out For … the new kids on the block. Stanford has become one of the places to be for the game’s elite high school linemen. The program inked a pair of five-star recruit in February, OT Kyle Murphy and OG Joshua Garrett. Murphy already has the size and technique to compete for the opening at left tackle, which is exactly what the staff hopes he’ll do in the summer.
Strength: Pass protection. Yeah, the dynamic is going to change without DeCastro and Martin, bit it bears noting the Cardinal has yielded just 24 over the last 39 games. That’s three straight years of building a wall around the quarterbacks. Help is needed at left tackle, but you get the sense that the program is going to figure things out before the season kicks off on Sept. 1.
Weakness: Inexperience. All of a sudden, the O-line has become very young, and in need of new leaders in the trenches. Schwartzstein is the senior of the bunch, but he has only year of starting experience. And while Yankey and Fleming are the new anchors on the left and right side, respectively, both are just sophomores. For the first time in a few years, there’s no true bellwether player up front for the program.
Outlook: Yes, the program will be rebuilding at the point of attack. No, this is not going to be a reclamation project. The Cardinal does return three starters, a handful of veterans and a select group of newcomers with the talent to contribute right away. Best of all, the staff now owns the secret sauce on how to coach up blockers, and maximize their potential. It won’t be 2011, but it won’t be a disaster either.
Unit Rating: 7.5
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