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2012 Stanford Preview - Out Of Luck
Stanford RB Stepfan Taylor
Stanford RB Stepfan Taylor
Posted Jun 15, 2012 2012 Preview - Stanford Cardinal

Stanford Cardinal

Preview 2012

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- By Richard Cirminiello

Head coach: David Shaw
Second year: 11-2
Returning Lettermen
Off. 29, Def. 27, ST 4
Lettermen Lost: 16
Ten Best Stanford Players
1. LB Chase Thomas, Sr.
2. RB Stepfan Taylor, Sr.
3. LB Shayne Skov, Sr.
4. DE Ben Gardner, Jr.
5. TE Levin Toilolo, Jr.
6. OT David Yankey, Soph.
7. QB Brett Nottingham, Soph.
8. OT Cameron Fleming, Soph.
9. NT Terrence Stephens, Sr.
10. QB Josh Nunes, Jr.
2012 Schedule

Aug. 31 San Jose State
Sep. 8 Duke
Sep. 15 USC
Sep. 27 at Washington
Oct. 6 Arizona
Oct. 13 at Notre Dame
Oct. 20 at California
Oct. 27 Washington State
Nov. 3 at Colorado
Nov. 10 Oregon State
Nov. 17 at Oregon
Nov. 24 at UCLA

A moment of silence, please, for the folks in Palo Alto. Andrew Luck is no longer a member of the program.

In successive years, the Cardinal has parted with head coach Jim Harbaugh and Luck, the two architects of its most unlikely resurgence into the national discussion. Stanford has been to three straight bowl games, back-to-back BCS bowl games and has gone 31-8 since the beginning of 2009. The program is on the fringe of expecting to be ranked year-in and year-out, which is usually only reserved for the true powerhouses of the game.

Without his elite, once-every-generation quarterback behind center, second-year head coach David Shaw is determined to begin putting his own unique stamp on the squad. The reality is that he wasn’t going to get the full credit for last season’s 11 wins and No. 7 finish since he inherited a team that was tailor-made for instant success. While there are still many of Harbaugh’s recruits left on campus, Shaw will really start to own the results—good or bad—at Stanford in 2012.

The Cardinal remains talented on both sides of the ball, especially in the front seven, thanks to some crackerjack recruiting, but there are surely more question marks than the last few editions. Luck’s successor, for instance, a riddle that Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes will attempt to solve in August. Not to be forgotten, prodigious TE Coby Fleener, OG David DeCastro and OT Jonathan Martin, all-NFL-ers, must also be replaced on offense, and an already average secondary is missing three starters.

With the bar raised significantly higher, it’ll be interesting to see how Stanford handles those expectations now that a handful of key components—on the field and on the sidelines—are in the NFL. The Cardinal is in an intriguing position as the 2012 season approaches; it is certainly not rebuilding, but it is certainly not as potent as it was in recent years.

The program moved on in 2010 without Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart. It managed just fine without Harbaugh in 2011. If it contends for a Pac-12 title without Luck this fall, Shaw will have navigated the toughest hurdle standing between him and sustaining a high level of excellence on the Farm.

What to watch for on offense: (Much) more of the same. The Cardinal has thrived with a pro-style attack that prefers to leverage its bigger bodies. With a new and inexperienced quarterback in the fold, why stop now? Stanford will be content to run the ball right up the gut with Stepfan Taylor, while using the backs and tight ends liberally in the passing game. The combination of Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz is arguably the best tight end tandem in America, a big and physical duo that’ll be the quarterback’s best friend. Oh, and don’t lose sight of Ryan Hewitt, the converted tight end who plays fullback, but is really an H-back in the passing game.

What to watch for on defense: The front seven to dominate. Few programs outside of the SEC can boast a line-linebacker combo that’s deeper or more talented than the one at Stanford. Up front, the Cardinal is big and scrappy, led by DE Ben Gardner. It’s at the second level where the program is really special. With the return from injury of ILB Shayne Skov, who joins OLB Chase Thomas, the team has a pair of All-America candidates at linebacker to go along with a gaggle of future stars, like Jarek Lancaster, Trent Murphy, James Vaughters and A.J. Tarpley. The defensive backfield will rarely be forced to defend the run in the fall, allowing it to focus on the pass.

The team will be far better if… the secondary surprises everyone. The last line of defense will arguably be the program’s biggest concern this season, especially with so many new starters in the lineup. In the Cardinal’s three toughest games of 2011, USC, Oregon and Oklahoma State, the pass defense was schooled for three touchdown passes in each game. With its own offense expecting to be less explosive this fall, Stanford is even less likely to survive those games that wind up being shootouts.

The Schedule: The Cardinal get two nice tune-up scrimmages against San Jose State and Duke before the interdivision showdown of showdowns against USC to kick off the Pac-12 season. The tests don't stop the rest of the way with six road games in the final nine and six in the last seven. There aren't any breaks getting winnable games against Washington State nd Oregon State at home meaning the showdowns against Oregon, Washington and Cal are on the road. Missing Utah and Arizona State from the South is a positive, but closing out at UCLA after going to Oregon isn't a plus.

Best offensive player: Senior RB Stepfan Taylor. After playing a complementary role to Luck the past two seasons, Taylor is about to become the catalyst of the attack. Toby Gerhart’s successor has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of the last two seasons, while scoring 30 times during his career. A year ago, he went for 1,330 yards and 10 scores, adding 25 catches for 182 yards and two more touchdowns. The 5-11, 211-pounder possesses the size, strength and toughness to soften up defenses on the inside, and maintain control of the clock for the Cardinal.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Chase Thomas. LB Shayne Skov is certainly in the discussion as well, but is coming back from a knee injury, and could lose time to a possible suspension. Thomas is an ideal match for an outside linebacker in this system, blending the pass-rushing skills of a defensive end with the ability to cover. The All-Pac-12 First Team selection made 52 tackles and a team-high 17.5 stops for loss and 8.5 sacks a year ago, making his presence felt all over the field. He’s a smart and instinctive defender who’ll use 2012 to showcase his diverse skill set to the NFL.

Key players to a successful season: Junior QB Josh Nunes or sophomore Brett Nottingham. No one expects Luck’s successor to be Luck. In fact, anyone trying to emulate No. 12 will get a one-way ticket to the bench. The Cardinal does, however, need a degree of stability behind center in order for the program to remain successful. Taylor will be the workhorse on the ground, but Nottingham or Nunes will still be asked to keep defenses honest by getting the ball in the hands of WR Ty Montgomery, FB Ryan Hewitt and tight ends Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz.

The season will be a success if ... the Cardinal wins nine games. Stanford is not the threat it recently was in the North Division, so a Pac-12 title seems a little out of reach. However, if the program can go 9-4 in the year after Andrew Luck leaves for the Indianapolis Colts, it would have to be deemed as a success. Anything less, with a schedule that begins with San Jose State and Duke, though, might send a message that the retreat has begun, and that the next BCS bowl trip might be years down the road.

Key game: Sept. 15 vs. USC. Conventional wisdom says Stanford is in for a decline in 2012. If the Cardinal wants to buck prevailing opinions, this would be the place to do it. The pair played in a triple-overtime classic won by the visitors at the Coliseum last year. If Stanford can knock off what could be the nation’s top-ranked team, everyone in the country will be tweaking the team’s expectations and ceiling by Sunday morning.

2011 Fun Stats:
- First downs - rushing: Stanford 131 – Opponents 60
- Third-down %: Stanford 53% – Opponents 31%
- Sacks: Stanford 39 - Opponents 11
- 2012 Stanford Preview | 2012 Stanford Offense
- 2012 Stanford Defense | 2012 Stanford Depth Chart