Ever since John Ralston left for the Denver Broncos after leading them to back-to-back Rose Bowl titles and top 10 finishes, it seemed as if the Stanford Cardinal had established a pretty good rhythm. Win eight or nine games once or twice a decade (while finishing low in the Pac-10 standings the other years), lose successful coaches to the NFL (or Notre Dame), occasionally send great quarterbacks to the NFL as well (Jim Plunkett, John Elway, and to a lesser extent Trent Edwards), serve as the opening act for the Stanford band, get annoyed every time this highlight comes on, win big in every non-revenue sport, rinse, repeat.
Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw seem to have made other plans. Now, for all we know, the 23-3 record the two produced (with just a little bit of help from quarterback Andrew Luck) in 2010-11 could be simply have been a longer, stronger run of success than normal before the inevitable decline. Harbaugh did, after all, follow the script by leaving to become an NFL head coach, and Luck will, after all, be playing for the Indianapolis Colts this fall. But Stanford is trying as hard as it can to recruit its way out of a down cycle.
Following his 4-8 debut season in 2007, Harbaugh signed the No. 50 class in the country to play for his Cardinal. The class was relatively small (17 players), but it included a high four-star quarterback named Andrew Luck and high three-star recruits like offensive linemen David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin and linebacker Chase Thomas. Luck, DeCastro and Martin went first, 24th and 42nd in April's NFL Draft, and Thomas is a potential All-American this fall, but one could write this off as a bit of a magic class. Many second- or third-tier major conference teams have signed a magic class that outperformed its recruiting rankings, then later found that usually No. 50 classes are, indeed, typically quite average.
Since then, however, Stanford's recruiting rankings have improved rapidly. After just a 5-7 season, the 2009 class included eight four-star players and ranked 20th in the country. The 2010 class included five four-star signees and a wealth of high three-stars and ranked 26th. The 2011 class, Shaw's first after Harbaugh left for the San Francisco 49ers, brought in another seven four-star kids and ranked 22nd. Stanford had established itself as a top 25 level recruiter; and then 2012 happened. Shaw reeled in three five-star recruits (only three schools -- Alabama, LSU and USC -- brought in more than three), 10 four-star recruits, and one of the best offensive line classes college football has ever seen. With the right coach, just about any major conference school can pull in some top 25 recruiting classes here and there; Stanford's 2012 class, on the other hand, ranked fifth. Fifth!
For years, we have come to accept that schools with higher academic standards will struggle to recruit big-time players; recently, however, coaches like Harbaugh and Shaw at Stanford and James Franklin at Vanderbit (No. 29 class in 2012, No. 16 class thus far in 2013) have begun to destroy that perception. Shaw has turned Stanford's elite academic status into a strength, a challenge, and it could quite possibly be changing the fortunes of the Stanford football program as a whole. They may very well struggle to win double-digit games in their first post-Luck season, but with four- and five-star talent at seemingly every position on the field and one of the best sets of lines in college football (for years to come), they are incredibly, jarringly well-established for the future. The Stanford we knew is, for the time being, long gone.
Fans of millions of down programs think, when a new coach is hired, that the new guy is going to bring them swiftly and surely to respectability, then greatness; but it doesn't actually happen that often. It happened with Harbaugh and Stanford.
Unfortunately, Harbaugh was a little too good and was snatched away by the San Francisco 49ers. He installed a strong, tough, powerful identity onto a team in need of one, and now he hands the reins to David Shaw. Harbaugh's offensive coordinator last year, Shaw is the new
head coachBradford M. Freeman Director of Football (oh, Stanford); he will attempt to maintain the momentum and identity and take advantage of the fact that Andrew Luck is in uniform for one more season. […]
It's just not supposed to be as easy as Harbaugh made it look. Stanford improved in every year of his tenure, and while I am not nearly as optimistic about the David Shaw era as a whole (if for no other reason than Harbaugh was a great coach, and even if Shaw's only good, there's a step backwards on the horizon), 2011 should still be a great one for the Cardinal. Whether "great" means another nine or ten wins, or whether it means a shot at the national title, will depend on how much regression we see on the defensive side of the ball. I see the offense rolling at a high level, particularly in October and November (once the offensive line has gotten a change to gel), but the defense is quite a question mark. A unit tends to regress a bit after sudden ascension, anyway, but when you throw in the loss of the defensive coordinator and a good portion of the front seven, that's a problem. […]
Perhaps the biggest game on the schedule is the September 17 trip to Arizona. The Wildcats are facing their own demons at the moment (no offensive line and Juron Criner's up-in-the-air position on the team, to name two), but if Stanford gets past that one, a 7-0 start is likely. The schedule is backloaded (at USC, at Oregon State, Oregon, California, Notre Dame in the last five), but this is a team built to improve as time progresses. We'll worry about Stanford's prospects for 2012 and beyond in 2012 ... for now, they should have one more really nice run in them.
The Adj. Points measure is intended to gauge how a team would have performed against a perfectly average opponent from week to week. In 2011, only four teams performed well enough to defeat this paper opponent in every game they played: Wisconsin, Houston, Oregon and Stanford. Despite a bit of a big-play deficiency, the offense was staggeringly consistent (32.6 Adj. Points per game in the first four games, 33.1 in the next four, 32.8 in the final five), and while the defense regressed a bit as the season progressed (23.3 Adj. Points allowed in the first four games, 25.2 in the next four, 27.8 in the final five), it still did its job well enough for the Cardinal to average a 45.1 to 12.8 score in nine of their 11 wins.
USC and California kept things very close, and Stanford did slip up against Oregon and Oklahoma State (combined record: 24-3), but the 2011 season still served as a fitting end to Luck's storied career. In his three years as Stanford's starting quarterback, the Cardinal went 31-8 (23-3 in the last two years). In the seven seasons before Luck, Stanford won just 25 games. Now, the rebuilding/reloading process begins.
It has to have been a rather frustrating offseason for Stanford football fans. Your team wins 23 games in two seasons, and accordingly you begin to see more coverage. Hell, you even got your own ESPN football blog for some reason (did they go independent when I wasn't looking?). More people are paying attention! That's good. But that also means that more and more people have written the same "Andrew Luck is gone, and Stanford is going to regress" article, and you have probably read all of them.
So yes. Andrew Luck is indeed gone. So are two phenomenal offensive linemen. And that almost certainly means that Stanford won't be winning 11 or 12 games in 2012. Yes. Absolutely. But now that that is out of the way, let's move on to who will be filling out a Stanford uniform this fall and attempting to move the ball in a positive direction. If Stanford doesn't in fact regress as much as we might anticipate this fall, here are the players who will probably be most responsible:
- Running back Stepfan Taylor. He almost certainly benefited from phenomenal run blocking (as his minus-2.4 Adj. POE in 2011 would suggest), but Taylor has rushed for 2,467 yards, caught 53 passes, and scored a combined 28 touchdowns in the last two seasons; in his two bowl games, he has produced 291 rushing yards, and he spent the spring getting groomed to become a 30-touch-per-game workhorse. He averaged 20.5 touches per game last year while working in a bit of a running backs committee, but with Jeremy Stewart gone, Anthony Wilkerson injured and Tyler Gaffney's status uncertain while he decides whether or not to sign an MLB contract,
offensive coordinatorAndrew Luck Director of Offense (oh, Stanford) Pep Hamilton is preparing for life with Taylor as a featured back.
- Lineman David Yankey. A sophomore who could either start his second year at guard or move over to fill in for Jonathan Martin at left tackle, Yankey might not have had as much to do with Stanford's wonderful line stats (ninth in Adj. Line Yards, 18th in Adj. Sack Rate) as Martin or DeCastro, but he is strong, well-rounded and, by default, the new leader in career starts (with center Sam Schwartzstein) with 13. It appears the staff's preference is to leave him at guard, but that will depend on the progress made by youngsters like redshirt freshman Brendon Austin (a former four-star recruit), incoming 6'7 five-star freshmen Andrus Peat and Kyle Murphy, and incoming four-star signees Joshua Garnett, Graham Shuler, Nick Davidson and Brandon Fanaika. That's right: Stanford signed four four-star linemen and two five-stars. The turnover is alarming, but the potential is staggering.
- Receiver Ty Montgomery. A four-star freshman last year, Montgomery showed potential in combining a 73 percent catch rate with a per-catch average of 14.8 yards. After a slow start (common for a freshman), he surged late in the season, catching 16 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns in the final three games. With the departures of Griff Whalen and Chris Owusu, Montgomery becomes the de facto No. 1 wideout, and though there are plenty of Cardinal receivers with strong recruiting profiles (seniors Jamal-Rashad Patterson and Jemari Roberts were each four-star recruits once upon a time), almost nobody has proven anything beyond Montgomery. Plus, there were quite a few issues with drops in the spring game. More than perhaps any other non-quarterback on the offensive side of the ball, Montgomery needs to be great, and quickly.
- Tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo. On most teams, each one of these players would have been the best tight end on the roster. But with Coby Fleener doing Fleener-esque things (67 percent catch rate, 19.6 yards per catch), Ertz and Toilolo were battling to become No. 2. Fleener is gone, however, and to the extent that Stanford will once again be working in two- and three-tight end sets, these two will have more than their fair share of opportunities to shine. They combined for 52 catches, 689 yards and a 76 percent catch rate last year). Doing so again for a new quarterback would be fantastic.
- The starting quarterback. Of course. After a rather even spring, it appears that the battle between sophomore Brett Nottingham and junior Josh Nunes will continue into August. Both were four-star recruits out of high school (it is important to mention this -- neither will be The Next Andrew Luck, but each has outstanding potential), and both had their moments this spring. If one of the two can just play steady, efficient football, the defense will be good enough to win a lot of games. They don't have to be great; they just have to be good.
The Stanford defense regressed in 2011, but honestly, that should have been expected. Not only did defensive coordinator Vic Fangio leave with Harbaugh for the 49ers, and not only did the Cardinal have to replace stalwarts like Owen Marecic, Sione Fua and Thomas Keiser, but Stanford also had to deal with the unanticipated loss of star linebacker Shayne Skov to a knee injury after just two and a half games. The Cardinal sank from 11th to 37th in Def. F/+, but on a play-for-play basis, they still brought quite a bit of heat. The defense improved up front, to 17th in Adj. Line Yards and first in the country in Adj. Sack Rate, and most of the reasons for that surge have returned. In fact, all three defenders who logged at least 10 tackles for loss in 2011 (end Ben Gardner and outside linebackers Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy) return, as does Skov, who managed 10.5 in 2010.
Honestly, if Skov returns to full health by the fall, there is no reason why Stanford's front seven couldn't be one of the two or three best in the country. The depth is astounding, and that's before we even get to newcomers like five-star end Aziz Shittu, four-star tackle Jordan Watkins, or four-star linebacker Noor Davis. The only players lost from last year's front seven are end Matthew Masifilo (8.0 tackles for loss, four passes broken up) and reserve linebacker Max Bergen. If ends like sophomore Henry Anderson and junior Josh Mauro can match Masifilo's good-but-not-irreplaceable production, then Stanford should rank in the Top 10 of both line categories. Thomas and Murphy were incredible last year, combining for 27.5 tackles for loss, 15 sacks and five forced fumbles. Junior Blake Lueders threw in another 3.0 tackles for loss in garbage time. And while Skov's loss was painful in the present tense, it has created impressive depth this time around; junior Jarek Lancaster and sophomore A.J. Tarpley combed for 11 tackles for loss and eight passes defended in his absence. Sophomore inside linebackers Joe Hemschoot and James Vaughters are probably ready for more playing time than they will likely receive this fall as well.
While the front seven made a ton of plays and defended the run well (25th in Rushing S&P+, fourth in rushing yards allowed per game), the pass defense was busy proving why raw stats are incredibly misleading. Stanford spent most of its 13 games either up big on the scoreboard or facing great pass offenses like USC and Oklahoma State. Because of that, the Cardinal ranked 95th in passing yards allowed per game. But they ranked 20th in Passing S&P+, partially because of the wonderful sack rate (which, ridiculously, doesn't count against passing yards in college stats) and partially because opponent adjustments did nice things for the Stanford numbers.
That said, a secondary that was probably better than perceived last year should regress this year. Gone are two impressive safeties, Michael Thomas and Delano Howell (combined: 98.5 tackles, 3.5 for loss, three interceptions, nine passes broken up) and cornerback Johnson Bademosi, who led the team with seven passes broken up last year. As with every unit on this team, there are former star recruits listed among the potential replacements -- four-star redshirt freshman cornerback Wayne Lyons had a nice spring, and incoming freshman Alex Carter was a blue-chipper -- but the recruiting depth has not been as strong here overall. Still, injury-prone corner Barry Browning looks good when healthy, and safety Ed Reynolds, who missed 2011 with injury, surged past quite a few names on the depth chart this spring. The pass rush will need to be outstanding once again, but while the secondary is the weakest unit on the defense, it is only so weak.
Defining success for a team that won so much on the field and lost so many key elements on the depth chart is quite difficult. Home games versus San Jose State, Duke, Arizona, Washington State and Oregon State, plus incredibly winnable trips to Colorado and UCLA (not to mention Washington and California) should keep the win total high. But with USC and trips to Oregon and Notre Dame on the schedule, we'll be conservative and say that, even with a potentially fantastic defense, an 8-4 record will be tolerable, and a 9-3 record would be fantastic.
And yes, saying "8-4 will be tolerable" is the clearest proof that things have changed in Palo Alto.
If some freshmen are ready to play at least medium-sized roles right away, if a No. 2 wide receiver emerges, and if the secondary is at least stable, Stanford really could be a top 15 team once again. But none of those three things are guaranteed. In the end, as long as Stanford builds well for a fantastic 2013, then 2012 will have been a success. But after the statement David Shaw made in hauling in this recruiting class on Feb. 1, we perhaps shouldn't count 2012 as a total loss just yet. Stanford is still going to be one of the meanest, most physical teams in the country, and it isn't out of the realm of possibility that they add another 10 or 11 wins to the ledger this fall.
While we’re here, let’s watch some college football videos from SB Nation’s new YouTube channel together: