For the second straight season in 2011 – the first under head coach David Shaw – the Stanford program reached double-digits in wins thanks largely to Luck. The Heisman Trophy runner-up and No. 1 pick overall in the NFL draft helped spark a rebirth in the program during his brief three years in Palo Alto. During that period, the Cardinal has won 31 games and have made back-to-back-to-back bowl appearances including stops at the Orange and Fiesta bowls. Luck started three seasons at Stanford, setting several school records, including marks for most career touchdown passes, best career completion percentage and career wins by a quarterback
Who replaces Luck? That’s still a question. Brett Nottingham, who served as Luck’s backup last season, completed 12 of 19 for 118 yards and an interception in the spring game. He played in six games in 2011, completing 5-of-8 passes for 78 yards and a touchdown. He’s battling junior Josh Nunes, who ran with the first team in the spring and may have a slight edge.
In addition to Luck, Stanford also lost Griff Whalen, Coby Fleener and Chris Owusu, the Cardinal’s top three players in terms of receiving yards last season. Replacing Fleener at tight end would be difficult for most teams, but not Stanford. The Cardinal return tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, who combined for 52 catches and almost 700 receiving yards last season. The trick for the Cardinal will be finding replacements for Whalen and Owusu at wide receiver. Ty Montgomery impressed last season as a true freshman and had a breakout game in the Fiesta Bowl with seven catches for 120 yards in the loss to Oklahoma State.
Stanford brings back second-team All-Pac-12 running back Stepfan Taylor. He rushed for 1,330 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. He saved his best for last, running for a career-best 177 yards and two scores in an overtime loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. Entering his final season, Taylor needs just 1,264 yards to become Stanford’s career rushing leader. Stanford lost two All-America offensive linemen to the NFL but still should have a strong unit up front with center Sam Schwartzstein, left guard David Yankey and right tackle Cameron Fleming returning.
Defensively, Stanford only surrendered 84.4 yards rushing per game last season, a number that ranked third in the country. One year later, the front seven is bigger, better and more experienced, which means that rushing number could improve. Anchoring the linebacking corps will be 2011 first team All-Pac-12 selection Chase Thomas, along with Trent Murphy and Shyane Skov. Thomas and Murphy combined for 15 sacks and 27.5 tackles for losses last season. There are questions in the secondary after the departure of both safeties, Delano Howell and Michael Thomas. If Stanford had any sort of weakness on defense last season it was their passing defense. Ranked 95th in the nation, the unit struggled to stop powerful passing attacks.
Top returners: RB Stepfan Taylor, OLB Chase Thomas, LB Shayne Skov, FB Ryan Hewitt, C Sam Schwartzstein, OG David Yankey, OT Cameron Fleming, DE Ben Gardner, TE Zach Ertz, TE Levine Toilolo.
Key losses: QB Andrew Luck, OL David DeCastro, OL Jonathan Martin, S Delano Howell, DE Matt Masifilo, WR Chris Owusu, TE Coby Fleener, S Michael Thomas.
Sept. 1 San Jose State
Sept. 8 Duke
Sept. 15 USC
Sept. 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