|Quarterback Andrew Luck :: Tom DiPace|
When quarterback Andrew Luck announced last January that he would pass up the millions he would have collected as the likely No. 1 pick in the NFL draft to return to Stanford, the hallelujahs could be heard from the foothills to the Bay. (O.K., maybe not the East Bay.) Still, it will take a lot more than Luck to get the Cardinal back to last year's lofty heights: a school-record 12 wins and a BCS bowl victory.Can it happen? The off-season losses were substantial: Jim Harbaugh, the coach who engineered the program's almost unthinkable rise to national significance, is now with the 49ers, as is defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who transformed a porous unit that was eighth in the Pac-10 in points allowed per game (26.5) in 2009 into one that was 10th in the nation (17.4) last year. The team also said goodbye to a number of stalwarts on defense; its top two receivers; and three starters, including All-America center Chase Beeler, from an offensive line that had given up just 13 sacks over the last two seasons.But Cardinal fans do have reason for optimism. With Luck at the helm, the offense, which last year set a school scoring record (524 points), should fly high again, especially if electrifying senior wideout Chris Owusu, who was limited to seven games last year, can avoid injury. "We need Chris to stay healthy for the entire season," says new head coach David Shaw, who was the offensive coordinator under Harbaugh. "We're a different team when he's there [than] when he's not."Either way Stanford will run the ball often. The top four rushers return, including Luck, who gained 453 yards on top of his 3,338 passing yards, and junior Stepfan Taylor, who was the first Stanford sophomore to crack 1,000 yards rushing since Darrin Nelson in 1978. "The best thing about our team is the diversity," says Shaw. "We have multiple running backs and receivers who could have 100-yard games. And our tight ends are explosive; any one of them could be the hero."The defense, which had three shutouts in 2010, will have some unpredictable elements. Co-coordinators Derek Mason and Jason Tarver, who share some of Fangio's coaching DNA, plan to hew to his 3-4 base -- with a few wrinkles. "We're going to keep pushing the envelope," says Shaw, "to keep our opponents off balance and keep winning games."
Can the versatile and seasoned Cardinal offense match or even surpass last year's record-breaking production?
34:34 -- Average time of possession for Stanford, the nation's highest in 2010 and third highest in 15 seasons.
Andrew Luck, QB, Jr. -- The Heisman finalist has a chance to top last year's school-record 32 passing TDs and conference-record 70.7 percent completion rate. "We put a lot of the offense in his hands last year," says David Shaw, "and we want to put even more of it in his hands this year."Jonathan Martin, LT, Sr. -- The man nicknamed Moose and his fellow All-Pac-10 first-team selection David DeCastro will be the 0-line's only veteran starters, and as the lineman assigned to protect the quarterback's blind side, Martin may be the most important returnee not named Luck.Stepfan Taylor, RB, Jr. -- He broke out in 2010 with 1,137 rushing yards, at Stanford second only to Toby Gerhart's 1,871 in 2009. Taylor also became just the second back in Cardinal history to rush for 100 yards in five straight games.Delano Howell, SS, Sr. -- The former SuperPrep All-America at running back switched to defensive back in '09. His 60 tackles and a team-high five interceptions landed him on the All-Pac-10 second team last season.
Chris Owusu, WR, Sr. -- A healthy Owusu is one of the best big-play guys in the country, especially on kickoffs. As a sophomore in 2009 he had 37 returns for 1,167 yards and three TDs to go with 37 catches for 682 yards and five TDs. Limited by an assortment of injuries last year, his numbers dropped to 19 returns for 462 yards and 25 catches for 396 yards.
James Vaughters, LB, Fr. -- Keeping the 6-2, 225-pound four-star recruit after the departures of Jim Harbaugh and Vic Fangio was a huge coup for Shaw. A bulldozer with 4.6 speed in the 40 and a knack for rushing the passer, Vaughters had 95 tackles, four sacks and four picks as a senior at Tucker (Ga.) High.This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' Pac-12 Preview.