Spring practice begins post-Luck era for Shaw's Stanford squad
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- On a splendidly sunny morning last Saturday, a pocket of noise disrupted Stanford's otherwise tranquil campus. Joggers and other passers-by who happened upon the Dan Elliott Practice Field were treated to a heavily amplified soundtrack of Metallica, AC/DC and Boston, among others.
"We want to crank up a little rock," Cardinal coach David Shaw said afterward. "We'll do anything we can that gets the energy up closer to a game."
Stanford's next game is still nearly six months away, but spring practice couldn't come soon enough for Shaw. The second-year coach has a lot to figure out between now and Sept. 1. There's the matter of replacing two likely first-round offensive linemen, Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro. There's the search for new starters at both safety positions and new playmakers at receiver.
Oh, and the quarterback left. He was pretty good.
"There is a sense amongst our team that people will want to discount us because Andrew's not here," said Shaw, referring to the departure of two-time Heisman runner-up and presumed No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck. "Andrew didn't make a single tackle last year, Andrew wasn't a huge contributor to the running game. We've got a physical offensive line, we've got good running backs, we've got great tight ends.
"Without that being our sole purpose, to prove people wrong, that's an added thing for us which is, hey, we're a good football team."
This, the first spring of the first season post-Luck, is a fascinating time for Stanford's program. Following the departure of Stanford's once-in-a-generation quarterback, many outsiders understandably assume the Cardinal -- 23-3 the past two seasons -- will return to their traditional realm in the middle of the Pac (-12). Realistically, how long can an academically elite school keep producing top 10 football teams?
Most early projections have pegged USC -- a team Stanford's beaten the past three seasons -- as the Pac-12 favorite and possibly even a national championship contender. "It's back to Stanford being the underdog against USC," one observer said Saturday while discussing the teams' Sept. 15 meeting in Palo Alto.
Yet just last month, Stanford signed a group of recruits any Alabama, Texas or Ohio State coach would covet. Shaw stunned the recruiting world by landing a top five class, highlighted by a staggering trio of five-star linemen. And lest we forget, most of us were just as skeptical this time last year that Stanford could keep it going without program savior Jim Harbaugh.
"Even before that, it was, we can't do it without Toby Gerhart." said Shaw. "We know we lost Andrew, we know we lost DeCastro and Martin and [All-American tight end Coby] Fleener. But we've got a good football team and we want to go out and prove it."
Shaw, 39, a former Stanford receiver and co-offensive coordinator under Harbaugh, is the polar opposite of his old boss in most ways: laid-back, contemplative, the least likely coach in America to evoke a near-riot over a postgame handshake. He does share one trait, however: He's not shy about hyping his players with lofty appraisals and outsized expectations.
Harbaugh memorably and prophetically declared Luck "the best quarterback in the country" as a redshirt freshman in 2009, back when Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy were still in the college ranks. Looking to this year's team, Shaw calls running back Stepfan Taylor -- who rushed for 177 yards against Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl and 1,330 on the season -- "the best player no one in the nation talks about." His stable of tight ends, led by veterans Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, "we still think are the best group in the country," Shaw said.
After practice Saturday, a reporter asked bout the return of cornerback Wayne Lyons, a touted recruit last year who played in two games as a true freshman before injuring his foot. "Before it's all said and done, he'll be up for the top defensive back award," Shaw said nonchalantly. Top defensive back on the team? "In the nation," Shaw said. "He's going to be one of the best around."
Before Shaw can get too far down the road, there's the little matter of identifying Luck's replacement. Third-year sophomore Brett Nottingham, a top five quarterback nationally coming out of high school and Luck's backup last season, is widely considered the favorite, and he did little Saturday to suggest otherwise. In individual passing drills, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Bay Area native showed off incredible arm strength and touch in connecting on numerous deep balls.
Things were more muddled, however, in seven-on-sevens and live action, as both Nottingham and his chief competitor, 6-4, 211-pound junior Josh Nunes, struggled to fend off pressure from the defense. Learning to better read defenses -- something Luck excelled at -- is one of the quarterbacks' priorities this spring.
"Andrew's definitely a tough act to follow," said Nottingham, who talked with his former mentor after Luck's sterling combine performance, just as the Cardinal began spring practices. "All the guys on this roster can throw the ball. That's not the main issue. It's really about understanding the subtleties of the position. ... That's what made Andrew what he was."
Shaw, who plans to give more first-team reps to three other quarterbacks -- junior Robbie Picazo and redshirt freshmen Evan Crower and Kevin Hogan -- in the coming weeks, made it clear he's in no hurry to name a starter (two weeks before the season opener is his target). "The guy that makes the best decisions is the guy that's going to play the position," Shaw said. In Stanford's balanced, pro-style offense, the quarterback doesn't need to throw for 3,517 yards and 37 touchdowns, as Luck did last year.
"That quarterback position -- we don't expect it to get played at the same level that it was in years past," said Shaw. "It would be great if it did, but we're not counting on it."
With that in mind, retooling the offensive line -- the centerpiece of Harbaugh's and Shaw's smashmouth approach -- may prove just as important as identifying Luck's successor. A year ago, Stanford seamlessly worked in three new starters up front and remained dominant in the running game, averaging 210.6 yards per game. The tailback trio of Taylor, Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson all return, and notable freshman Barry Sanders Jr. arrives in the fall.
But this spring the Cardinal are replacing two truly elite blockers, left tackle Martin and right guard DeCastro, both All-Americans and presumptive first-round locks. Shaw points to the fact that Stanford regularly plays seven or eight linemen per game, and that potential replacements like junior guard Kevin Danser and sophomore guard/tackle Kevin Underwood have seen live action. But it's also possible that a couple of next year's starters won't arrive until August. At least some of last month's acclaimed recruits -- be it five-star tackles Kyle Murphy and Andrus Peat or four-star guard Joshua Garnett -- figure to play immediately.
"We're going to play the guys that win the competitions," said Shaw. "We don't care what year they are."
Walking out of his office Friday, Shaw was immediately greeted by a recruit, one of at least seven 2013 prospects who made unofficial visits last weekend. One of those visitors, 6-5 quarterback Ryan Burns of Ashburn, Va. -- a top 50 prospect nationally, according to Rivals.com -- gave a commitment while there.
Stanford's success during the Luck era has seemingly transformed the program, turning it into a choice destination for elite prospects nationally. But it will be a couple of years before those players' impact will be felt. In the meantime, we'll wait to see whether the Cardinal's returning players can back up Shaw's lofty assessments. Again.