Pac 12

2010 NCAA Football Preview: Stanford Cardinal

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2009 Record: 8-5 (6-3 in Pac-10)
2009 Bowl: Sun Bowl (lost to Oklahoma 31-27)
Final 2009 AP Ranking:  29th (received 67 votes)
Head Coach: Jim Harbaugh (17-20 at Stanford, 46-26 All-Time)
Non-Conference Schedule: Sacramento State (9/4), Wake Forest (9/18), at Notre Dame (9/25)

2009 Offensive Statistics
Scoring: 35.5 points per game (2nd in Pac-10)
Rushing Yards/Game: 218 (2nd in Pac-10)
Passing Yards/Game: 209 (8th in Pac-10)
Total Yards/Game: 427 (1st in Pac-10) 

2009 Defensive Statistics
Scoring: 26.5 points per game (8th in Pac-10)
Rushing Yards/Game: 137 (7th in Pac-10)
Passing Yards/Game: 264 (8th in Pac-10)
Total Yards/Game: 402 (9th in Pac-10)

2009 Misc Stats
Turnover Margin: 0.00 per game (6th in Pac-10)
Penalties: 52 yards per game (3rd in Pac-10)

Returning Starters
Offense: 8
Defense: 7
Kicker/Punter: 2

Top Returning Statistical Leaders
Passing: QB Andrew Luck, Soph (162 of 288 for 2575 yds, 13 TD, 4 INT, 214 ypg)
Rushing: RB Stephan Taylor, Soph (56 carries for 306 yds, 2 TD, 4.6 ypc, 25 ypg)
Receiving: WR Ryan Whalen, Sr (57 rec, 926 yds, 4 TD, 4.4 rec/game, 71 ypg)
Tackles: SS Delano Howell, Jr (77)
Sacks: OLB Thomas Keiser, Jr (8)
Interceptions: SS Delano Howell, Jr (2)

Pac-10 Unit Rankings
QB: Athlon Sports #3; Phil Steele #2
RB: Athlon Sports #7; Phil Steele #7
WR/TE: Athlon Sports #5; Phil Steele #2
OL: Athlon Sports #1; Phil Steele #1
DL: Athlon Sports #6; Phil Steele #9
LB: Athlon Sports #6; Phil Steele #2
DB: Athlon Sports #9; Phil Steele #9
ST: Phil Steele #2

2010 Pre-Season Rankings
Athlon Sports: #32
Mark Schlabach: #24
Phil Steele: #34

Sporting News: #97

2010 Pre-Season Pac-10 Prediction:
Athlon Sports: #4
Phil Steele: #5 (tied with Oregon State and Washington)

2010 Bowl Prediction
Athlon Sports: Las Vegas Bowl (vs. TCU)
Phil Steele: Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (vs. Boise State)

Stanford gained the most yards on offense in the Pac-10 last year but gave up the second most. Toby Gerhart has moved on so this year they will need more help from their defense. Highly touted pro prospect Andrew Luck will lead Stanford in his second year at the helm behind a quality offensive line. Despite losing 5 games last year, Stanford did not lose a game by more than 10 points. They had back-to-back wins against Top 10 teams (Oregon and USC). And the USC game was a drubbing that sent warning signs across the Pac-10. Jim Harbaugh looks like he's here to stay at Stanford and behind him the Cardinal could become a consistent top tier Pac-10 team. We turned to Jim "Emeritus" Rutter, Co-Founder & Editor of The Bootleg, to learn more about Stanford football.

What are the major strengths and biggest weaknesses of the team?

Strengths: Obviously, it helps to start out with QB Andrew Luck (#12),’s 2009 National Freshman of the Year, who should be even better in 2010 with a year of playing experience under his belt. Luck will benefit greatly from the return of most of the offensive line [plus outstanding senior fullback Owen Marecic (#48)] that paved the way for NFL-bound Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart. Defensively, outside linebackers Thomas Keiser (#94), who led the team with 9.0 sacks in ’09, and Chase Thomas (#93) are solid, but they are changing positions in the transition to a 3-4 defense. KR Chris Owusu (#81) has sprinter-class speed and is a legitimate threat to score any time a team decides to kick to him. He averaged 31.5 yards per return and took three back for TDs in the first four games of the 2009 season. One can’t underestimate the dramatic impact of a superior kick-return game. Stanford finished third in the country in kickoff return average last year and had its first winning season in eight years. The other four schools in the top five in kick return average produced a combined record of 51-3! Field position is half the battle!

Weaknesses: Offensively, there are not a lot of holes, even with the departure of the amazing Gerhart and his 28 rushing TDs. Depth in the defensive front seven, which lost standout veterans Erik Lorig, Ekom Udofia, Will Powers, and Clinton Snyder, remains a legitimate concern. The young secondary, which lost a ball-hawking playmaker in veteran safety Bo McNally (#22) to graduation, needs to improve its pass coverage (Oklahoma managed an alarming 20 passing first downs in the 2009 Brut Sun Bowl using their backup quarterback), but overall, the group could experience a moderate upgrade. We simply can’t meet our ambitious team goals while ranking 98th in the FBS in pass efficiency defense and 110th in passing yards allowed. In fairness, the 2009 Stanford defense certainly played very well at times, but you can’t surrender an average of more than 400 yards per game (and a total of 23 passing touchdowns) and expect to win every week. If the 2010 spring game is any indication, new Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio, a very experienced NFL veteran, seems determined to produce dramatic improvement in 2010. One clear goal for this coming season will be to achieve a vast improvement in the Cardinal’s turnover margin (17/17). During the 2009 season, 36 FBS defenses, managed to generate at least 25 total turnovers. If you ask me, that ought to be on the whiteboard as a reasonable 2010 goal.

Looking at the schedule, who will be the first major test and why?

Not to disrespect to our opening FCS opponent Sacramento State (they are moving toward becoming FBS and conceivably could end up in the WAC), but the first true test should be Game 2 against UCLA at the Rose Bowl, a traditional conference rival with similar overall talent, although I expect Stanford’s veteran offensive line to compare favorably and make the difference in the game. The two programs cross paths a lot on the recruiting trail and many of Stanford’s players come from Southern California, so it will be seen as a statement-making opportunity by each school. As Cardinal fans will painfully recall, Stanford essentially gave away the game in Pasadena two years ago, settling for a field goal with 2:31 left and then miserably surrendering a last-minute 87-yard game-winning drive against a decidedly mediocre Bruin quarterback in Kevin Craft (Who?). “Air Cardinal” managed all of 51 net passing yards in that contest, which won’t happen again with Andrew Luck around. That dramatic and disappointing result at UCLA could well represent the most devastating loss of the Jim Harbaugh era and looking back, it cost the program a bowl appearance in 2008. Time for some good old-fashioned gridiron redemption.

What team on the schedule do you fear the most?

As our dynamic fourth-year Head Coach Jim Harbaugh has said, “We bow to no program!” The revitalized Stanford Football program has worked very hard to upgrade its talent and be the team others need to fear. Still, everyone worries about something. I guess we would dread the thought of losing to Sacramento State. Unlikely, but on any given Saturday… That would “look” pretty bad and provide an early season buzz-kill. Oregon will be a tough challenge and Autzen Stadium is certainly an exciting, if not intimidating place to play. I would say we ”respect” the Ducks more than “fear” them, but getting a win at Oregon is never a picnic. A team that should fear us? Wake Forest. We feel we were the better team last fall and our guys will be looking to prove themselves this September 18th in the highly-anticipated rematch at Stanford Stadium. That game should be well-worth the price of admission.

Who is the best player on your team that nobody talks about?

I don’t know if “nobody talks about him”, but on defense, redshirt junior Thomas Keiser (#94) is a very good football player. Offensively, 6’6’ 250-pound TE/WR Coby Fleener (#82) rarely gets a mention, but he is a matchup nightmare and is solid as a brick wall (just ask former USC safety Taylor Mays). There are not many true fullbacks in college anymore, but Owen Marecic (#48) is legit. It is fun to watch him not just block, but demoralize would-be tacklers. Sure-handed, hard-working WR Ryan Whalen (#8), a former walk-on, doesn’t get much press outside of the Bay Area. Sure, he wasn’t Texas’ Jordan Shipley, but Whalen came close to producing 1,000-yards receiving on a team that primarily ran the ball!

Others deserving greater recognition include fast-rising redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Jonathan “Moose” Martin (#73) and redshirt sophomore pass-rushing specialist Chase Thomas (#93). The most tantalizing inside “buzz” has been about towering, but athletic 6’8” redshirt freshman TE Levine Toilolo (#11) and his ridiculous red-zone skills. And while he hasn’t seen the field much, redshirt sophomore Alex Debniak (#51) is a remarkably fast linebacker who runs the ball too well not to get some carries – he could be a great candidate for critical short-yardage situations as well.

Who is the best offensive player on the team?

Of the skill players, QB Andrew Luck (#12). We would not trade him for another current college quarterback. Skills, arm-strength, brains, leadership, desire – the young man is the real deal, the complete package. Of the “Bigs”, it would be hard to rank anyone above outstanding OG David DeCastro (#52).

Who is the most impactful defensive player on the team?

That would probably be sophomore ILB Shayne Skov (#11), because of the strength and aggressiveness Shayne brings to the field. His enthusiasm is infectious. Still has a lot of remaining upside. The interior d-line group has a couple of formidable studs in Matt Masifilo (#98) and Sione Fua (#92). These guys are the backbone of the defense – when Masifilo was out with injury in 2009, the defense struggled, then improved noticeably when he returned. That has been our challenge on defense in recent years, not failing to have some quality players, but just not having enough veteran depth. He has a long way to go, but we might want to mention ever-intriguing junior Delano Howell (#26). If Howell, who switched to defense last year, can improve his coverage skills dramatically, one would have to include the hard-hitting sophomore safety among the difference-making defensive players. All of these guys are pretty good bets to play on Sundays.

What player(s) needs to step up this year in order for the team to reach its full capability?

It is hard to make up for the loss of a once-in-a-generation player like Toby Gerhart (#7). We need to reload with one or both of our terrific sophomore running backs, Stepfan Taylor (#33) and Tyler Gaffney (#25). One of these two will have to carry a big part of the load for a team that will prefer to stick with its well-established, smash-mouth style-of-play. Personally, I think Taylor has the look of a 1,000-yard rusher. Gaffney, a gifted baseball player as well, is a tenacious competitor with tremendous potential as a feature back.

We are certainly hoping for a break-out season from TE Konrad Reuland (#88), but realistically, it will be nearly impossible to replace graduated TE Jim Dray (#83). The fact is, we may actually be stronger at the TE position overall with the availability of talented redshirt freshmen Zach Ertz (#86) and Levine Toilolo (#11) and the continued emergence of Coby Fleener (#82), who might well be a legitimate force in the NFL some day. However, as for having a truly complete TE that was dominant in the run game, able to catch the ball in the red-zone, and most importantly does not mark for opposing defenses whether we are running or passing, Jimmy Dray will certainly be missed.

Fifth-year senior James McGillicuddy (#74) could be the key to the overall performance of the o-line in ‘10. To get to “full capability”, it would help to find a greater number of reliable targets for Luck. We hope to see the emergence of Jamal-Rashad Patterson (#21) or Doug Baldwin (#89) as a fiery, big-play third receiver. A third-down, multi-purpose back with some wiggle would be helpful as well. Fifth-year senior CB/RS/WR Richard Sherman (#9) is a bit of a wildcard, a dynamic playmaker who needs to put it all together and have a monster final year. Personally, I would like to see #9 occasionally at WR. The Cardinal’s most interesting trump card could come from the successful design of an optimal role for versatile fifth-year senior QB/WR Alex Loukas (#15), a very skilled athlete who might allow Stanford to mix it up a bit. Yes, he may see some reps at safety, but don’t be surprised if #15 slips in at QB at some point and nearly single-handedly wins a game for us. He is, if anything, a fascinating “x-factor”.

Who is the top offensive newcomer that can make an impact this year (freshman, redshirt freshman or JUCO)?

JUCO? Well, technically, Konrad Reuland briefly attended a junior college after transferring from Notre Dame, but he never played football at Saddleback. The last “JUCO player” we had transfer to Stanford, Blaine Maxfield, arrived on campus back in 1996! It just isn’t a pool from which our program, from an academic standpoint, realistically can expect to draw. Redshirt freshman CB/RB/RS Usua Amanam (#5), the 2008 Division I State Player of the Year (Calif.) and 2008 Northern California Player of the Year, is a very special athlete. He was out last year with an injury, but should be 100% and ready to turn some heads wherever he ends up on the field. Of the incoming freshmen (and you never really know anything until you actually see the kids in fall camp)…well, put it this way, the Cardinal coaching staff liked incoming RB Anthony Wilkerson even better than 2009-10 Gatorade National Football Player of the Year Malcolm Jones (UCLA). He is no lock to redshirt in 2010.

In thinking about the offensive newcomer that might provide the highest impact, it might surprise some that we would suggest Jordan Williamson, an incoming freshman place-kicker from Austin, TX. There is a good chance that Williamson will see the field in 2010. He will certainly be in competition for the kick-off job. The 150-pounder was absolutely crushing the ball at Stanford’s kicker camp a year ago. If you think Nate Whitaker (#39) has a big leg (and indeed he does)....just wait until you see this skinny, but strong-legged lad from the Lone Star State.

You asked about this year, but looking out a bit longer-term, Cardinal fans should keep an eye out for incoming freshman Darren Daniel from Alabama. He had a modest recruiting profile, but he is a tremendous athlete who could emerge as the best offensive player on the team at some point. Another future star is David Yankey from Georgia, who headlines a stellar four-man class of incoming freshmen offensive linemen.

Who is the top defensive newcomer that can make an impact this year?

This one is easy - true freshman ILB Blake Lueders, who originally had committed to Notre Dame before seeing the light. The Indiana native passes the “eyeball test” with flying colors – dude already looks like an upperclassman. Staff is pretty excited. Given the uncertainty of the current depth chart, redshirt sophomore Harold Bernard (#28) and true freshman safety Devon Carrington could get into the mix at safety. We have corners with some experience, but redshirt freshman Terrance Brown (#6) and true freshman cornerback Keanu Nelson will have a chance to impress in the fall.

What are your thoughts on adding Utah and Colorado to the Pac-10?

Hey, the current reality is that every college athletic program is desperate to generate more money. I might have preferred keeping things the way they have been for the past 32 years. If the “Pac-12” conference officials can figure out a way for us to continue to play traditional rivals USC & UCLA every year and makes sure the newcomers understand that you only get four downs in the Pac-12, I think we may end up liking it, especially if the conference gets a dedicated network deal. We have some fairly recent football history with both Utah (1989, 1995, 1996) and Colorado (1977, 1987, 1990, 1991, 1993). During basketball season, it should make for some world-class ski/hoops vacation combos. Other than the mega-money, I don’t think many alumni and fans really wanted to be in the same conference with Texas and Oklahoma, for a variety of reasons. We’d rather just meet them in the post-season.

Gut feeling on the team’s final record at the end of the regular season and what makes this a successful season in your eyes?

Assuming the health of our starting QB, the Cardinal should be able to play with anybody. One challenge will be to adjust to four new members of the coaching staff. To me, a “successful season” would involve playing everyone tough, having a winning record in-conference, and getting to another upper-tier bowl game. Optimistically, I can see anywhere from 8-4 to 10-2 in the regular season, assuming average attrition from injuries. It is a little hard to predict how much our defense can improve in the first year of transition to a new scheme. Special teams should continue to be a major team strength. Not long after he first arrived, Jim Harbaugh boldly predicted that Stanford would be in a BCS game by 2010. Probably a bit of a stretch, but with a little luck and a lot of “Luck”, it could happen. After all, Stanford was about three very make-able plays away from being 11-1 during the 2009 regular season, losing agonizing nail-biters to Wake Forest, Arizona, and California. Motivation should not be a problem.

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Previous Pac-10 Previews 
Arizona State Sun Devils
Oregon Ducks
USC Trojans
Washington Huskies

Next Up: Central Michigan Chippewas

2010 Previews
ACC- Boston College Eagles, Florida State Seminoles, Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, Maryland Terrapins
Big 12- Kansas State Wildcats, Missouri Tigers, Texas Tech Red Raiders
Big East- Cincinnati Bearcats, Pittsburgh Panthers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, USF Bulls, West Virginia Mountaineers
Big Ten- Michigan WolverinesMinnesota Golden Gophers, Northwestern Wildcats, Purdue Boilermakers
Conference USA- Houston CougarsTulane Green Wave, UTEP Miners
MAC- Ball State Cardinals, Bowling Green Falcons, Buffalo Bulls, Temple Owls, Toledo Rockets
Mountain West- Utah Utes
SEC- Auburn Tigers, Kentucky Wildcats, Mississippi Rebels, South Carolina Gamecocks, Vanderbilt Commodores
Sun Belt- Troy Trojans
WAC- New Mexico State Aggies