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Originally published August 17, 2013 at 3:24 PM | Page modified August 17, 2013 at 5:17 PM

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Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of 10 previews of Pac-12 football teams outside the state. Today: Stanford. Monday: California.

David Shaw has Stanford operating at a rarefied level

The Cardinal, defending Pac-12 champions, is back with high expectations, including a preseason No. 4 ranking.

Seattle Times college football reporter

About the Cardinal

Last year: 8-1 in Pac-12 (T-1st in Northern Division, Pac-12 championship), 12-2 overall. Beat Wisconsin, 20-14, in Rose Bowl.

Coach: David Shaw (23-4, 3rd season).

Leading lights: FB Ryan Hewitt, G David Yankey, G Kevin Danser, DE Ben Gardner, LB Trent Murphy, LB Shayne Skov, S Ed Reynolds.

Key stat: Cardinal finished No. 6 in the country in 2012 despite an offense that ranked only eighth in the Pac-12 (374.4 ypg).

The schedule: Most of the tough ones — Arizona State, Washington, UCLA, Oregon — are at home.

Bud Withers

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In Stanford’s endowed world, David Shaw has the title of Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. Really.

You, and pursuers of the Cardinal in the Pac-12 Conference, know him as one of the sharpest young coaches in the game, somebody who just matched Chip Kelly’s feat of winning conference coach-of-the-year honors in his first two years as a head man.

Shaw is also mirroring Kelly, the ex-Oregon coach, in another category. He has his program perking at such a high level that fans of rival schools tend to co-opt a defeatist approach: “Yeah, but what happens to them when he leaves?”

That’s a debate for another day. For now, Shaw, Stanford and Co. are preseason ranked No. 4 in the country, which means a lot of people think they’re capable of winning a national championship.

For his part, Shaw is slightly amused that Stanford is seen as having reached a new station in 2013, when it was good enough to have knocked on the door of national-title contention the past three years, going to BCS bowl games.

In fact, in retrospect, it’s fairly remarkable that Stanford went to (and won) the Rose Bowl last season, after going most of the year with an average quarterback in Josh Nunes.

“Changing perception is like turning a cruise ship,” Shaw said. “It’s going to take a while.

“I sometimes get a little smile on my face when I hear, ‘Gosh, I can’t believe you guys are still doing well.’ Well, we built the program the right way. It’s not just that we’re riding a great player.”

That’s a reference to the departure after 2011 of Andrew Luck. The Cardinal carried on just fine, going 12-2 behind a punishing offensive line and a smart, unforgiving defense that led the Pac-12 in some key metrics.

Jim Harbaugh, Seattle’s anti-hero, started all this, and when he left for the 49ers, Stanford turned to Shaw, Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator. It seemed like a hire of convenience rather than anything dynamic.

“You never know exactly how somebody’s going to turn out,” says All-American guard David Yankey. “But Coach Shaw is a Stanford guy through and through. He went there, his dad (Willie) coached there. He knows how Stanford operates as a school and where its priorities are.”

The perception of Luck-as-savior has served to obscure another turn in the Stanford program. The big, physical persona the Cardinal has taken on under Harbaugh and Shaw is making room for one that includes better athletes.

“That’s the last major perception we have to change,” Shaw said. “I was hoping the Oregon game (Stanford won in Eugene in overtime last year) would do it. We’ve got good athletes.

“Early on (in the Harbaugh regime) I could see that we were a bunch of really tough kids that didn’t have the speed other teams have. We have multiple guys who run 4.4 now. We were able to run down Marcus Mariota, we bottled up Kenjon Barner. We were able to bottle up Marqise Lee and Robert Woods.”

The Stanford defense did a lot of bottling last year. It had a nation-leading 57 sacks, 37 more than its opponents (by comparison, national champion Alabama’s differential was 12). Stanford led the conference in scoring defense (17.2), total defense (336.2) and by a wide margin, run defense (97 yards per game).

With eight starters back, including linebacker Shayne Skov, now two seasons removed from a knee injury, that unit could be even better.

“We have so many great players on defense,” Shaw said “If they can jell and play well together, I think our defense can be great.”

On offense, Stanford has a blossoming star in quarterback Kevin Hogan, that imposing offensive line keyed by Yankey and Kevin Danser, and what should be more production at wide receiver. What’s missing is career-leading runner Stepfan Taylor and two more NFL tight end draftees, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, which will alter the thrust of the Stanford attack.

Hogan had a productive 2012 debut with nine touchdown passes and three interceptions. Shaw is asking for development in leadership, saying: “It’s not just the coaching staff coaching them. We tell those guys (quarterbacks) all the time, the quarterbacks coach the receivers more than the coaches do.”

We’ll take Shaw’s word for it. Very quickly, he’s earned the benefit of the doubt.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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