Stanford tries to succeed without Andrew Luck | College football
This might be a worthy goal for the Stanford football team: Keep the name Andrew Luck out of as many stories as possible in 2012.
Seattle Times college football reporter
Stanford at a glanceLast year: 11-2 (8-1 in Pac-12).
Coach: David Shaw (2nd year, 11-2).
Leading lights: RB Stepfan Taylor, FB Ryan Hewitt, TE Zach Ertz, TE Levine Toilolo, LB Chase Thomas, LB Shayne Skov.
Key stat: Stanford has allowed only 17 sacks the past two years.
The schedule: Cardinal meets USC Sept. 15 in the first key early matchup of Pac-12 play. A Thursday-night, Sept. 27 game at Washington looks big for both clubs.
Nobody around the Stanford football program has stated it quite like this, but it might be a worthy goal for the Cardinal: Keep the name Andrew Luck out of as many stories as possible in 2012.
It won't be easy.
The consensus best pro prospect in perhaps 30 years has left for the NFL, and it might not be a reach to say Stanford faces a bigger drop-off at that position — quarterback — than any school, at any position, in the country.
That is not to knock the candidates there, a pair of 6-foot-4 Californians, sophomore Brett Nottingham and junior Josh Nunes. It's just that after the Cardinal finished its spring game in April, coach David Shaw said, "I don't care what the numbers say, that position didn't play well enough for us to win," and when did a Stanford coach ever say that about Luck?
Sunday in Stanford's final scrimmage of fall camp, Nunes quarterbacked the first unit, Nottingham the second, without any real conclusiveness. Shaw likely will name a starter this week.
The season will thus be about trying to replicate the recent past with an altered formula: A defense that could graduate from good to great; an older, better Stepfan Taylor (1,330 yards last year) in the backfield; and a quarterback the Cardinal hopes can function smoothly.
"We look at ourselves as, this is the year we make a name for ourselves," said all-Pac-12 linebacker Chase Thomas, referring to his side of the ball. "It's been mostly about the offense and Andrew. This year, we hope to get a little more attention."
Just think of all the ways Luck impacted the game, and how the Cardinal must try to mitigate his departure. His 37 touchdown passes and 71 percent completions in 2011 don't begin to tell the story.
Stanford had the ball an average of 33 minutes, 12 seconds every game, ninth in the nation. More chances to score, and more rest for the defense.
The past two years, the Cardinal was uncanny converting third downs — a nation-high 57.6 percent in 2010 and a third-best 52.6 last season. That can't have been morale-boosting for the opposition.
Nor can these numbers: Stanford scored on a crazy 97.1 percent of its trips into the red zone last year (67 of 69), and succeeded on 129 of 139 chances over two years.
No wonder Shaw, in his second year, laid the groundwork early with his quarterbacks.
"We crossed that bridge in the first meeting; there should be no effort to be Andrew Luck," Shaw said. "It's not possible.
"Whoever wins that job will be the guy that executes, gets us to the right protection, gets us to the right running play and, when a guy's open, hits him with the ball."
To underscore Luck is no longer around, Shaw decided to have nobody wearing No. 12 this season.
Meanwhile, Shaw is bold in his assessment of other areas on the team. While the Cardinal lost its top three receivers — including primo tight end Coby Fleener, it returns tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, which Shaw called "maybe the best combination in college football."
Taylor, he said, is "the most underrated running back in the nation."
And the defensive front seven "has a chance to be as good as anybody playing college football this year."
Indeed, the defense has the look of a unit that will rival the best in school history. It was tops against the run in the Pac-12 last season at 84.4 yards, 27 yards better than second-place USC.
Both Thomas and fellow 'backer Shayne Skov are top-shelf league defensive player-of-the-year candidates. Skov, remember, single-handedly dismantled the Virginia Tech offense in the 2011 Orange Bowl with 12 tackles, including three sacks.
But Skov must come back from a knee injury suffered in September, and he will sit out the opener because of a DUI citation.
"He still benches more than I do," Thomas said. "He's still an animal. I love having him back out there."
Even with many familiar elements, it is inevitably a new era at Stanford. But the Cardinal believes the old habit of winning is intact.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com