For the diehard college football fan, there are only two seasons: football season and the worst seven months of the year (not including National Signing Day).
So while the dust hasn’t even settled from the Stanford football team’s shootout in the Fiesta Bowl, it’s never too early to start looking ahead to 2012 and see just who will be suiting up for the Cardinal on Sept. 1 against San Jose State.
So this week, as the first half of a two-part 2012 preview, we’ll take a look at the Stanford offense.
The first order of business for David Shaw and the offense is, of course, to find a replacement for Andrew Luck, but the Cardinal has much bigger issues than just replacing their Heisman-caliber quarterback. Four of the Cardinal’s offensive starters from 2011 could have their names called in the first round of the NFL Draft in April — Luck, tight end Coby Fleener and offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro — so there will be plenty of holes to fill.
The heir to Luck’s throne as starting quarterback is most likely sophomore Brett Nottingham, who was Luck’s primary backup this season and played in garbage time several different times during 2011. Rivals.com ranked Nottingham as the country’s fourth-best pro-style quarterback coming out of high school — interestingly, Luck was also rated the number four pro-style quarterback when he came to Stanford.
But despite earning the backup spot this season, Nottingham isn’t assured of winning the job, and he will have to fend off a slew of talented suitors if he wants to start the season under center. Juniors Robbie Picazo and Josh Nunes both have experience in the Cardinal offense as three-year backups, and freshmen Evan Crower and Kevin Hogan will bring their size (both are over 6-foot-4) and athleticism to the open quarterback competition.
After quarterback, the Cardinal’s next-biggest point of concern has to be the offensive line. After replacing three departing starters last season, the Cardinal will now have to replace its two most talented starters in 2012. Center Sam Schwartzstein, tackle Cameron Fleming and experienced starters Kevin Danser and David Yankey can certainly be expected to grab positions along the line after playing a substantial amount in 2012, but there is still one position that isn’t totally clear at this point. Junior Khalil Wilkes could fill in somewhere after challenging for the starting center job last year, and the Cardinal also will bring in a top-notch recruiting class of linemen. Right now, Stanford has three four-star linemen committed to come play on the Farm next year — Nick Davidson, Graham Shuler and Brandon Fanaika — and five-star tackle Kyle Murphy, who is still deciding between Stanford, USC, Oregon and Florida, could also join in the battle for the two open spots.
Whoever ends up along the offensive line will end up blocking for an extremely talented group of running backs though, where the Cardinal could have a dominant four-pack of runners. Junior Stepfan Taylor will be going for his third consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season, junior Tyler Gaffney could still steer the “Wildcat” offense if he doesn’t decide to play professional baseball, sophomore Anthony Wilkerson will undoubtedly get more playing time and incoming freshman Barry Sanders will bring his 4.3 speed to the backfield as well. Together, this group of runners could go a long way toward easing the transition for the Cardinal’s new starting quarterback, especially with the with the . . . wide open competition on the outsides.
Receiver will be another major point of concern for the Cardinal offense next year, as seniors Griff Whalen and Chris Owusu have both used up their eligibility. This will be the second year in a row that Stanford will have to replace its top two receivers (after Doug Baldwin and Ryan Whalen both departed to the NFL), but there is a major lack of experience among this upcoming group of pass-catchers.
Freshman Ty Montgomery is the clear top dog after his breakout 2011 season (he was the Cardinal’s leading receiver in the Fiesta Bowl with 120 yards and a touchdown), while juniors Drew Terrell and Jamal Rashad-Patterson both got some playing time this season. After that, though, most of the receivers on the Stanford depth chart have yet to see the field. However, the Cardinal will be able count on their tight ends will alleviate the lack of depth out wide.
Junior Zach Ertz and redshirt sophomore Levine Toilolo both return to the Farm after big seasons in 2011, and they will certainly help provide some instant stability for the offense. The two combined for 10 touchdowns despite some injury problems during the year, and so long as both can stay healthy, they could easily be Stanford’s top two receivers next season.
Perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle for the Cardinal will be the coaching staff, though, as it will likely look exactly the same as 2011. After the coaching transition from Jim Harbaugh to David Shaw last season, there was a lot of coaching turnover — offensive coordinator Greg Roman also skipped over to the 49ers — and Shaw had to assemble his own new offensive staff, including offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton and run game coordinator Mike Bloomgren.
After engineering a red zone offense that was the best in the nation in 2011, Hamilton has reportedly been contacted about taking over the offense for the Alabama Crimson Tide, but it’s not known if Hamilton is seriously considering the move. The Tide has won two national championships in the last three years and is looking to replace Jim McElwain, who left to become the head coach at Colorado State.
Altogether, with Stanford’s recent success turning out top-tier talent and a top-20 recruiting class coming in, the Cardinal might be in good position to continue its offensive success, even though it will have to replace six critical starters. But on the whole, it’s clear to see that Stanford still has some serious questions to address before the 2012 kickoff — questions that go much deeper than just the loss of Andrew Luck to the NFL.