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Football preview: With Nunes at the helm, Stanford passing game reloads for another big season

Redshirt junior quarterback Josh Nunes will take charge of the Stanford offense this season after beating out redshirt sophomore Brett Nottingham and redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan for the job. "In all the empirical evidence that we’ve collected, Josh has been the most consistent," explained head coach David Shaw while announcing the decision Tuesday. (CASEY VALENTINE/Stanfordphoto.com)

On its face, Stanford’s 2012 passing game will be all about newness. And Nunes.

It’s actually pronounced “Noon-es,” as media members learned recently, but as broadcasters hone their renditions of his name, redshirt junior quarterback Josh Nunes will be working on a much more difficult assignment.

The biggest cleats to fill in college football this offseason are now his, as head coach David Shaw announced on Tuesday, but Andrew Luck’s body of work is not one to be replaced—and for a passer with just seven collegiate yards to his name, that was never the goal.

“The path has already been laid here for how to be a successful quarterback at Stanford,” Nunes said. “It’s just about following that pattern and emulating the kind of player that [Luck] was and the kind of person he was here.”

Nunes’ ascendance marks the end of eight months of uncertainty at quarterback, beginning with the Fiesta Bowl in January and ending just 10 days ahead of the Cardinal’s Aug. 31 season opener against San Jose State. Shaw set standards for the competition early last winter and has followed through on them studiously; after reviewing every single play of practice with his players, he would go home and then take notes as he watched them all again on his iPad.

“The guy who’s going to play quarterback was the guy who can do it all, as far as managing the running game, managing our protections and getting us to the right play,” Shaw said. “In all the empirical evidence that we’ve collected, Josh has been the most consistent.”

Though Shaw would not name a number two, the apparent runner-up is redshirt sophomore Brett Nottingham, Luck’s backup last season. His stronger arm and extra year of eligibility were plusses, but evidently, Nunes’ three years of mastering the playbook—a mental gap, according to Shaw, that Nottingham and redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan have closed since the spring—put the coaching staff at ease.

Still, Shaw stressed that the length of the battle was “a very good thing” and reflected the abilities and work ethic of Nunes’ competitors.

“Make no mistake, this was not about wild plays, it was not about doing something outside of the framework of the offense,” Shaw said. “This is about consistency, this is about executing the plays that were called…This is not an indictment at all of any inabilities that [Nottingham] has.”

“[The competition] has made us better quarterbacks,” Nunes noted. “There was no off-time. There was no letup.”

Now that Nunes is taking all the first-team reps, he can perfect what the coaches are asking of him in the short time before the opener—and, just two weeks later, a date with preseason No. 1 USC. It’s all about “managing the game,” Shaw says: hitting open receivers, preparing protections and checking the offense into one of the three plays called at the line of scrimmage, a tactic that was publicized heavily last year but has actually been gaining traction for several seasons.

Nobody did that better than Luck, under whose guidance the Cardinal was forced into fewer negative plays—“80 percent of the job,” says Shaw—than any team in the country.

“[The new quarterbacks] saw a guy come in every single day and prepare, and prepare, and prepare, and be just as excited for a 60-yard run as a 60-yard touchdown,” Shaw said. “Those guys experiencing that, they see it’s not about stats, not about touchdowns and incompletions. It’s about, ‘Am I getting my team in position to win football games?’”

That team will have a host of sure-handed weapons for Nunes to exploit. He may even have more to work with, despite the loss of tight end Coby Fleener, a second-round pick in the NFL Draft, and electric, oft-concussed receiver Chris Owusu.

The two remaining members of the "Tree Amigos," redshirt juniors Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, will team up to lead a tight end group still expected to produce major offense for Stanford this season. (JOHN TODD/Stanfordphoto.com)

Stanford will still rely on its tight ends more than any other team in the Pac-12, if not the nation. Two of the “Tree Amigos” remain in the form of redshirt juniors Zach Ertz, an underneath-route specialist who caught four touchdowns last year, and Levine Toilolo, a towering, 6-foot-8 tight end whose first full season yielded seven scores. Of the trio, Fleener was the deep threat—accounting for nearly as many yards (667) as Ertz (346) and Toilolo (343) combined—and in his absence, Ertz doubts that he will be lining up in three-tight-end formations as frequently as in 2011. Still, with a talented freshman in Luke Kaumatule and two elder statesmen, redshirt sophomore Davis Dudchock and redshirt junior Jemari Roberts, poised to get some playing time, the tight end group doesn’t see its role diminishing any time soon.

“We feel like we’re one of the focal points of the offense and I feel like we want the pressure to be on us,” Ertz said. “We want to take the pressure off Josh as much as we can, and I think we can do that.”

Out wide, sophomore receiver Ty Montgomery will be looking to build on his breakout freshman season, which saw him appear in all 13 games and also serve as Stanford’s primary kick returner. Owusu, also a special teams specialist before his late-career run-ins with injury, was a guiding force through Montgomery’s rapid development.

“Once I picked up the offense I kind of got rid of the tunnel vision,” Montgomery said. “I started to see the whole field and what was going on around me, just playing faster.”

Without another tested wideout on the roster, seniors Drew Terrell and Jamal-Rashad Patterson have the chance to step up in their final seasons, but it’s a true freshman that has yet again been turning heads in training camp. Son of Bob Whitfield, an All-American teammate of Shaw’s in the ’90s who earned a starting spot as a freshman, Kodi Whitfield has already quashed any thought of a redshirt in the mind of his coaches.

“He’s going to play right now, right off the bat,” Shaw said. “He’s been outstanding all training camp. He’s picked up the offense faster than any receiver that we’ve had since we’ve been here.”

“There’s something to be said for players’ kids—in particular, players that went here,” Shaw added Wednesday. “Kodi’s been on this campus a bunch. Kodi understands the culture here…he’s one of those guys that walked onto this campus and didn’t blink.”

Whitfield, complimented by Shaw on his ability to “pluck the ball,” hauled in a 33-yard catch in the team’s open scrimmage last Sunday and awaits his entrance to the limelight next Friday against the Spartans. And at the end of the day, fans will be treated to a passing attack solidified by a game-managing quarterback, intensified by an embarrassment of wealth at tight end and electrified by a freshman wideout.

Not so new after all.

 

Previous installments in The Stanford Daily’s 2012 football preview series:

Aug. 2: For outside linebacker Kevin Anderson, reward for hard work is finally in sight

Aug. 16: Workload only increasing for versatile fullback Ryan Hewitt

Aug. 16: Nottingham, Nunes front-runners in tightly contested quarterback race

Aug. 22: Powerful offensive line anchored by freshman talent and veteran leadership

About Joseph Beyda

Joseph Beyda is the Football Editor at The Stanford Daily. Previously he has worked as a sports desk editor, the paper's summer managing editor and a beat reporter for football, baseball and women's soccer. He co-authored The Daily's recent football book, "Rags to Roses," and covered the soccer team's national title run for the New York Times. Joseph is a junior from Cupertino, Calif. majoring in Electrical Engineering. To contact him, please email jbeyda "at" stanford.edu.