The wait is over.
After an action-packed offseason that saw the Cardinal land the best recruiting class in school history, hire veteran coaches in special teams coordinator Pete Alamar and inside linebacker coach David Kotulski and fill preseason watch lists for national awards with a horde of its own players, Stanford football is finally ready to hit the field in tonight’s 7-p.m. season opener against San Jose State.
On the heels of two remarkable seasons that included back-to-back BCS bowl berths, the Cardinal will have some new faces on both sides of the ball this year. Among them is redshirt junior quarterback Josh Nunes, preparing to take the reins of the offense in his first collegiate start. Nunes beat out redshirt sophomore Brett Nottingham for the starting job in what was perhaps the biggest story of preseason camp.
“I’m excited,” Nunes said. “I wouldn’t say nervous, but maybe a few butterflies.”
Nunes faces a tall order in replacing his near-perfect predecessor, Andrew Luck, but head coach David Shaw has shown a great sense of confidence in his new starter thus far.
“He’s sharp,” Shaw stated. “We’ve put a lot on him to see how much he can handle. The defense has given him a variety of looks, a lot more than he’s probably going to see from anyone else this year. He’s seen a lot and he’s been able to get us to the right plays, the right protections and the right runs.”
Following the advice of Luck, who sent a congratulatory text to Nunes saying, “Now it’s time to work,” the new quarterback has been covering all the bases in his mental preparation. Studying game film is a huge component for Nunes, who has been watching extra film outside of practices and meetings when he wakes up every morning and before he goes to sleep every night.
“I don’t think you can be too prepared for a game, especially when it comes to studying defensive formations and sets,” he said. “The more you watch and the more you familiarize with the [opponent], the better you’ll be.”
Nunes should also be getting plenty of help in his first game from senior captain running back Stepfan Taylor, who has emerged as one of the top halfbacks not only in the Pac-12, but also in the nation. With backs Jeremy Stewart and Tyler Gaffney gone, the bulk of the carries will fall on Taylor’s shoulders as he steps in as the leader of the Cardinal’s run-first offense.
“I know this is my last year,” Taylor said. “There’s a sense of urgency. My past teammates built a foundation and we don’t want that to go to waste. We want to build on that.”
The veteran tailback is pursuing his third consecutive 1,000-yard season. The all-time Stanford rushing record is also in sight for Taylor—he needs 1,264 more yards to overtake Darrin Nelson’s mark—but the senior captain has been brushing off the record talks.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to help my team win games,” Taylor said. “But I’m not going to try to do anything outside of what I know I can do to help build my stats.”
The San Jose State defense may not boast nationally recognized players, but it does showcase defensive end Travis Johnson, last season’s Western Athletic Conference defensive player of year. Johnson recorded 9.5 sacks last year and threatens to wreak havoc in the backfield should the Cardinal offensive line—which graduated two top draft picks—neglect to contain him.
“If you don’t pay attention to Johnson on the edge, he’ll hurt you,” Shaw said. “He’s a very hardworking guy who finds a way to get to the quarterback, and if you back off one minute, he’s going to beat you because he doesn’t back off.”
Friday’s game will consist of a matchup between two new quarterbacks, as the Spartans also feature a rookie passer in David Fales. Before transferring to San Jose State, Fales spent two seasons at Monterey Peninsula College, where he threw for 4,635 yards and 37 touchdowns at the junior college level.
Out of the 120 college teams in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, San Jose State was ranked 80th in points scored per game (24.5) last year. However, Shaw is still wary of his opponent’s quickness.
“They always have speed,” he said. “There’s always someone who we don’t know about that can run on both sides of the ball. In game one, you’re not really sure what you’re getting into until the game gets going, but I anticipate [San Jose State] to do as much as they can in mixing it up on us.”
The Spartans’ offense certainly faces a stiff test in Stanford’s formidable front seven. The Cardinal’s fearsome linebacker core is one of the best, if not the best in the country. Although inside linebacker Shayne Skov is serving a one-game suspension from his January DUI incident, sophomore James Vaughters—nicknamed by his teammates “Jugs,” short for “Juggernaut”—and outside linebackers Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy should give San Jose State plenty of nightmares.
“Our defense has grown over the past couple of years,” Thomas said. “Two years ago, we went to the Orange Bowl. We built that foundation of a good defense and last year we built more upon that. This year, it’s really the best. We’ve been in the system for three years, so everyone knows the techniques. Everyone’s playing a lot faster than we have in the past, and that’s shown throughout training camp.”
In what has been dubbed the “Bill Walsh Legacy Game,” Stanford and San Jose State have met 65 times dating back to 1900. Historically, Stanford is 50-14-1 in the series, and the Cardinal’s 57-3 blowout of the Spartans last season marked its eighth victory in the last nine years.
The annual matchup honors legendary football coach Bill Walsh, a San Jose State graduate who served as Stanford football head coach before going on to win three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers. Shaw took some time out of Sunday’s practice to address Walsh’s deep-rooted ties to each school, as well as the legacy that he left as a football coach and person.
“I talked to my players about the affiliation Bill Walsh had with both schools,” Shaw said. “I talked about what Bill stressed as a coach: being exact, being explosive, being fast. I talked about Bill’s history as a boxer. He always talked about beating people to the punch, how important a jab was and staying on the attack.”
Staying on the attack is exactly what the Cardinal looks to do tonight. For the younger players—guys like Lee Ward and Patrick Skov at fullback and Ed Reynolds and Usua Amanam in the secondary—who are seeing significant playing time for the first time in their collegiate careers, it’s about how they respond to adversity.
“Hand the ball to the running back, and everybody’s blocked so he walks into the end zone—that tells me nothing,” Shaw said. “What happens when he gets hit in the backfield? What happens when he misses something and makes a mistake? What happens when a tackle gets beat? When a young receiver catches the ball and gets hit hard, what happens on the next play?”
“All that stuff is important,” he continued. “That’s what tells you about young guys. I tell the guys all the time, ‘It’s not important what happens to you. It’s important how you respond to what happens to you.’”
Still, based on what has been an intense preseason camp, Shaw is confident in knowing what to expect from most of his players.
“I feel good about 90 percent of the guys we’re going to put on the field,” he said. “We’ll see about the other 10 percent once the game starts.”
Shaw will find out about that last 10 percent tonight as the Cardinal kicks off its season against San Jose State at 7 p.m. at Stanford Stadium. The game will be broadcast live nationally on Pac-12 Networks.
Previous installments in The Stanford Daily’s 2012 football preview series: