By George Chen
Clad in a black polo shirt, Stanford football head coach David Shaw walked into Kissick Auditorium of the Arrillaga Family Sports Center, prepared to address the media on National Signing Day. Two imposing, silver awards flanked the two-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year as he took a seat at the conference table. To his left, the towering Pac-12 Championship trophy loomed. To his right, the smaller Rose Bowl trophy gleamed.
“Can everybody see okay?” Shaw jokingly asked. “I know we have a lot of stuff on the table.”
He might’ve been kidding, but his quip reflected the seemingly relaxed atmosphere surrounding the program. On a day of the year that is generally long-awaited and drama-filled across the country, tension found no place on The Farm. After all, the Cardinal had just welcomed its official 2013 recruiting class, as 12 promising high school recruits from eight different states signed their Letters of Intent with Stanford.
“When you look at our 2013 class, you will see size. You will see athleticism. You will see toughness,” Shaw said. “We made it a point in this class to find tight ends and linebackers who can physically do what we need, and we’re excited about the guys we found.”
As expected, with a small graduating senior class and fewer scholarships available to offer, this year’s signees did not top the historic 2012 recruiting class that included three five-star prospects and three of the top eight offensive line prospects in the nation.
Despite the relatively small number of signees, the quality of the newest additions to the Cardinal family shouldn’t be overlooked. Ten of the 12 players were ranked in the nation’s top 25 at their positions by recruiting services, nine played in an All-America game and five were named PrepStar All-Americans.
The 2013 Stanford class was ranked 16th in the nation based on average player rating — nine signees were rated four stars or higher and two were tabbed as five stars by at least one recruiting service. Five of the signees were also ESPN 300 recruits while three were members of the Scout 300 and Rivals 250.
In keeping with an annual trend, the program once again hauled in big, physically imposing athletes. Tailor-made for the Cardinal’s smashmouth running game and aggressive, physical style of play on defense, the newly inked players average 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds.
As expected, the Cardinal’s latest recruiting plan focused on equipping a Kevin Hogan-led offense with a more diverse set of weapons. Seven signees — three tight ends, two offensive linemen, one wide receiver and one quarterback — play on offense.
Stanford snagged a dynamic quarterback-wide receiver duo for the near future with the signings of quarterback Ryan Burns (Leesburg, Va./Stone Bridge High School) and wideout Francis Owusu (Oxnard, Calif./Oaks Christian School).
“I chose Stanford because it’s the best school in the country,” Burns said. “It has top notch athletics and academics. The weather is perfect, and the people are even better.”
Listed as the third best pro-style quarterback by PrepStar, Burns led his team to a 51-6 record and two high school state championship runner-up finishes. This past season, the PrepStar All-American tossed for a school-record 2,530 yards (21.1 yards per completion) and 28 touchdowns. Showing his dual-threat capabilities, Burns also rushed for 222 yards and touchdowns in his senior year.
Brother of former Stanford wide receiver Chris Owusu, who was one of Andrew Luck’s favorite targets on the outside, four-star recruit Francis Owusu stands at 6-foot-3 and is one of the top 20 wide receivers in the 2013 class, as ranked by both PrepStar and Rivals. Most notable among prospects who did not sign with the Cardinal is four-star wide receiver Jordan Cunningham (Fort Lauderdale, Fl./University School of Nova South), who turned down Stanford’s offer and instead opted to sign with Vanderbilt.
“This season, Francis Owusu separated himself from just about any receiver on the West Coast,” Shaw said.
But the signing of three new tight ends was arguably the Cardinal’s most important grab of the day. Austin Hooper (San Ramon, Calif./De La Salle HS), Greg Taboada (Atlanta, Ga./Marist HS) and Eric Cotton (Nampa, Idaho/Columbia HS) look to fill a huge void left by the departures of unanimous All-American tight end Zach Ertz and four-year veteran Levine Toilolo.
Taboada, captain of the top high school team in the nation, played on both sides of the ball, while Hooper and Cotton’s athleticism could potentially allow them to be utilized in other positions should Shaw choose to experiment during training camp. Shaw stated that he didn’t see a tight end in the nation that was as good of a route runner in and out of the crouch as Cotton.
“People have asked me the last few years, ‘Where do you find those tight ends?’” Shaw said. “We believe that we have three guys in this class who can be as productive in the running game and passing game as Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo were for us.”
After landing highly touted offensive linemen Andrus Peat, Joshua Garnett and Kyle Murphy last year, the Cardinal has plenty of depth in the trenches going into the 2013-14 campaign. Nonetheless, Stanford bolstered its offensive line even further by inking David Bright (Yorba Linda, Calif./Mater Dei HS) and Thomas Oser (Los Angeles, Calif./Harvard-Westlake School).
Both Bright and Oser drew the attention of the Cardinal coaching staff during Stanford’s summer football camp, and their versatility will only add to the development of one of the nation’s top units up front. Bright, a PrepStar All-American, has played both tackle and guard, while Oser is the 11th center in the nation and can also switch to guard.
“Offensively, we believe that we’ve added exciting firepower,” Shaw said. “Up front, we have added two physical, aggressive and versatile offensive linemen who fit our style and temperament of play.”
With nine of the 11 starting defenders on the Rose Bowl team returning, the Cardinal managed to haul in four new linebackers and a signee who plays both cornerback and wide receiver.
A consensus national top-10 linebacker, Peter Kalambayi (Matthews, N.C./Butler HS) was a USA Today first-team All-America selection and a finalist for the Butkus Award, which is given annually to the top linebacker at the high school, collegiate and professional levels.
Joining him will be Mike Tyler (Brecksville, Ohio/Brecksville-Broadview Heights HS), an outside linebacker who racked up 18 sacks this past season. The Cardinal already boasts a deep linebacker corps, but the additions of Kalambayi and Tyler should help out a squad that will be without star outside linebacker Chase Thomas next year.
“Defensively, with the depth of young talent in the defensive backfield and the returning strength of our defensive line, we’ve added four linebackers in this class who can run and hit and play the aggressive style of defense for which Stanford has come to be known,” Shaw commented. “Each of these linebackers has unique abilities in pass rush and in coverage, and they will add to the strength and depth of our front seven.”
Four-star recruits Kevin Palma (Pixley, Calif./Mission Oak HS) and Sean Barton (North Salt Lake, Utah/Woods Corss HS) round out the inside linebacker group. Palma, listed as the 10th best middle linebacker in the country, tallied 19 tackles for loss in his senior campaign and broke a school-record by recording eight of them in a single game. Amassing 200 tackles and 36 tackles for loss over the course of his high school career, Barton will enroll at Stanford in 2015 after his LDS church mission in Africa.
“[Coach Shaw] cares about the players,” Barton said. “He always has your best intentions at heart, and he commands the team without having to scream constantly.”
Taijuan Thomas (Monroe, La./Ouachita Parish HS) was an explosive playmaker at both the wide receiver and cornerback positions in high school. Having a body build similar to Drew Terrell’s, Thomas possesses the triple-threat label as a possible kickoff and punt returner.
“Taijuan Thomas is one of those explosive athletes who could help us on offense, defense and special teams,” Shaw said. “We can’t wait for his playmaking ability to impact our team.”
On New Year’s Day, an endless rain of cardinal and white confetti fell onto the field at the Rose Bowl Stadium as 40,000 Cardinal fans applauded Stanford’s first Rose Bowl win in over four decades. Players celebrated, Shaw gave a speech and MVPs were named.
Half an hour later, the postgame conference was held in a much more subdued setting. Shaw talked about his players’ resolve that led them to the Rose Bowl victory and then spoke his last words of the historic 2012-2013 season.
“We have a lot of guys coming back on both sides of the ball, all three phases, and we’ll hold ourselves to a higher standard,” he said. “But our standard is not just talking about winning games. Our standard is how we work, how we come together, how we practice and the attitude that we build before we ever play a football game. And that starts in a few weeks.”
A few weeks have passed since then and with 12 new players added to its roster, Stanford’s pursuit of a national title has begun in earnest.