There may not be a more daunting task in sports than following greatness. Every legend that has ever graced a sports field leaves at some point, either to join another team or to call it a career. The athletes that replace these legends are charged not only with stepping into an important role for quite possibly their first time but filling the vacant gap left by a superstar and the expectations that come along with it.
Few people grow up imagining themselves becoming the New York Yankees’ shortstop after Derek Jeter, the Chicago Bulls’ shooting guard after Michael Jordan or the Florida Gators’ quarterback after Tim Tebow. With so much prior success, it’s difficult for those who follow to do anything but let fans down.
For Stanford football, the task of replacing departing fifth-year seniors Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy and Ben Gardner and seniors Ed Reynolds and David Yankey looms large. While these players may or may not have successful NFL careers, they became Stanford legends—the leaders of the first class in Stanford history to go to four straight bowl games, let alone four straight BCS bowl games. No other school in the nation can claim the feat of going to four straight BCS games in the final four years of the BCS system. Success became an assumption for Stanford football thanks to these guys.
But if there’s anyone on Stanford’s roster who is scared or not ready to take over and continue the success these players established, it’s not showing.
It seems that with each new season, there’s a “flaw” with the team that will keep them from succeeding. Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart ‘09 departed, and with him apparently any hopes of sustained success for the Card went as well. When Jim Harbaugh left, success was supposed to leave with him. After Andrew Luck ‘12 left, few people expected the Card to remain a Pac-12 competitor. And now, with one of the best defenses in the nation losing five of its most important starters and one of the nation’s best offensive lines losing four of five starters, the Card slipped behind Oregon and even UCLA in projections for next season in the Pac-12.
Don’t write off Stanford just yet.
With spring practices underway, the first steps in reorganizing the offensive line and the defense have begun. The famed 2012 offensive line recruiting class, which included two five-star recruits, four four-star recruits and a three-star recruit according to Rivals, stands to take over with sophomores Josh Garnett, Graham Shuler, Johnny Caspers and Kyle Murphy leading the competition to start on the line along with Andrus Peat, the only returning starter.
The defense will have to overcome several key losses, but junior Kevin Anderson and sophomore Blake Martinez have already shown their prowess at linebacker in stepping in for Skov and Murphy. Sophomore defensive end Luke Kaumatule possesses incredible athleticism, standing 6-foot-7 and weighing 270 pounds with tight end speed and should play a prominent role after he develops at the defensive end position—he transitioned from tight end midway through last season. Sophomore Aziz Shittu and senior Blake Lueders provide returning experience at defensive end and sophomore Jordan Watkins made great strides last season in practice according to head coach David Shaw and figures to factor into the defensive line rotation.
Yes, the defense will greatly miss its leaders and the offense loses a workhorse in senior Tyler Gaffney, but the Cardinal also has many bright spots heading into next season, including a wide receiver corps as deep and talented as any in the nation and a quarterback who now has a season and a half of starting experience. Returners like senior A.J. Tarpley, junior Jordan Richards, senior Henry Anderson and sophomore Alex Carter should also provide both the exceptional talent and leadership that the defense had last year.
Before you pencil in difficult road games at Oregon, at UCLA, at Arizona State, at Notre Dame and at Washington as losses, remember that for some of its recent seasons, the Card was forgotten, overlooked and underrated. How did those seasons turn out? The record books speak for themselves.
It’s too early to try and predict how the Cardinal will do next season, but spring practice brings an excitement that causes us to wonder. Despite the loss of talent, count on Stanford to again challenge for the Pac-12 title, which could very likely come down to a matchup with Oregon again. The doubt will be there, but this team doesn’t care. It never has and it never will.
Michael Peterson has a big role to fill, too, as The Daily’s new resident football addict following Sam Fisher’s departure. Give him tips on how to fill that role and endure the long wait until Spring Game at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @mpetes93.