Stanford Hopes the Next Step Will Be Its Biggest
July 28, 2009
In two years under the direction of head coach Jim Harbaugh, Stanford has made steady strides in its attempt to regain a position of prominence in the Pac-10 Conference.
The steps have been consistent and measurable. After a posting a 1-11 season in 2006, Stanford improved by three games to finish 4-8 in Harbaugh’s first season at the helm. Highlights included an epic upset victory over second-ranked USC and a win over California in the Big Game.
Last season, Stanford improved by one more game in the win column to finish 5-7 overall and 4-5 in the Pac-10. Only last-second losses at UCLA and Oregon stood in the way of the Cardinal becoming bowl eligible.
Stanford hopes its next step will be its most significant, as the Cardinal takes dead aim on ending a string of seven straight losing seasons and returning to postseason play for the first time in eight years.
Stanford did not have to take a huge leap of faith to set its goals for the 2009 season, as they fall naturally in line for a program that has shown marked improvement over the last two seasons. The challenge stares the Cardinal right in the eyes.
“The next step is to build a team that can win consistently and compete for the Pac-10 championship,” said Harbaugh. “We’ve had our moments, but they have been just that—moments.”
Seventeen starters (eight on offense, seven on defense and two specialists) are counted among the 50 returning letterwinners along with a nationally-recognized recruiting class that has been tasked with ending a string of seven straight losing seasons and securing the program’s first bowl appearance since the 2001 campaign.
The most notable losses on offense include running back Anthony Kimble, who rushed for a career high 717 yards last season to vault into eighth place on the school’s all-time rushing list and offensive line stalwarts Ben Muth and Alex Fletcher, who combined to make 65 career starts, along with tight end Austin Gunder.
Defensively, Stanford loses the services of linebacker Pat Maynor, the team’s second-leading tackler a year ago, defensive end Pannel Egboh, who made 36 consecutive starts to close out his career, and three-year starting left cornerback and special teams standout Wopamo Osaisai.
On special teams, the graduation of Aaron Zagory, Stanford’s career leader in field goal percentage, leaves a huge hole in the kicking game.
On offense, Stanford will count heavily on the services of senior running back Toby Gerhart, who rushed for a school-record 1,136 yards last season, becoming just the fifth back in Stanford history to eclipse the 1,000-yard plateau. He compiled a Pac-10-best eight, 100-yard games last season and finished third in the conference with a 94.7 per game mark.
There will be a new look at quarterback, where redshirt freshman Andrew Luck takes over the signal-calling duties handled the last two seasons by Tavita Pritchard. Luck, who was rated as the fourth-best quarterback prospect in the nation coming out of Houston’s Stratford High School, seems poised to add to Stanford’s long tradition of excellence at the quarterback position.
Stanford returns its top two receivers from a year ago in juniors Ryan Whalen and Doug Baldwin, but needs to establish quality depth at the wideout position in order to reach its offensive potential. Sophomore Chris Owusu is a likely candidate to take on more of a prominent role after a solid rookie campaign. The Cardinal will also be eager to see how highly-recruited freshmen Jamal-Rashad Patterson, Jemari Roberts and Drew Terrell fit into the mix as the season progresses.
More receiving options can be found at the tight end position, where fifth-year senior Jim Dray will be joined by sophomore Coby Fleener, junior Konrad Reuland and three of the most highly-recruited tight ends in the nation in Levine Tiololo, Zach Ertz and Jordan Najvar.
Up front, Stanford must replace left tackle Muth, a first team all-conference selection last year, and center Fletcher, a veteran of 44 career starts. Despite the loss of two stalwarts, Stanford’s offensive line looks to be as solid as the one that helped pave the way for the most successful rushing attack in school history a year ago.
Four returning linemen boast starting experience, paced by fifth-year senior Chris Marinelli, who has made 28 career starts over the last three seasons.
Defensively, Stanford returns seven starters among 22 letterwinners to a unit that allowed 379.6 yards a game last season, which placed the Cardinal seventh in the Pac-10 in total defense.
The strength of the unit can be found in the front seven, while the secondary will look to define itself early in fall camp with a wide range of personnel options.
Fifth-year senior Erik Lorig and sophomore Thomas Keiser will bookend a defensive line that will include Ekom Udofia, Matt Masifilo and Sione Fua, along with Tom McAndew and Brian Bulcke. Harbaugh feels this unit has the potential to develop into one of best front fours in the conference.
Stanford’s group of linebackers will be a mix of veterans and talented second-year players eager to make their mark on the depth chart. Fifth-year senior Clinton Snyder, Stanford’s active career tackle leader who has started all but two games in his collegiate career, will move back to the “mike” position this year.
Junior Chike Amajoyi, who has made 11 starts over his first two seasons, will compete with sophomore Max Bergen for the starting “will” linebacker position. The “sam” linebacker position will be decided between fifth-year senior Will Powers and sophomore Alex Debniak.
Junior Nick Macaluso figures prominently in the rotation at “mike” linebacker.
Bo McNally, a fifth-year senior who has led the team in tackles each of the last two seasons, lends veteran experience to the secondary that could have at least two underclassmen occupy starting roles. Sophomore Delano Howell was converted to strong safety during the spring and immediately moved to the top of the depth chart, while classmate Michael Thomas has an inside track on a starting job at one of the corner positions.
Here’s a more detailed look at the 2009 Stanford Cardinal…
The success of Stanford’s football program over the years, pick any era, has largely been built around its strength at quarterback.
Beginning with Frankie Albert and continuing with the likes of Bobby Garrett, John Brodie, Jim Plunkett, Mike Boryla, Guy Benjamin, John Elway, John Paye, Steve Stenstrom, Todd Husak and Trent Edwards, to name a few, Stanford has enjoyed a long tradition of excellence at quarterback for over seven decades.
All of Stanford’s great signal-callers over the years, while different in style and pedigree, gave the Cardinal an offensive dimension that buoyed the program to some of its most glorious moments during a long and rich football history.
At the end of spring drills, Andrew Luck (6-4, 225) emerged atop the depth chart, which was indication not only of his immense talents and potential, but the level of confidence Harbaugh and the rest of the coaching staff has placed in the redshirt freshman to lead the Stanford program back to national prominence.
A five-star recruit, Luck was rated as the fourth-best prep quarterback in the nation out of Stratford High School in Houston, Texas when he signed with Stanford in the spring of 2008. The son of former West Virginia and NFL quarterback Oliver Luck, the sophomore has added more than 20 pounds to his once lanky frame since his arrival on The Farm last August.
Serving as an understudy last season to Tavita Pritchard (6-4, 215), Luck quickly took to the Cardinal playbook and even while running the scout team, it was evident that it was only a matter of time before he was handed the keys to Stanford’s offense.
“Andrew has a lot of natural talent,” said Harbaugh. “He can make all of the throws and he is very accurate. For a young player, he does a very good job in leading the team. He’s been around the game all of his life and has great instincts.”
“He’s an interesting blend of focus and looseness, competiveness and calm and confidence and humility.”
With Luck fixated in the starting role, Pritchard, who has made 19 starts at quarterback over the last two seasons, finds himself in a different role this season. Regardless who tops the depth chart, Harbaugh knows he has two capable signal-callers to carry him through the regular season.
Overall depth at the quarterback position is a concern heading into the season, as Pritchard is the only player with collegiate game experience. Freshmen Josh Nunes (Upland / Upland HS) and walk-on Robbie Picazo (Las Flores/Tesoro HS) round out the list of quarterbacks.
For a program that has gained its reputation over the years largely through the air, Stanford’s offense last season was built around a power running game that finished second in the Pac-10 in rushing, averaging 196.6 yards a game. The final total of 2,395 yards was the second-highest season mark in school history, trailing only the 1949 squad that finished with a school-record 2,481 yards.
Stanford had not finished higher than ninth in rushing offense in any of the previous five seasons and had averaged more than 100 yards on the ground just twice in the last six campaigns. The final rushing total represented a 1,061-yard increase from the previous season and 1,614 boost from the 2006 campaign.
At the forefront of last year’s groundswell was Toby Gerhart (6-1, 237), who set Stanford’s single-season rushing record with 1,136 yards on 210 carries, becoming just the fifth Stanford back to reach the 1,000-yard plateau (seventh time). The Norco, Calif., native finished third in the Pac-10 last season in rushing, averaging 94.7 yards a game and his 15 rushing touchdowns were the second-highest total in school history.
Gerhart, a second team All-Pac-10 selection a year ago, enters his senior season poised to make a serious ascent on Stanford’s career rushing charts. With 1,651 career rushing yards, he needs just 527 more to move into the top-five and with 16 career rushing touchdowns, Gerhart needs 11 more to tie Brad Muster for second place on Stanford’s all-time career list.
“Toby is a complete back,” said Harbaugh. “He is a big, powerful runner who has tremendous balance and instincts. Because of his size, his ability to run away from people goes unnoticed, but he definitely has another gear in him. He can run everything in the offense.”
While Gerhart recorded a Pac-10-best eight 100-yard games a year ago en route to a record-setting season, senior Anthony Kimble quietly rushed for 717 yards and six touchdowns. At the end of the season, Gerhart and Kimble had distinguished themselves as the most productive rushing tandem in school history, combining for 1,853 yards and 21 rushing touchdowns.
With Kimble lost to graduation, Harbaugh knows establishing depth at running back will be a top priority for the Cardinal.
A likely candidate to complement Gerhart is junior Jeremy Stewart (6-0, 218). A big, strong runner, Stewart has seen significant action each of his first two seasons on The Farm, although his progress last year was curtailed by an illness that sidelined him for two games down the stretch.
The Baton Rouge, La., native has rushed for 419 yards on 119 carries over his first two seasons with the majority of his yardage gained during his freshman season, when he totaled 343 yards on 105 carries.
Junior Owen Marecic (6-1, 241) returns to his fullback position, where he has earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 marks each of the last two seasons, despite carrying the ball just five times in his career. One of the best blocking fullbacks in the nation, Marecic continues to play a huge role in Stanford’s running game, despite his modest offensive numbers.
Fifth-year seniors Josh Catron (6-0, 234) and Blaise Johnson (5-11, 190) will see spot time, along with sophomore Alex Debniak, a linebacker by trade who Harbaugh won’t hesitate to use in the backfield when warranted.
Heralded freshmen Tyler Gaffney (San Diego/Cathedral Catholic), who was listed as the top fullback prospect in the country last year at Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego, Usua Amanam (Fremont/Bellarmine College Prep), MaxPreps.com’s Division I State Player of Year and Stepfan Taylor (Mansfield, TX/Mansfield HS), a four-star recruit who was listed among the top-20 running backs in the nation, patiently wait in the wings.
Though Stanford returns four out of its top-five receivers from a year ago, the wide receiver position is one that will need to quickly define itself in order for the Cardinal to reach its offensive potential in 2009.
After catching just one pass in limited duty as a freshman, Ryan Whalen (6-2, 203) emerged as the team’s most consistent pass catcher a year ago, hauling in a team high 41 passes for 508 yards and one touchdown. He took on a larger role in the passing game when Richard Sherman was lost for the season with a knee injury, totaling 34 of his 41 receptions over the final eight games.
Junior Doug Baldwin (5-11, 189) played in all 12 games and made nine starts last season as a sophomore while leading the Cardinal with four receiving touchdowns, averaging 14.4 yards per catch. He ranked second to Whalen in receptions (23) and receiving yards (332), but had just seven catches for 94 yards over the last five games of the season. A big play threat on offense and special teams, Baldwin has been involved in seven plays in his career that have accounted for 35 or more yards (two receiving, two rushing, two punt returns, one kickoff return).
While Whalen and Baldwin rank as Stanford’s most experienced receivers, sophomore Chris Owusu (6-2, 199) is primed to make a significant contribution after his immense talents opened the eyes of coaches late last season and during spring drills.
Owusu missed the first six games of last season after he suffered a torn right MCL in the final scrimmage of fall camp. Once healthy, he made significant contributions at both wide receiver and on special teams, finishing with five receptions totaling 80 yards and 326 yards on 14 kickoff returns (23.3 average).
“Two receivers are not enough,” said Harbaugh. “Someone else will need to step up.”
Sophomore Warren Reuland (6-5, 207), who caught three passes for 29 yards last season, could also be a factor after showing steady improvement in spring drills, as could junior Marcus Rance (6-2, 210), who hopes to come back from a torn left ACL suffered in the final week before last year’s season opener.
Stanford’s ability to establish quality depth and playmakers at the wide receiver position, however, could be contingent on the development of a trio of talented, untested freshmen in Jamal Rashad-Patterson (McDonough, GA / Henry County HS), Jemari Roberts (Long Beach / Wilson HS) and Drew Terrell (Chandler, AZ / Hamilton HS).
Depth is not a concern at tight end, where three returning players and three of the top recruits in the nation will push for playing time.
Fifth-year senior Jim Dray (6-5, 253) enters the season atop the depth chart after playing in eight games and making five starts a year ago to culminate a courageous comeback from a serious knee injury suffered the year before. Both of his receptions last season were for touchdowns.
Junior Konrad Reuland (6-5, 252), who began his collegiate career at Notre Dame, figures to play a more prominent role this season. At 6-6 and 252 pounds, Reuland has excellent size and ball skills for the position.
Coby Fleener (6-6, 241) caught 13 passes for 176 yards last season and hauled in a career-high four passes for 76 yards in the Big Game. His athletic ability and speed gives him the ability to stretch the field.
Stanford’s recruiting efforts last year paid huge dividends at the tight end postion, as the Cardinal was able to sign four of the top prospects in the nation in Levine Toilolo (La Mesa/Helix HS), Zach Ertz (Danville/Monte Vista HS), Jordan Najvar (Spring, TX/Klein Oak HS) and Ryan Hewitt (Denver, CO/J.K. Mullen HS)
Toilolo and Ertz were both listed among the top five tight end recruits in the nation while Najvar was rated as high as 12th by one scouting service.
Toilolo and Ertz were both listed among the top five tight end recruits in the nation while Najvar was rated as high as 12th by one scouting service.
“This is a real solid group,” said Harbaugh. “Fleener made perhaps the most progress in the off season and is much more physical than he was a year ago. Dray has been steady and Reuland is coming on fast as he gains a better understanding of the offense.”
Stanford’s offensive line was hit with two major graduation losses—center Alex Fletcher and left tackle Ben Muth, two stalwarts who helped pave the way for the second best rushing attack in school history last season.
The Cardinal will feature a blend of youth and experience up front. Despite the losses of Fletcher and Muth, Stanford returns four players who have combined to make 52 career starts.
Fifth-year senior Chris Marinelli (6-7, 298) returns as the team’s most experienced lineman, with 28 career starts. The versatile Marinelli saw time last season at right tackle, left tackle and right guard and earned honorable mention all-conference accolades. He enters his final campaign as the projected starter at right tackle.
Junior Chase Beeler (6-3, 276) was a steady force for the Cardinal last year, making seven starts at left guard in his first season of eligibility at Stanford after transferring from Oklahoma, but is expected to take over the center position this season.
Junior Andrew Phillips (6-5, 294) made 11 starts at right guard last season but will move over to left guard in 2009.
The Cardinal will have a new look at right guard and left tackle, where redshirt freshmen David DeCastro (6-5, 307) and Jonathan Martin (6-6, 292) are the projected starters. DeCastro was one of the most highly-sought after line prospects in the nation coming out of Bellevue (Wash.) High School, while Martin moved to the top of the depth chart after a productive spring.
Fifth-year senior Matt Kopa (6-6, 297), who made six starts last season, has the edge in experience at right tackle.
Senior James McGillicuddy (6-3, 307) and junior Derek Hall (6-5, 311) will work behind DeCastro at right guard while sophomores Tyler Mabry (6-7, 287) and George Halamandaris (6-7, 311) look to spell Kopa at right tackle.
Left tackle Allen Smith (6-4, 296), who missed all of last season while recovering from a torn patella tendon and a fractured kneecap, was granted a sixth year of eligibility in the spring. However, his status for the season is uncertain after he refractured his left kneecap in spring drills. Smith started 23 consecutive games before tearing his patella tendon in the third game of the 2007 season against Oregon.
Stanford’s defensive front four has arguably been the team’s strongest unit each of the last two seasons, averaging 2.96 sacks (71 total) in 24 games dating back to the 2007 season. With the return of seven players who have combined to make 67 career starts, Stanford’s defensive front is deep and talented and has the potential to be one of the Pac-10’s best.
Stanford’s projected front four includes incumbent senior starters Erik Lorig (6-4, 265) at right end and Ekom Udofia (6-2, 322) at nose tackle, along with sophomores Thomas Keiser (6-5, 253) and Matt Masifilo (6-3, 264) at left end and tackle, respectively.
“Some of our best defensive players are on the defensive line,” said Harbaugh.
Lorig has started 20 of the last 24 games up front for the Cardinal over the last two seasons after transitioning from tight end. The hard-working senior has 82 career tackles to his credit, including 13.5 tackles-for-loss and 5.0 sacks.
Udofia has been a fixture up front over the last three seasons, making 26 starts in 31 career games. The fifth-year senior enjoyed an outstanding spring and seems poised to reach his potential and earn a spot among the Pac-10’s best defensive linemen.
After earning first team freshman All-America honors last season by the Football Writers Association of America and Sporting News, Keiser is ticketed for starting duty at left defensive end. A third-year sophomore, Keiser recorded a team-best 6.0 sacks among his 24 total tackles last year.
Masifilo appeared in all 12 games and made four starts last year as a redshirt freshman and should be a factor up front for years to come.
Bulcke, who made six of his nine career starts last season, will also see significant time at defensive tackle and nose guard.
After sitting out the 2007 season while attending a church mission, Fua was a solid contributor up front last season, finishing with 33 total tackles and 3.0 sacks. His 6.0 tackles-for-loss ranked fourth on the team.
A fifth-year senior, McAndrew began his collegiate career as a linebacker and then was moved to tight end but seems to have found his niche up front, where he’ll spell Lorig at left defensive end.
Bulcke, who made six of his nine career starts last season, will also see significant time at defensive tackle and nose guard.
The newcomer coaches expect to emerge this season is second-year player Chase Thomas (6-4, 228), who is expected to see his first collegiate action working with Keiser at defensive end.
The Cardinal returns four players to its linebacker rotation that boast starting experience, however, will feel the loss of Pat Maynor, last year’s second-leading tackler and veteran of 31 career starts.
Fifth-year seniors Clinton Snyder (6-4, 231) and Will Powers (6-4, 244) along with juniors Chike Amajoyi (6-0, 233) and Nick Macaluso (6-3, 242) have all earned starting time over the course of their careers and figure to play prominent roles again this season.
The linebacker unit is deepened with the emergence of sophomores Alex Debniak (6-2, 220) and Max Bergen (6-2, 227), who both will be battling for starting duties at the “sam” and “will” linebacker positions, respectively.
Snyder has started 34 of a possible 36 games during his career and ranks as Stanford’s active career leader in total tackles with 237. After playing the “sam” linebacker position last season, he will move over to the “mike” spot this year, where coaches feel his range and speed will be better utilized.
Macaluso, who has started 11 of the 15 games he has appeared in over the last two seasons, enters the fall listed behind Snyder at the “mike” position.
Powers, who has been a steady contributor, primarily in back up roles throughout his career, enters fall camp in for the starting “sam” linebacker position and also be used in nickel situations as a down pass rusher.
Amajoyi will move to the “will” linebacker position after seeing the majority of his time last year at the “mike” spot, where he totaled 51 tackles.
Although he has the edge in experience with 11 career starts over the last two seasons, Amajoyi will compete for a starting role with Bergen, a quick, explosive player who enjoyed a productive spring after seeing spot duty in all 12 games last year.
Perhaps no player enjoyed a more eye-opening spring than Debniak, whose speed and fanatical effort made a huge impression among the coaching staff. After appearing in eight games last season as a true freshman, the Hudsonville, Mich., native is making a strong push for starting duty at the “sam” linebacker position. Harbaugh has not ruled out the possibility of utilizing Debniak’s speed and power in the backfield in certain running situations.
The Cardinal can draw upon plenty of options among its secondary personnel to strengthen a pass defense that allowed 226.7 yards a game, the second highest mark in the Pac-10.
Fifth-year senior Bo McNally (6-0, 210), who has led the team in tackles each of the last two seasons, returns to free safety where he has made 24 consecutive starts dating back to the 2007 season. He ranks as Stanford’s active career leader in interceptions with eight, including two which have been returned for touchdowns.
Austin Yancy (6-3, 217) hopes to work his way back into the secondary rotation after missing all of last season with a strained right hamstring. A converted wide receiver, he started all 12 games at strong safety as a sophomore and returned his only interception 31 yards for a touchdown in Stanford’s 24-23 victory over second-ranked USC.
Along with McNally and Yancy, fifth-year senior Kris Evans (6-0, 191) ranks as the most experienced player among Stanford’s list of secondary personnel, having appeared in all 36 games since the 2006 season, including 16 consecutive starts at right cornerback. He registered career highs in tackles (67) and interceptions (2) a year ago.
Evans missed the first half of spring workouts with various injuries, which opened the door for sophomore Michael Thomas (5-11, 195) and redshirt freshman Harold Bernard (6-2, 187) to further showcase their talents. Thomas, who finished with 39 tackles and had one interception last year, will make a strong push for a starting role at right corner while continuing in his role as a valuable special teams contributor.
Most of the work at left cornerback will likely be distributed between junior Corey Gatewood (5-11, 191), who saw significant action as a freshman but appeared in just one game last season, and Richard Sherman (6-3, 199), a converted wide receiver who made a successful transition to his new position during the spring.
Sophomore Delano Howell (5-11, 195), who was recruited to Stanford as a running back, transitioned to strong safety during the spring and was immediately moved to the top of the depth chart. Even though he lacks in game experience at his new position, Harbaugh has as much confidence in Howell as any of his other defensive personnel.
Taylor Skaufel (6-0, 195) and sophomore Sean Wiser (6-2, 198) also have starting experience in the secondary. Skaufel started the first four games of last season at free safety before giving way to Wiser, who started the last eight and finished as the team’s fifth-leading tackler. Skaufel broke his right foot against Oregon in the 10th game of last season and was lost for the remainder of the year. The injury also kept him out of spring drills.
Sophomore Johnson Bademosi (6-1, 195) will push for increased playing time at strong safety.
Stanford’s biggest concern on special teams is filling the void left in its kicking game with the graduation of Aaron Zagory, who made 14 of 17 field goal attempts last season while also handling the kickoff duties.
Sophomore Travis Golia (6-0, 192) and junior Nate Whitaker (5-9, 196), who joined the team at midseason last year after spending his first two seasons at Notre Dame, enter fall camp as the leading candidates for starting duty.
Golia handled kickoff chores early last season before giving way to Zagory. Whitaker has the edge in experience, as he held down placekicking duties for the Irish during the 2007 campaign.
Sophomore David Green (6-1, 199) returns as punter after averaging 39.9 yards in 53 punts last season, good for seventh in the Pac-10.
Stanford added one new member to its full-time coaching staff during the offseason, as Greg Roman joins the Cardinal staff where he’ll work with the tight ends, defensive tackles and serve as running game coordinator. He replaces Chris Dalman, who resigned after two years working as Stanford’s offensive line coach. In addition, Tim Drevno was promoted from tight ends coach to offensive line coach.
Roman brings 13 years of NFL coaching experience to his position at Stanford. He most recently served as the assistant offensive line coach of the Baltimore Ravens from 2006-07 and also spent four seasons on the coaching staff of the Houston Texans, where he served as the tight ends (2002-03) and quarterbacks coach (2004-05). Roman began his coaching career with the Carolina Panthers, where he served as a defensive and offensive assistant coach from 1995-2001.
The 2009 Schedule
Seven of Stanford’s 12 regular season opponents on the 2009 schedule appeared in bowl games last season, posting a perfect 7-0 record in the postseason.
A look at Stanford’s schedule has the Cardinal playing seven games at home and five on the road, a reverse from last season when Stanford posted a 1-6 record in seven away games and were 4-1 on its home turf.
Stanford welcomes Wake Forest to its non-conference schedule in 2009, as the two schools will meet for the first time on Sept. 12 in Winston-Salem, NC. The Demon Deacons are scheduled for a stop in the Bay Area in 2010. Longtime rivals San Jose State and Notre Dame round out Stanford’s non-conference schedule.