What are the major strengths and biggest weaknesses of the Stanford team?
Strengths: Obviously, it helps to start out with QB Andrew Luck (#12), Scout.com's 2009 National Freshman of the Year, who should be even better in 2010 with a year of playing experience under his belt. Luck will benefit greatly from the return of most of the offensive line [plus outstanding senior fullback Owen Marecic (#48)] that paved the way for NFL-bound Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart. Defensively, outside linebackers Thomas Keiser (#94), who led the team with 9.0 sacks in '09, and Chase Thomas (#93) are solid, but they are changing positions in the transition to a 3-4 defense. KR Chris Owusu (#81) has sprinter-class speed and is a legitimate threat to score any time a team decides to kick to him. He averaged 31.5 yards per return and took three back for TDs in the first four games of the 2009 season. One simply can't underestimate the dramatic impact of a superior kick-return game. Stanford finished third in the country in kickoff return average last year and enjoyed its first winning season in eight years. The other four schools in the top five in kick return average produced a combined record of 51-3! Everyone knows field position is half the battle!
Weaknesses: Offensively, there are not a lot of holes, even with the departure of the amazing Gerhart and his 28 rushing TDs. Depth in the defensive front seven, which lost standout veterans Erik Lorig, Ekom Udofia, Will Powers, and Clinton Snyder, remains a legitimate concern. The young secondary, which lost a ball-hawking playmaker in veteran safety Bo McNally (#22) to graduation, needs to improve its pass coverage (Oklahoma managed an alarming 20 passing first downs in the 2009 Brut Sun Bowl using their backup quarterback), but overall, the group could experience a moderate upgrade. We simply can't meet our ambitious team goals while ranking 98th in the FBS in pass efficiency defense and 110th in passing yards allowed. In fairness, the 2009 Stanford defense certainly played very well at times, but you can't surrender an average of more than 400 yards per game (and a total of 23 passing touchdowns) and expect to win every week. If the 2010 spring game is any indication, new Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio, a very experienced NFL veteran, seems determined to produce dramatic improvement in 2010. One clear goal for this coming season will be to achieve a vast improvement in the Cardinal's turnover margin (17/17). During the 2009 season, 36 FBS defenses, managed to generate at least 25 total turnovers. If you ask me, that ought to be on the whiteboard as a reasonable 2010 goal.
Looking at the schedule, who will be the first major test and why?
Not to disrespect to our opening FCS opponent Sacramento State (they are moving toward becoming FBS and conceivably could end up in the WAC), but the first true test should be Game 2 against UCLA at the Rose Bowl, a traditional conference rival with similar overall talent, although I expect Stanford's veteran offensive line to compare favorably and make the difference in the game. The two programs cross paths a lot on the recruiting trail and many of Stanford's players come from Southern California, so it will be seen as a statement-making opportunity by each school. As Cardinal fans will painfully recall, Stanford essentially gave away the game in Pasadena two years ago, settling for a field goal with 2:31 left and then miserably surrendering a last-minute 87-yard game-winning drive against a decidedly mediocre Bruin quarterback in Kevin Craft (Kevin who?). "Air Cardinal" managed all of 51 net passing yards in that contest, which won't happen again with Andrew Luck around. That dramatic and disappointing result at UCLA could well represent the most devastating loss of the Jim Harbaugh era and looking back, it cost the program a bowl appearance in 2008. Time for some good old-fashioned gridiron redemption.
What team on the schedule do you fear the most?
our dynamic fourth-year Head Coach Jim Harbaugh has said, "We bow to no program!" The revitalized
Stanford Football program has worked very hard to upgrade its talent and be the
team others need to fear. Still, everyone worries about something. I guess we
would dread the thought of losing to Sacramento State. Unlikely, but on any
given Saturday… That would "look" pretty bad and provide an early season
buzz-kill. Oregon will be a tough
challenge and Autzen Stadium is certainly an exciting, if not intimidating place
to play. I would say we "respect" the Ducks more than "fear" them, but getting a
win at Oregon is never a picnic at the pond. A team that should fear us? Wake Forest. We feel we were the better
team last fall and our guys will be looking to prove themselves this September
18th in the highly-anticipated rematch at Stanford Stadium. That game should be
well-worth the price of admission.
Who is the best player on your team that nobody talks about?
I don't know if "nobody talks about him", but on defense, redshirt junior Thomas Keiser (#94) is a very good football player. Don't call him "Tom", it is "Thomas". Not sure if he will answer to "Tommy Boy". Offensively, 6-6, 250-pound TE/WR Coby Fleener (#82) rarely gets a mention, but he is a matchup nightmare and is solid as a brick wall (just ask former USC safety Taylor Mays). There are not many true fullbacks in college anymore, but Owen Marecic (#48) is legit. It is fun to watch him not just block, but demoralize would-be tacklers. Sure-handed, hard-working WR Ryan Whalen (#8), a former walk-on, doesn't get much press outside of the Bay Area. Sure, he wasn't Texas' Jordan Shipley, but Whalen came close to producing 1,000-yards receiving on a team that primarily ran the ball! Expect good things.
Others deserving greater recognition include fast-rising redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Jonathan "Moose" Martin (#73) and redshirt sophomore pass-rushing specialist Chase Thomas (#93). Perhaps the most tantalizing inside "buzz" has been about towering, but athletic 6-8 redshirt freshman TE Levine Toilolo (#11) and his ridiculous red-zone skills. And while he hasn't seen the field much, redshirt sophomore Alex Debniak (#51) is a remarkably fast linebacker who runs the ball too well not to get some carries – he could be a great candidate for critical short-yardage situations as well.
Who is the best offensive player on the team?
Of the skill players, QB Andrew Luck (#12). We would not trade him for another current college quarterback. Skills, arm-strength, brains, leadership, desire – the young man is the real deal, the complete package. Of the "Bigs", it would be hard to rank anyone above outstanding OG David DeCastro (#52).
Who is the most impactful defensive player on the team?
would probably be sophomore ILB Shayne Skov (#11), because of the strength and aggressiveness Shayne brings to the
field. His enthusiasm is infectious and he is fun to watch. Still has a lot of
remaining upside. The interior d-line group has a couple of formidable studs in
Matt Masifilo (#98) and Sione Fua (#92). These guys are the
backbone of the defense – when Masifilo was out with injury in 2009, the defense
struggled, then improved noticeably when he returned. That has been our
challenge on defense in recent years, not failing to have some quality players,
but just not having enough veteran depth. He has a long way to go, but we might
want to mention ever-intriguing junior
Delano Howell (#26). If Howell, who switched to defense last year, can
improve his coverage skills dramatically, one would have to include the
hard-hitting sophomore safety among the difference-making defensive players. All
of these guys are pretty good bets to play on Sundays.
What player(s) needs to step up this year in order for the team to reach its full capability?
It is hard to make up for the loss of a once-in-a-generation player like Toby Gerhart (#7). We need to reload with one or both of our terrific sophomore running backs, Stepfan Taylor (#33) and Tyler Gaffney (#25). One of these two will have to carry a big part of the load for a team that will prefer to stick with its well-established, smash-mouth style-of-play. Personally, I think Taylor already has the look of a 1,000-yard rusher. Gaffney, a gifted baseball player as well, is a tenacious competitor with tremendous potential as a feature back.
We are certainly hoping for a break-out season from TE Konrad Reuland (#88), but realistically, it will be nearly impossible to replace graduated TE Jim Dray (#83). The fact is, we may actually be stronger at the TE position overall with the availability of talented redshirt freshmen Zach Ertz (#86) and Levine Toilolo (#11) and the continued emergence of Coby Fleener (#82), who might well be a legitimate force in the NFL some day. However, as for having a truly complete TE that was dominant in the run game, able to catch the ball in the red-zone, and most importantly does not mark for opposing defenses whether we are running or passing, Jimmy Dray will certainly be missed.
Fifth-year senior James McGillicuddy (#74), a Bootleg favorite, could be the key to the overall performance of the o-line in ‘10. To get to "full capability", it would help to find a greater number of reliable targets for Luck. We hope to see the emergence of Jamal-Rashad Patterson (#21) or Doug Baldwin (#89) as a fiery, big-play third receiver. A third-down, multi-purpose back with some serious wiggle would be helpful as well. Fifth-year senior CB/RS/WR Richard Sherman (#9) is a bit of a wildcard, a dynamic playmaker who needs to put it all together and have a monster final year. Personally, I would like to see #9 occasionally at WR. The Cardinal's most interesting trump card could come from the successful design of an optimal role for versatile fifth-year senior QB/WR Alex Loukas (#15), a very skilled athlete who might allow Stanford to mix it up a bit. Yes, he may see some reps at safety, but don't be surprised if #15 slips in at QB at some point and nearly single-handedly wins a game for us. He is, if anything, a fascinating "x-factor".
Who is the top offensive newcomer that can make an impact this year (freshman, redshirt freshman or JUCO)?
JUCO? Well, technically, Konrad Reuland briefly attended a junior college after transferring from Notre Dame, but he never played football at Saddleback. The last "JUCO player" we had transfer to Stanford, Blaine Maxfield, arrived on campus back in 1996. It just isn't a pool from which our program, from an academic standpoint, realistically can expect to draw. Redshirt freshman CB/RB/RS Usua Amanam (#5), the 2008 MaxPreps.com Division I State Player of the Year (Calif.) and 2008 GoldenStatePreps.com Northern California Player of the Year, is a very special athlete. He was out last year with an injury, but should be 100% and ready to turn some heads wherever he ends up on the field. Of the incoming freshmen (and you never really know anything until you actually see the kids in fall camp)…well, put it this way, the Cardinal coaching staff liked incoming RB Anthony Wilkerson even better than 2009-10 Gatorade National Football Player of the Year Malcolm Jones (UCLA). He is no lock to redshirt in 2010.
In thinking about the offensive newcomer that might provide the highest impact, it might surprise some that we would suggest Jordan Williamson, an incoming freshman place-kicker from Austin, TX. There is a pretty good chance that Williamson will see the field in 2010. He will certainly be in competition for the kick-off job. The 150-pounder was absolutely crushing the ball at Stanford's kicker camp a year ago. If you think Nate Whitaker (#39) has a big leg (and indeed he does)....just wait until you see this skinny, but strong-legged lad from the Lone Star State.
You asked about this year, but looking out a bit longer-term, Cardinal fans should keep an eye out for incoming freshman Darren Daniel from Alabama. He had a fairly modest recruiting profile, but he is a tremendous athlete who could emerge as the best offensive player on the team at some point. Another future star is David Yankey from Georgia, who headlines a stellar four-man class of incoming freshmen offensive linemen.
Who is the top defensive newcomer that can make an impact this year (freshman, redshirt freshman or JUCO)?
one is easy - true freshman ILB Blake
Lueders, who originally had committed to Notre Dame before seeing the light.
The Indiana native certainly passes the "eyeball test" with flying colors – dude
already looks like an upperclassman. The Stanford staff is pretty excited. Given
the uncertainty of the current depth chart, redshirt sophomore Harold Bernard (#28) and true freshman
safety Devon Carrington could get
into the mix at safety. We have corners with some experience, but redshirt
freshman Terrence Brown (#6) and
true freshman cornerback Keanu Nelson will have a chance to impress in the fall.
What are your thoughts on adding Utah and Colorado to the Pac-10?
Hey, the current reality is that every college athletic program is desperate to generate more money. We might have preferred keeping things the way they have been for the past 32 years. If the "Pac-12" conference officials can figure out a way for us to continue to play traditional rivals USC & UCLA every year and makes sure the newcomers understand that you only get four downs in the Pac-12, I think we may end up liking it, especially if the conference gets a dedicated network deal. We have some fairly recent football history with both Utah (1989, 1995, 1996) and Colorado (1977, 1987, 1990, 1991, 1993). During basketball season, it should make for some world-class ski/hoops vacation combos. Other than the mega-money, I don't think many alumni and fans really wanted to be in the same conference with Texas and Oklahoma, for a variety of reasons. We'd rather just meet them in the post-season.
Gut feeling on the team's final record at the end of the regular season and what makes this a successful season in your eyes?
the health of our starting QB, the Cardinal should be able to play with anybody.
One challenge will be to adjust to four new members of the coaching staff. To
me, a "successful season" would involve playing everyone tough, improving our
defense, having a winning record in-conference, and getting to another
upper-tier bowl game. Optimistically, I can see anywhere from 8-4 to 10-2 in the
regular season, assuming average attrition from injuries. It is a little hard to
predict how much our defense can improve in the first year of transition to a
new scheme, but the future looks promising. Special teams should continue to be
a major team strength. Not long after he first arrived, Jim Harbaugh boldly predicted that Stanford would be in
a BCS game by 2010. Probably a bit of a stretch, but with a little luck and a
lot of "Luck", it could happen. After all, Stanford was about three very
make-able plays away from being 11-1 during the 2009 regular season, losing
agonizing nail-biters to Wake Forest, Arizona, and California. Motivation should
not be a problem. Coach Harbaugh likes winning.
We appreciate the initiative "KevinCFB" showed in stimulating this fun Q&A session. For more college football previews, please visit www.collegefootballzealots.blogspot.com
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