With Southern Cal showing signs of losing its dominance after a shaky 2009 season and the departure of coach Pete Carroll, and Oregon looking vulnerable with the suspension of standout quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, Stanford finds itself as one of the chief contenders for the 2010 Pac-10 title.
Stanford is one of the few Pac-10 teams that has no worries about the quarterback position, with gifted QB Andrew Lucky taking over as the face of the team. But the Cardinal needed to address two concerns during its spring practice. One was finding a replacement for Toby Gerhart; the other was shoring up a defense that was a major shortcoming last season, especially against the pass.
The Cardinal spring game on April 17 showed the Cardinal may be on its way to solving the latter, but has some work to do to satisfy the former. No touchdowns were scored in the Cardinal's uniquely-structured spring game, indicating that new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio may be on his way to creating the kind of defense the Cardinal needs to win a conference title.
But nobody looked ready to assume the role of primary ball-carrier, and the Cardinal will head into the fall with four players (Stepfan Taylor, Jeremy Stewart, Tyler Gaffney and Usua Amanam) still hoping to land the job as the No. 1 back and all four probably getting playing time early in the season. It also means the Cardinal ended its spring still searching for an identity. Last season, the Cardinal's identity was as a punishing running team that could run the ball against defenses stacked to stop the run because it had the battering-ram of a tailback in Gerhart.
Now with Luck as the centerpiece and with a running game that relies on a group of finesse runners, it remains to be seen whether the Cardinal can maintain its identity as a physical team.
"I think we have faith in our coaches that they will keep that mindset going," said Owen Marecic, a starting fullback last season, who spent most of the spring playing inside linebacker.
Marecic's physical style is the epitome of what coach Jim Harbaugh wants as his team's personality, a personality that gave the Cardinal a swagger last season and enabled it to finish tied for second in the Pac-10 and land its first bowl berth since 2001.
It may have to be the Cardinal's defense that provides that physical identity in 2010, and with linebackers like Marecic and Shayne Skov and 290-pound NG Sione Fua, it could happen.NOTES, QUOTES
--OT Matt Kopa had his request for a sixth season of eligibility turned down by the NCAA in March. Stanford is appealing the decision, but it appears Kopa's career at Stanford is over. He was a starter to begin his season as a fifth-year senior but sustained a foot injury in the opening game that sidelined him for the season. Stanford was hoping he could get that year back, and he probably would have been the Cardinal's top offensive lineman.
--Stanford's spring game is unusual. Instead of having its first-string offense and first-string defense stay intact for the spring game, Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh has two assistant coaches hold a draft in which they each pick players for their team. It makes for a fairly even game that more closely resembles a regular game than most spring games, but first-team offenses and defenses are split up. For example, QB Andrew Luck played on the Cardinal team, but his two starting wide receivers -- Ryan Whalen and Chris Owusu - played on the White team. The game ended 3-3 in regulation, and it was 6-6 after each team had one overtime possession as the defenses dominated the game. The winner was decided by a field-goal kicking contest between the Whitaker brothers -- Eric and Nate -- with Nate and the White team eventually winning.
--The one player who most closely resembled Toby Gerhart during the spring game was a player wearing No. 51. That was Alex Drebniak, who is a linebacker, but got several carries as a tailback in the spring game. He hit the holes hard and with the same kind of power that Gerhart did, something the regular Cardinal backs did not do. He is not a candidate for the vacancy at tailback, though.
--Although Owen Marecic spent virtually the entire spring playing inside linebacker, he played fullback quite a bit in the spring game. He is listed as a starter at both positions, but it remains to be seen whether he will remain a starter on offense after being the team's starting fullback last season
CB Terrence Brown -- Brown is a redshirt freshman who weighs just 165 pounds, but he performed pretty well in the spring and is in the rotation at cornerback. This was the weakest position on the team last season, so the Cardinal needs some help here. Brown may not start, but it appears he will get playing time.
TE Levine Toilolo -- The 6-foot-8, 244-pound redshirt freshman showed good speed and good hands during the spring, and he is difficult to cover. Expect his playing time to increase as the 2010 season wears on.
OLB Alex Drebniak -- There were high hopes for Drebniak last season, but a knee injury sustained in the opener virtually ruined his season. He is healthy again and playing well, and he probably has nailed down a starting spot.
ILB Shayne Skov -- Skov became a starter midway through last season, and he seems to get better every game. He was one of the standouts of the spring game, before a hyperextended knee ended his day. The injury is not believed to be serious.
ILB Owen Marecic -- The starting fullback last season, Marecic played a little linebacker last season, but focused on that position almost exclusively in the spring. He played well in the spring game and is the kind of tough, big-hitter the Cardinal has lacked.
FS Alex Loukas -- Loukas was moved from QB to free safety, and he seems to have the instincts to play the position. He was impressive enough in the spring that he should get some playing time next fall, although he won't be a starter, at least not at the outset.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I was impressed with the tight coverage. We haven't seen that on our football team since ... really, we haven't seen it." -- Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh on his team's pass coverage in the April 17 spring game.STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
2010 OUTLOOK: Stanford is not thinking about just maintaining what it achieved in its breakthough 8-4 2009 season; it is thinking of moving beyond that. A conference title is in the Cardinal's sights now, and with a quarterback the caliber of Andrew Luck and signs that the defense has improved, the Cardinal has a chance. The key will be whether one of two running backs (Jeremy Stewart or Stepfan Taylor) can give the Cardinal enough of a running threat to enable Luck to be effective. In past years, when Stanford lost a player as talented as Toby Gerhart, who finished a close second in the Heisman voting, it crippled the team. It may not this time.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Andrew Luck is the centerpiece of the offense now, and everyone says he is playing better than he did last season. He will need to do just that to make up for the loss of Toby Gerhart. The offensive line is more than sufficient, and the starting wide receivers (Chris Owusu and Ryan Whalen) and the collection of tight ends are excellent. Stepfan Taylor and Jeremy Stewart will probably form a tailback tandem that will share the tailback duties. With the focus being more on Luck's passing now, the Cardinal may use an H-back more often than a fullback in 2010. The offense may not be as potent as it was last year, when it led the conference in total offense, but it can still be quite good.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The defense was lousy last season, ranking ninth in the conference, and its secondary had trouble covering receivers and reacting to the ball in the air. New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio seems to have things headed in the right direction. One of his most significant changes was moving defensive ends Thomas Keiser and Chase Thomas to outside linebacker spots, hoping to make better use of their pass-rushing skills and versatility. The linebacking corps is significantly better, but the secondary is still a concern, though it performed well in the spring game. Richard Sherman will probably start at one cornerback spot, but three or four players have a shot at landing the other starting spot. The cornerback position will make or break the Cardinal's defense in 2010.
SCOUTING THE SPECIAL TEAMS: Chris Owusu is one of the best kick returners in the country, and Nate Whitaker was impressive during the spring both with his kickoffs and his accuracy and range with his field goals. He made a 54-yarder with the wind at his back in the spring game, and later hit two 53-yarders in a competition to determine the game's winner after the teams had finished tied. Punting may be another story. David Green and Daniel Zychlinski continue compete for the punting job. Green is more consistent, but Zychlinski gets off some boomers sometimes. The Cardinal is still looking for a reliable punt-returner. Sherman is the best bet, but the Cardinal did a poor job returning punts last season.
FB Ryan Hewitt -- Owen Marecic's future as a linebacker may depend on how well Hewitt, who will be a redshirt freshman next fall, develops as a fullback. He was switched from tight end, and has taken nearly all the snaps as the team's fullback during the spring, often working as an H-back as well. With his experience as a tight end, he could offer more of a receiving option than Marecic did when he was at fullback.
TE Levine Toilolo -- After missing his freshman season with an ankle injury, the 6-8 Toilolo has impressed coaches with his athleticism. Their biggest quandary may be whether to keep him on offense or play him at defensive end. For the time being he is at tight end. The Cardinal has depth at that position but no star. He could end up playing both ways.
RB Michael Spanos -- Another redshirt freshman who has been in the mix at the tailback spot vacated by Toby Gerhart. Spanos is unlikely to earn a starting job, but with Jim Harbaugh expected to use two or three tailbacks extensively, he could get on the field.
QB Robbie Picazo -- The redshirt freshman will battle several players for the right to back up Andrew Luck. He's a walk-on, he's a long shot, but he has the size (6-3, 225) and the arm to compete for a backup role.
QB Brett Nottingham -- He have a shot at the backup quarterback spot when he arrives as a freshman next fall. Nottingham switched his commitment from UCLA to Stanford late in the process, and it's a good bet that the opportunity to become the Cardinal's starting quarterback in 2011 entered into his decision. The players competing to back up Andrew Luck next season are not great, so Nottingham has a chance to be the No. 2 quarterback in 2010 and could move up to No. 1 if Luck turns pro after next season.
--CB Richard Sherman sat out the final weeks of spring practice after sustaining a wrist injury that necessitated surgery and a cast. He should be fine by the fall, though.
--CB Corey Gatewood missed the first few weeks of spring ball with a foot injury that had sidelined him for most of the 2009 season. He played in the spring game, however.
--Tyler Gaffney is one of the players competing for the tailback job, but he is also playing on the Cardinal's baseball team. He was able to participate in several football practices, despite being a major contributor on the baseball team, hitting .308 as the Cardinal's leadoff hitter.
--QB Andrew Luck showed absolutely to effects from the broken index finger that kept him out of the Sun Bowl.
Previous Report: 04/28/2010