Aug. 29, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. - For a team that must replace top NFL Draft pick Andrew Luck at quarterback, there may be just as much fascination with another position - left tackle.
The success of Stanford's 2012 recruiting class, ranked No. 5 in the nation, was largely judged as such by the collection of superstar offensive linemen. Two of those freshmen, Andrus Peat and Kyle Murphy, are competing for that starting left tackle spot for Friday's opener against visiting San Jose State.
Regardless of whether either makes the start, each has been promised a significant amount of playing time, Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football David Shaw said.
Shaw said the starting assignment would be determined late in the week. If either is determined to be ready to start, third-year sophomore David Yankey will remain at his left guard position. If there were some reservations, Yankey would shift to left tackle and Khalil Wilkes would start at left guard.
"We've seen tremendous growth in both Andrus Peat and Kyle Murphy," Shaw said. "The challenge is to make sure one of those young guys is ready. There's no question about the physical tools. It's can we get the consistent play at that position?
"If I'm not comfortable with one of the young guys, I'll go with the old guy. But I'm comfortable in the progress so far. I think the entire freshman class is special. We have the luxury of hopefully putting those guys on the shelf for a year, but some of these guys are ready to play."
Peat is 6-foot-7 and 308 pounds. Murphy is 6-7, 280.
New starting quarterback Josh Nunes described his first impression: "They're huge."
"I definitely feel comfortable with whoever's over there," he said.
Starting right guard Kevin Danser said of the freshmen linemen, "They're studs, every one of them."
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What's it like replacing perhaps the greatest quarterback in the history of Stanford, a program renowned for its tradition at the position?
Nunes, a fourth-year junior majoring in management science and engineering, is about to find out.
"I feel excited," Nunes said. "I wouldn't say `nervous,' but maybe a few butterflies."
After the announcement last week that Nunes won the battle with Brett Nottingham for the starting spot, Nunes received congratulations via text from none other than Luck himself. The message, said Nunes, was "Congrats, you got the job. But now it's time to work."
That's fine with Nunes, who has impressed coaches with his ability to handle the mental gymnastics of the position.
"He's sharp," Shaw said. "We've put a lot on him to see much he can handle. The defense has given him a variety of looks, a lot more than he`s probably going to see from anyone else this year. He's seen a lot and he's been able to get us to the right plays, the right protections and the right runs."
Unlike at left tackle, there will be no switching at quarterback on Friday. "Right now, Brett won't play unless Josh breaks a shoelace," Shaw said.
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If there's a player on the roster who seems poised for a breakout season, it's sophomore inside linebacker James Vaughters.
If it's any indication, teammates call him "Jugs," short for "Juggernaut."
"The guy's a force at middle linebacker," fellow linebacker Chase Thomas said. "He's definitely going to impress some people out there."
A reserve at outside linebacker last season, Vaughters has bulked up, switched positions and opened some eyes.
"It's uncanny what the guy can do. We can't have a guy like that on the bench. He's got to play and play a lot.
"And I'll say this too, I give James a lot of credit, because he was the same talented guy last year, and it took him a while to understand the defense and especially to learn to play outside linebacker. This year, he's taken it upon himself to study and know the ins and outs of the new position. And he's doing a great job."
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Nunes said he's looking forward to getting hit in a game. That hasn't happened since he was a senior at Upland High School in 2008.
However, practice is a different story. Nunes, who has played only bits of four games at Stanford, remembers being a favorite target of Thomas during full contact practice sessions under then coach Jim Harbaugh.
"I remember one play specifically," Nunes said. "Coach said, `quarterback's live!' I could see all the defensive linemen perk up."
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Another top recruit, running back Barry Sanders, is being considered for a redshirt year, but that decision won't be made just yet.
"We'll see how it goes," Shaw said. "We're very healthy at running back. So, how much will he be able to play? Is it worth playing a minimal amount to burn a redshirt year? But, you never know what will happen a couple of games into the season.
"There's no hesitation about him with the ball in his hands. It's all the other things we ask our backs to do. Is he physically ready and mentally ready for all that? We'll see.
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Thomas contemplated entering the NFL Draft after last season, but felt he needed to improve to increase his value. Thomas said he has done so, adding 10 pounds to 245, getting stronger in the weight room, and becoming more flexible.
"(Sports performance coach Shannon) Turley emphasizes stretching and being functional more than any other coach probably out there," Thomas said. "He's a technician when it comes to injury prevention. He's a huge flexibility guy."
Another result of that emphasis? Yoga classes.
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In his senior season, local product Danser has broken into the starting lineup for the first time, replacing All-America David DeCastro at right guard.
"Danser at this training camp has been the most consistent he's ever played," Shaw said of the former Bellarmine College Prep standout. "He's playing the best football of his career."
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With the loss of four All-Americans and high NFL draft picks, Shaw was asked why he believes his team remains a contender for the Pac-12 title.
"Just the way that we've recruited ... the guys that we have," he said. "I think we still have some special guys. The combination of our linebackers ... I'd like to see a group that anyone thinks is better - with Shayne next to Vaughters, with (All-American) Thomas and Trent Murphy outside, and Alex Debniak coming in.
"That, combined with our tight end group, and how we feel about our offensive line and running backs. I think we can compete with anybody that we play."
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Running back Stepfan Taylor is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and needs 1,264 more to break Darrin Nelson's Stanford career rushing record.
As good as he's been - as shown in his most recent game, a 177-yard, two-touchdown performance against Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl -- Taylor is even better this season.
"It's almost like he's quicker, explosive, decisive," Shaw said. "Knowing what to do is one thing, but being able to anticipate is another step, and all his reactions are quicker.
"If the records fall, the records fall. But it'll never change his approach. He's just that kind of a guy."
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Sophomore Ty Montgomery proved himself late in his freshman season as the team's main deep threat at receiver. He also returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Washington State. Because he's so valuable on offense, should he continue to return kicks? Yes, but not always.
Stanford will use him as it used Chris Owusu in 2010, by saving him to return kicks only in key situations.
"Sometimes we'll put him out there, sometimes we won't," Shaw said. "Some games he'll be the guy, some games he won't be in at all."
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Many underclassmen will have their first opportunities to make an impact in game situations. When evaluating their performances, what is Shaw looking for?
"How they handle adversity," he said. "That's the biggest thing.
"Hand the ball to the running back, and everybody's blocked so he walks into the end zone -- that tells me nothing. What happens when he gets hit in the backfield? What happens when he makes a mistake? What happens when a tackle gets beat? All that stuff is important. When a young receiver catches the ball and gets hit hard, what happens on the next play? That's what tells you about young guys. It's not important what happens to you, it's how you respond to what happens to you."
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A year ago, Danser was fighting for a starting assignment and didn't get it. He used that disappointment to fuel his run this year.
"It was difficult at first, you're upset," Danser said. "You think, Why did this happen to me? This year, I just tried to focus and improve aspects of my game I needed to. You understand the coaches are always going to bring in someone to replace you. They're always going to bring in the best talent that they can. So, you've got to love the competition because it's only going to make you a better football player."
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The career highlight for defensive end Henry Anderson was his 37-yard fumble recovery to the 1-yard line against San Jose State last season. This year, his impact will be even greater because of adjustments he's made in his game.
"He's tall," Shaw said of the 6-6 Anderson. "He's long, physical, and very athletic, but the challenge for him the past two years is to play low, and he's finally gotten that this training camp. When you see a big guy that can run and is willing to play physical and low, he's got a chance to be very good."
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The Stanford front seven is strong through and through. It's the secondary that still needs to prove itself.
"Everybody knows, it's how we play on the backend," Shaw said. "We've got two younger safeties that are going to play significantly for us and have had great training camps. Now, we've got to make tackles in open space. And our corners have got to make some plays on the ball, get more tipped passes, more interceptions. But at the same time, we can't give up the big play. It's all those things working together, the front seven and backend guys doing their jobs and making plays."
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At fullback, Stanford is suddenly thin, with Geoff Meinken still recovering from a spring-game knee injury and Ryan Hewitt working through a fall-camp ankle problem. Fortunately, the Cardinal has two more capable fullbacks - Lee Ward and Patrick Skov.
Shaw said Hewitt may miss just one game and hopes Meinken will return by midseason.
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Stanford and San Jose State annually meet in the Bill Walsh Legacy Game. The title honors Walsh, a three-time Super Bowl champion coach of the San Francisco 49ers, who played at San Jose State and had two successful stints as Stanford's coach.
Shaw, who played for Walsh at Stanford, took time to talk about Walsh to his team this week. One of the lessons came from Walsh's amateur boxing career.
"He always talked about beating the opponent to the punch," Shaw said.
Stanford has emphasized that need to break out early and get off to quick starts. That often wasn't the case last season, when the Cardinal often faced scores that remained tight for perhaps longer than they should have been during an 11-2 season.
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Who was the biggest surprise in training camp?
"Kodi Whitfield," Shaw said of the true freshman receiver. "We knew he was good, but didn't know he would be this good this quickly and ready to contribute."
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Nunes said he learned a lot from being an understudy to Luck. Primary was Luck's extensive preparation.
"Maybe it was just the fact that I'd always try to be early in the film room, and whenever I came in early, he was always there before me," Nunes said.
Another lesson: the importance of sleep.
"The guy got almost 10 hours of sleep every night," Nunes said. "You have to do everything to get physically prepared."
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Taylor credits Toby Gerhart for helping make him a complete running back. Taylor was a backup to the 2009 Heisman Trophy runner-up as a freshman.
"Coming out of high school, he taught me how to read defenses. For example, what to do if the blitz is coming, and just to be patient. But the main thing was him helping me with reading the defensive scheme, blitzes and coverages. In high school, we talked about it, but not in depth. That helped me play a lot faster instead of thinking too much.
"You can't just run the ball and expect to play. All of our running backs take pride in doing multiple things instead of just running the ball."
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The running backs now get the ear of Nunes, especially when they try to convince him to checkdown to running plays. But Taylor said their familiarity - they're both from the class of 2013 - will help both of them.
"He understands where I'm going to be on the field," Taylor said. "And I know where he's going to be. That helps against certain defensive schemes, knowing that If a quarterback is flushed out, you want to be in his vicinity."
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Danser, a native of nearby Saratoga, expects a large contingent of family and friends at Friday's game. Among them will be his two older brothers, who both played college football. Oldest brother Chris played at San Jose State and Tim played at Brown.
It's Tim who plans the tailgates.
"I want to thank them for making me tough," Danser said.
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Danser is replacing DeCastro, a first-round draft choice of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"He was so good, you wonder, How can I ever replace him?" Danser said. "But If you really study his footwork, his hand placement, his approach to the game, you really understand how he attacks football and how he attacks other defensive linemen. That's what I tried to get from him."
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Stanford annually is known for its offense. However, this year, that could change.
"Our defense has grown over the past couple of years," Thomas said. "Two years ago, we went to the Orange Bowl. We built that foundation of a good defense and last year we built upon that. This year, it's really the best. We've been in the system for three years, so everyone knows the techniques, everyone's playing a lot faster than we have in the past, and that's shown throughout training camp."
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics