Aug. 30, 2011
STANFORD, Calif. - Let’s get this straight: Stanford, the home of quarterback sensation Andrew Luck, is a running team.
“All the off-season talk has been about how good Luck is, which is fine,” coach David Shaw said at team's weekly press conference in advance of Saturday's season opener against visiting San Jose State. “But we’re a running football team. Our offense begins and ends with us running the football.”
Running back is one of Stanford’s deepest positions, which is both good and bad, junior Stepfan Taylor said. One one hand, it’s difficult for one player to develop a rhythm when as many as four players – Taylor, Tyler Gaffney, Jeremy Stewart, and Anthony Wilkerson – are being swapped in and out of the lineup.
The constant competition brings out the best in each ballcarrier.
“The guys know that practice does mean playing time, so they compete every day,” Shaw said. “They know they can’t take a day off in practice – they can’t – because they know the reps could go to somebody else.”
“I like it, it pushes you to be all you can be,” said Taylor, who rushed for 1,137 yards and rushed for 15 touchdowns last season.
Jeremy Stewart battled injuries last season, but had a strong two weeks of practice heading into the Orange Bowl and got his shot – carrying five times for 99 yards against Virginia Tech and ripping off a 60-yard scoring run.
The running backs’ mantra is, Make the coaches notice you. Do something to make them leave you out there.
“The running game may go overlooked,” Luck said. “But in our locker room it’s not overlooked. Since I’ve been here, it’s always been run first, no matter how good we were throwing the ball. The run does set up the pass and not the other way around.”
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The biggest concern heading into camp for Shaw: The offensive line.
“I still have a list of concerns,” Shaw said. “The good thing is that the offensive line is well down that list. The last two weeks have calmed a lot of our fears and anxieties.”
During that time, Shaw and his staff have settled on new starters to replace three graduated seniors, including first-team All-America center Chase Beeler, from a line that allowed only 13 sacks over the past two years and powered the Cardinal offense to 450 yards per game of total offense during that time.
Senior Sam Schwartzstein takes over for Beeler, sophomore Cameron Fleming will play right tackle, and sophomore David Yankey will start at left guard. Tyler Mabry, a fifth-year senior tackle, will play at different spots depending on the situation.
“Cam Fleming has really grown a lot in the last week or so, in terms of consistency,” Shaw said. “You always see that in a young player when you begin to pare down in terms of the game plan. They tend to execute better with less installation. And he’s done that.”
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Expectations are at perhaps an all-time high for Stanford football, and the team has embraced them.
“We want to be great,” linebacker Shayne Skov said. “If that is measured in trophies so be it. We want to win and dominate football games. A lot of guys came here, I certainly did, with the intention of turning this program into a national powerhouse.
“If we said that two or three years ago, people would have laughed. They wouldn’t have believed us. We now have an opportunity to do it.
Complacency, after last season’s 12-1 season, won’t be tolerated, Luck said.
“The older guys, who have been here through losing seasons, we all understand that football can change like that,” Luck said, snapping his fingers. “Coaches and older guys try and leave that impression on the younger guys in the program. I don’t think anybody has gotten caught up in looking back.”
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David’s father, Willie Shaw, will serve as Stanford’s honorary captain as a tribute to the man who had two coaching stints at Stanford among his 33 years as a pro and college assistant coach, and was expected to be named as the Cardinal head coach in 1992, before Bill Walsh was rehired.
“He can’t wait,” David said. “It’s not just for what he’s done for this profession, but also for what he’s done for Stanford University. Each time he was here, he had success. And this is one of his favorite places on the planet.”
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In 2009, Chris Owusu returned the opening kickoff against San Jose State for a touchdown, one of three kickoff returns he had for scores that year. After an injury-plagued 2010, the receiver still will return kicks, but “we’re going to pick our spots,” Shaw said.
From a health perspective, Owusu, Stanford’s primary deep threat, is where the coaching staff hoped he would be.
“He was there two weeks ago,” Shaw said.
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James Vaughters is another, but may have more difficulty breaking through this season because of the depth at both inside and outside linebacker.
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After a recent practice, Shaw announced to the team that four walk-ons had earned scholarships for this year: sixth-year long snapper Andrew Fowler, redshirt freshman defensive tackle David Parry, redshirt sophomore quarterback Robbie Picazo, and redshirt freshman fullback Lee Ward.
“The emotional response was more from the teammates than it was the individuals, which was great, because they know,” Shaw said. “When you’re on a team, you know the guys who are working and deserve it and exemplify who we are as a team.”
Of those, Parry, listed second on the depth chart at nose tackle, could have a biggest impact this year.
“He has been consistent every single day,” Shaw said. “He gets penetration, he’s great with his hands, he’s physical, he’s low to the ground, and he’s mean and nasty. He was a foregone conclusion that he had to be one of those guys who got rewarded.”
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Free safety Michael Thomas was elected as the defensive captain by teammates, which didn’t surprise Shaw. Thomas played quarterback, and not defense, at Houston’s Nimitz High, beating counterpart Andrew Luck and his Stratford team once in three tries.
“You always love having a guy who used to play quarterback,” Shaw said. “He’s used to commanding the huddle, he’s used to commanding respect. He’s a natural leader.”
Thomas makes the defensive calls and makes sure his teammates are lined up properly before every snap. And Thomas has no problem being heard, no matter how loud the stadium is.
“Well deserved,” Skov said. “I voted for him myself. He will be the emotional leader of the defense this year. Calm, collected and smart guy, but speaks his mind when he needs to. He’s the perfect guy to lead the defense.”
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Thomas described how playing against Luck every day in practice has made him better.
“You’re coached to always play with the right technique and be in the right spot so you won’t give up the big play,” Thomas said. “But there are times where we do everything exactly how we’re supposed to and we can’t make a play on the ball because the ball is put in a spot where only the offensive player can get it.
“It’s a great advantage, because when you go against guys who don’t have the same talents that Andrew might have, you’re in the right spot. That can only help you on game day.
I love going against the best.
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Skov said the defense won’t be much different, even after defensive coordinator Vic Fangio left to take the same position with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers.
“A lot of things will remain similar,” Skov said. “Some of the stuff will be the same on paper, but the way we’re asked to run it may be different.
“Our goal is still to be an aggressive defense, blitz, stuff the run, and just force offenses to change their tempo or change how they want to play. Those are our goals: to be disruptive and be aggressive.”
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics