March 26, 1999
Stanford's young team of a year ago, which saw many freshman and sophomores taking on primary roles for the first time in their careers, is now a year older, a year more mature and, more importantly, more seasoned.
The '98 group that had just nine starters and 26 letterman back is now a more experienced 1999 team that returns 19 starters and 46 lettermen. For fifth-year head coach Tyrone Willingham, who led the Cardinal to back-to-back bowl games in 1995 and '96, a return to the bowl picture remains the goal of his Stanford program.
"We have some obvious concerns," said Willingham, "but we also have areas on our team that we feel very good about. A lot of our young players received important game experience last season and it is our job as a coaching staff to bring them along to the next level and continue to improve as a team.
"If we can make that progression in 1999, and we think we can, then we believe we can return to the bowl picture and compete for post-season play," he said.
Nine starters return on offense, including 3,000-yard passer Todd Husak at quarterback, a group of talented receivers led by All-America candidate Troy Walters and a group of offensive linemen who bring a look of optimism to Willingham's face.
"One of our strengths is our receiving corps," said Willingham. "In Troy Walters we feel we have one of the most dynamic players in college football. The emergence last season of DeRonnie Pitts as a quality receiver and the potential of Dave Davis to be a special player gives our receiving corps an outstanding trio.
"I'm looking for the offensive line to be more productive than it was last season. The return of C Mike McLaughlin, OT Jeff Cronshagen, OG Eric Heitmann and TE Russell Stewart gives us four talented and experienced lineman to lead our group."
Willingham pointed to the running game as an area of obvious concern. Stanford rushed for 831 yards last year, an average of just over 75 yards per game.
"We must improve our running game if we are to compete for post-season play," said Willingham. "If we stay healthy and play to our potential, then we can be a productive unit."
Along with Husak, Stanford boasts two quality backups in juniors Randy Fasani and Joe Borchard. Both Fasani and Borchard played a year ago and proved to be talented, athletic, strong arm quarterbacks capable of challenging Husak for the starting spot.
Defensively, Stanford returns its entire starting lineup with the exception of OLB Donnie Spragan. Potential depth on the defensive line, led by tackle Willie Howard, an improving linebacker corps and an experienced secondary led by senior FS Tim Smith gives the Cardinal reason for optimism in 1999.
"We must improve out ability to limit the big play," says Willingham of his defensive unit. "We have to be more consistent and be much tougher against the run."
A position-by-position breakdown of the '99 Cardinal follows:
Senior Todd Husak returns as the Cardinal's starter after throwing for 3,092 yards in 1998 and becoming only the third Stanford QB to throw for over 3,000 yards in a season. Husak, named honorable mention All-Pac-10, also set the school's single game record by passing for 450 yards against Oregon State. He averaged over 40 pass attempts and 275 yards in total offense in his first season as a starter. "He is an intelligent quarterback," says Willingham. "He has good decision-making skills and has proven to have the ability to throw the football." Husak will compete with two talented and very athletic quarterbacks - juniors Randy Fasani and Joe Borchard. Fasani showed "glimpses of being an excellent quarterback last year," says Willingham. Fasani saw playing time in goal-line situations and as a tight end, where he caught two passes for 48 yards. He also rushed for three TDs. "He is a very capable quarterback. He's very mobile and delivers a great ball," said Willingham. Borchard, the erstwhile All-America baseball player, will compete in nine of 15 practice sessions during the spring. He, too, played in 1998, completing 21-of-48 for 317 yards and three TDs. "Joe is extremely versatile. He is mobile in the pocket, makes good decisions, has an excellent arm and possesses a knack for making the big play," said Willingham.
An area of concern heading into the '98 campaign became a reality for Willingham and his staff as the Cardinal could muster just over 75 rushing yards per game. Improvement in this area is critical for Stanford's success in 1999. "Experience, or lack of it, hurt us last year," said Willingham. "All of our backs played well at times last season and if we can stay healthy this year, then I feel we have the potential to have marked improvement." Junior Coy Wire missed the final five games of the season with an injury but still managed to lead the team in rushing (85-298) and receiving out of the backfield (15-83). During Wire's absence, Juan-Carlos Lacey and Brian Allen handled the running back chores. All three return in 1999. At fullback, starter Maxwell Stevenson also suffered a season-ending injury and missed the final five games of the year, allowing Emory Brock and Byron Glaspie to receive more playing time. Like the running back position, all three fullbacks return this year.
Three starters return, as do two quality reserves and a cast of talented sophomores as Stanford will look to the offensive line to become one of the strengths of the team. Returning starters Jeff Cronshagen at left tackle and C Mike McLaughlin will lead the Cardinal's offensive front. McLaughlin has started every game the past three years (34 straight) while Cronshagen, a fifth-year senior, has started 24 games for the Cardinal. LG Joe Fairchild started all 11 games last season, but he will battle for the starting spot this season with junior Zack Quaccia, who was impressive as a key backup in '98. Sophomore Eric Heitmann saw a lot of playing time as a true freshman a year ago and his emergence as a potential all-league performer has earned him the start at right guard. At right tackle, sophomores Greg Schindler and Paul Weinacht will compete with junior Ben Garrison for the starting berth.
Senior Russell Stewart returns for his second season as the Cardinal's starter at tight end. A "tenacious" player, according to Willingham, Stewart is a valuable asset both in the run and passing game. He caught 12 passes for two touchdowns a year ago. "I'm very pleased with Russell Stewart's improvement," says Willingham. "When he's playing his game, he can be a great player for us at the tight end position." Behind Stewart is senior Steve Coughlin and junior Matt Wright.
Willingham has indicated that this receiving corps is perhaps the strength of the team. And for good reason. Of the 263 receptions last season, Stanford returns all but one receiver and 242 of those receptions. Senior Troy Walters is one of the best in the nation. He is already Stanford's record holder for career receiving yards (2,530) and his 170 receptions puts him position to challenge for the school record of 214. Walters has also returned punts and kicks in his career and has proven to be very dangerous in that role. Last season, DeRonnie Pitts (74-1,012) emerged as a quality receiver as he became only the fourth Stanford receiver in history to gain over 1,000 receiving yards in a single season. Behind Walters and Pitts is junior Dave Davis, who enjoyed an outstanding season a year ago. He caught 48 passes for 707 yards and six TDs and showed signs of great potential. Junior Tafiti Uso and sophomore Ryan Fernandez add depth to a very deep and talented receiving corps.
Willingham is optimistic that the potential depth on the defensive line runs true in 1999. There are numbers for Stanford up front and, if all can remain healthy, this could be one of the most talented defensive fronts on The Farm in recent years. All four starters are back from last season, led by tackle Willie Howard, who Willingham feels is an emerging "superstar." Howard had 10 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks a year ago and, with two more years of eligibility remaining, his potential is unlimited. Other returning starters include nose tackle Andrew Currie and ends Sam Benner and Riall Johnson. Johnson will move to outside linebacker this season, leaving his spot open to several candidates. Adding to the depth up front are tackles Travis Pfeifer and Dorean Kass and ends Austin Lee and Marcus Hoover. Add to that lineup sophomore tackle Matt Leonard and sophomore nose tackle Trey Freeman and one can see why Willingham feels this could be a solid area on his club in 1999.
Inside linebackers Sharcus Steen and Mark Stockbauer return for their second season in the starting lineup while the only vacant position heading into the '99 campaign will be filled by Riall Johnson, who moves from defensive end to outside linebacker, replacing Donnie Spragan. Johnson led the team in sacks with six and tied for the team lead with 12 tackles for loss last year as a defensive end, but his athleticism, size, speed and quickness makes him ideal for Stanford's "rover" position. Stockbauer was second on the team last year with 93 tackles while Steen was third with 68. Adding to the depth at ILB will be juniors Matt Friedrichs and Mike Burke, both of whom played in 1998, gained valuable game experience and showed great potential.
Every defensive back who played for the Cardinal a year ago is back in 1999, including free safety Tim Smith. Smith is the leader of a defensive secondary that includes returning starters Chris Johnson and Ruben Carter at corner and Simba Hodari at strong safety. Several others, however, were used in a starting role and will battle for the top spot in 1999. Sophomore Brian Taylor started three games at corner before being sidelined by injury while senior Aaron Focht started five games at strong safety before an injury limited his play over the final four games of the 1998 season. Look for both Taylor and Focht to battle for starting assignments. In Smith, Stanford returns a veteran safety who led the Pac-10 in interceptions last season (fifth nationally) with six and is among the school's all-time best in this category. Johnson has started 19 games at corner for the Cardinal, including the last 16. At the other cornerback spot, Carter, Taylor and senior Frank Primus will battle for the starting assignment. Sophomore Tank Williams received playing time as a true freshman last season while junior Jamien McCullum started the first two games of the year and played a backup role thereafter. Both will add depth behind Smith at the free safety spot.
The graduation of Kevin Miller leaves a vacant spot at both placekicker and punter. Miller had been Stanford's punter the past four years and its placekicker the past three. Replacing him will be difficult for the Cardinal. Stanford has just two kickers on its roster: junior placekicker Mike Biselli and junior walk-on punter Sean Tolpinrud. Biselli was used on kickoffs last season, but has not attempted a PAT or field goal in his Cardinal career. Tolpinrud is in his third season in the Cardinal football program, but has not seen any game action at Stanford.