June 30, 1998
STANFORD, Calif. - To say that the 1998 Cardinal will be a young team, a bit shy on experience, is an understatement. Consider the facts:
Stanford returns five starters on offense and three on defense; the Cardinal lost 22 lettermen, including 12 on offense and 10 on defense and just six players on the '98 roster are playing in their final season of eligibility. Only five players have been in the starting lineup for more than one season and only two - punter Kevin Miller and center Mike McLaughlin - have started every game the past two seasons.
Indeed, Stanford enters the 1998 campaign with a team mainly comprised of underclassmen eager to prove themselves at the collegiate level. It is reminiscent of head coach Tyrone Willingham's first season on The Farm in 1995.
"The '98 team reminds me a great deal of the my first team at Stanford in 1995," Willingham said. "We must attempt to make sure we have everything back together, everything working and moving in a course that will allow us to have success. When I took over in '95, the emphasis had to be as a team and I think that holds true again for 1998. We must be playing, thinking, cooperating as one and not having any individual thoughts permeate the team. If we can do that, it puts us very much back on track," he said.
Stanford returns 25 lettermen in 1998, including an experienced group of offensive linemen who may prove to be the strength of the team. FL Troy Walters set Stanford records for receptions and receiving yards in a season and his ability to provide the big play both as a receiver and punt returner gives the Cardinal one of the most dangerous players in college football.
At quarterback, two-year starter Chad Hutchinson departs after signing a professional baseball contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, leaving behind two years of football eligibility. Hutchinson's departure leaves room for senior Todd Husak and sophomores Randy Fasani or Joe Borchard to compete for the starting job. Husak and Fasani battled each other during the spring while Borchard was playing on the Cardinal baseball team and they enter the season as the leading candidates to become Stanford's #1 quarterback in 1998.
Defensively, eight starters are gone from last year's unit, leaving only OLB Donnie Spragan, NT Willie Howard and CB Chris Johnson as returning starters. Cornerback Frank Primus, ILB's Marc Stockbauer and Sharcus Steen and SS Than Merrill all received extensive playing time in '97 and the return of FS Tim Smith, lost most of last season with a knee injury, helps bolster a unit that will rely on several first-year starters.
"We have some obvious concerns," said Willingham, entering his fourth season at the helm. "We must find a way to replace four outstanding running backs who were the focal point of our rushing attack the past two years. We also lost several outstanding players on defense who played a lot of football for Stanford the past three years."
"But, there are a number of young players who have not had the opportunity to show what they can do in a game situation. This year, they will get that chance," he said.
Below is a position-by-position breakdown of the '98 Cardinal:
With Hutchinson's departure comes an opportunity for Husak, Fasani and Borchard. A second round draft pick by the St. Louis Cardinals, Hutchinson did not sign a professional baseball contract until early July, leaving the quarterback position in question. Hutchinson threw for 4,235 yards in 1996 and '97 and would have been Stanford's #1 quarterback entering the 1998 campaign. But, a new era will dawn on the Stanford football program this season when Husak, Fasani or Borchard finds himself in the starting spot on September 5 vs. San Jose State. While Hutchinson was starting the last 23 games over the past two seasons, Husak was holding down the #2 spot. A year ago, both Fasani and Borchard redshirted. Borchard missed spring practice while playing for the Cardinal baseball team - as did Hutchinson - while Fasani and Husak were locked in a tight battle for supremacy. During the past two years, Husak has played in 10 games, completing 56-of-117 (.479) for 784 yards and six touchdowns. Last year, he played the entire second half vs. USC and all but one play in the game at Washington State after Hutchinson went out with an injury. He completed 18-of-36 for 266 yards and two touchdowns vs. the Trojans - his best performance of the year. For the season, Husak threw for 582 yards on 37-of-78 (.474) and five touchdowns. Fasani (6-4, 235), was a highly-touted prep from Granite Bay, Calif. He was named by some as the nation's top high school quarterback in 1996. Borchard earned freshman All-America honors playing baseball for Stanford in '97 and his athletic ability will put him in the hunt for the starting role as well. "We have a very strong group of quarterbacks," says Willingham, "and I'm pleased with the progress made over the last year. The loss of Hutchinson is significant, but we have three quarterbacks on the roster who all possess great physical skills to play the position and I expect the competition to be fierce."
The Running Backs
"This is an area of genuine concern," said Willingham. "We are going from a very proven group of backs to an unknown group. Whenever you lose the caliber of backs that we lost from last year's team, you're going to have a period of adjustment and uncertainty. We had four very talented, very capable backs last season who took virtually every snap. Now, we have a group of young players who will be given the opportunity to play," he said. Willingham, of course, has reason to be concerned. Gone from last year's team are Anthony Bookman (2,523 career rushing yards) and Mike Mitchell (2,446 yards), the number three and four leading rushers in Stanford football history. At the fullback spot, Greg Comella and Jon Ritchie have departed, leaving another hole to fill in the backfield. The only back who has carried the ball in a game is junior Juan-Carlos Lacey, who has rushed 24 times for 131 yards in three games the past two seasons. Lacey is the likely starter at running back with sophomore Coy Wire from Camp Hill, Penn., also expected to receive extensive playing time. Sophomore Eddie Gayles from Renton, Wash. will also compete for playing time at RB along with senior Jon Eide. At the fullback spot, only junior Maxwell Stevenson has received game experience. A 5-11, 242-pound senior from Columbus, Ohio, Stevenson, who has two years of eligibility remaining, will be counted on take over the fullback position in '98.
The Wide Receivers
"Over the last two seasons, we have suffered some serious losses at the wide receiver positions, but we have shown the ability to be resilient in this area - as exemplified by the play of Troy Walters last season," said Willingham. "We have been able to have a young player step into a starting role and fill the position admirably. We will need that effort again this season and I am looking toward DeRonnie Pitts, Jeff Allen, David Davis and Tafiti Uso to compliment Walters." Walters, of course, is coming off a record-breaking season which saw him catch 86 passes for 1,206 yards - setting Stanford records in both categories. Along with his break-away ability on punt returns, he is considered one of the most dangerous players in college football. Alongside Walters, however, Stanford must replace two-year starter Damon Dunn. Both Allen and Pitts saw playing time last season and will be looked upon to take on a more significant role in '98. Pitts is the likely candidate to replace Dunn. Allen caught two passes for 43 yards while Pitts hauled in 13 passes for 195 yards and one touchdown. Sophomores Dave Davis and Tafiti Uso turned in impressive springs and both put themselves in position to see playing time in 1998. Those five should comprise the Cardinal's five-man rotation at the receiver positions.
The Offensive Line
Stanford returns four starters on the offensive line and six players who have played significantly over the last few years, leading one to believe this would be the strength of the team. And it may prove to be just that. "We hope the offensive line will be one of our strengths this season," said Willingham. "But, the depth we expected to have has been a bit depleted with the departure of two players and we find ourselves a bit weaker than anticipated. Still, we have an excellent nucleus back of players who have proven to be quality offensive lineman. If we can continue to build on the success of the past, then I believe our offensive line can develop into an outstanding unit." he said. The starters Willingham is counting on include LT Jeff Cronshagen, LG Joe Fairchild, C Mike McLaughlin and RT Geoff Wilson. Other key players include OG Andrew Kroeker, who started eight games a year ago at left guard, and OT Brian Donoghue, a valuable reserve who has spent time in the starting lineup himself. Gone are two players who were expected to contribute in 1998: Eli Burriss, who started all 11 games at right guard in '97 and Desmond Cook, expected to be a key reserve. Burriss, who had two years of eligibility remaining, saw his career come to an end due to a back injury and Cook left school for personal reasons, leaving Willingham feeling a bit weaker on the offensive line. Kroeker has started 19 games in his Cardinal career and is the likely candidate to replace Burriss at guard. Senior Matt Motherway, junior Jon Abendschein and sophomores Damion Tinsley, Ben Garrison and Zack Quaccia add depth along the offensive line. "We need the offensive line to be the strength of the team both in their performance on the field and with their leadership roles off the field," said Willingham. "
The Tight End
"This is one of the key areas on our football team," says Willingham. "With most teams that seek to have a balance in their offense, the tight end is a pivotal position because he is involved in both short and intermediate passing game and in your run blocking. When you can get a dominant tight end, it really aides you in all those areas. This is one position where we really need young people to step up," he said. Junior Russell Stewart ended last season as Stanford's starting tight end as he started the final two games, but he will be joined by two other young players in a battle for the starting nod in 1998. Both Stewart and junior Steve Coughlin have three more years of eligibility while sophomore Matt Wright is coming off a redshirt year in 1997. "There's some youth and inexperience here, but we're going to need them to learn and grow up and play big time football at tight end very soon," said Willingham.
The Defensive Line
The Cardinal lost three of its four starters from last year's team, including First-Team All-America DE Kailee Wong, three-year starter Carl Hansen at tackle and two-year starter Bryan Werner at end. "This is a group where the loses of Wong, Hansen and Werner really take hold. Our young players have to develop and get not only the mental side of the game under grips, but also the physical game and be able to make the transition from being a reserve to someone we expect to be a leader in our defensive team," said Willingham. The returning starter is junior Willie Howard, who started all 11 games a year ago at nose tackle but will move to defensive tackle in '98. Senior Andrew Currie is a two-time letterman who will be looked upon to play a major role at the nose tackle position while junior Riall Johnson showed signs of his ability last season and he, too, should play a prominent role at end this year. Junior Sam Benner earned the starting spot at defensive end last spring and his development into a quality lineman will play a key role in Stanford's success in '98. Others expected to compete for playing time include junior Dorean Kass, sophomores Marcus Hoover, Travis Pfeifer and Austin Lee, a converted tight end.
While three-year starter Chris Draft and two-year starter Jon Haskins have departed, leaving both inside linebacker positions vacant, Stanford returns starting OLB Donnie Spragan and a pair of senior inside linebackers who have gained valuable experience the past two years in Marc Stockbauer and Sharcus Steen. Replacing Draft and Haskins will be critical to the Cardinal's success in 1998, but both Stockbauer and Steen proved to be capable reserves a year ago and are the likely candidates to fill the void. "Our group of linebackers have been seasoned and gained game experienced the last few years, primarily in special teams but also in situational defenses. As a group, I expect them to grab the leadership position and assume control of the defense," said Willingham. Others expected to battle for playing time at inside linebacker are juniors Dominic Brunetti and Chuks Amajor and sophomores Matt Friedrichs and Mike Burke. Spragan started all 11 games at outside linebacker and his anticipated improvement is another key to the Cardinal defense. Senior Brian Toner, who will likely by Spragan's backup, will also receive playing time in '98 while sophomore Anthony Gabriel and Jon Sande will provide added depth.
The Defensive Backs
On paper, the Cardinal returns just one starter in the defensive secondary in senior cornerback Chris Johnson. But, in reality, cornerback Frank Primus, who virtually shared one cornerback spot with Johnson, is back for his junior season while senior free safety Tim Smith, who missed the final nine games of last year due to a knee injury, is also expected to return for the '98 campaign. Junior Than Merrill, a backup strong safety last year who received extensive playing time, is also back. Add to that the addition of talented sophomore Ruben Carter at cornerback and converted receivers Jamien McCullum and Aaron Focht to the safety positions and the Cardinal has the ingredients to be a much improved secondary. "There are obvious signs of growth in the secondary, " said Willingham after spring practice. "In Johnson and Primus, we think we have a platform from which to improve upon at the cornerback positions," said Willingham. "They did some good things last year and we look for them to improve upon their consistency and leadership and have a "never say die" attitude. Smith is a key player for us in the secondary. He can do so many things well and we'll need his maturity and leadership back there. Merrill, like Johnson and Primus, did some good things last year, but it was his first year getting his feet wet as a safety. We expect dramatic improvement from him in 1998," he said. Carter redshirted last season and his addition to the mix gives the Cardinal some quality depth. He finished the spring listed number-one on the depth chart. McCullum was a redshirt freshman receiver in '97, but was moved to free safety last spring and immediately moved to the top of the depth chart. Focht was impressive at strong safety and should see playing time in a reserve role. Junior cornerback Mark Sanders and sophomore safety Simba Hodari are also battling for playing time in '98. "The infusion of energy we had last spring added another level of competition and it was a very encouraging sign for the '98 season," said Willingham.
Kevin Miller has been Stanford's punter for the last three years and placekicker the last two and his return in 1998 is good news for the Cardinal. "We have been fortunate to have Kevin do both punting and placekicking the past two years," said Willingham, "but this year we're looking for Patrick Shinnefield or Mike Biselli to step forward and take over the placekicking chores. This would take some of the burden in the kicking game off Kevin's shoulders and let Kevin concentrate on punting." Miller has improved his punting average each of the last three seasons and is expected to be one of the best in the Pac-10 in 1998. Shinnefield is in his third year at Stanford while Biselli is in his second, but neither has attempted a field goal or PAT in a game.