- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Three consecutive Heisman Trophy runners-up, two consecutive BCS bowl games and final top-10 rankings: Hey, Stanford's special run of football success was fun to watch. It was neat seeing the most academically elite university playing BCS football whipping the big boys.
But we all know it can't possibly last, right? Jim Harbaugh built it and he's gone. Andrew Luck was a once-in-a-generation quarterback, and he's gone. And he took with him three other offensive players among the first 42 selections in the NFL draft over the weekend.
While the Cardinal certainly had more than 15 minutes of fame, it's time for this program to go back to its familiar brainiac territory -- Faulkner, computer chips and advanced algorithms. Leave big-time football the USCs, Alabamas and Ohio States of the nation.
Yes, such talk has worked its way across the grid, onto the Farm and into the Stanford locker room.
"We've talked about that," coach David Shaw said. "But we've also talked about that there can't be anything outside of our meeting rooms that motivates us. The motivation has to come from within. It's the only way that it is real. The only way that it is legitimate. But we've heard it. We know where we're ranked. But preseason rankings don't matter. Postseason rankings do."
In other words, the Cardinal believe reports of their demise are greatly exaggerated.
"They said the same thing when Toby [Gerhart] left and when Harbaugh left," outside linebacker Chase Thomas said. "We're pretty confident. We know what we bring to the table."
Of course, things change. No team can easily replace four elite NFL draft picks from its offense. That's why Stanford may be more about defense in the early going of 2012. Thomas leads a crew of six returning starters from a unit that ranked among the nation's top 30 in both scoring and total defense. The Cardinal's front seven in their 3-4 scheme appears to be particularly strong. Few teams in the nation will be as deep at linebacker, with Thomas and inside linebacker Shayne Skov both rating as potential All-Americans.
But what about that offense? The competition to replace Luck wasn't resolved this spring, with neither Josh Nunes nor Brett Nottingham demonstrating much consistency. And whoever wins the job won't have tackle Jonathan Martin protecting his blind side, or guard David DeCastro grinding defensive linemen into hamburger, or tight end Coby Fleener sprinting open down the middle with his 6-foot-6 self.
"We will continue our commitment to controlling the line of scrimmage," coordinator Pep Hamilton said. "We're going to run power. I don't see us changing much. If anything, if we have a few more opportunities to run power, we'll do that."
That means leaning on running back Stepfan Taylor, who has rushed for 2,770 yards and 27 TDs over the previous three seasons, and a deep stable of backs. That means leaning on a tight end combination -- Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo -- that is as good as any in the nation, even without Fleener.
Receiver and offensive line? Those two spots remain questions, though the line will welcome back three starters.
Existing talent, however, doesn't tell the whole story of Stanford's potential for sustaining success. The incoming recruiting class is a significant chapter. Rivals ranked it fifth in the nation, Scout seventh and ESPN Recruiting 12th. No team in the nation came close to collecting as many elite offensive linemen: guard Joshua Garnett (Puyallup, Wash./Puyallup), Andrus Peat (Tempe, Ariz./Corona Del Sol) and offensive tackle Kyle Murphy (San Clemente, Calif./San Clemente).
Shaw isn't afraid to play the young guys, either. True freshmen will get opportunities on both sides of the ball, including the offensive line.
"There's a reason why we recruited a couple of big-timers at those positions," he said. "They will have an opportunity to play if not start at the left tackle position."
Instead of going away, Stanford may well have found a perfect formula that Harbaugh generated and Shaw has refined. Stanford has a lot to sell a certain type of athlete, one who is equal parts brains and brawn. Despite what many folks think about young athletes, there are plenty who want to challenge themselves intellectually before playing football on Sundays.
"This is a special place that attracts a certain kind of person," said Shaw, a former Stanford player himself. "The GPAs in this recruiting class are high, even positions where they are not always high. Our lowest receiver GPA is a 3.4. Not regular GPA, core GPA. These guys are good students and tough kids."
But how fast are they? A 3.4 is nice, but what about 4.4? The one thing that has held Stanford back is a lack of elite speed all over the field, particularly in the secondary and at receiver. Shaw said they "are getting closer" in terms of speed, but he also admitted that the Cardinal -- just like every other Pac-12 program -- have a bit of an Oregon problem. They are 23-1 versus everyone else over the past two seasons, outscoring those foes 1,024-405. Against the Ducks, Stanford is 0-2, outscored 105-61.
Does Stanford have an "Oregon problem?"
"That's a great question," Shaw said. "I'd like to have a survey on your website if anybody has some ideas. Chip [Kelly] does a phenomenal job."
While Shaw is said this in a good-humored way, it's clear that he and his coaches have spent plenty of time thinking about the Ducks. They recall beating them 51-42 in 2009, particularly how they handled the ebbs and flows of momentum. They know it's about preventing big plays and not wasting opportunities on offense. They know it's about tempo, a pitched battle of contrasting styles. Oregon wants to play fast and slash you. Stanford wants to slow things down and pound you.
At least one insider believes Stanford will sustain its recent run of success.
"Absolutely. Hopefully they do better than we did," Luck said. "I think there are a lot of great players here, starting at the top with the coaching staff. Great players, great recruiting classes. They will only continue to get better."
As for what Stanford will be in 2012, its first season of the post-Luck era, Shaw thinks his team will have the same tough-guy persona. But it'll be angrier.
"We're going to go right at people and hit them in the mouth," he said. "And it helps to feel like you're disrespected."