NCF Nation: Coby Fleener

At the deepest roots of David Shaw’s coaching philosophy is an unwavering belief in run-first football. That's never going to change. Still, that doesn’t mean the Stanford head coach can’t be just a little bit giddy over what his offense -- specifically the passing attack -- has done so far this season.

Fashioned as Tight End U the past couple of years because of the presence of now-NFLers Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, the Cardinal wide receivers have made their presence felt in 2013 after previously yielding the spotlight to the Tree Amigos in 2011 and Twin Towers in 2012.

Through the first four games of 2012, Stanford receivers had just 26 catches for 256 yards and three touchdowns. As a unit, they had just six receiving touchdowns all year. It’s a different story this season. Through the first four games, Stanford receivers have accounted for 42 catches for 770 yards and nine touchdowns.

“It’s what we started to see in spring last year,” Shaw said. “... We feel like we have these guys ready to impact games. It’s fun to see their hard work pay off and them being viable options for us.”

As a result of the wide receivers taking first chair in the passing game, the tight ends have just three catches for 14 yards and zero touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeDevon Cajuste
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonDevon Cajuste broke out last week against Washington State with two long TD receptions.
The Cardinal will need all the firepower they can get when they host No. 15 Washington on Saturday. So far it has been Ty Montgomery as the featured receiver. After a strong freshman campaign, Montgomery was hampered by injuries last season. But he has emerged so far with 20 catches for 327 yards and four touchdowns. Devon Cajuste had a breakout performance last week and has 10 catches for 244 yards and three touchdowns on the season. Michael Rector rounds out the crop of receivers who have reached the end zone, catching three balls for 119 yards and two scores.

But it’s not just the increased targeting of receivers -- it’s also the maturation of quarterback Kevin Hogan, who is delivering the downfield strike with precision and efficiency. In last week’s blowout win over Washington State, he threw three touchdowns of 30-plus yards (33, 45 and 57 yards). That doubled Stanford’s number of 30-plus-yard touchdown passes this season and matched the total of big strikes it had all last year.

“He grows a little bit each week,” Shaw said. “We took more downfield passes this week, and he did a good job of finding guys and hitting them in stride. He understands things better. He sees things better. He’s getting more in the flow of the season, and we go into every game knowing that every defense we play is going to give us something we haven’t seen before, and he’s done a good job recognizing it, coming to the sidelines, talking about it and ready to make adjustments.”

Washington’s secondary should provide an ample test. The Huskies have yet to allow a 200-yard passer and have given up only one touchdown through the air all season. Heading into Saturday’s matchup, the Huskies have the top passing defense and pass efficiency defense in the Pac-12.

“They have a great deal of speed on the perimeter with Montgomery and Rector,” said Washington coach Steve Sarkisian. “Those guys can stretch the field more so than they have in the past. They put a lot of stress on you, because you want to commit yourself to defending the run, which you have to do when playing Stanford, but then the challenge is how do you not give up the big plays? They pose a lot of challenges that way. Hogan is throwing the deep ball really well right now. When guys are open he’s hitting them. That’s the other piece to the puzzle.”

After seeing a mostly tight-end-heavy Stanford team during his career, Washington safety Sean Parker said he’s excited for the opportunity square off against the Cardinal receivers.

“Every year we play receivers that stretch the field,” Parker said. “We’re used to defending down the field and having to man up their key guys. Knowing them, it is a turnaround because we’re used to seeing them running the ball and they get to different formations when they run the ball and then pass off of that. We have to be better with our eye discipline and what we see.”

Perhaps the most important statistic yet to be mentioned is that Hogan is still perfect as a starter (9-0). The Cardinal have won 12 consecutive games, the second-longest streak in the country behind Ohio State, and Hogan is 5-0 against opponents ranked in the top 25. Against ranked opponents, he’s completing 70 percent of his throws with eight touchdown passes and four interceptions, averaging 186 yards per game. He also has added two touchdowns on the ground with an average of 38 rushing yards per game.
While so much offseason drama has focused on who will be delivering passes at Stanford, there is also the question of who is going to be catching those passes.

Gone are leading wide receivers Griff Whalen (56 catches, 749 yards, four touchdowns) and Chris Owusu (35-376-2), who missed a lot of time last year anyway with injury. And we use the term "leading" accurately, but lightly, because often times last year head coach David Shaw was critical of the wide receiver contributions.

Then again, he didn't need the wide receivers to be great. Part of it was the tight end trio of Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, who accounted for 20 of Stanford's 38 passing touchdowns -- including 10 from the departed Fleener. Part of it was also quarterback Andrew Luck, who threw a pretty darn good ball, but was also very good at distributing to multiple receivers and position groups.

[+] EnlargeStanford's Drew Terrell
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireDrew Terrell is one of only two senior receivers on Stanford's roster this season.
Running backs/fullbacks caught nine touchdowns and the wide receivers accounted for the other nine. That's more than 23 percent. And let's be honest, maybe the best catch of the 2011 season was by the guy usually doing the throwing.

Translation, with a new quarterback and the top three pass-catchers gone -- the Cardinal are going to need stronger wide receiver play in 2012.

"It's vital," Shaw said. "It's vital to our success. We got a really good start. Jamal Rashad-Patterson is in the best shape of his life. Drew Terrell has really attacked his senior year much like Griff Whalen did the year before and Doug Baldwin the year before."

Terrell is an interesting prospect. Of the 15 wide receivers on Stanford's roster, Terrell is one of only two seniors along with Rashad-Patterson -- and ironically, the guy who threw the ball to Luck. He's a standout on special teams and with a very young receiving corps, he's going to have to be a standout in the locker room and on the field.

"It's a big year for him, no doubt," Shaw said of Terrell. "He's got such a great trust from the coaching staff. He knows all the plays and formations ... he's the leader in that room and of the group. How we use him will change week to week. He's a good route runner and he's been our best blocker for two years."

But he only caught eight balls for 81 yards and a score last year. That leaves sophomore Ty Montgomery -- with his 24 catches and two touchdowns -- as the No. 1 threat. As a true freshman, he emerged late in the season as Owusu's primary replacement and in a short time showed why Shaw is excited about him.

"I think Ty Montgomery is going to be a star in college football," Shaw said. "And we've brought in four new guys to compete. They've all shown flashes. We're excited about them. And the gauntlet is out there for these guys. We've proven over time that at every position, if you show us you can help us, we'll put you on the field to help us. The competition is there and we'll see who puts themselves in a position to play."
It’s been more than a week since the Indianapolis Colts made Andrew Luck the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Since then, it’s been a whirlwind of more draft picks (David DeCastro also in the first, Coby Fleener and Jonathan Martinin the second round) and undrafted free agent signings.

One week seems like a long enough moratorium on projecting first-round draft picks. But’s Todd McShay couldn't wait that long. He’s released his way-too-early 2013 first round mock draft Insider on Wednesday and Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov is projected to go in the first round to the New York Giants -- No. 31 overall.

Naturally, there is only so much credence we can give to this kind of projection this far in advance. After all, wasn’t Fleener supposed to go in the first round to the Giants?

Skov’s projection is an interesting one. Speaking with a couple of different Stanford coaches over the last couple of weeks, all indications are that Skov’s rehabilitation from a severe knee injury suffered in Week 3 against Arizona is progressing as planned.

Unplanned was his DUI arrest, which will continue to hang over the program until head coach David Shaw acts. For the record, Shaw said he would wait until after spring ball before announcing Skov’s punishment because he didn’t want to take away from the team.

But the bigger question is how Skov will perform once he returns to the field. Skov’s commitment to getting back healthy isn’t a question, nor is the mental aspect of the game. But when he goes to the combine and he starts getting poked and prodded and the injury questions come up, there is just no way to know how teams are going to react. Case-in-point: Washington running back Chris Polk, a pretty darn good back who was projected somewhere between the second and third rounds. But questions about his injured shoulders dropped him completely out of the draft.

And since we're projecting him as a first-round pick for kicks and giggles, would he slip by Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers in the middle 20s (who didn't think Harbaugh would snatch up Fleener?)

If Skov had never been injured (and for the sake of argument, let’s assume he came back for another year) I would feel a lot more confident projecting him as a first round pick. But until we see how he moves on the field and just how sturdy that surgically-repaired knee really is, putting him in the first round seems a little too far out on a limb even for me.
For those who don't remember, Andrew Luck and Coby Fleener had a pretty funny exchange in the post-game news conference following a 28-14 win over Notre Dame -- Stanford's 2011 regular season finale.

It was a festive mood. The players were singing (poorly)"Macho Man" in the locker room. Fleener (flowing locks and all) was asked about catching Luck's touchdown that broke John Elway's school record.

"I think it's something I'll be able to tell my kids and grand kids when I'm watching Andrew on T.V. someday," Fleener replied.

[+] EnlargeCoby Fleener
Robert Johnson/Icon SMICoby Fleener will be joining Andrew Luck in Indianapolis.
Luck rolled his eyes and said: "Like he's not going to be playing. Let's be real."

If only they knew then what they know now. Because now, it's real.

Fleener won't need to buy a television to watch Luck in the NFL. He'll have the true HD, 3D, RealD experience -- catching passes from Luck in Lucas Oil Stadium now that they are both Indianapolis Colts.

"I can't explain how excited I am," Fleener said. "As the draft went on, I knew there was a possibility, but I didn't want to set myself up for a letdown. And then as it got closer and closer I started thinking it could happen. My heart was beating through my chest when my phone rang and there was a huge smile on my face."

That's exactly how it should be.

Are they headed for Joe Montana-to-Jerry Rice-levels? Probably not. But Peyton Manning-to-Dallas Clark status? It's not impossible to imagine that in a few years.

Wide receiver Griff Whalen also signed on with the Colts as an undrafted free agent and they give Luck something he wouldn't otherwise have -- familiar faces; guys in the locker room he can pull aside and shoot the proverbial manure with; someone to go over the playbook with and bounce ideas off of. Luck can crack a nerd nation joke knowing that at least two guys are going to laugh.

Chances are the Colts are still a couple of seasons away from returning to the upper-echelon of the NFL power rankings. And much of their success -- or failure -- will fall on Luck's shoulders. Fleener will once again have to endure season-after-season of "How is Andrew handling the pressure" questions. But somehow, I don't think he'll mind.

"It's going to be a sacrifice," Fleener joked. "But for the chance to play with Andrew, I think I can make it work."

Luck has never given any indication that he can't handle public scrutiny. But he was also very closely guarded at Stanford. His media exposure was meticulously measured. It's going to be a lot more demanding in the NFL. And now Luck can pull aside a couple of trusted friends and let some stuff off his chest -- if he has to.

On the field, there is a chemistry that is invaluable; a rapport that can only come from a couple hundred practices, thousands of throws and, just guessing here, one or two nights out with the boys. Luck is a better quarterback with Fleener and Whalen on his team. Fleener is a better tight end with Luck as his quarterback. And the Colts are a better team for having the three of them together.

Luck always said his No. 1 reason for returning to Stanford for another year was to earn his degree. His second reason, a very close second, was to have one more season with his guys. Fleener and Whalen are his guys. They are in Luck's closely guarded inner-circle. And sharing meals, ideas and time together in the pros will have an incredibly positive impact.

I remember watching Luck and Fleener hugging it out in the locker room after the Fiesta Bowl loss -- the only time media were allowed into a Stanford locker room all season, per BCS mandate. And I took a mental note, thinking it was the end of a pretty-darn-good pitch-and-catch combo.

Little did we know, that was only the end of the beginning.
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.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Cary Edmondson/US PresswireDavid Shaw expects his team to take on the same tough-guy persona it has in previous years.
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).

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
Kyle Terada/US Presswire Replacing Andrew Luck will challenge Stanford.
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."
The inevitable is now official. Former Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck is an Indianapolis Colt.

Commissioner Roger Goodell had announced the 2012 NFL draft was open and Luck was on the phone with the Colts no more than 15 seconds later.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
Jerry Lai/US PresswireAndrew Luck is the fourth Stanford quarterback to be selected No. 1 overall in the NFL draft.
He got big hugs from head coach David Shaw and teammate Coby Fleener as he made his way to center stage.

"It was everything I thought it would be," Luck told ESPN's Suzy Kolber about the experience of being picked No. 1 overall. "I feel so blessed, so fortunate to be in this situation. I can't wait to start with the Colts."

And what can Indianapolis fans expect from Luck following a 2-14 season?

"Hope for the best," Luck said. "We'll come in and work hard. I know there are a lot of great guys in the locker room already. I feel so honored and so grateful to be able to represent this city now and be part of a team."

Luck becomes the fourth Stanford quarterback selected No. 1 overall, joining Bobby Garrett (1954), Jim Plunkett (1971) and John Elway (1983). Stanford is the only school that has produced four quarterbacks taken No. 1 overall.

Other Pac-12 players:

  • Despite a trade, the Minnesota Vikings still got the man they were targeting all along, USC offensive tackle Matt Kalil. Cleveland traded up to the No. 3 spot where the Browns took Alabama running back Trent Richardson. The 6-foot-6, 306-pound Kalil went to the Vikings with the No. 4 pick. He becomes the 76th first round draft pick in USC history and the 22nd USC Trojan offensive lineman drafted in the first round. He's the highest drafted USC lineman since Tony Boselli (1995, second overall).
  • Then, there was a long, somewhat surprising lull for the conference. Stanford guard David DeCastro, whom most mock drafts had going in the teens, slipped down to No. 24 where the Pittsburgh Steelers got some pretty good value with the No. 1 guard in the draft. DeCastro was the third offensive lineman taken after Kalil and Iowa offensive tackle Riley Reiff, who went one pick earlier at No. 23 to the Detroit Lions.
  • Between the picks of Kalil and DeCastro, there were 13 defensive players taken to just six offensive. That run on defense benefited USC defensive end Nick Perry, who was drafted by the Green Bay Packers at No. 28. He'll join former Trojan Clay Matthews in the Packers' 3-4 scheme. Perry was considered a first/second-round tweener but lands in a pretty good spot.
  • With just those four being taken, Fleener and Stanford offensive tackle Jonathan Martin are still on the board. Both were considered potential first round picks -- but Martin's stock had been sliding over the last few weeks while Fleener's star was on the rise. Once thought to be a pipe dream a couple of weeks ago, might we see the Luck-to-Fleener connection in Indianapolis after all?

WSU's Lintz: From Russia with hope

April, 19, 2012
Sometimes football players come from unexpected places.

Washington State's Andrei Lintz grew up frolicking outside his mom's office: The Catherine Palace, the Rococo summer residence of the tsars just outside of St. Petersburg -- yes, the Russian one, not the one in Florida.

"I remember walking around there. That was my place to hang out," Lintz said. "It was a cool backyard compared to Pullman, where you've got hills and five minutes out of town and you're in the middle of nowhere."

Lintz moved to the U.S. when he was 6. He grew up playing soccer and didn't play football until his freshman year of high school. But he did enough at Meridian High in Bellingham, Wash., to earn a scholarship to Washington State, where he was part of former coach Paul Wulff's first recruiting class.

The next four years weren't much fun. Though the Cougars steadily, if slowly, improved, Wulff was fired last winter after going 9-40 overall and 4-32 in conference play.

"It was heartbreaking from a personal standpoint -- these were the coaches who believed in you, trusted in you," Lintz said. "It is a business and that's the ultimate reality. If you don't win at the Division I level, you're going to get fired."

[+] EnlargeWashington State's Mike Leach
AP Photo/Dean HareTight ends typically don't excel in Washington State coach Mike Leach's system. That could change in 2012.
Then athletic director Bill Moos tapped former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach as Wulff's replacement, which generated plenty of positive buzz in Pullman.

Unless you played tight end, as Lintz did. His initial thought was he might disappear as a fifth-year senior in a spread offense. Heck, Leach didn't even have a tight ends coach.

"I had no idea what was in store for me," Lintz said. "I was pretty worried. I watched [Texas Tech] highlights and they very rarely had a tight end on the field. It was all four-wides and the receivers were small, quick guys."

Ah, but sometimes football players come from unexpected places. Or 6-foot-5, 252-pound tight ends become inside receivers.

Some might see the move as a gimmick. Clearly talented sophomore tight end Aaron Dunn wasn't impressed with his prospects. He quickly transferred after Leach's hire.

But Lintz was a revelation this spring, arguably the Cougs' most consistent receiver. In the final two scrimmages, he caught 12 passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns. Leach's "Air Raid" offense neglect a guy with a tight end's body? Well, last year as the No. 1 tight end, Lintz made just seven catches for 96 yards and one touchdown -- all season.

If you are looking for a breakout player next fall, a guy who could give opposing defenses fits and make them think they are trying to cover the second-coming of former Stanford tight end -- and potential first-round NFL draft pick -- Coby Fleener, look no further than Lintz. He's not as fast as Fleener -- not nearly so -- but he's plenty athletic. And he's capable of playing a jack-of-all-trades role -- receiver, tight end and H-back.

In other words, he's another guy who can help force a defense to do what Leach wants to force it to do: account for the entire field.

But will that be enough to get the Cougs to the postseason for the first time since 2003? Lintz said what has distinguished Leach's first spring, which ends with Saturday's spring game, was a sense of urgency.

"It's almost cutthroat," he said. "It's all go, go, go, now, now, now. We can't be the welcome mat of the Pac-12 anymore."

Lintz likely meant "doormat," but his point is clear. He might hail from Russia, but he's fully aware that the Cougars head into 2012 with an eight-year bowl drought, longest in the Pac-12.

As flattering as the prospect may seem, David DeCastro knows ESPN isn't coming out to Stanford's pro day just to broadcast him running offensive-line drills. He knows the score. He knows most of the attention will be trained on quarterback Andrew Luck.

But don't be surprised if the burly offensive guard gets more face time than any other Stanford player. Besides doing his individual workouts, he'll also be making a temporary move to center to snap for Luck.

You can watch the Cardinal's pro day at 11 a.m. Pacific/2 p.m. Eastern on ESPN3. Besides Luck and DeCastro, offensive tackle Jonathan Martin and tight end Coby Fleener will also be featured. Luck, DeCastro and Fleener are expected to be the first players taken at their positions, and Martin is projected anywhere between the second and fourth offensive tackle on the board.

"It's pretty crazy, because we couldn't even get a game televised a couple of years ago," DeCastro said. "That pretty much sums it up. Now they are televising our pro day. Crazy. The program has come a long way. If we can get it televised every year, that would be great."

A lot of eyes will be on Luck, who didn't throw at last month's NFL combine. He's expected to be the No. 1 pick of the Indianapolis Colts in next month's NFL draft. Yesterday, Baylor's Robert Griffin III held his pro day in Waco, Texas. While some think there is a chance the Colts could roll the dice with Griffin, he's widely regarded as No. 2 quarterback behind Luck.

[+] EnlargeStanford's Andrew Luck and David DeCastro
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesAll eyes will be on Andrew Luck, left, during Stanford's pro day, which means David DeCastro, right, will get plenty of looks too.
Here's an interesting take from ESPN's Mel Kiper Insider on quarterbacks not throwing at the combine.
Last year, as you recall, Cam Newton's pro day was quite a big deal, because the top quarterbacks no longer throw at the combine, instead waiting for a more familiar setting, with targets they are used to working with. I don't mind that process. If you're considered this good, why not take advantage of the comfort level you've earned as you go through the process. These guys get nit-picked more than ever, so it's hard to blame them for taking control of something as significant as many consider these pro days.

But today isn't going to be all about Luck. It's the payoff for many of the players who helped grow the program.

"That's got to be one of the things I'm most proud of in my time at Stanford is helping turn the program around from a 1-11 season the year before I got there to two straight BCS games," Fleener said. "It's one of those things where it took a lot of work from the guys in the offseason and the coaches and the staff, and I'm happy to see Stanford football is on the right track.

"Hopefully this publicity is going to help the program, even in a small way. Anything we can do to help the program is great. We're all going to be Stanford fans for life."

Head coach David Shaw often praised this class of fourth- and fifth-year seniors for buying into the program he and former head coach Jim Harbaugh were pitching. He thinks the legacy they leave will help keep Stanford atop the national rankings for years to come.

"We don't just want smart guys that know how to play football," Shaw said. "We want great football players. We want guys to come here that want to play in the NFL, that want to be first-round draft picks. We want them to have that desire. We also want those guys to excel outside of football. When you've got a class of guys like this who can garner this much attention, it's awesome. And as you can see from the way we've been recruiting the last couple of years, [televised pro days] hopefully will be a regular occurrence for us."

There are also several other Stanford players who weren't invited to the combine, but will work out at the pro day. Because of the attention Luck attracts, many are considering this their combine.

And for those who did participate in the combine, it's one last chance to show what they can do before the draft.

"I'm excited," DeCastro said. "I'm feeling great. I'm in shape, lifting hard. Working out has never been an issue for me. I love training. I love getting that lift and getting those endorphins going."
Some good news for fans of Stanford wide receiver Chris Owusu. Evan Silva of NBC sports reported yesterday that Owusu has been medically cleared to continue his football career.

For many, the lasting image of Owusu's Stanford career will be a thumbs up as he was carted into an ambulance on the field at Oregon State. It was his second concussion of the season, his third in a 13-month span and one of the most chilling sights of the 2011 college football season.

[+] EnlargeChris Owusu
Chris Morrison/US PresswireChris Owusu has been cleared "to play football now" by a doctor with the NFL Head, Neck, and Spine Committee.
Others, at least those who noticed, watched him play the final snap of the regular season finale against Notre Dame after missing the previous two games -- a subtle, yet classy gesture by head coach David Shaw to get Owusu on the field one last time on Senior Night.

But it now appears that Owusu is moving forward. No doubt, he's received the best medical advice -- the article states Owusu was looked over by an NFL doctor. And in this concussion-conscious world, chances are a doctor wouldn't clear a potential player if he didn't pass the strict tests with flying colors.
From the article:

Per [Owusu's agent], Owusu has been symptom free since November 6 of 2011, one day after his last concussion. A doctor with the NFL Head, Neck, and Spine Committee has diagnosed Owusu as “perfectly normal” and cleared Owusu “to play football now.” The doctor also determined that Owusu is not at greater risk of concussions due to his history.

Up until his injuries, Owusu had been having an average season at best. On several occasions, Shaw stated that he had hoped Owusu would be more productive. He finished the 2011 season with 35 catches for 376 yards and two touchdowns. He also had a couple of drops that led to interceptions.

In 2010, he saw action in only seven games because of assorted injuries.

Owusu has been training at the Stanford campus along with Michael Thomas, Coby Fleener, Johnson Bademosi and Griff Whalen. He'll join Fleener, Jonathan Martin, Delano Howell, Andrew Luck and David DeCastro at the NFL combine in Indianapolis later this month.

You can guarantee when he gets there, he's going to have a massive "Fragile" stigma that he's going to have to work off. Owusu has the speed to impress and his return skills make him more marketable. But just because a doctor says his melon isn't busted, doesn't mean that some teams won't be wary about taking a flyer on him. And that could hurt his draft stock.

The few times I spoke with Owusu this year, I really enjoyed them. He was charismatic, funny and always had something good to say about someone else on the team, even when the story was about him. There's something to be said for not letting anything get in the way of following a dream. Here's hoping the doctors -- and Owusu -- are making the right call.
Stanford's recent success just about Andrew Luck? That's just silly talk.

If ESPN NFL draft guru Todd McShay is on target with his mock 2012 NFL draft, plenty of evidence to the contrary will be produced on draft day. Insider
McShay projects that Luck will be the No. 1 overall pick, of course, but he also projects that Luck will be joined by three teammates in the first round.

How many other teams will produce that many first-round picks? One: National champion Alabama.

The Pac-12 has seven first-round picks in McShay's mock draft.

Here's how McShay sees things, with some comments included.

1. Andrew Luck, QB Stanford (Indianapolis Colts)

2. Matt Kalil, OT, USC (St. Louis Rams)

13. David DeCastro, OG, Stanford (Arizona Cardinals)
This might seem a bit high for a guard, but DeCastro was the most dominant interior offensive lineman in the nation in 2011 and has a chance to develop into one of the elite NFL players at his position. Offensive tackle is also a need area, but DeCastro is a much better overall player than the top available tackle. Cornerback could also be a consideration, but both Janoris Jenkins (North Alabama) and Dre Kirkpatrick (Alabama) carry off-field baggage.

18. Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford (San Diego Chargers)

20. Nick Perry, DE, USC (Tennessee Titans)
The Titans have three defensive ends set to become free agents and need a dynamic pass-rusher to complement Derrick Morgan. While Perry is raw, he has good initial burst and natural pass-rush skills. Cornerback, safety and offensive line are also need areas, but Perry makes the most sense in this situation.

26. Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford (Houston Texans)
The Texans would rather get a wideout here to complement Andre Johnson, but Rutgers' Mohamed Sanu and South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery would be reaches at this point. A difference-maker at tight end would help, though, and Fleener is a reliable target with toughness, a competitive nature and underrated speed/athleticism. He could draw some attention to the middle away from Johnson, and with a deep wideout class Houston could find a quality receiver in the next couple of rounds.

29. Vontaze Burfict, LB, Arizona State (Baltimore Ravens)
Burfict is a physical freak with tremendous athleticism and explosive power. He's a top-20 talent, but questions about his discipline on and off the field are hurting his stock. However, Burfict could contribute immediately and would benefit greatly from the leadership and guidance of Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis. And you have to wonder whether the Ravens would press their luck and take another player with character flags after bringing cornerback Jimmy Smith into the fold last year.

Here's McShay's player rankings. Insider

Here's Kiper's Big Board. Insider

And here's Kiper's top-five by position, Insider which is chock full of Pac-12 players.

Most interesting: Kiper ranks former Arizona State's Brock Osweiler No. 3 among the quarterbacks, ahead of former Arizona's Nick Foles, who is fifth. Luck, of course, is No. 1 and Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III is No. 2.

If Osweiler ends up getting picked on the first day -- first two rounds -- it certainly will validate his surprising decision to enter the NFL draft.
Michael Thomas is not one of them. He's one of those.

The former Stanford safety is one of those players spurned by the postseason bowl games and combines. Not one of them, the ones who get all of the draftnik attention and are perceived to be the next crop of elite NFL talent.

Thomas would be lying if he said that didn't bother him. And it should. Anyone who has spent 30 seconds with him knows he's a competitive guy.

[+] EnlargeMichael Thomas
Kyle Terada/US PresswireMichael Thomas will try to draw the attention of NFL scouts during Stanford's pro day workout.
"It was frustrating at first, waiting for invitations that didn't come," Thomas said. "Especially when you feel like you are on par with some of those guys who are going. I feel like I can compete with the best of the best. But you can only play the hand you're dealt. So I'm training hard. But I was disappointed that I didn't at least get the opportunity to showcase myself."

Instead, he's relying on his game film from 2011 as his résumé. On that film, scouts will see 66 tackles -- 41 solo -- three interceptions and a 62-yard pick-six against Washington. They'll see a savvy, four-year player sitting underneath on a slant route and then taking it back with a good burst of speed. They'll see good ball instincts, a team-high eight passes broken up, smart angles and above average tackling.

But what they won't see is the size. At 5-11, 185 pounds, Thomas might have a heart and a brain for the NFL, but his physique is working against him.

"The feedback I've gotten so far is that I'm an interesting prospect," Thomas said. "But because of the height, that's going to affect me in a negative way."

But Thomas has something a lot of other NFL hopefuls don't have; a pro day that includes one of the best quarterback prospects in more than a decade in Andrew Luck; three probable first-round picks with Luck and offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro; and a possible fourth in tight end Coby Fleener.

"My pro day is going to be my Super Bowl," Thomas said. "That's a good thing for guys like me because you know everyone is going to be at our pro day because of Andrew and those other guys. Hopefully it will be a great opportunity for me to improve my stock and draft status. If not, I'll hopefully be a priority free agent."

And if Thomas has to claw his way into the league, he said he's OK doing that. At least for a little while. He's given himself a timetable of about three or four years to put everything he has into making it as an NFL player.

Unlike a lot of prospects who like a change of scenery after the season and go to other parts of the country to train, Thomas is staying on campus. The sociology major will have a Stanford degree at the end of the year, and in the meantime he's working out with teammates Fleener, wide receivers Chris Owusu and Griff Whalen and defensive back Johnson Bademosi in preparation for the March 22 pro day.

"I've had a lot of success with our offseason training program here," Thomas said. "I feel like I've always gotten faster and stronger working with those guys.

"I'm open to taking whatever route I can to accomplish my goals. If I don't make an active roster after a few years, I'll hang it up and try to figure out life after that. I've thought about coaching and I'll always have my Stanford connections."

Teammates rally around Williamson

January, 3, 2012
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Jordan Williamson is going to wake up this morning, and it’s going to hurt. He’ll wake up Wednesday and Thursday and Friday morning, and it’s going to hurt. Then next week, it won’t hurt as much. And eventually the redshirt freshman kicker will get to the point where he can realize that while he didn’t win Tuesday night’s Fiesta Bowl, he certainly shouldn’t shoulder all of the blame for losing it.

Williamson had a rough night. Having only missed three field goals all season, he missed 3 of 4 attempts in a 41-38 overtime loss to Oklahoma State -- including a 35-yarder as time expired that would have given the Cardinal a victory. While Williamson did not address the media after the game, his teammates were quick to defend him.

“He’s made a million kicks for us in the past and kept us in games and won us games,” said tight end Coby Fleener. “We will never hang a guy out to dry, just like we don’t put one guy on this team on a pedestal. He’s still a hell of a kicker.”

Many of the defensive players say the blame is on them. Had they stopped Oklahoma State on fourth down on the previous drive, rather than allowing the Cowboys to convert a fourth-and-3 that went for 21 yards to Justin Blackmon, the field goal attempt wouldn’t even be an issue. Then there were Blackmon’s 186 receiving yards and three touchdowns. There were plenty of game-changing moments in the 59 minutes, 57 seconds of regulation that could have prevented it coming down to Williamson’s leg in the final three ticks.

“Put yourself in that situation and it’s tough,” said quarterback Andrew Luck. “It’s very tough. I know guys will rally around him. He’s got a very bright future ahead of him. I know the media tends to want a scapegoat or a hero. But that’s just not the case in any football game.”

Williamson was 12-of-15 heading into the contest and was 6-of-7 on field goals between 30 and 39 yards this year. In addition to the kick at the end of regulation, he missed a 41-yard attempt on Stanford’s opening drive and a 43-yard attempt in Stanford’s only overtime possession.

“We trust him,” said linebacker A.J. Tarpley. “We’d put him out there if there was a game tomorrow. Sometimes they don’t go in and sometimes they do. We had a lot of chances to win this game so it’s definitely not his fault.”

In Stanford’s locker room after the game, the scene was very un-fiesta-like. Teammates would stop by Williamson’s locker as a show of support.

“We love him, man,” said defensive end Ben Gardner. “That doesn’t change. He’s been solid as a rock all year. We had no doubt he would make the kick. But shoot, it’s football. Things happen. We all had bad plays tonight. It shouldn’t have come down to just that.”

3Q: Stanford 28, OSU 24

January, 2, 2012
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Momentum, she is a swinging.

The Cardinal stopped OSU on its first drive of the second half, then a 26-yard punt return from Drew Terrell gave the Cardinal solid field position at their own 41. They marched down to the OSU 15 where Andrew Luck connected with Zach Ertz on a 16-yard scoring strike.

Momentum swing.

After stopping OSU again, Quinn Sharp pinned the Cardinal at their own 3-yard line, and fullback Geoff Meinken fumbled at the Stanford 4, which OSU recovered.

Momentum swing.

But OSU failed to get in after three tries and opted for a 19-yard Sharp field goal.

Momentum swing?

Plus, Coby Fleener came out with a lower leg injury.

Momentum swing?

Maybe. Stay tuned...
Stanford CardinalsJason O. Watson/US PresswireAndrew Luck (12) and Stanford went 23-3 and played in two BCS bowl games in the past two seasons.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- It’s here, finally.

No, not the Fiesta Bowl. The end. The completion of the most nationally scrutinized season in Stanford football history. It started the day quarterback Andrew Luck announced he was putting off the NFL for one more season and returning to Stanford. And it hasn’t let up.

Stanford University isn’t a stranger to the media. With an alumni list that reads like a who’s who of American politics, industry, science and technology, those with Stanford ties make headlines daily.

But the football team? The group that was 1-11 a few years ago? Really?


And Luck’s return was just the start. Then came Jim Harbaugh’s departure for the NFL … then a coaching search … then David Shaw is hired … then the Heisman talk … then a preseason top-10 ranking … then the nation’s longest winning streak … then Heisman talk … then draft talk about Jonathan Martin, David DeCastro and Coby Fleener … then the BCS chatter … then Heisman talk … then the Oregon game … then the fallout from the Oregon game … then the Heisman talk … then non-BCS chatter … then BCS chatter again … then Heisman talk … then the post-Heisman talk … and now another BCS game.

You get the idea. Stanford’s media-hyped season revolved around Luck, and his presence brought scrutiny to everything and everything that had a block ‘S’ on it. You take a team that has never had this much national exposure and put a spotlight as hot as an Arizona summer day on them, surely they’ll wilt.

Or not. The Cardinal lived up to the hype, as proof by their appearance in today’s Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State. And though Luck didn’t win the Heisman, it’s safe to say he lived up to his almost unachievable expectations (both external and internal). And now Stanford is in a second consecutive BCS bowl game with a No. 4 national ranking attached to it.

“They’ve handled it great. All of it.” said Shaw. “I started the year talking about Toby (Gerhart) and the way he was in the spotlight. All he talked about was his offensive line and his fullbacks. And watching Andrew handle his notoriety last year and this year, it was the same thing. When your best players are humble and they point the spotlight toward the other guys, No. 1, the other guys appreciate it and No. 2, the other guys don’t want to let them down.”

For as much talent as the Cardinal lost to graduation last season, they still boasted an abundance of maturity this year. And that core group of veteran leaders never let the players’ heads get too big for their helmets.

“I think as a group we handled it well,” said Fleener. “We’d like to have the Oregon game back. We’d like to replay that one a few times. But it’s something that guys like Andrew and David [DeCastro] and Moose [Jonathan Martin] have handled really well. We all know it’s out there. But they are intelligent and they deflect the attention. Andrew does an amazing job of that and he gives teammates credit they may or may not deserve.”

It even got to the point where players would playfully joke with Luck about his increased media attention. On more than one occasion they would laugh in the postgame news conferences at the slew of Luck-centric questions. After a few minutes, Luck would eventually give the obligatory “why don’t you ask one of these guys” responses.

“It’s not like anyone is scared of Andrew or Moose or David or anything like that. They are just normal guys and normal teammates,” said fullback Ryan Hewitt. “They just happen to be very successful technicians of their trade and they are the best at what they do. It’s exciting because as a teammate, you want to play alongside the best.”

Whenever Luck was asked about the NFL or the Heisman, he had his stock answer in the barrel.

“I’m just focused on Stanford. Thinking about anything else would be a disservice to this university.”

The players knew they had something good in the works when they went to the Sun Bowl two years ago, followed by the Orange Bowl and a blowout victory over Virginia Tech last year as an encore. As the hype grew, so did the expectations.

“I think in years past it was OK for Stanford to be very good at academics and mediocre at athletics, at least from a football realm,” Fleener said. “Coach Harbaugh, and now coach Shaw, have pushed us to the point where we are expecting to win every game, or know that we will prepare to win every game as opposed to prepare to give the other team a good game. That’s a huge change from four or five years ago when we would be the underdogs. Now it’s to the point where we have a bull's eye on our back.”

People east of Las Vegas call that big-time college football. Whether Stanford can sustain this momentum remains to be seen. Certainly, the hype fades when Luck goes. But that doesn’t mean the expectations do.

“There is a groundwork and a formula to do it,” said the NFL-bound DeCastro “... They have to challenge themselves each year to get better because everyone else is going to get better. That hardest part of success is being able to repeat it.”

Video: Stanford tight end Coby Fleener

January, 1, 2012

Kevin Gemmell talks about the upcoming Fiesta Bowl with Stanford tight end Coby Fleener.