Friday, August 26, 2011
Stanford is more than Andrew Luck
By Ted Miller
Is it the "Stanford Andrew Lucks"? Or is it more accurate to call the nation's No. 7 team the "Andrew Lucks of Palo Alto"? Or perhaps just "Andrew Luck!!!!"
Stanford tight end Coby Fleener, left, is part of an impressive supporting cast that surrounds quarterback Andrew Luck.
Everyone knows who Andrew Luck is: the 2010 Heisman Trophy runner-up who would have been the No. 1 overall pick in this past spring's NFL draft if he hadn't decided to return to Stanford, where he ended up on the cover of every college football preview magazine.
Luck is widely hailed as the best quarterback prospect in years. Decades, perhaps. And he casts a big, obscuring shadow. That shadow has inspired some ignorance of the Cardinal's across-the-board talent, not to mention some raised eyebrows over whether Stanford is really that good.
Just 11 returning starters, some note. No more Jim Harbaugh, others fret. No consistent tradition of winning, some calculate.
Stanford, it seems, is widely viewed as Andrew Luck and a bunch of nerdy stiffs. It has become a popular team for some to call overrated or questionable, although folks who make such charges typically reside east of the Mississippi.
We're here, as usual, to help. Overrated? That's Georgia, a team that welcomes back just 12 starters from a 6-7 team that lost at Colorado last season yet is somehow ranked 19th in the AP poll.
Stanford actually might be underrated.
Just 11 starters? Fine. But eight of them are first-rate NFL prospects. Three were first-team All-Pac-10 and two were second-team in 2010. Five others earned honorable mention.
Heck, six of them started for the Cardinal team that nearly beat Oklahoma in the 2009 Sun Bowl. That doesn't include Luck, by the way, because he was out with a broken finger.
"No one worries about Andrew getting all the attention," said linebacker Shayne Skov, last seen rolling up 12 tackles and three sacks in a dominant victory against Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. "He's earned all of it."
True, but Stanford's supporting cast merits more than a passing notice. Or, even worse, ignorance. So we asked new coach David Shaw -- Stanford's offensive coordinator under Harbaugh -- to help with some colorful commentary.
Let's start at tight end, where the ridiculousness of riches is mind-boggling.
Coby Fleener was second-team All-Pac-10, and Mel Kiper rates him the fourth-best senior tight end in the nation. And he might be the Cardinal's third-best tight end. Levine Toilolo beat Fleener out for the starting job last fall before blowing out his knee. He's freaking huge: 6-foot-8, 260 pounds.
"He has uncanny hand-eye coordination," Shaw said. "He can make awkward-body catches. We're looking for him to be a big threat in the red zone. At the same time, he is a dominating, physical blocker."
Then there's 6-foot-6 Zach Ertz. Said Shaw, "He has a little bit of everything. He's a great -- not a good, a great -- route runner at 245 pounds who can get down the field. But he also has taken to blocking as well. He's one of those guys who sticks his face in there. We can do a little bit of everything with him as a blocker and receiver."
Oh, and that Fleener guy, who caught six passes for 173 yards and three touchdowns in the shellacking of Virginia Tech? Shaw: "It's hard to find a guy who is 6-foot-5, 250 pounds who outruns defensive backs. It almost doesn't make sense how fast he is."
This depth at tight end is one reason replacing the two leading receivers from last season isn't a huge concern. Another reason: Chris Owusu.
Owusu isn't included among the 11 returning starters because he was hurt much of last season. But that didn't stop Kiper from rating him the No. 5 senior receiver. When healthy, Owusu is an explosive player -- see 18.4 yards per catch in 2009 with five touchdowns.
Shaw: "When Chris is healthy, I think he's one of the most explosive athletes in the nation."
Next there's the offensive line. Just two starters are back, but they are the best two starters any offensive line in the nation welcomes back. Both tackle Jonathan Martin and guard David DeCastro are likely first-round NFL draft picks.
Shaw on Martin: "He's over 300 pounds but doesn't look like it. He's athletic, he's strong, he's a leader and he doesn't make mistakes. He doesn't get beat. He's going to be as good as anybody in the nation."
And DeCastro: "He is athletic, he is strong, he is physical and he is nasty."
Skov on the 315-pound DeCastro: "He's just a force."
Last but not least on offense, there's running back Stepfan Taylor, who very quietly rushed for 1,137 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
Shaw: "We talk about him as that old Cadillac. He's not the flashiest thing on the block but, dog-gone-it, you look up at it at the end of the day and it had a heck of a day. He is steady; he does everything right. He has uncanny balance and quickness."
Let's start with Skov. Said Shaw, "Shayne is a nasty football player. He is fast, he is explosive, he has great anticipation. He's fun to watch."
Skov volunteered outside linebacker Chase Thomas as the most underrated player on the Cardinal defense. He has 14.5 sacks over the past two seasons. Said Shaw: "He's hard to block. He's slippery. He's quick. He's got a lot of different moves. He's great with his hands. He finds his way to the ball. He finds his way to the quarterback. And he plays the entire game in a bad mood."
At safety, there's Delano Howell. While all four members of the secondary have starting experience, Howell leads the way with 23 starts. Shaw: "He's our enforcer. Whenever we need a big hit, he's the guy who makes it. He's one of those guys we try to slow down a bit in practice just because he only plays one way and we can't play a game just with the people left over."
Skov also said free safety Michael Thomas was underrated. He and end Matt Masifilo both earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 in 2010.
Further, Stanford recruited well under Harbaugh and Shaw. It has signed three consecutive top-25 classes. The Cardinal are almost certain to produce stars this season we don't even know about right now. (Here's a guess: LB James Vaughters and CB Wayne Lyons.)
So there you have it. Stanford, my friends, is not a one-star constellation.