Pac-12: Delano Howell

Q&A: Stanford's Jordan Richards

April, 30, 2014
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Stanford safety Jordan Richards took a few minutes to chat with the Pac-12 blog about how spring ball went for the two-time defending Pac-12 champs and adjusting to life with some new defensive coaches.

Every year it seems like people say "this is the year Stanford takes a step back," and every year you prove people wrong. How will you prove them wrong this year?

[+] EnlargeJordan Richards
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesJordan Richards had three interceptions last season, including two against UCLA.
Jordan Richards: What happens in the season is a product of what we do in the offseason. Whether that’s on the field in spring ball or on the field by ourselves or the stuff we do with Coach [Shannon] Turley in strength and conditioning. It’s a mentality that’s throughout our program. We have a standard. The bar is raised every year, and we’re constantly trying to beat that standard. The last couple of years has been a product of the work the previous classes have gotten everyone to buy into.

How much of a hangover was there following the Rose Bowl?

JR: I would not say there was much. There’s not much to be happy about after you lose a Rose Bowl. So we got our two weeks off. Got rejuvenated. Got to reboot. Got to go home. And then it was right back to the grind.

The secondary faces a lot of pressure because traditionally it has been so tough to run on Stanford. As a result, the secondary stats are a little skewed. How do you guys handle that knowing teams are going to be coming after you through the air a lot of the time because the front seven has been so tough?

JR: It’s nice playing behind those front seven guys and how they get after the passer because it makes our job easier. We can cover while they get after the quarterback. We definitely appreciate all of that. In terms of the numbers, it doesn’t really matter. It’s cool to have bragging rights. But in the end, all that really matters is Pac-12 trophies and bowl trophies. The one we want is a national championship trophy and that’s what we’re working for. We play in a pass-happy conference anyway. Wazzu is going to put it up 80-90 times. You just have to live with it and hope each and every Saturday you come out with a "W" when it’s all said and done.

There have been some changes on the defensive coaching staff. What has that adjustment been like this spring?

JR: We were sad to see coach [Derek] Mason leave. But we’re happy to see him as a head coach. Coach [Duane] Akina came in for the second half of spring ball. For an older guy like me, you’ve heard one voice for the last three years. So it’s different with a new voice out there. That’s something we’re all getting used to. Coach Akina has this group moving in the right direction. Some guys who probably didn’t have as big a role in the past couple of years have gotten a clean slate with a new coach and that’s good for us. Everyone has something to prove, including myself, to Coach Akina. We’re trying to put our best football forward. The spring was good. We just need to translate that into the spring and hopefully when we get into camp we’ll be ready to go.

What has it been like without Ed Reynolds? You two were such a good tandem the last couple of years. Is it strange not having him out there next to you?

JR: I guess it’s weird to know I’m one of the older guys now. Between myself and Kyle Olugbode and [John] Flacco. I guess that’s the biggest change. You see guys you played with for two or three years and they start disappearing. You start with Michael Thomas and Delano Howell and those guys graduated. Then Terrence Brown and Harold Bernard and those guys graduate. I guess it’s a realization that this is the last one I have eligibility-wise. Whoever is playing among the DB group, I feel like we really improved. Who plays? I don’t know. I’m fighting for time just like everybody else. It’s been good. We’re all grinding and fighting in the same direction.

Speaking of guys leaving, you’re losing a lot of guys who were the “faces” of the defense in Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy and Ben Gardner. Do you feel like this is starting to become your defense?

JR: Maybe not in the traditional “face” of the defense. But in terms of leadership, confidence, poise on the field, I feel like that’s a responsibility of mine more than it’s been the last couple of years. There are plenty of guys besides me who have played a lot of football here who are poised, calm and respected players on this defense. The faces change. We don’t have the Screaming Mohawk with Shayne or Big Murph out there. But we’ve got guys that can still demand what those guys demanded of this defense.

After the NFL, what do you want to do with your public policy degree?

JR: I’m still not sure. Taking classes to figure that out. I want to try my hand at education. Whether that’s policy, I don’t know. I feel like I need some experience in the classroom before I focus on policy. Hopefully I’ll find out more this summer.

Finish this sentence: In 2014, Stanford football will be …

JR: Exciting. I’m excited to play next year and I’m excited what this team has in store for our school and the Pac-12. I’m excited. That’s the word I would use.
Matt BarkleyEzra Shaw/Getty ImagesStanford's defense pressured Matt Barkley all game and never allowed him to get in sync.
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Whenever Stanford head coach David Shaw opens a news conference with: “As you know, I’m not one for making opening statements, but …” you know he wants to get something out there.

Shaw couldn’t say enough about his defense’s performance in Saturday’s 21-14 win over then No. 2 USC that propelled the Cardinal back into the top 10 and sent shockwaves through the college football landscape.

“[Defensive coordinator] Derek Mason and our defensive staff were phenomenal,” Shaw said. “We were playing a great team and those guys made some plays. We tried to make them one dimensional and throw the ball.”

Hold up ... you wanted to make them throw the ball? Matt Barkley. Robert Woods. Marqise Lee. You wanted to make those guys beat you? This all smacks of Rocky standing up to Clubber Lang shouting "You ain't so bad, you ain't so bad."All that's missing is some hackneyed movie dialogue: “It’s crazy, crazy enough that it just might work.”

Well, Shaw isn’t crazy. Mason isn’t crazy. Turns out we were the crazy ones for thinking that USC’s troika was unflappable. But Barkley, who turned in one of the worst performances of his career, was flapped. He completed 21 of 40 passes for 254 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. Only twice in his career has he completed less than 50 percent of his passes, and both came in 2009.

Lee, the master of yards after the catch, never really broke free, despite eight catches for 100 yards. Woods was a non-factor with four catches for 38 yards. And though both of USC's touchdowns came on the ground, the Trojans were limited to 26 yards rushing because the Cardinal had nine tackles for a loss. USC had just two plays that went for more than 25 yards.

Stanford might have disguised some coverages and blitzes, but the Cardinal never disguised their intentions.

"That's one of the best front sevens in the country and they showed it [Saturday]," said USC coach Lane Kiffin. "You go back to last year an almost all of them coming back. I know [with Shayne Skov] returning in there, they're even better than last year."

Stanford’s front seven has a little saying. They like to throw a “party in the backfield.” Saturday night was a swinging soiree with Barkley as the unfortunate guest of honor. Stanford sacked Barkley four times and kept him under duress most of the game.

“We heard the talk all week about Barkley and Woods, and rightfully so,” said Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner, who had five tackles including a sack and two tackles for a loss. “They’re a talented bunch. But we were really confident about playing them all week. We felt good about what we had and the way that guys were practicing. We knew that if we came out there with a lot of energy, played our hardest at every snap, good things would happen. "

Certainly, some of Stanford's success can be attributed to the fact that USC was without center Khaled Holmes, an All-American candidate and a favorite for the Rimington Award.

"If there was a game on the schedule you'd pick that you wouldn't want to be missing your senior center, this is it," Kiffin said. "One, because their nose [guard] is really good. Two, because of all the different fronts and all the calls that have to be made up there. I don't care who the backup was. You're going to miss it when you play this game."

But it wasn't just the pressure up front that was so devastatingly effective. It was also a banner game for Stanford safeties Jordan Richards and Ed Reynolds. Perceived as a preseason question mark for Stanford, which had to replace veterans leaders in Michael Thomas and Delano Howell, the secondary played physical and fearless. Richards had two interceptions -- on consecutive Barkley passes -- to go with four pass breakups. Two of the breakups came on third down, where the Trojans were an paltry 1-of-13.

Stanford spring wrap

May, 14, 2012
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2011 record: 11-2
2011 conference record: 8-1 (2nd, North)
Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 7; kicker/punter 1

Top returners
RB Stepfan Taylor, OLB Chase Thomas, LB Shayne Skov, FB Ryan Hewitt, C Sam Schwartzstein, OG David Yankey, OT Cameron Fleming, DE Ben Gardner, TE Zach Ertz, TE Levine Toilolo.

Key losses
QB Andrew Luck, OL David DeCastro, OL Jonathan Martin, S Delano Howell, DE Matt Masifilo, WR Chris Owusu, TE Coby Fleener, S Michael Thomas.

2011 statistical leaders* (returners)
Rushing: Stepfan Taylor* (1,330 yards)
Passing: Andrew Luck (3,517 yards)
Receiving: Griff Whalen (749 yards)
Tackles: Jarek Lancaster* (70)
Sacks: Chase Thomas* (8.5)
Interceptions: Michael Thomas (3)

Spring answers
1. And then there were two: The pack of five has been funneled down to two quarterbacks competing to replace Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft. There are plenty of questions left (see below) but at least we know that it's not a three-, four- or five-man race heading into spring. Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes clearly separated themselves from the rest of the pack. That's a start.

2. Running back depth: In case Stepfan Taylor gets the flu, and Tyler Gaffney trips over his batting gloves, and Anthony Wilkerson stubs his toe, we know the Cardinal still have a viable running back option in Ricky Seale, who impressed Shaw this spring with his vision, quickness and elusiveness. Oh yeah, there's a Barry something or other coming in the fall whose supposed to be a pretty good running back. RB depth is not a concern.

3. Scary front seven: The Cardinal have so much talent and depth at defensive line and linebacker that defensive coordinator Derek Mason has to be scratching his head on how to get everybody in. Linebacker James Vaugthers is a star on the rise -- but that means taking reps away from A.J. Tarpley and Jarek Lancaster. Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy are two of the best at what they do. Stanford's run defense was really good last year. It could be great this year.

Fall questions
1. Who's the guy? Nunes or Nottingham? Nottingham or Nunes? That's the question everyone will be asking on the Farm for the next few months. This might be the most intriguing quarterback competition in the country. But the Cardinal don't need a 50-attempt guy. They need someone who can put them in the best play against the right defense and hand off to Stepfan Taylor. Then repeat. Repeat. Repeat. And then pop a play-action to Ty Montgomery, Zach Ertz or Levine Toilolo.

2. The Fleener factor: Much of Stanford's offensive success came from the three-tight-end formations, which included Coby Fleener, Ertz and Toilolo. In fact, about 35 percent of the offensive playbook is triple-tight sets. How much does that change with Fleener's departure to the NFL? Ertz and Toilolo are both outstanding tight ends in their own right. But the three of them together was something special.

3. Drop-off? Aren't you tired of reading about the drop-off Stanford is going to suffer with the graduation of Luck? Well, so are the players. Several have said off the record that it's a great motivational tool because they believe the defense and running game are stronger than they've ever been. Whatever the public thinks, it hasn't penetrated the locker room. Not yet, anyway.
Last week we gave you our thoughts on a couple of Pac-12 players who went undrafted this year. It wasn't really a debate, since we both felt that Washington running back Chris Polk not getting drafted was the biggest surprise.

SportsNation

Outside of Chris Polk, who was the most surprising Pac-12 player to go undrafted?

  •  
    38%
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    9%
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    6%
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    40%
  •  
    7%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,457)

So instead, we just opined on a couple of undrafted free agents.

Miller predicts that Oregon safety Eddie Pleasant is going to have a fruitful NFL career, though he wasn't all that surprised that he wasn't drafted.

Gemmell was slightly surprised that a team didn't take a chance on ASU linebacker Vontaze Burfict given the NFL's history of drafting players with questionable character.

There were a few other players who we thought might have ended up as draft picks but didn't make the cut.

Washington linebacker Cort Dennison, for example, who led the Pac-12 in tackles last season and was a second-team all-conference selection.

Also, Stanford safety Delano Howell was predicted by many to go in the draft, but ended up as a free agent.

Then there was Arizona State wide receiver Gerell Robinson -- who had more receiving yards than any wide receiver in the conference last year.

Which player did you feel should have been drafted but wasn't?
Stanford's secondary is going to be young next season. Not exactly breaking news, but that's the reality when four seniors, three of them starters, graduate. But the players returning also have some experience and quality playing time, which should help compensate for their youth.

In other words, there no excuses.

"I think [defensive coordinator Derek] Mason might have been a little more tolerant with us last year, a little more patient," said safety Jordan Richards. "Not anymore. We've all been here and have a full season under our belts. This is on us -- and coach Mason is making sure we know that."

[+] EnlargeJordan Richards
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireJordan Richards is one of many young Cardinal defensive backs that will have to replace three senior starters.
The back four -- two cornerbacks and two safeties -- have to be getting tired of hearing how good the front seven is going to be. They are so experienced. This guy is back and that guy is back. It gets old. And if the front seven is considered Stanford's defensive strength, by virtue of elimination, the back four can't be.

That perception is something the group is looking to alter. But first they'll need to settle some competition. Gone are safeties Delano Howell and Michael Thomas. Gone are cornerbacks Johnson Bademosi and Corey Gatewood.

Terrence Brown and Barry Browning are back at cornerback, along with the highly-touted Wayne Lyons who is returning from a foot injury. Usua Amanam should also be in the mix and don't be surprised if Alex Carter makes an immediate impact when he arrives in the summer. Also returning are Richards and Devon Carrington at the safety spot along with Ed Reynolds, who is also returning from injury. Kyle Olugbode has also seen reps this spring.

Richards was one of the true freshman called into action when Howell went down for several games with a hand injury. He started three games for Stanford last year -- the most brutal stretch of the season that included at USC, at Oregon State and home to Oregon. Tough detail.

"It was, at times, a blur," Richards said. "And other times, I felt like I was in control and the game slowed."

The telling part of that quote is the "at times" portion. Richards notched eight tackles in his first start against USC. Then a couple of games later he watched Oregon run all over the Cardinal. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. In his second year, he's striving for more consistency. And having had the chance to learn behind Thomas and Howell, he thinks he's found it.

"I learned how to see the game from those guys," Richards said. "As a freshman, you come in with tunnel vision. You need to learn to see how things move around. Now it's a transition. You've been here for a year, you learn to read formational cues and the game slows down a lot more. You know what the offensive tendencies are. That's the biggest difference. You're not a deer in the headlights anymore. You just go out and play and try not to over think it."

Brown has the most experience at cornerback, followed by Browning who started three games last season. According to Richards, Brown and Reynolds have taken on the leadership roles vacated by the departed seniors.

"As a group, it's been TB and Ed," Richards said. "Those guys have been around. But we all know what's at stake, and we're all trying to be leaders and be on our game as a group because we know that we are going to be young and people are going to try to come after us."

Like in Week 3, when the Cardinal host USC -- a pass happy offense with the Heisman front-runner at quarterback, the top wide receiving duo in the country and possibly the No. 1-ranked team in the nation. So this group is going to have to find a way to come together quickly.

"That's what the spring is all about," Richards said. "We're working hard to be a cohesive group. Coach Mason is pushing us and I think we're going to come together."
With six Stanford players headed to the NFL Combine later this month, I thought it would be fun to check in with an old acquaintance who is an NFL scout and see what his take is.

Like most scouts, he prefers to stay off the record and keep his name out of it. So it's a rare treat when one actually talks on the record -- even if the name has been left out to protect the innocent.

Here are are his direct quotes on the Stanford six:

David DeCastro: "Good kid. Should be a good pro. I see the potential. How can I put this, he's supposed to be [one of the best interior linemen]. But it's all in the eye of the beholder. Everyone has their own opinion. I think the kid will be OK. But will he be an All-Pro? I don't know. He should be, if he works hard enough. He has to get his technique down. He just needs to stay on his feet a little more when he pulls. That's about it."

Coby Fleener: "He's supposed to be real fast. In my opinion, he dropped some easy passes at times. If he just keeps on improving catching the ball, that's about it. He should be pretty good. He's a guy that can split out and run against corner. He should be fine."

Delano Howell : "Delano needs to stay healthy. That's all. He stays healthy, he's fine."

Andrew Luck : "He'll be fine. I think he's as advertised. As a matter of fact, he might be better than advertised if he ever gets some wide receivers. We'll see. That's the whole thing. You look at Stanford, Stanford never had that."

Jonathan Martin: "Right now he's a right tackle. I don't think he's strong enough to be a left tackle. That's just my opinion. I've been hearing people say he's the best they've seen, but I think he needs a lot of work."

Chris Owusu: "Chris has a lot to prove. They need to see if his head is OK. That's the whole thing right there."
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 has some holes to fill

February, 9, 2012
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It takes a quarterback to know when a quarterback will be missed. So it's no surprise that when looking at the teams with the biggest voids to fill, ESPN's Brock Huard started with schools losing elite quarterbacks. Stanford is among the top five schools that Huard examined as having the biggest offseason holes Insider.

Huard on Stanford:


Stanford might be losing the most prolific quarterback in the program's history in Andrew Luck -- which is saying something, given that John Elway and Jim Plunkett once grazed on The Farm -- but the Cardinal clearly are not losing their ground-and-pound identity. Signing three of the top offensive line prospects in the country will pay dividends in the long term, but filling the enormous shoes of Luck and three other probable first-round picks in this year's draft (OG David DeCastro, OT Jonathan Martin and TE Coby Fleener) will be a mighty task for coach David Shaw.

As a fan, player and now analyst who has been immersed in the Pac-10, now Pac-12, for more than three decades, watching what Jim Harbaugh did to reverse the fortunes of the Stanford program was remarkable. He changed the culture, provided an edge and energy desperately needed on the gridiron, and did so with the help of a once-in-a-generation quarterback who was both brainiac and maniac.

Huard is right on by identifying more than just Luck who is gone. And I'll go a step further and say that losing Delano Howell and Michael Thomas at the safety positions could be just as difficult to overcome. The Cardinal have a lot of good athletes who could step in at the safety spots -- Jordan Richards and Devon Carrington both saw extended action this season. But both are still very raw and lack the experience the outgoing duo possessed.

Having that outstanding front seven should give the secondary a little cover -- at least in the first couple of games -- for the new starters to get acclimated.

I'm also curious -- and sort of excited -- to see who plays the Fleener role in the three-tight-end formations. Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo both bring different skill sets to the position, but neither has the burst of speed that Fleener brought going over the middle on those deep routes. Following the Notre Dame victory, Shaw said that he and his staff have been searching the country for a tight end who can do what Fleener can do. Not surprising, he said they haven't found anyone. I'm expecting Ertz and Toilolo to have very productive seasons -- particularly since they are the veterans of the receiving corps.

Perhaps with the ongoing development of Ty Montgomery and some of the incoming talent at wide receiver, the Cardinal won't have to rely as much on a tight end for a deep-threat option. But knowing Shaw's penchant for tight ends, you have to figure they'll continue to play a major role in the receiving game.

Season grade: Stanford

January, 18, 2012
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The 2011 season is over. That means report cards are due.

Up next: Stanford

Offense: The Cardinal had one of the most productive offenses in the country -- mostly because they had one of the most productive quarterbacks. Andrew Luck was efficient and potent orchestrating Stanford's pro-style scheme. He was brilliant in the red zone and proved his NFL-readiness with his play-calling. He also put Stanford's running backs in the best possible plays to succeed, and they did. Stepfan Taylor netted 1,330 yards and 10 touchdowns, sending him over the 1,000-yard mark for the second straight year. The tight ends were the featured players in the passing game with Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo combining for 86 catches, 1,356 yards and 20 touchdowns. The offensive line matured quickly with three new starters and returners David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin were outstanding -- which will be reflected when they are taken in the first round of the NFL draft. Wide receiver Griff Whalen turned in a steady season and true freshman Ty Montgomery emerged late as a deep threat following a series of concussions to Chris Owusu. But for the most part, the wide receiver position was the one area that lacked significant production in an otherwise potent offense.

Grade: A-

Defense: Regular readers of the Stanford blog know that I reference this David Shaw quote from Week 1 a lot: "Missed tackles in the secondary lose football games." That was never more evident than in the Fiesta Bowl, where no one seemed to be able to bring down Justin Blackmon. Stanford's front seven was one of the best in the country -- and with six of the seven returning (plus the return of linebacker Shayne Skov from a knee injury) they should be even better. OLB Chase Thomas was one of the best pass-rushers in the Pac-12 and Ben Gardner emerged as one of the top defensive ends in the conference. Jarek Lancaster and A.J. Tarpley grew into their middle linebacker spots and were extremely productive. The secondary gave up a lot of yards -- though played pretty well against some of the top wide receivers in the country -- that is, until the Fiesta Bowl. Up until that game, they had not allowed a 100-yard receiver. Finding replacements for safeties Delano Howell and Michael Thomas will be a top priority.

Grade: B

Overall: For all of the hype surrounding the Cardinal in the preseason, it's pretty safe to say they lived up to it. Luck took a step forward in his maturation as a quarterback, they reached 11 wins in David Shaw's first year as head coach and the Cardinal returned to a BCS bowl game. For much of the season, they were major players in the national championship conversation and boasted the nation's longest win streak for a good chunk of the 2011 campaign. They are on the verge of signing a Top 20 recruiting class and though many are leaving, a lot of very good talent returns. But an extremely successful 2011 season will forever (or at least for a really long time) be overshadowed by the image of a wide-left kick.

Grade: B+
If 2011 was the season of learning for Stanford linebacker Jarek Lancaster, then the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State was graduation. And the first-year starter walked away with defensive valedictorian honors. In a game that wasn't exactly overflowing with defensive bright spots -- for either team for that matter -- Lancaster was one of the few defenders who stood out.

"He made a lot of plays," said head coach David Shaw. "He was physical. In a game where we missed some tackles on defense, he was as sure a tackler as there was in space. He made big-time stops at big times. It's how the season went for him. We ask him to do more and he steps up and does more."

[+] EnlargeJarek Lancaster
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsJarek Lancaster, right, had seven tackles in Stanford's Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State.
And more is on the way, both in the production and expectation departments. The third-year sophomore admits that when he first stepped in to the starting inside linebacker spot following Shayne Skov's injury, there were plenty of jitters. But he also knew that in time, they would pass.

"When you first get thrust into a starting position, you want to think you'll get better and believe you have the potential to get to another level," Lancaster said. "When I first got in there, the game seemed really fast and I wasn't as comfortable as I am now. It's been real nice to see the game slow down in front of my eyes and be able to feel more confident when I'm in there."

And confidence wasn't a problem in the Fiesta Bowl, where he matched senior safety Delano Howell for the team high in tackles with seven.

"I felt like I played pretty well with the open-field tackles, because they are a speed team," Lancaster said. "They didn't really run the ball, which is something you want to do -- make them one-dimensional. They were the better team that night, but overall I thought I played pretty well."

So next season, there won't be any excuses. No first-year starter excuses to fall back on. Not that Lancaster did anyway. But the better he plays, the better he will be expected to play.

"His open-field tackling was outstanding," said co-defensive coordinator Jason Tarver. "They were big-time drive-stoppers for us. I was really excited about that. I was happy to see him do that. After a long season and starting on two special teams and playing almost every snap on defense, he worked through everything in his first year starting and his production per play was very good.

"I can't wait to see him progress. We were already talking about certain areas where he needs to grow right after the game and on the way home. He put a lot of good things on film. Jarek's a pretty amazing kid and he has a great ability to stay in the moment."

Despite leading the Cardinal with 70 tackles this season, Lancaster had just one sack on the year. That's something he said will be a major point of emphasis in the offseason.

"I need to get better at my pass rush," Lancaster said. "Maybe I can get some hands, too, so I can get a pick next season."

Is A.J. Tarpley, the other starting inside linebacker, giving him a hard time because he has a pick?

"Yeah, a little bit," Lancaster joked. "I need to fix that."

Larger questions loom for Stanford

January, 3, 2012
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Andrew LuckChris Morrison/US PresswireAndrew Luck's Stanford career ends in a disappointing overtime loss to Oklahoma State.
This one is going to sting for a long, long time. There is no 24-hour rule here, no chance to put this one behind you and focus on the next opponent. All there is is time to think, stew, marinate in a myriad of how-did-it-all-go-wrongs.

There are two ways the Stanford Cardinal can move on from a 41-38 overtime loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. They can slide back into Pac-12 mediocrity now that quarterback Andrew Luck and an amazing cast of seniors are leaving. Or they can learn from this loss and come back with a chip on their Luck-less, shoulder.

“We’re going to be back,” said a choked up defensive end Ben Gardner. “We’re going to be just fine. We’re going to be back next year with a vengeance and we’re going to be a strong program for years to come.”

That’s what the big boys do -- the established programs that season after season are in the top-10 conversation. They learn to take the sweet with the sour. And this group hasn’t had to swallow much sour over the past few years. A loss like this can numb the taste buds or accelerate the desire to get back to the sweet.

“If you dwell on the loss, you never get better,” said nose tackle Terrence Stephens. “If you keep dwelling on what went wrong, you’ll never be able to focus on what to do right.”

There will be questions. In the immediate future, most of them will swirl around a redshirt freshman kicker. Jordan Williamson missed three field goals, including a 35-yarder as time expired that would have given the Cardinal their second straight BCS bowl victory. He also missed a 41-yard field goal on Stanford’s opening possession and a 43-yard kick in overtime. Williamson did not address the media after the game.

There will be questions that head coach David Shaw played it too conservative on the final drive in regulation that set up Williamson’s miss – a straight shot up the middle that hooked left. Maybe. It’s worth noting, however, that Williamson was 6-of-7 this season on kicks between 30 and 39 yards.

But bigger questions loom after the missed-kicks fallout settles. Like finding Luck’s replacement; like filling holes on the offensive line for the NFL-bound Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro; like replacing veteran safeties Michael Thomas and Delano Howell; whether outside linebacker Chase Thomas leaves school or returns for another season.

Whatever the answers, Stephens believes the Cardinal will be just fine.

“That’s the best part of our program,” Stephens said. “We hold the word resilient very high. You have to be resilient in everything you do. You come back and you fight and you get better. That’s been the attitude since I got here and it will be the attitude far after I leave. I think that’s something the players instill in the other players.”

There’s no doubt that the departing players leave the program in much better shape than when they came in -- several of whom committed following (even during) Stanford’s 1-11 season.

Luck thinks the future of the program is in good hands.

“I think just keep getting better, put your head down and keep working,” he said. “A lot has been written about the seniors and the senior class and regardless of which guys stay and which guys leave, there are really good football players here. Obviously, you want to improve every year. But I think a very solid foundation has been laid with coach Shaw at the helm. I see a very bright future for the program.”

Still, it’s tough to see that through the haze of missed field goals, missed opportunities, missed tackles and Justin Blackmon's jet wash. The Oklahoma State wide receiver torched the Cardinal for 186 yards and three touchdowns on eight catches.

“He took advantage of our mistakes and that’s something that any good player will do,” said Michael Thomas. “You can’t afford to make mistakes against that guy. One missed tackle and he takes it to the house. Missed communication in coverage and you leave the best player on the team wide open. Just guys not taking advantage of the opportunities they had, but give credit to him. He made the plays and he exposed us when we made mistakes.”

Lost in the mix will be an amazing performance by Luck -- who was 27-of-31 for 347 yards, two touchdowns and an interception -- and a fantastic performance by the rushing attack. Stepfan Taylor pounded out 186 yards on 35 carries and two touchdowns.

“There’s an old saying that adversity reveals character,” Shaw said. “… Two real good teams come down to a few plays, not just that one (the field goal at the end of regulation) but a few plays that we could have all done something a little bit better.

“I have a lot of confidence in the guys we have in our locker room as individuals, but also what we’re capable of together; get through this together and coming back, fighting back strong and hard.”

Shaw and his players are saying all of the right things. Now the ball is in their court for the next seven months to back it up.

Cardinal finally starting to heal

December, 27, 2011
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A healthy Stanford is a happy Stanford. And for the first time since about the midway point of the regular season, the Cardinal are as close to 100 percent as they are going to be.

When Stanford takes on Oklahoma State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2, several key players will be moving quicker than they were in the final few games of the regular season. Understanding just how beat up his team was heading into the postseason, head coach David Shaw said repairs on both sides of the ball were a top priority.

[+] EnlargeZach Ertz
Steve Conner/Icon SMIStanford tight end Zach Ertz is expected to be near full strength for the Fiesta Bowl.
"We've got to get healthy," Shaw said after the Notre Dame victory in the regular season finale. "We played with our three tight ends and two of them were probably 80 percent. Our backs have been beaten up and bruised all year. We have to get them fresh."

Injuries, no doubt, took their toll on the Cardinal this year. It all started in the third game of the season when middle linebacker Shayne Skov -- arguably one of the top run stoppers in the country -- went down against Arizona and was lost for the year with a knee injury. Suddenly one of the best run defenses in the country looked a little thin. A.J. Tarpley and Jarek Lancaster filled in admirably -- better, in fact, than most expected -- but neither is at the level yet of Skov.

Still, they have endured, ranking fifth nationally in rush defense, allowing just 90.3 yards per game.

Like all teams, the Cardinal fell prey to the typical bumps and bruises. But a critical bump occurred against USC, when tight end Zach Ertz suffered a knee injury on the opening kickoff and would go on to miss the next three games.

Why is Ertz so significant? About one-third of Stanford's offensive playbook involves three-tight-end formations. With Ertz, Coby Fleener and Levine Toilolo on the field at the same time, the Cardinal offense was able to exploit numerous mismatches. Ryan Hewitt split time between fullback and tight end during that stretch. But even then, quarterback Andrew Luck would lose Hewitt out of the backfield, one of his most reliable and productive receivers coming out from behind the line of scrimmage.

Ertz returned for the season finale against Notre Dame. Nowhere near 100 percent, he caught one ball for no yards. But the fact that he was even on the field was a morale boost for his teammates. He's expected to be near full-strength -- if not at 100 percent -- for the Fiesta Bowl.

"It's exciting to have the tight ends back together and ready to go," said Fleener, who was recently named to the AP All-America third-team offense. "I think it's just exciting to know that we have a lot of guys back at full strength and hopefully we can be as good as we were before a lot of the injuries. It can only make us better as a team."

Obviously, Skov won't be back. Neither will wide receiver Chris Owusu, who has suffered at least three concussions in the past 14 months -- the scariest (as if they aren't all scary) coming against Oregon State when he was taken off the field in an ambulance.

There was some hope for Owusu's return because he's a senior and one of the emotional leaders of the offense, but head coach David Shaw told reporters last week "it's not going to happen."

"He's just been one of those guys," Shaw said following a practice last week. "And he's gotten beaten up and knocked out, and he comes back. He's been beaten up and knocked out, and he comes back. And the players recognize that as the guy that they look to for courage."

In Owusu's absence, true freshman Ty Montgomery has been filling in, giving Cardinal fans a glimpse of the future. In the final three games, Montgomery caught 10 balls (on 16 targets) for 130 yards and a touchdown in the finale against Notre Dame.

Still, they have endured, ranking 11th nationally in total offense while averaging almost 481 yards per game.

Offensive linemen Cameron Fleming and Jonathan Martin also had lingering lower leg injuries that forced Fleming to miss time. Both are expected to be back at or near full strength.

Offensive lineman David DeCastro offered a more glass-half-empty view of the Cardinal injury situation.

"We're never going to be injury-free," he said, "that's just part of college football."

On the opposite side of the ball -- aside from Skov -- one of the biggest temporary losses was safety Delano Howell. While he convalesced his injured hand for three games -- only to re-injure it in the first half against Oregon -- Michael Thomas stepped in and split time between free and strong safety.

Youngsters Devon Carrington and Jordan Richards got lots of playing experience that will aid the Cardinal in years to come, but Stanford is clearly a better defense when Howell is on the field. He too is expected to be at full strength.

And yet throughout the injury-plagued season, the players have never used injuries as an excuse.

"I think what it comes down to is no matter who is available, the coaches did an awesome job putting us in the best positions to succeed," Fleener said. "Whether it was Zach or Hewitt in there, ultimately our identity is running the football and being a physical team regardless of who is on the field. That shouldn't change with the personnel."

Season recap: Stanford

December, 7, 2011
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STANFORD CARDINAL

Record: 11-1, 8-1 Pac-12

The 2011 Stanford Cardinal looked a lot like the 2010 team. Andrew Luck tossing touchdowns to Coby Fleener. An 11-1 record. Stepfan Taylor rushing for 1,000 yards behind Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro. Another BCS bowl game.

But the main difference this season was that expectation was higher, the spotlight brighter and every play over-scrutinized. David Shaw stepped in as head coach and calmed the seas. At times, the Cardinal looked perfect and unstoppable. Others, over-hyped and exposed. But through it all -- including the disappointing Oregon loss -- Shaw kept the team focused on whatever the next task was.

Luck turned in a Heisman-worthy season, throwing 35 touchdowns to nine interceptions. He was perfect in the red zone -- 26 touchdowns, zero interceptions -- and Shaw made the most of his cerebral quarterback by giving him control of the offense at the line of scrimmage. The tight ends were sensational and the running backs were consistent and productive, if not a little underrated.

Defensively, bright stars like A.J. Tarpley, Ben Gardner and Jarek Lancaster emerged, giving promise that even though Luck is leaving for the NFL, the Cardinal might be able to sustain some of the success from the last few years.

Offensive MVP: Luck, a Heisman finalist, performed wonderfully under the microscope. His interception total was a little higher and completion percentage a little lower because of sketchy wide receiver play, but the way he commanded Stanford's offense was brilliant. He broke John Elway's major touchdown records in three seasons and leaves Stanford as, perhaps, its most celebrated player.

Defensive MVP: Hard to pass on outside linebacker Chase Thomas, but it was safety Michael Thomas who held the team together during a rough patch midway through the year. He had a couple of off games, but when safety Delano Howell missed time with a hand injury, Thomas rotated back and forth between free and strong safety and coached up some younger players until Howell could return. He was second on the team with 61 tackles and provided three of Stanford's six interceptions.

Turning point: Luck announces last January that he's returning for another season. Those aforementioned expectations reach atmospheric heights.

Up next: Oklahoma State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. One last chance for the fourth- and fifth-year seniors, credited with turning the program around, to enjoy one last, well-earned game on the national stage.

Big Game rivalry lives up to billing

November, 20, 2011
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STANFORD, Calif. -- David Shaw was having flashbacks. In seconds, the Stanford head coach and former Cardinal wide receiver was re-running every funky play and freaky scenario and wacky finish that have been historic staples of the Big Game.

Here’s the scene on a rainy Saturday night at Stanford Stadium: Cal scores a touchdown with 14 seconds left to cut Stanford’s lead to 31-28. Here comes the onside kick. Anything can happen, right? A Cal recovery and Hail Mary? The ball bounces off of seven Stanford players and Cal converts a 65-yard field goal? It’s the Big Game. Seems plausible. At least at the time.

“I got The Play going through my head. I got the 1990 crazy game with the onside kicks going through my head,” Shaw said. “We just supported our defense. Even if they went down and scored, we made them take so much time off the clock. We knew if we got the onside kick the game was over.”

And it was. The onside kick went right to tight end Coby Fleener, who caught the ball on the one hop, cradled and dropped. No crazy bounces. No students or trombones appeared on the field until the clock read 0:00. Game over. Stanford wins the 114th Big Game. The Axe stays in Palo Alto for at least another year.

“There is still with 14 seconds – you’re thinking about The Play – you never know what can happen – ‘The band is on the field,’” said defensive end Ben Gardner, recalling Joe Starkey’s famous call from the 1982 game. “Luckily, the band stayed in their seats and Coby was able to recover the onside kick. He saved us.”

Aside from the late-game Cal heroics, it was standard Stanford. A slow start on offense before the Cardinal picked it up in the second half and – seemingly— pulled away behind two touchdown passes from Andrew Luck.

Andrew Luck
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesAndrew Luck shook off an unproductive first half to throw two second-half touchdown passes.
The Cardinal were coming off their first loss of the season – a 53-30 schooling by the Oregon Ducks – that dashed (maybe?) their national title hopes. Luck in particular didn’t have that great of a game. Like his teammates, he was anxious to get back on the field.

“The best medicine, I guess is football when you’ve lost a game,” said Luck, who finished 20-of-30 for 257 yards, an interception (which came when Ty Montgomery slipped and fell on his route) and two touchdowns. “It was good to get out and play a quality opponent in a rivalry game.”

And despite the rain and the cold, the rivalry game proved to be as advertised. The Cardinal struck first. Following a Cal fumble, Montgomery scored on a 34-yard end-around. But after a Giorgio Tavecchio field goal and Luck’s interception – his fifth in four games – Cal took a 10-7 lead.

“It was tough sledding,” Shaw said. “We didn’t make some plays early in the game that I thought we should have and they took advantage of it and came storming back … It wasn’t pretty. But doggone it we fought to the end and got the win.”

The Cardinal returned to their ground game in the second quarter, rushing for 85 yards, which included a 6-yard Tyler Gaffney touchdown run.

Then Luck took off in the third quarter, completing 8 of 10 passes for 135 yards and tossing touchdowns to Levine Toilolo and Ryan Hewitt.

But Cal quarterback Zach Maynard wouldn’t let the Axe go that easily. He orchestrated a touchdown drive early in the fourth and the final-minute dramatics that ended with the onside kick.

Safety Delano Howell called it a character victory for the Cardinal.

“We understood that how we responded to the loss last week was a challenge to our character,” said Howell, who finished with seven tackles and a fumble recovery. “Grown men, they respond in a positive way. They don’t reflect on the past or use that in a negative manner or in an adverse way. In order to prove who we were as a team, we had to come out and make a statement tonight.”

And there were, of course, the standard missed tackles in the open field. Wouldn’t be a Stanford game without them. But it’s a win – and that’s exactly what this team needed in the wake of last week’s crippling loss to the Ducks.

“I think we were looser as a team,” Gardner said. “The nature of last week’s game, the national implications. Now we’re playing like a team with nothing to lose, because we don’t. We’re a team fighting for a BCS bowl and we know that. But we knew we had to come out and play looser than we did last week because we made too many mistakes last week and that’s partly because we were tight. At the same time, it’s Cal. We knew they’d try to punch us in the mouth. We had to play our game. It wasn’t always pretty. But we got the win and the Axe is staying here.”

For Luck, it caps a conference career that ends with back-to-back wins over Stanford’s oldest rival.

“It means a lot,” he said. “It will mean more once the season is over when you get to reminisce. But I feel very grateful and blessed to have won two games in a row against them and retain the Axe for at least another year.”
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Let’s take a trip back to those carefree days between Week 1 and 2. Stanford was coming off its blowout win of San Jose State in the season opener and preparing to go on the road against Duke. Head coach David Shaw made a passing comment:

“Missed tackles in the secondary lose football games.”

It was logged and noted at the time. And in these tense days between Games 9 and 10, it’s gone from casual comment to paramount prophecy.

[+] EnlargeDelano Howell and Johnathan Franklin
AP Photo/Paul SakumaStanford will need to do a better job tackling when they play Oregon on Saturday.
The Cardinal have fought their own tackling demons throughout this season. Part of it is losing one of their best tacklers in Week 3 -- linebacker Shayne Skov -- and losing another of their best tacklers for a quarter of the season -- safety Delano Howell.

Howell will return to the lineup this week for the epic showdown against Oregon, which begs the question: Is this the week Stanford’s defenders can put it all together?

“We get better every week,” said linebacker Jarek Lancaster. “Obviously this week with the explosiveness [Oregon has] we’re trying to wrap up more in practice, run our feet through contact. Anytime on defense, it’s something to worry about. I think we’ve gotten better and this should be our best tackling game.”

It has to be. Or the Ducks will run wild all over Stanford -- which they might do anyway -- even if the Cardinal are able to wrap up.

“You can play well against Oregon and give up 35 points,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw. “If one guy is out of position on one play, it’s a touchdown. That’s just the way it is.”

Too often this season we have seen big plays from opposing teams because they have broken a tackle, or tackles, and picked up critical third downs or taken it all the way to the end zone.

Safety Michael Thomas said it’s time for players to start taking it personally.

“There are going to be situations with one-on-one, with you and another guy in open space and you have to bring him down,” Thomas said. “It’s athlete versus athlete … we can’t miss tackles. These guys are too talented. They are fast, they run hard and we can’t afford to miss tackles.

“It’s a matter of will with that guy. It’s one-on-one with me and him in open space and I can’t miss."

Howell’s absence these last three games has been notable and his return gives Shaw a much needed veteran presence in the backfield. It takes a significant amount of pressure off Thomas to set the defensive alignments.

But then you have two young middle linebackers in A.J. Tarpley and Lancaster. Both have played very well since the Cardinal lost Skov. But neither has faced a team with Oregon's explosiveness.

“It’s not just being in a big game. It’s about playing these guys, specifically on defense,” Shaw said. “Chip Kelly says it all the time and he’s 100 percent right. Time of possession is overrated. It’s what you do with the snaps that you get. They are going to line up, run a play and run right back up and run a play again. You have to communicate quickly, especially from the safety position … I feel great being able to have Delano back this week.”

While Oregon has the ability to run between the tackles, they are at their best when they are running outside the hashes and using their speed to stretch defenses. That puts the onus on the linebackers and safeties to either take proper angles, or simply not allow Oregon’s speedy backs to get to the outside.

“We have to cage them,” Lancaster said. “Set the edges. Force everything inside. If we can keep them caged, we can do really well. We just can’t let them out.”

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