Stanford Football: Coby Fleener

We continue our look at Stanford's top-5 impactful recruiting classes of the past decade.

No. 3: 2007

Credit for the 2007 signing class should be spread around. Walt Harris and his staff laid the groundwork for what eventually became Jim Harbaugh's first class, but the baton was first passed to former athletic director Bob Bowlsby in the interim.

The weekend after Harris was fired, Stanford hosted a group of recruits that helped change the program's direction. TE Coby Fleener, WR Doug Baldwin, OLB Thomas Keiser and DL Matt Masifilo -- all of whom are now in the NFL -- were part of that group and later committed after Harbaugh was hired.

Two other players from the class also ended up in the NFL -- FB Owen Marecic and RB Jeremy Stewart, both of whom were unheralded recruits. Of the 10 players that verbally committed after Harbaugh was hired, five went on to the NFL. The only NFL player from the class that committed to Harris was Keiser.

As Harbaugh's first class, the group gets a lot of credit for changing the culture of the program. Marecic, in particular, is a player who embodied the physical brand of football the Cardinal is now know for.

There were two losing seasons after the group arrived, but the Cardinal turned the corner in 2009 with an 8-5 season -- the program's first winning season since 2001. In their fourth year, the class helped Stanford to a 12-1 record, a No. 4 national ranking and a win in the Orange Bowl. For Fleener, Masifilo, Stewart and others who played a fifth year, an appearance in the Fiesta Bowl followed the next season.

Countdown

No. 4: 2010

No. 5: 2006
Much of the talk about Stanford's Trent Murphy leading into the NFL scouting combine has centered around his position.

Is he an outside linebacker or a defensive end?

[+] EnlargeTrent Murphy
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesFormer Stanford DE Trent Murphy is among the Cardinal players at this year's NFL combine.
For Murphy, those questions can really only be answered by whichever team ends up drafting him.

"I'm almost positive I'm doing the linebacker drills [at the combine]," he said. "As far as what teams are looking at me for is probably a little bit of both."

Murphy spent most of his week at the Senior Bowl in January at defensive end before he was switched to outside linebacker, his primary position at Stanford, a day before the game. Despite having played some defensive end at Stanford, he said some of what they had him do was a bit foreign.

Coaches at the Senior Bowl had him line up tighter on the line than he was used to -- sometimes inside the offensive tackles to play against the run. When he lined up as a defensive end at Stanford, it was usually much wider in situations where he was used to rush the passer.

"That was different, but I was getting used to it," Murphy said.

Reviews on his performance were mixed, but Murphy said it was a good overall experience -- especially because he got to meet with NFL teams.

"Teams want to see what kind of character you have and how intelligent you are," said Murphy, who graduated from Stanford with a degree in Science, Technology and Society. "They put that together with your résumé on tape. What they see [at the Senior Bowl and combine] kind of verifies what they see on tape, but what they learn about your character is almost more important."

Murphy, who led the nation with 15 sacks in 2013, is among Stanford's Pac-12-best group of eight players that will be in Indianapolis for the combine. He will participate in every drill, and he said he's hoping to run in the 4.65-second range in the 40-yard dash.

"If I have a good start, which I hope I do, 4.65 should be no problem," he said.

Three days after Stanford's Rose Bowl loss to Michigan State, Murphy departed for Bradenton, Fla., where he has been training feverishly at the IMG Academy with several other highly-touted prospects, including Notre Dame's Zack Martin, Michigan's Taylor Lewan and Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, among others.

Every morning Murphy wakes up at 4 a.m., heads over to a hyperbaric chamber for a few more hours of sleep, then completes a regiment of working out, stretching, football drills, mock interviews and other assorted activities to prepare for what he'll go through at the combine.

Murphy said he's spoken with former Stanford teammates Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo about what their experiences were like and is confident between those conversations and what he's learned at IMG that he's ready.

"I've been waiting for this day for al ing time now," Murphy said. "I could be more excited to tackle it."

He will return Stanford to participate in the school's pro day on March 20.

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.

Stanford Cardinal season preview

August, 13, 2013
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We continue our day-by-day snapshots of each Pac-12 team heading into the 2013 season in reverse alphabetical order with the Stanford Cardinal.

Stanford

Coach: David Shaw (23-4)

2012 record: 12-2 (8-1 Pac-12 North)

Key losses: RB Stepfan Taylor, TE Zach Ertz, TE Levine Toilolo, OLB Chase Thomas

Key returnees: QB Kevin Hogan, OT David Yankey, LB Shayne Skov, LB Trent Murphy, DE Ben Gardner, S Ed Reynolds

Newcomer to watch: Stanford loves to rotate its linebacking corps, and outside linebacker Peter Kalambayi is impressive. He was a five- or four-star recruit, depending on which service you follow, and was one of the highest-rated OLBs in the country. He has a strong chance to play his way into the rotation.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Brian Murphy/Icon SMIStanford coach David Shaw has smiled a lot since Kevin Hogan became the starting QB late in the 2012 season.
Biggest games in 2013: The eyes of a college football nation will be tuned in on Thursday, Nov. 7, to see Oregon’s trip to Palo Alto. But there are plenty of big games before and after that -- including Arizona State (Sept. 21), Washington (Oct. 5), UCLA (Oct. 19), USC (Nov. 16) and the finale against Notre Dame (Nov. 30). If the Cardinal repeat as conference champs, they will have earned it.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: It might have been the running back situation and the fact they have to replace Taylor. But Tyler Gaffney’s return from professional baseball adds experience and depth and bolsters a committee that should be able to mimic Taylor’s production. Receiving production, however, is still up in the air. Five of the top six receiving options from last year are gone -- including tight end Zach Ertz, Taylor and Drew Terrell. Ty Montgomery was sensational in 2011 and if he returns to form, could be a bona fide stretch-the-field threat. Behind him are a host of talented, but mostly unproven players. Look for Devon Cajuste, Michael Rector, Kodi Whitfield and freshman Francis Owusu (yes, that name should ring a bell), to work into the rotation.

Forecast: Expectations have never been higher for the Cardinal as they enter the year a preseason top-5 team. This is a veteran-heavy team that’s built to win tight games and grind opponents down in the fourth quarter.

The offensive focal point will be the progress of quarterback Kevin Hogan, who took over last season and went 5-0 as a starter -- including a 4-0 mark against Top 25 teams. He’s got one of the top offensive lines in the country -- headlined by All-American David Yankey -- protecting him, and a stellar defense has his back. Often forgotten is fullback Ryan Hewitt, who returns as one of the best in the country.

The running back group will be interesting to watch. Coach David Shaw strayed from his preferred by-committee method last season as Taylor carried 322 times -- most of anyone in the Pac-12. But he was that reliable. Gaffney, Anthony Wilkerson, Barry Sanders et al should all contribute and carve out their niche in the offense.

Aside from the aforementioned receiving position, many are eager to see what tight end Luke Kaumatule can do stepping in as a full-time player. The Cardinal were spoiled the past few years with Ertz, Levine Toilolo and Coby Fleener. Now it’s Kaumatule’s turn to carry the torch for what has been the nation’s most productive tight end-driven offense the past couple of years.

There are no real weak spots on Stanford’s defense. Five of the front seven are back from last year -- including DE Ben Gardner, ILB Shayne Skov and OLB Trent Murphy. The defensive backfield features, arguably, the nation’s top safety tandem in Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards and Usua Amanam doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves as an outstanding nickel.

As noted above, the Cardinal play a very difficult schedule -- including four straight rivalry games to close out the season. This may seem daunting, and it is. But the Cardinal could have as many as 18 juniors or seniors in the starting 22, so chances are there isn’t a situation they haven’t seen or played through before. That experience will be invaluable as the Cardinal look to defend their conference title and try to make a run to another Rose Bowl -- or beyond.
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."

On stage ... Stanford

July, 24, 2012
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UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif.: Some notes from Stanford head coach David Shaw, running back Stepfan Taylor and linebacker Chase Thomas:
  • Shaw says LB Shayne Skov has been cleared and is done with his rehab. "He's not ready to play a football game yet."
  • Taylor says he doesn't feel the pressure to produce. "We feel like we have to play our best game, every game."
  • Shaw says Taylor is the most underrated running back in the nation. He said we have an "unbelievable" front seven that could be as good as any in college football.
  • Shaw says "we're going to do everything we can do with the players we have" in regards to whether the three-tight-end formations will still exist with the departure of Coby Fleener. They have moved a few players around and still have a lot of fullbacks. He called FB Ryan Hewitt the most versatile college football player you can find. "It's about mixing and matching."
  • Thomas says the front seven is as good as any in the nation.
  • Shaw says he told Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes there should be no effort to be Andrew Luck, "because they can't." He wants the guy to get them into the best formation and the best play against the defense they are facing.

Pac-12's 1,000-yard receivers

June, 8, 2012
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We've looked at the potential 3,000-yard passers and the 1,000-yard rushers in the Pac-12 over the last few days. But this is the conference of wide receivers -- a place for Biletnikoff's boys to run free and unabated up and down the field. So who's going to be in 2012's 1K club?

First, here's last year's 1,000-yard receivers:
With only four returning 1K receivers coming back from last season -- and two of them are on the same team -- how does that bode for the rest of the teams in the conference?

Arizona: The Wildcats lose their top three receivers from last year -- including headliner Juron Criner and his 956 receiving yards. Big boy Dan Buckner (6-foot-4, 214) returns after 42 catches and 606 yards last year, when he averaged 14.4 yards per catch. But the Wildcats will run the ball more this year. Buckner will likely improve on his numbers, but reaching 1K will be tough.

Arizona State: Another team shifting its mentality from pass first to run first, and they lose their top receiver in Robinson. Jamal Miles had 60 catches and six touchdowns last year, but only 361 yards. His yard total should go up as the No. 1 guy, but with more focus on the run game, 1,000 yards might be a stretch.

[+] EnlargeKeenan Allen
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireWith quarterback (and half-brother) Zach Maynard more comfortable, Keenan Allen could put on a show for Cal during his junior season.
Cal: Keenan Allen. Yes. Quarterback Zach Maynard reportedly had a great spring and looks more comfortable in the offense -- and Allen might be the best all-around receiver in the conference (that phrase will be written a couple of times throughout this post). The Bears will lean heavily on Allen and he'll reward them with another 1,000 yard season.

Colorado: Prior to Paul Richardson's injury, it still would have been 50-50 with a new quarterback. But without their top receiving threat it leaves relatively inexperienced players like Tyler McCulloch and Nelson Spruce in the mix. The quarterback position is still in flux and with a pretty good offensive line and a talented running back in Tony Jones, the Buffs' focus will probably be more ground-based.

Oregon: Whether De'Anthony Thomas reaches 1,000-1,000 is a debate for another day. But I like his chances of 1,000 yards receiving. He caught 46 balls for 605 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Coach Chip Kelly finds creative ways to get Thomas the ball in space and then he just takes off. He'll make the new quarterback look good and suck up receiving yards in the process. My crisp $1 bill says yes to 1K.

Oregon State: Markus Wheaton returns after catching 73 balls for 986 yards. He's an extremely gifted wide receiver who is often forgotten among the Pac-12's A-list of pass catchers. But he shouldn't be. Sean Mannion should be more steady in his second year and as Brandin Cooks develops opposite Wheaton, it should open up more opportunities. He'll break 1K this season.

Stanford: Run-first team. The top three receivers (which includes tight end Coby Fleener) are gone and the leading, returning receiver is fullback Ryan Hewitt. Even if Andrew Luck were back it would be tough. The Cardinal spread the ball around so much that it's unlikely one guy would get all the catches. Wide receiver Ty Montgomery, however, is a rising star in the conference and should have a very good season. He's Stanford's best chance at 1K.

UCLA: If the Bruins can get the quarterback spot situated and if they take to the new pass-happy offense relatively quickly, there is a good chance someone could emerge as a 1K receiver. Joseph Fauria is the strongest pass catcher, but Shaq Evans and Ricky Marvray will have plenty of chances to emerge.

USC: Yes and yes. Robert Woods and Marqise Lee are two of the best wide receivers in the country and with the quarterback they have throwing the ball, there is no reason to think both won't return as 1,000-yard receivers. This one is a no-brainer.

Utah: The Utes were dead last in the conference last year in passing offense. That's expected to change with new offensive coordinator Brian Johnson taking a more aggressive approach and quarterback Jordan Wynn staying healthy, they hope. When DeVonte Christopher did catch the ball (42 times) he made the most of it with one of the league's highest averages per catch (15.8). But running the ball is still going to be Utah's bread and butter. The numbers will improve, but a 1K receiver will be tough.

Washington: This is a tough call. Quarterback Keith Price has another year of experience, but there is so much distribution in the Huskies offense -- which includes a tight end who should see the ball at least five to seven times per game -- that there might not be a chance for one guy to separate himself. Kasen Williams and James Johnson both have big-play potential -- which might be part of the problem because they could take yards away from each other. And without Chris Polk running the ball, teams might not be as quick to send safeties down to defend the run.

Washington State: Not if, but when. Marquess Wilson, last year's yardage runner up is in a system that's tailor-made for him. Of the league's top receivers -- Allen, Woods, Lee, Wheaton -- Wilson might be the best of them all (doesn't that make for a fun debate?). There are plenty of other good receivers at Washington State. But Wilson is the guy. He'll clear 1K about the time you're recovering from your Halloween candy hangover.
Taking a cue from the guys at the Big Ten blog, who recently looked at the potential 3,000-yard passers in that conference in 2012, I thought it would be worth a look at the Pac-12 group.

For the B1g boys, 3,000 yards might seem like a bench mark. In the Pac-12, it's more common, given the brand of football played in the league and seemingly never-ending parade of amazing throwers and catchers who grace the Pac-12 each year. Heck, the conference had two 4,000-yard passers on 2011 in Nick Foles and Brock Osweiler.

But those two are gone -- and so are their head coaches, coordinators and offensive schemes.

Here are the members of the 3K club last season:
  • Foles, Arizona, 4,329
  • Osweiler, Arizona State, 4,036
  • Matt Barkley, USC, 3,528 (returning)
  • Andrew Luck, Stanford, 3,517
  • Sean Mannion, Oregon State, 3,328 (returning)
  • Keith Price, Washington, 3,063 (returning)
[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesUSC's Matt Barkley seems like a sure bet to throw for 3,000-plus yards this coming season.
Now let's look at the conference quarterbacks in 2012 and see who has the best chance of cracking the 3K mark.

Matt Scott, Arizona: Rich Rodriguez's spread option is primarily run-first, and I couldn't find a 3,000-yard passer to his credit as a head coach. The closest anyone got was Denard Robinson, who hit 2,570 in 2010. History says probably not.

TBD, Arizona State: Another up-tempo, run-first offense -- though Todd Graham has had more success in the air. G.J. Kinne hit 3,650 passing yards for Tulsa in 2010, but that was also his second year in the system. With a workhorse running back like Cameron Marshall, a deep running back corps and a green quarterback, 3K seems unlikely.

Zach Maynard, Cal: Just 10 more yards. Just one more little swing pass or one broken tackle and Maynard would have joined the 3K club after throwing for 2,990 yards last season. All indications are that he had a good spring, and he looks more comfortable in the offense. Plus, he's got one of the best receivers in the country in Keenan Allen. Maynard should get there.

TBD, Colorado: Tyler Hansen ( who is now gone) almost got there last season, throwing for 2,883 yards even though his leading receiver in catches was running back Rodney Stewart (who is now gone). Toney Clemons (who is now gone) led in yards, and Paul Richardson (who is out for the season with a knee injury) was second. The odds are slim that Connor Wood or Nick Hirschman will improve off Hansen's numbers with so much turnover.

TBD, Oregon: Does it really matter? Darron Thomas knocked on the door last season with 2,761 yards. But establishing the pass isn't exactly priority No. 1 for the Ducks. Whoever wins the job will have the benefit of De'Anthony Thomas, who can turn 5-yard passes into 50-yard completions. But with the Ducks carrying a 62-38 run-pass percentage last season, it's unlikely they'll stray from that formula, which means it's unlikely a new quarterback will reach 3K.

Sean Mannion, Oregon State: One of six quarterbacks in the conference last season to break 3K, Mannion threw for 3,328 yards in his debut campaign. Vows from coach Mike Riley to re-commit to the running game should actually enhance Mannion's numbers. And with receivers like Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks on the outside, there is no reason to think he won't top 3,000 again.

TBD, Stanford: Despite a run-first, pro-style attack, Luck still threw for 3,517 yards. The Cardinal were 55-45 in their run-pass ratio last season, and a lot of Luck's aerial success came from his ability to successfully sell play-action and distribute the ball among many position groups. But the top three receivers (Griff Whalen, Chris Owusu and tight end Coby Fleener) are gone, and you can't bank on the new quarterback being as efficient as Luck. Expect a healthy dose of running back Stepfan Taylor, meaning Luck's replacement probably won't break 3K.

TBD, UCLA: The Bruins joined Utah last season as the only teams that did not have a passer ranked in the top 10 in passing yards in the conference. That will change this season with new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone -- the architect of Osweiler's 4K season. The ball will be in the air a lot more than it was in the pistol offense. But seeing as there is so much uncertainty still -- and we could see multiple quarterbacks this season -- it's too tough to call. If one guy starts the entire season, I could see it.

Matt Barkley, USC: Yes, yes, 3,000 times, yes.

Jordan Wynn, Utah: I'd say it's 50-50 for Wynn at this point. The Utes have a very good running back in John White, and coach Kyle Whittingham likes the control game. But Wynn did toss 2,334 yards in 2010 in 10 games. If DeVonte Christopher has the big season many are predicting, and new offensive coordinator Brian Johnson dials up the aggressiveness, I could see it happening. As always, unfortunately, every conversation regarding Wynn has to be stipulated with an "if he stays healthy" until he proves otherwise.

Keith Price, Washington: Had it not been for a career-high 438 passing yards against Baylor in the Alamo Bowl, Price would have come up way short of the 3K club. But he's in. And without Chris Polk to lean on, we could see Price's passing numbers go up. Prior to the bowl game, he only had one 300-yard game. He has a good chance to repeat as a 3,000-yard passer, but it's not a lock.

Jeff Tuel, Washington State: Mike Leach hasn't named him the starter, but, come on. He lit it up in the spring, and showed to be a quick study in learning the new offense. With a deep and talented crop of wide receivers -- headlined by Marquess Wilson -- and an offense that throws three out of every four times, Tuel should easily clear 3K.

Stanford mailbag

May, 22, 2012
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Lots of mailbag to catch up on. Will try to squeeze out a few more later in the week. For now, to the questions.

Eric in San Francisco writes: You mentioned that it remains to be seen if the three-tight-end plan can continue. It seems that if there was a "next up" young tight end that was sharp enough, then we might be able to hang on to some of those great plays in the playbook. Who is "next up" in the tight end position, and could they be good enough to preserve that 3 TE plan?

Kevin Gemmell: I don't think it's as much the actual playbook as it is the players -- specifically what Coby Fleener was able to do in the offense and the way he could exploit almost every defender who tried to cover him. Stanford has other tight ends -- but no one who is 6-foot-6, 250 pounds and out-run cornerbacks and out-jump safeties. Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz will continue to bring what they bring -- phenomenal athleticism for their size -- but neither is as fast as Fleener. And to their credit, I think Ertz has better hands than Fleener and I think Toilolo was a better blocker. That's what made the three of them so great. No one on the roster has Fleener's rare combination of size and speed. I do think we'll see some special packages with Ryan Hewitt as a third tight end and Geoff Meinken at fullback. And we have to see if David Dudchock steps up. I don't think the scheme is going to change -- but without Fleener splitting the middle on the deep go route, it's not going to look as pretty.


Scott in Redwood City, Calif., writes: No, I haven't been predicting a national championship for the 2012 Card. However, I do think they'll be darn good, maybe even great. And then I heard it mentioned somewhere that Tennessee - in its first season without Peyton Manning - won the national title in 1998. So, would you care to get me all goofy and tell me how many other parallels there are between the '98 Vols and '12 Card?

Kevin Gemmell: Well, hmmm. Tennessee started the year ranked No. 10 in the AP poll. I'd imagine Stanford will be anywhere between 10-15. Both teams are/were pro-style offenses. Tennessee faced the No. 2 team in the country in Week 2. Stanford might face the No. 2 team in the country in Week 3. Uhm, let's see... both schools have well-regarded women's basketball programs ... "S" and "T" are consecutive letters in the alphabet ... I don't know. I got nothing else ... have fun with that one, though.


John in Phoenix writes: All things being equal, wouldn't it make more sense to give Brett Nottingham the nod to be the starter over Josh Nunes given he has another year of eligibility?

Kevin Gemmell: In my experience, all things being equal rarely happens. One of the two will step up (or slip up) in the fall and someone will emerge as the starter. I'm just not sure which one. I've heard good things (and bad) about both from people in the know. My best guess though, is that whoever wins it will be keeping it warm for Ryan Burns. If they approach Burns the way they did Andrew Luck, he'll sit out his first year, which means he won't take the helm until 2014. Eligibility won't matter by that point. If you're Stanford, you want to win now and continue to capitalize on the momentum of back-to-back BCS appearances and a monster recruiting class. If that means swapping quarterbacks in consecutive years, so be it. Do what you can to win now and keep the ball rolling.


Alan in Palo Alto writes: Any plans to retire Luck's number?

Kevin Gemmell: None that I've heard, but you have to imagine it's coming -- and the sooner the better. From here on out, there should only be one No. 12 in the minds of Stanford fans.

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.
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 ESPN.com’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."
INDIANAPOLIS -- At an appearance at Lucas Oil Stadium this evening, Andrew Luck said people smarter than him would be deciding on whether Coby Fleener was the guy for the Colts at No. 34.

Fleener
Fleener
Those people, led by general manager Ryan Grigson, decided Luck’s Stanford teammate was, in fact, the right guy.

Fleener is the team’s second-round pick, and will be a prime target for Luck just as he was in college.

The Colts have a couple dependable receivers in Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie. Beyond that, they’ve got a reclamation project in Donnie Avery and a tight end who’s more a blocker than a receiver in Brody Eldridge.

Fleener is a giant get and fits perfectly with the idea of surrounding Luck with weapons who will maximize his chances at success.

I wasn’t alone in being surprised he made it out of the first round.

Now I expect the Colts will start to look for defenders as they have major holes at cornerback, defensive tackle and linebacker.
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?

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