Stanford Football: Jim Harbaugh

When the San Francisco 49ers hold their local pro day next Friday, 14 former Stanford football players will be in attendance, according to a source.

From the 2013 Stanford team, the list includes S Devon Carrington, OG Kevin Danser, OT Cameron Fleming, RB Tyler Gaffney, DE Ben Gardner, FB Ryan Hewitt, OLB Trent Murphy, S Ed Reynolds, ILB Shayne Skov, RB Anthony Wilkerson, OL Khalil Wilkes and OG David Yankey.

The entire group was recruited to Stanford when 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was the head coach. Fleming and Yankey are the only players not to play in a game for Harbaugh -- they both redshirted in 2010, the coach's final season.

Defensive end Josh Mauro is expected to be there late because he will be returning from a trip to New York, where he will meet with the Giants, according to an NFL source. He will not work out with the 49ers, but met and had lunch with Harbaugh at the NFL combine.

Wide receiver Jamal-Rashad Patterson and cornerback Terrence Brown, both of whom did not land on NFL rosters as rookies last season, will also work out. Brown graduated, but left with a year of eligibility remaining and was among the Cincinnati Bengals' first round of cuts during training camp. Patterson was not in a training camp last year.

It is unclear how many will work out. In the past, some of the high-profile draft prospects from Stanford have attended this event in street clothes.

Criteria for the local pro day stipulates the players must have either played at a local college or have a hometown connection to the area. Several players are also expected from San Jose State and California.

Former USC defensive end Morgan Breslin (Walnut Creek Las Lomas), Boise State quarterback Joe Southwick (Danville San Ramon Valley) and San Jose State quarterback David Fales will be among those in attendance, according to sources.

An official list with the complete list of attendees has not been made public. There is usually about 50 players on hand for the event, few of whom have a legitimate chance at being drafted. The event is tailored more for for players looking to earn a camp invitation.

Former Stanford safety Michael Thomas is an example of a player who attended the 49ers local pro day, didn't get drafted, signed as a free agent and then made the team's practice squad. He was eventually added to the Dolphins' 53-man roster after spending nearly two full seasons with the 49ers.

Stanford quarterbacks coach and former player Tavita Pritchard participated at the 49ers' local pro day in 2012. Pritchard, then a defensive assistant at Stanford, had not played football since 2009, but was brought out primarily to throw passes.
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
We continue our look at Stanford's top-5 impactful recruiting classes of the past decade.

No. 4: 2010

On signing day in 2010, coach Jim Harbaugh made it clear he had high expectations for the group.

[+] EnlargeDavid Yankey
AP Photo/Rob HoltDavid Yankey is leaving early for the NFL, but the Class of 2010 has helped the Cardinal go to four straight BCS bowls.
"Across all positions, this signing class is full of playmakers that possess athleticism and explosiveness that will help us reach multiple Pac-10 championships and a national championship," he said.

With Pac-12 championships the last two seasons, he was proved partially correct. It's easy to argue the class of 2010 deserves to be ranked even higher -- through four years, the group has appeared in four BCS bowls.

If the remaining fifth-year seniors provide a major impact on a team that has comparable success, it could move up the list.

For now, though, the group hasn't made the same impact in Stanford's success as a few others.

Three players -- OG David Yankey, OT Cameron Fleming and S Ed Reynolds -- were good enough to early for the NFL, but lightly-recruited LB A.J. Tarpley is back for his fourth year as a starter. They headline the group along with DE Henry Anderson and K Jordan Williamson.

The four players who played as true freshmen -- DE Blake Lueders, RB Anthony Wilkerson, S Devon Carrington and Barry Browning -- all had their moments, but none were full-time starters last season. Of that group, only Lueders will be on the roster in 2014 (he missed the 2012 season with an injury). He is expected to start.

Three players -- RB Ricky Seale, Joe Hemschoot and TE Eddie Plantaric -- have yet to make a significant impact but are competing for roles in their fifth years.

OL Cole Underwood, WR Keanu Nelson, OL Dillon Bonnell and TE Davis Dudchock all had eligibility remaining, but chose not to return for the fifth seasons. None of them figured to have a significant role on the team.

Four others -- QB Brett Nottingham, QB/WR Darren Daniels, DL Alex Turner and LB Cleophus Robinson -- transferred to other schools.

Countdown

No. 5: 2006
We begin a look at Stanford's top-5 impactful recruiting classes of the past decade.

No. 5: 2006

[+] EnlargeToby Gerhart
Harry How/Getty ImagesToby Gerhart helped turn Stanford's program into one of the nation's best.
Bring up the name Walt Harris on the Stanford campus, and there's a decent chance it will elicit a blank stare.

His stint as the Cardinal's head coach was about as memorable as The Sandlot 2 and, for those who remember him, his name still carries a He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named vibe. It can be argued that the most positive part of Harris' tenure was that he was so bad so quickly that it allowed former athletic director Bob Bowlsby to fire him after just two seasons and bring in Jim Harbaugh.

That's not to say Harris didn't leave some lasting positive contributions. His final recruiting class checks in at No. 5, and the 2007 class, which he laid the groundwork for, will appear later this week.

As far as star power goes, few classes will ever rival the two names that headline the Class of 2006: Toby Gerhart and Richard Sherman.

Gerhart finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting in 2009 and led the Cardinal to its first winning season since 2001. Perhaps more than any other player, he helped develop the program's current reputation for toughness.

Sherman's impact at Stanford doesn't match what it has been in the NFL, but the one-time receiver's association with the program is still paying dividends. He's a regular at Stanford games during Seahawks bye weeks and a frequent visitor in the offseason.

Gerhart wasn't around for a fifth year in 2010, but his remaining classmates were a part of one of the best Stanford teams of all time. The Cardinal finished 12-1 and routed Virginia Tech 40-12 in the Orange Bowl, which began a string of four straight appearances in BCS bowls.

Other notable players from the class include DT Sione Fua, a second-round NFL draft pick in 2011, DE Brian Bulcke, now in the Canadian Football League and OL Derek Hall, who spent a year on the 49ers practice squad.
Headed into his fifth year at Stanford this past season, Josh Mauro's future as a football player was unclear. The defensive end had never been a starter, wasn't slated to become one and largely represented depth on one of the nation's best defenses.

While not exactly the profile of a future NFL player, Mauro still had hope.

[+] EnlargeJosh Mauro
George Frey/Getty ImagesFormer Stanford DE Josh Mauro had a breakout season for the Cardinal in 2013.
"After my redshirt junior year, I heard from different people that I'd have a chance [at the NFL]," he said. "I was told I had the body for the NFL and put some good stuff on film, but just wasn't consistent at times."

While consistency showed up as a potential flaw, it had more to do with opportunity than ability. He was stuck behind Henry Anderson and Ben Gardner -- two players with NFL futures of their own -- and so long as his playing time came intermittently, consistency was a tough fix.

That changed following the third game of the 2013 season, when Anderson went down with a knee injury that cost him the next five games. It was a minor setback for Anderson's career but provided a major opportunity for Mauro.

He took advantage.

"Once he got more playing time, he actually got better playing in games to the point where I told multiple people in the NFL, 'He's going to play and he's going to be on somebody's team,'" Stanford coach David Shaw said. "He's got the ability to do it, he's got the physical nature to do it. Especially for a lot of these 3-4 teams in the NFL, he's a good fit for those guys."

Mauro's impact was noticeable even before Anderson went down, but when he saw regular playing time, those consistency issues went away. Anderson's return against Oregon on Nov. 7 coincided with a season-ending injury to Gardner, which kept Mauro in the starting lineup the rest of the season.

The Texas native finished the year with 51 total tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and four sacks and was a midseason add to the watch list for the Bednarik Award, given to the best defensive player in college football.

"I would describe Josh as the anchor of our defense. So much of what guys like [linebacker] Trent Murphy and I were able to do was a result of Josh being so disruptive on the line of scrimmage," linebacker Shayne Skov said. "He was able to hold the edge and keep guys off of us so we could run free and make plays. On top of that, he made a ton of impact plays himself, especially in big games."

Mauro's season earned him an NFL combine invite, but he left Indianapolis with mixed feelings about his performance. He was happy with his performances in the vertical jump (32 inches), broad jump (116 inches) and three-cone drill (7.43 seconds) but fell short of his goals in the 40-yard dash (5.21) and bench press (21 reps).

The 40-yard dash time and bench press will be two of his priorities at Stanford's pro day on March 20, but the big change will be his weight. Mauro dropped 10 to 15 pounds from his playing weight and tipped the scales at 271 in Indianapolis, but he plans on adding that weight back with a more regular diet. He said he doesn't think it will affect his explosiveness and will feel more comfortable.

Among the coaches Mauro met with at the combine were Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, who served as the Cardinal's co-defensive coordinator in 2011, and former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers.
STANFORD, Calif. -- Richard Sherman has kept a consistent presence around the Stanford football program since being drafted in 2011, but Tuesday's visit to spring practice was a little different.

He returned a Super Bowl champion.

The All-Pro cornerback is part of a group of several NFL players -- including Andrew Luck, Zach Ertz and Jonathan Martin -- back on campus as part of a coordinated trip. More than 20 are expected back at some point to train together and take advantage of the program's new alumni locker room, which was part of a $21-million addition to the Arrillaga Family Sports Center completed in October.

"It's unbelievable, man," Sherman said. "It feels nice to have somewhere to go when you come here. You don't have to borrow or bum any of the young guys' lockers."

That Stanford has a designated area for NFL players is symbolic in the program's rise.

"It's a testament to a lot of groups of guys. It's testament to the group of guys that came before us who set the groundwork for us," Sherman said. "Jim Harbaugh did a heck of a job changing the culture and changing the mindset and also the players now."

Sherman's arrival was good timing, too. The Cardinal are still without a full-time defensive backs coach following Derek Mason's departure for Vanderbilt and are in the process of converting Kodi Whitfield from receiver to safety. Sherman made a similar change, albeit to corner, while he was at Stanford.

The Seahawks star spoke with Whitfield and other defensive backs about technique during position drills and watched from the sideline during team drills.

"He's trying not to coach from the sidelines, but he can't help himself sometimes," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "Just the fact that he's here, just the fact that he's around kind of reaffirms why some of these guys are here."

Sherman said he would like to get into coaching after his NFL career is over, but said he's more interested in the high school level.

He will spend the majority of his offseason in Seattle, but, along with several others, plans on being a visitor to his old home.

Stanford looks to sustain success

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STANFORD, Calif. -- As Stanford players jogged off the practice field Monday evening, nothing stood out in particular. Significant only because it marked the first spring practice of the year, and it had the look and feel of just another day on the Farm.

Maybe temperatures don't always hover around 70 degrees until just past sunset in late February, but there was no fanfare or anything ceremonious about the day.

In that respect, nothing has changed over the past five years.

[+] EnlargeJames Vaughters
AP Photo/Rob HoltJames Vaughters spurned the SEC to join a Stanford team that, at the time of his commitment, was just beginning its upswing.
"It was a good start. The tempo I thought was outstanding for a first day, which is always what you're looking for when you lose so many seniors," coach David Shaw said. "It wasn't perfect, of course, but it was fast and that's what we were looking for Day 1."

As the only program to play in BCS bowls the past four seasons, there is no denying Stanford's place in the current hierarchy of college football. Any list of the nation's elite must include the Cardinal or it would be incomplete.

In that respect, everything has changed.

Former coach Jim Harbaugh recruited with an offer for a world-class education and the chance to turn things around. When Stanford signed outgoing fifth-year seniors such as Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Ben Gardner and Ryan Hewitt in 2009, it did so following a 5-7 season.

That group leaves Stanford not knowing what it's like to be a part of a losing team.

Only the 13 fifth-year seniors on the spring roster were on the 2010 team, Harbaugh's last season, and only defensive end Blake Leuders saw action that season. They're the last group that bought into a program that had yet to play in a major bowl game and, as a byproduct of that, the first not to miss one.

Senior outside linebacker James Vaughters is in a different boat. He spurned several SEC offers and left his home state of Georgia to sign with Stanford following its Orange Bowl victory to cap the 2010 season.

"They showed me they were just as committed to winning as the schools that were recruiting me from the South," Vaughters said.

He got what he signed up for.

"If you see success, it's a challenge to sustain it," Vaughters said. "It's a matter of finding a formula that works. When you have so many guys that started for so many years, we just have to find our way to be successful."

One could worry about a sense of entitlement creeping into a program with as much success as the Cardinal has experienced over the past four years, but both Vaughters and Shaw didn't seem to think that it would be a problem.

Shaw pointed to senior running back Ricky Seale as an example.

"[Last year] he would just be on the sidelines on his toes," Shaw said. "So now we have the anxiety and that energy because they all want a chance to play. I think we're in a great spot because we're going to get their best because they all want to get on the field."

Senior receiver Ty Montgomery (knee) and senior nose tackle David Parry (midsection) will both miss the first session of two spring sessions with minor injuries.

Backup quarterback Ryan Burns will miss the first session to due a disciplinary reason, according to Shaw.

Shaw has still not hired a defensive backs coach, but he said it "should be solved in the next week or so." For the time being, graduate assistant Marc Mattioli will coach defensive backs.

NFL has unrequited love for David Shaw

February, 12, 2014
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ESPN.com Insider Ryan Magee looks at some of the college coaches who are most coveted by the NFL, and it's not surprising that Stanford coach David Shaw is high on his list.

Shaw has won big at Stanford, has NFL experience and worked with Jim Harbaugh, who's been successful with the San Francisco 49ers.

Writes Magee:
To many, what gives Shaw the edge over [Texas A&M coach Kevin] Sumlin is his prior NFL experience. He played at Stanford for Dennis Green and Bill Walsh and spent nearly a decade in the NFL as quarterbacks coach with the Eagles, Raiders and Ravens. Pair that with his Harbaugh tutelage and the meteoric rise of former pupil Andrew Luck and you see where he might be attractive to those who work behind the shield.

Last month, former Washington Redskins general manager Charley Casserly spelled out the importance of NFL experience to the team's website: "I think if he’s been a pro assistant and understands the pro game, and therefore has connections within the league to hire a staff -- which is crucial -- and understands how to build an organization in the NFL to include the draft, salary cap, dealing with ownership, those are all things you want."

But the NFL might just have to continue pining for Shaw. He has repeatedly said he loves coaching at Stanford, his alma mater, and could envision it being his last job. While a lot of coaches say stuff like that, Shaw seems to do so with a bit more sincerity. For one, he's already had plenty of A-list opportunities to leave -- at the college and NFL level -- which he has politely declined.

Notes Magee:
Not so coincidentally, [Washington's NFL team] tried to woo Shaw to replace Mike Shanahan only to be politely rebuffed with a reminder from Shaw’s representatives that he is perfectly happy at his alma mater.

Of course, you never say never. It's difficult for coaches to stay in one place for decades. More often than not, one side of the marriage between coach and institution sours on the arrangement. There are no sure things.

But when you talk to Shaw and those who know him well, it seems that his marriage with Stanford remains strong and mutually gratifying with no reason to believe that will change in the near future.
Get this. Stanford’s Lance Anderson actually wanted to be a defensive coordinator in the Pac-12. Crazy, right? Biletnikoff winners to lose sleep over; Doak Walker finalists dashing and gashing for 20 yards a pop; and All-American offensive linemen that must be displaced. Oh, the humanity.

“There are some pretty good quarterbacks, too,” says Anderson.

Oh yeah, the quarterbacks.

[+] EnlargeLance Anderson
Peyton Williams/Getty ImagesLance Anderson, who has been on Stanford's staff since 2007, will have to replace some big names on the Cardinal's 2014 defense.
Anderson has his wish. With the departure of Derek Mason, who was named the head coach of Vanderbilt last month, Anderson takes over one of the most respected defensive outfits in all of college football. The Cardinal have led the conference in scoring defense and been ranked in the top 15 nationally in three of the last four years. They live by the mantra #partyinthebackfield and have put the brakes on some of the nation’s top offenses.

Now it’s Anderson’s turn to add his own flavor to the scheme -- however minor it might be.

“Every year we tweak a little bit no matter what,” said Anderson, who first came to Stanford in 2007 with Jim Harbaugh. “We go back and watch film and do all of our self-scouting and analysis. We try to find places where we can get better and improve and that’s naturally going to lead to tweaking. I think every coordinator has a different feel and some stuff you might like a little better than the other guy.

“We’ve been in a system for a few years now and I think the kids are really comfortable with that. They like it. And I think the systems we’re in on both sides of the ball suit our personnel really well. Vic Fangio came in in 2010, installed the system at that point and we’ve kept it pretty similar ever since.”

That includes transitions from Fangio to the co-defensive coordinator team of Jason Tarver and Mason to just Mason and now to Anderson, who will continue to work with the outside linebackers after coaching the defensive tackles his first two seasons on The Farm.

Equally known as a top-flight recruiter, Anderson must now help the Cardinal transition to life without some of their marquee players. Gone next year are linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, defensive end Ben Gardner and safety Ed Reynolds. All were major contributors in one form or another to Stanford’s appearances in four straight BCS bowl games.

Despite those losses, Anderson is confident the Cardinal have the depth -- both in and out of the locker room -- to stay atop the defensive standings.

“I look at guys like A.J. Tarpley and Jordan Richards who have played a lot of football and they really stand out,” Anderson said. “Both guys display some natural leadership and they are well-respected by their teammates. Henry Anderson and David Parry are a couple of other guys who are really looked up to among the defensive players. I think we’ll be OK.”

Interestingly enough, the Pac-12 has seen the defensive coordinators from the top five scoring defenses move on after the 2013 season. Mason went to Vanderbilt, Nick Aliotti retired at Oregon, Justin Wilcox moved to USC with Steve Sarkisian, Lou Spanos returned to the NFL and Clancy Pendergast was not retained with the Trojans after Sarkisian came in. Three of those were replaced internally, with Anderson, Don Pellum (Oregon) and Jeff Ulbrich (UCLA) all being promoted. Pete Kwiatkowski joins Chris Petersen in Washington by way of Boise State and Wilcox followed Sark. So despite the transitions, the continuity among coaching staffs remains relatively unscathed.

However, that combination of coordinator shuffling, along with some A-list offensive players returning in 2014, makes for an interesting setup. The Pac-12 is known for its offensive diversity, and when you factor in the possibility of nine teams returning their starting quarterback, the dice seem loaded to the offensive side of the ball.

“There is a lot of offensive talent in this league and it doesn’t look like that’s going to slow down,” Anderson said. “The quarterbacks all have experience. It’s not going to be easy.

“We know that every week we are going to be tested. All we can do is try to go out and learn the techniques and the fundamentals and get the physical and mental mastery of the position. Once we get that in spring ball and the preseason, it’s just matter of going out and applying what we’ve learned during the season. Every week is going to be different. All we can do is prepare the best we can, master the position and try to apply it on Saturdays in the fall.”
Stanford coach David Shaw's decision to promote Lance Anderson to defensive coordinator should come as a surprise to exactly no one.

If there is anything Shaw has shown in his previous hires, it's that he likes to promote from within and strives to have continuity within the program. Choosing Anderson to replace Derek Mason, who left last week to become the head coach at Vanderbilt, fits the mold established with his initial coordinator hires of Pep Hamilton and Mason and last year's promotion of Mike Bloomgren.

The only coordinator hire that came from outside the program in Shaw's tenure was when he named current Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver the co-coordinator with Mason in 2011. Tarver was at Stanford for just that season, in which Mason still served as the play caller.

Shaw and Anderson are the only coaches who remain from Jim Harbaugh's initial staff at Stanford in 2007. Both made the jump with Harbaugh from the University of San Diego.

In all likelihood, this move was at least a year in the making. Anderson reportedly turned down the chance to become the defensive coordinator at South Florida a year ago under Willie Taggart, another former Harbaugh staff member, to remain at Stanford. It was clear then that Mason would land a head-coaching gig sooner rather than later, which makes it reasonable to assume Shaw and Anderson discussed the possibility that he'd be the eventual replacement.

That's roughly how it played out when Bloomgren was elevated from offensive line coach/run game coordinator when Hamilton took the offensive coordinator job with the Colts. In fact, Shaw and Bloomgren discussed the potential for that to eventually happen before he hired him in 2011.

With Anderson's promotion official, Stanford still has three spots to fill on its staff.

In addition to Mason, Shaw needs to replace Mike Sanford, who left to become Boise State's offensive coordinator, and inside linebackers coach David Kotulski, who will serve as Mason's defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt.

Tavita Pritchard shifted from running backs coach to quarterbacks coach immediately after Sanford left, which means the Cardinal is currently without coaches for its running backs, inside linebackers, defensive backs and does not have an official recruiting coordinator.

Even at the top, Mason still scrapping

December, 31, 2013
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Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason played cornerback at Northern Arizona, and he'd rate as short for the position even at an FCS school. He's compact and powerfully built, but you'd suspect that more than a few receivers took one look at his 5-foot-8 frame and thought, "I am going to steal his lunch money and send him home to his mommy in tears."

Some of those guys got the best of him, no doubt. The Lumberjacks never posted a winning record while Mason, a two-year starter, was on the team. But Mason made sure their afternoon wasn't easy, and that they'd remember him the next morning when they crawled out of bed and needed an aspirin or four.

"I felt like I was tough. I felt like I was physical. I felt like I competed all the time," he said. "I felt like because of my size I played [with] a big chip on my shoulder, mad all the time, mad at everybody. Mad at receivers, tight ends. So I played angry."

[+] EnlargeDerek Mason
AP Photo/Damian DovarganesDefensive coordinator Derek Mason has helped Stanford become one of the top defenses in the nation by, as his players say, doing a "tremendous job of explaining what we do and why we're doing it."
Mason's description of himself as a player surely will make those around the Stanford program smile, particularly those who play defense for him. Mason, 43, is a ball of compressed energy, a demanding guy who sees the entire field in a way that allows him to rapidly process both imperfections that mattered on a specific play and imperfections that didn't matter but might next time. He's not the sort who lets things slide, even when the ultimate result suggests proper execution to the casual observer.

"I think the best thing he does is he helps us stay motivated to show up every day for work," Cardinal All-American outside linebacker Trent Murphy said. "He never lets us get complacent or lets us get content. Some of our best games, as far as score-wise, our win margin, some of those games he gets furious. You would think we lost the game by the way he rips us apart after the game. He's always hungry and keeps us hungry, calls great plays and puts us in a great position to be successful, so you can't ask for anything more from a coach."

The ability to scheme, motivate and teach has made Mason into one of the nation's hottest defensive coordinators, yet his route to success at Stanford has been twisting. This is his 10th coaching stop since 1994. Stanford is the first time he has coached four consecutive seasons in the same place. With five of those coaching jobs, Mason was on the offensive side of the ball. A wide receivers coach at Ohio in 2005 and 2006, he jumped to the Minnesota Vikings to become an assistant defensive backs coach. It looked like the NFL was his future, but then Jim Harbaugh came calling in 2010.

"Anybody who has been around Jim Harbaugh knows he can sell anything," Mason said.

It proved an inspired decision to come West with Harbaugh, who had just hired Vic Fangio to switch Stanford from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4. Mason preferred a 3-4 himself -- the Vikings were using a 4-3 -- and Fangio helped him earn his Ph.D. in the scheme.

Of course, Stanford would go 12-1 that season, blowing out Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, and Harbaugh and Fangio would jump to the San Francisco 49ers. When David Shaw was promoted to head coach, he made Mason co-coordinator with Jason Tarver in 2011.

When Tarver left of the Oakland Raiders, Mason took sole control of the defense in 2012. It was Mason who solved Stanford's "Oregon Problem," not Fangio or Tarver. In 2010 and 2011, Stanford surrendered 105 points in losses to the Ducks. In 2012 and 2013, the Cardinal yielded 34 in victories.

"I think the sign of any good football coach at any position is the ability to have a philosophy and have a general scheme that you believe in," Shaw said. "But more importantly, to be able to teach that scheme and then fit the scheme around the players that you have and their talents. I think Derek has done that, and you've seen him do things for Shayne Skov, you've seen him do things for Trent Murphy, do things for Chase Thomas, do things to help Ed Reynolds shine. You put guys in positions to do things that they're good at."

Said Skov: "He does a tremendous job of explaining what we do and why we're doing it."

Stanford has led the Pac-12 in both scoring and rushing defense the past two seasons. Its 97 sacks over the past two seasons is five more than any other conference team. The Cardinal have held opponents to 20 or fewer points in 20 of their last 25 games, and have not allowed a foe to reach 30 points in their past 21 games. Rose Bowl foe Michigan State is the only team with a longer streak (26).

Mason's defense has a massive inventory -- at least for a college team -- of fronts, stunts and blitzes that makes it difficult for offenses to know what they are getting before the snap. The Cardinal's defense is big, athletic and physical at all three levels, but Mason's scheme also takes advantage of the intellect of football recruits who can get into Stanford. They simply can handle more information than a collection of players at just about every other FBS school. Michigan State's offensive players repeatedly talked about how Stanford's defense thrives on keep opponents off-balance.

"They do a great job of trying to confuse the offense," Spartans quarterback Connor Cook said. "They do a lot of different fronts and a lot of movements and stuff like that to try and confuse you."

Seven years ago, Mason was a receivers coach at Ohio. Now he's one of the nation's top defensive coordinators in the country.

The reason he jumped from point A to point B probably has a lot to do with him coaching the same way he played cornerback at Northern Arizona. He still sees that 6-4 receiver grinning at him, thinking he's about to grab some extra lunch money.

"I absolutely coach with a chip on my shoulder," Mason said. "I want these guys to be the best. There's not a day that goes by that my head hits the pillow that I'm not thinking of how we can get better, how these guys can get better, because that's what they came here to do."

Planning for success: Stanford

November, 7, 2013
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Stanford's preparation for Oregon has been several years in the making.

When Derek Mason arrived to coach the secondary under first-year defensive coordinator Vic Fangio in 2010, it was clear the Cardinal were on the uptick.

[+] EnlargeShayne Skov
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsBeing able to bring waves of talented players such as linebacker Shayne Skov allows Stanford to stay with Oregon in a place where most teams falter.
The team was coming off its first winning season since 2001, there was talent at every position group and next to No. 12 on the roster was the name Andrew Luck. Throw in the lack of depth in the conference, and the opportunity to compete for a Pac-10 title became very real.

One team stood between Stanford and that goal: Oregon.

And that was a problem because what plagued the conference also plagued Stanford's defense. While loaded with NFL talent, it lacked quality depth -- the very thing Mason identified as the key to slowing down the Ducks' offense.

Stanford jumped out to a 21-3 lead and led 31-24 at the half against Oregon that year, but as the game wore on, Stanford wore out. Never was it more clear to Mason that more guys needed to play – something that could only be justified if there wasn't a significant drop in talent.

Mason was named defensive coordinator that offseason following Fangio's departure to the NFL with Jim Harbaugh and immediately prioritized building a defense that could play in waves.

It wasn't an overnight solution. There was no overnight solution, but by the time Stanford returned to Eugene last season, that process was complete. The Cardinal stayed fresh enough to set the edge all game as it continuously rotated players through with little to no drop off.

The result was college football's defensive performance of the year in a 17-14 Stanford win.

Sound simple? It was.

In the offseason there were inquiries into Stanford's success in that game from both NFL and collegiate staffs, but Cardinal coach David Shaw could only laugh at times.

"I wouldn't say we found the keys to unlock the offense," he said. "We played really, really well. Guys were in position and made open-field tackles."

Despite losing defensive end Ben Gardner for the season, Stanford is in a similar position to where it was a season ago. The pieces are in place to stop Oregon -- it's just a matter of execution.

Stanford also has to like that it's coming off its two best defensive performances of the season, limiting the high-powered offenses of UCLA and Oregon State to 10 and 12 points, respectively.

"We're definitely playing our type of defense," sophomore cornerback Alex Carter said. "After that Utah game, we kind of re-juiced, re-focused, we got back to the fundamentals and put in re-emphasis on the way we play defense."

As good as those teams are, they're not Oregon. The Ducks rank No. 2 nationally in points per game (55.6) and rushing yards per game (331.5) and No. 8 in points allowed (16.9). Heisman candidate quarterback Marcus Mariota has 20 touchdown passes without an interception and hasn't been picked off since the loss to Stanford a year ago, a span of 10 games.

Oregon-Stanford: Respectful rivalry grows

November, 4, 2013
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David Shaw Russ Isabella/USA TODAY SportsStanford coach David Shaw is 1-1 against Oregon and 30-5 overall.

Stanford had just torn the hearts out of Oregon and its fans inside Autzen Stadium. The Ducks' unbeaten season had ended in shocking fashion. National championship hopes had been kicked to the curb.

"It's such an honor to come into this stadium and beat a phenomenal team," the Stanford quarterback said after the victory.

A gracious, classy and perhaps rare take from a college player. But no, that was not Kevin Hogan talking about the Cardinal's 17-14 overtime upset of the Ducks in Autzen Stadium last Nov. 17 that ruined the Ducks' drive for a berth in the 2012 national title game. It was Stanford's backup quarterback, Chris Lewis, talking about the Cardinal's 49-42 win in Autzen Stadium on Oct. 20, 2001, that ruined the Ducks' drive for a berth in that season's national championship game.

Lewis' postgame quote, however, generally sums up the Oregon-Stanford series, which Thursday night again will be the Pac-12 game of the year. There appears to be little animosity and a good dose of respect between the Ducks and Cardinal, who both own road wins as underdogs against each other in the past three years.

Though they are very different institutions, playing football in very different ways and, well, dressing very differently while doing so, the rivalry between the Pac-12's top two teams in the past four seasons doesn't include much ill will compared to the rivalries between Oregon and Washington and USC and UCLA.

Perhaps it should, at least in terms of what Stanford and Oregon have taken away from each other through the years, and not just during their recent and simultaneous rise to join the nation's elite.

Nine times since 1964, Stanford has handed Oregon its first defeat of the season. Twice it was the Ducks' only defeat. Without a loss to Stanford in 1995, the Ducks would have played in a second consecutive Rose Bowl in Mike Bellotti's first season.

Oregon has returned the favor of late as Stanford became nationally relevant. The Cardinal lost just one regular-season game in both 2010 and 2011. To Oregon.

Stanford's win in Autzen Stadium last year was shocking in many ways. The Ducks had owned the Cardinal and Andrew Luck the previous two years, so much so that in advance of the 2012 season, Stanford coach David Shaw openly admitted his team had an "Oregon problem," though he reasonably noted that the entire Pac-12 shared the Ducks conundrum.

Yet, as stunning as it was to witness the Cardinal shut down the Ducks' offense last November, the 2001 game eclipsed it 20-fold in terms of sheer nuttiness.

While some of Oregon's younger fans might not remember 2001, the older ones surely slapped their foreheads upon seeing the name "Chris Lewis" again. In that contest, the unbeaten and fifth-ranked Ducks were seemingly cruising, leading 42-28 in the fourth quarter at home, with Stanford quarterback Randy Fasani knocked out of the game in the second quarter.

But things went haywire in the fourth quarter, particularly on special teams, when Stanford blocked two punts and recovered an onside kick. Still, it appeared the Ducks would prevail 42-41 when they blocked the potentially game-tying PAT.

Unfortunately for Oregon, quarterback Joey Harrington was turning in his only poor performance of the season. On third-and-1 from Oregon's 30, Harrington was hit by safety Tank Williams, and his throw was picked off by diving defensive end Marcus Hoover at the 33 (it was Harrington's second interception of the game). After Stanford scored the go-ahead TD, Harrington, who had led nine fourth-quarter comebacks in his career and was popularly known as "Captain Comeback," threw four consecutive incompletions from the Cardinal 37.

The normally straightforward Associated Press report noted that the game "had everything but aliens landing on the Autzen Stadium turf."

Oregon, one of the earliest victims of a BCS controversy, went on to finish No. 2. Bellotti showed up at the Rose Bowl, host of the BCS title game, to watch Miami stomp overmatched Nebraska, a team that was blown out in the regular-season finale by Colorado, a team the Ducks had crushed in the Fiesta Bowl.

Yes, there were a fair share of what-ifs from the Ducks, not unlike last year, though it's worth remembering that Miami team was one college football's all-time great squads.

Of course, things were much different for both Oregon and Stanford in 2001. Neither team had established itself as a consistent national power. In fact, both would go through significant downturns thereafter, particularly Stanford.

In 2007, both programs made inspired decisions that inspired initial befuddlement among media and fans: Bellotti hired Chip Kelly away from New Hampshire, an FCS team, to coordinate his offense, and Jim Harbaugh was plucked away from San Diego, another FCS team, by Stanford. Harbaugh brought along Shaw to coordinate his offense.

As isolated events, the Stanford-Oregon game on Oct. 20, 2001, and some buzz-less coaching hires in 2007 didn't resonate nationally. But from a long-term view, they are notable dots to connect for what has become one of the nation's best and most meaningful rivalries.

Even if the teams don't provide much cartoonish trash talk to foment the hype.

Calm before Oregon-Stanford hype

October, 31, 2013
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Apologies to the eight Pac-12 teams playing this trick-or-treat week, but this slate of games really is a light murmur before the hype volume is turned up to 11 next week.

The conference's two highest-ranked teams -- No. 2 Oregon and No. 5 Stanford -- are not only off this week, they square off next Thursday in what should be the Pac-12 game of the year.

That doesn't mean there aren't games worth watching over the next three days. Arizona State will try to prove it can beat a solid team on the road Thursday night at Washington State. USC's visit to Oregon State is intriguing on Friday night. And there are always upset possibilities as Arizona and UCLA are heavy favorites at California and Colorado, respectively.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Mariota will have the opportunity to make a Heisman Trophy statement as well as put the Ducks in the top position in the Pac-12 race next Thursday at Stanford.
But those games won't attract eyeballs from all areas of the country the way the Ducks-Cardinal showdown will. Oregon will be trying to polish its national championship contender bona fides with its toughest test yet -- Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota also could make a Heisman Trophy statement, and Stanford will be trying to take control of the Pac-12's North Division, as it did last year when it shocked the heavily favored Ducks 17-14 in overtime in Autzen Stadium.

Still, the primary focus for both teams was and will be more on themselves this week. There's recruiting calls to make and injured guys needing to get treatment. Both teams have banged-up players whose presence could be critical for the matchup, most notably Stanford with defensive end Henry Anderson and receiver Devon Cajuste. Stanford already announced that defensive end Ben Gardner is out for the season with a pectoral injury.

Earnest game preparation won't begin until the weekend, as both teams are trying to stick to a typical game-week schedule.

Even though both coaches want to keep the emotions contained and treat the matchup like any other, there's no question that the buzz started on their respective campuses not long after each dispatched a tough opponent last Saturday, with the Cardinal winning 20-12 at Oregon State and Oregon running away from UCLA in the fourth quarter for a 42-14 victory.

"We know that it's there," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "The guys know what the game is going to be about."

The teams have split their last four meetings, with Stanford winning in 2009 and 2012. Shaw is 1-1 as the Cardinal head coach against the Ducks and he was 1-1 as the team's offensive coordinator under Jim Harbaugh. This will be Mark Helfrich's first taste as the Oregon head coach; he was the Ducks' offensive coordinator under Chip Kelly the previous four meetings.

While the game will be heated and the stakes high, Shaw and Helfrich seem to get along well. They chatted frequently during the Pac-12 meetings in May. They certainly have a lot in common, as both replaced charismatic former head coaches credited with creating a national power before bolting for the NFL.

And, yes, they talked about exactly that.

"Mark and I talked about that a couple of times," Shaw said. "I think he's done it perfectly. You have to completely take your ego out of it. So many people say from the outside, 'How are you going to make this your program?' You look at it and say, 'This is not my program, it's the kids' program.' Every decision you make is what's best for the kids. And if the scheme is great, who cares if they call it Chip Kelly's scheme? Or Jim Harbaugh's scheme? Whoever, it doesn't matter. The things that work, you don't change. The things that don't work, you take them out."

However, they won't be chatting much over the next six days.

Both coaches subscribed to the notion of nameless, faceless opponents and every game being equally big. That's what elite programs do. Preparation is always the same. Every game is big when conference and national titles are the chief goal.

But the fact is the Oregon-Stanford game is bigger, and has been now for going on four years. We know this because all of the college football nation will be tuning in a week from now, just as it did last year, and in 2011 and 2010.

David Shaw's NFL mentality

July, 25, 2013
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Stanford coach David Shaw had some interesting things to say to ESPN's Colin Cowherd in this podcast, which is definitely worth a listen.

Suffice it to say, Cowherd is a fan. He opens by noting that, unlike the SEC coaches who traveled with an entourage into the ESPN studios last week, Shaw just walks in solo.

"We travel light," Shaw explains.

Shaw talks about a variety of topics and issues, from his team to former Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh, to a good anecdote about Andrew Luck.

Cowherd is interested in the idea of an elite academic institution winning consistently at a high level. Said Shaw, "The smart guys win games. The guys who don't make mistakes."

I will admit Cowherd falls into one of my minor pet peeves comparing Stanford to other good academic schools doing well in football, such as Vanderbilt and Northwestern. Those are very nice schools, but they aren't Stanford. Each and every student at Northwestern or Vanderbilt would break into a full sprint out the door if Stanford offered admission.

And, of course, Stanford has gone 2-1 while playing three consecutive BCS bowl games, and is just a missed short field goal away from being 3-0. No other elite academic school even approaches that distinguished résumé.

Part of Shaw's selling point, however, isn't college and a Stanford diploma. His program is sending guys to the NFL at a very high rate.

"We approach everything with an NFL mentality," he said.

Further, Shaw isn't going anywhere. Consider this from Ivan Maisel's Pac-12-centric 3-point stance this week:
David Shaw, the head coach of defending Pac-12 champion Stanford, has avoided being seduced by praise for starting out 23-4. Shaw maintains that he returned to his alma mater with the intention to build a program over 20 years. In an age when coaches job-hop and the pressure to win can be excruciating, Shaw’s plan is so old-fashioned it’s almost quaint. It’s too soon to gauge history. But if Shaw stays and keeps winning, his hiring will be the example that every athletic director will try to emulate.

Stanford fans who can remember the years of struggle, and we're not just talking the Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris tenures, probably are still amazed by this recent run of success. That might wear off, though. It is threatening to become a long-term standard.

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