Stanford Football 2012: Offensive and Defensive Strengths and Weaknesses
Stanford has surprised many college football fans with its ascension to the nation's elite in the past several seasons. This rise has been accompanied by some great coaches, such as Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw, as well as some outstanding players, such as Andrew Luck and Jonathan Martin.
In 2012, Stanford will have to move on after losing some of their best players to the NFL. While losing those players has certainly created some weaknesses for the Cardinal, Head Coach David Shaw has a lot of strengths to be optimistic about.
Though the Cardinal's performance may drop off a bit from the elite level they have been playing at since 2009, they should still prove to be one of the nation's best teams.
With that being said, let's take a look at Stanford's offensive and defensive strengths and weaknesses heading into the 2012 season.
Strength: Running Back
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Losing star quarterback Andrew Luck will be a big hit to the Stanford offense in 2012. While Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes are both talented candidates to replace Luck under center, they lack experience and will likely ease into the position by relying on their ground attack.
Stepfan Taylor is a great back who has been consistently productive since the departure of Toby Gerhart in 2009. The senior rushed for more than 1,000 yards in both 2010 and 2011. Last season, he totaled 1,330 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. Taylor should become the leader of the Cardinal offense as one of their only veteran skill players in 2012.
The loss of backup running back Tyler Gaffney to the Major League Baseball draft is a big blow to the Cardinal's backfield depth. Gaffney totaled 449 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground last year. However, Stanford also has the talented junior Anthony Wilkerson to help Taylor carry the load in 2012. Wilkerson rushed for 282 yards and three touchdowns last season.
Weakness: Inexperience on Offense
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Stanford fans will be seeing plenty of new faces on their Cardinal's offense in 2012. Under center, Stanford loses three-year starter Andrew Luck, who is now an Indianapolis Colt. Sophomore Brett Nottingham, who appears to be the front runner to replace Luck, has only attempted eight passes in a Cardinal uniform. Junior Josh Nunes should compete with Nottingham throughout the summer for the starting job. However, Nunes has only attempted two passes in his time at Stanford. Both candidates show a lot of potential, but their lack of experience could be a problem.
The receiving corps will also take a big hit in 2012. Explosive wide receiver Chris Owusu is gone, as well as the sure-handed Griff Whalen. Perhaps the biggest blow, however, comes with the loss of tight end Coby Fleener. The deceptively athletic Fleener had an outstanding season in 2011, hauling in 10 touchdowns. Whalen, Owusu and Fleener were Stanford's top three receivers in 2011. While two solid tight ends and the up-and-coming receiver Ty Montgomery return in 2012, Stanford's receiving corps is quite inexperienced and lacks any real star power.
The offensive line also loses two All-Pac-12 players in David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin, who are now both in the NFL. While David Yankey and Cameron Fleming impressed as freshmen last year, Stanford still has some work to do up front. The most starting experience anyone has on the offensive line is one year. Center Sam Schwartzstein is the only returning senior. The talent is certainly there, but the big boys need new leaders to emerge in 2012.
Strength: Tight End
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Stanford had arguably the best group of tight ends in the country in 2011. While they've lost the true star of the group in Coby Fleener, David Shaw still has plenty of talent at tight end.
Levine Toilolo is a matchup nightmare. The 6'8" and 263 pound junior possesses size that is nearly impossible to stop in the red zone. In 2011, Toilolo caught 25 passes for 343 yards and six touchdowns. Look for his reception count to increase dramatically in the absence of Coby Fleener as an excellent red zone target for his new quarterback.
Returning to join Toilolo is senior Zach Ertz. Ertz has established himself as a key part of Stanford's offense over the last couple of years, totaling 43 receptions for 543 yards and nine touchdowns since the beginning of the 2010 season. Like Toilolo, he has great size at 6'6", 249-pounds. Ertz is an effective blocker as well as a talented receiver and should continue his success in 2012.
Weakness: No Speed on Offense
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It may not seem like it, but the loss of wide receiver Chris Owusu is one of the biggest hits to the Stanford offense in 2012. Owusu was Stanford's only real deep threat in 2011, and the Cardinal struggled when he was on the sideline with injuries. Tight end Coby Fleener, a huge receiving threat in 2011, also possessed deceptive 4.5 speed, significantly faster than returning tight ends Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz.
The lack of a vertical threat on offense should continue to be a problem in 2012. Without Owusu and Fleener, Ty Montgomery is the Cardinal's only effective pass-catching speedster. He must emerge as Stanford's go-to receiver, or else defenses will be able to stack the box against the run in the absence of a significant deep threat.
While Stefan Taylor is certainly talented, his 4.57 speed leaves a lot to be desired. He gets the job done running between the tackles and moving the ball behind his strong offensive line, but he won't leave many defenders in the dust on his way to the end zone.
Even Andrew Luck showed great mobility last year. He displayed his solid 4.59 speed at the NFL combine, which is quite impressive for a quarterback. That mobility was valuable, as Luck was often active in the pocket, and was always a threat to take off and run. Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes are both notably slower than Luck, each hovering around 4.8 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
The lack of speed at each of Stanford's skill positions should prove to be a big challenge in 2012.
Strength: Offensive Line
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Stanford's offensive line has been one of the nation's best for the past several years. This year should be no different. While it loses two All-Pac-12 players in Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro, the Cardinal's front five will return plenty of talent in 2012.
Tackles David Yankey and Cameron Fleming both earned First Team Freshman All-America honors in 2011. These young studs show no signs of slowing down, and should emerge as two of the best tackles in the conference in 2012.
Senior center Sam Schwartzstein will also return for the 2012 season. He is the veteran of the group and should become, along with Yankey and Fleming, a true leader on the Stanford offense. Schwartzstein will be joined on the inside by solid junior guards Khalil Wilkes and Kevin Danser.
While this offensive line lacks a ton of experience, as the most seasoned players only have one full season as starters under their belt, it possesses enough talent to be one of the nation's better front walls in 2012. This is key, as their excellent pass protection will help ease in the Cardinal's new quarterback.
Weakness: Wide Receiver
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Ty Montgomery is an exciting young player with a lot of potential. The 6'2" and 205 sophomore possesses great size for a wide receiver, as well as excellent 4.4 speed. He impressed last season as a true freshman, hauling in 24 passes for 350 yards. Montgomery is expected to become Stanford's number one receiver for years to come.
But after Montgomery, who are Stanford's weapons on the outside? Senior Jamal-Rashad Patterson has only caught nine passes for 104 yards in his three seasons at Stanford. He also lacks discipline, as he showed in 2010 when he was ejected from the Big Game for punching a Cal player before the opening kickoff.
Senior Drew Terrell is another candidate to join Montgomery on the outside. While he has been dangerous in the return game, he lacks great size and only caught eight passes in 2011.
Without an effective compliment to Montgomery, it is hard to see Stanford's outside passing game being very successful in 2012. Look for the Cardinal's new quarterback to rely heavily on his tight ends in the upcoming season.
Strength: Front Seven
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Stanford's front seven is probably the team's best unit. The only significant loss entering the 2012 season is defensive end Matt Masifilo, and the unit contains multiple potential All-Americans.
The Cardinal's 3-4 scheme returns a pair of starters on the defensive line. Defensive end Ben Gardner earned Second Team All-Pac-12 honors in 2011, totaling 10 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. The junior should only improve on that production in 2012.
Joining Gardner is senior nose tackle Terrence Stephens, who is entering his second season as a starter. Stephens has excellent upper body strength, and should be effective filling holes in the middle. Two promising ends in Josh Mauro and Henry Anderson will battle to replace Matt Masifilo opposite Gardner.
Stanford's linebacking corps is one of the best in the nation. Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov comprise one of the best inside-outside duos around, and both could earn All-American honors in 2012. Thomas tallied 17.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks in 2011. Skov, who missed most of last season after he injured his ACL, will be itching to get back to his 2010 form. He was arrested for a DUI earlier this off-season, but David Shaw recently announced that he will only be suspended for one game.
Aside from Thomas and Skov, Stanford has plenty of talented linebackers. Junior Jarek Lancaster impressed as Skov's replacement last season, finishing with a team high 70 tackles. Sophomores A.J. Tarpley and James Vaughters are also extremely promising young players who will help out on the inside.
Opposite Thomas on the outside will be junior Trent Murphy, who also impressed last season with 10 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. Murphy is even bigger and stronger than Thomas, and should become one of the conference's most fearsome pass-rushers in 2012.
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Stanford's secondary had a disappointing year in 2011, finishing 95th nationally in pass defense. The unit intercepted only seven passes all year. On top of their unimpressive performance last season, the defensive backfield must replace starting cornerback Johnson Bademosi and both starting safeties in Delano Howell and Michael Thomas.
If the Cardinal are going to improve on their weak pass defense, they need several new players to step up. Junior cornerback Barry Browning will likely become the starter opposite fellow junior Terrence Brown. Browning started three games last year, and possesses great 6'1" size for a cornerback. Brown will need to improve on his solid 2011 campaign, in which he recorded 43 tackles. While both Browning and Brown can certainly get the job done, neither possesses elite coverage skills on the outside.
The wildcard at cornerback is freshman Wayne Lyons. A highly touted 4-star recruit in 2011, Lyons redshirted last season after an early injury cut his season short. He seems to be the most special player of the the group, and I believe he has the potential to emerge as Stanford's number one cornerback as early as the end of the 2012 season. Keep an eye on him as the season progresses.
At safety, Stanford has very little experience to work with. Sophomore Jordan Richards is the favorite to replace Delano Howell. Richards recorded 31 stops while filling in for Howell when he was injured in 2011. He should compete with fellow sophomore Ed Reynolds to earn the starting strong safety position.
At free safety, the Cardinal must replace Michael Thomas. Sophomore Kyle Olugbode and Junior Devon Carrington will compete for this job. Carrington is the favorite, as he has more experience. However, that experience is still limited, and it may take some time for him to ease into the position.
With plenty of fresh faces in a struggling secondary, the Cardinal will likely have to rely on their front seven to shut down the run in 2012. The lack of significant experience and star power in the secondary make it hard to believe that the Cardinal defensive backfield will improve on their poor performance anytime soon.