As spring football season draws to a close across the country, BlueandGold.com will be providing a breakdown of how things wrapped up for each of Notre Dame’s 2012 opponents courtesy of the reporters that cover them on a regular basis.
Can the Cardinal continue their recent streak of success without Andrew Luck under center?
Oct. 13, 2012 — 3:30 p.m. EST
Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind.
Head coach: David Shaw (11-2 record entering his second full season)
2011 record: 11-2
Stanford’s sustainability will be tested in 2012 now that both men who piloted their meteoric rise are in the NFL. Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck eased the transition last season when David Shaw took over for Jim Harbaugh as head coach and led the team to the Fiesta Bowl where they were a pair of missed field goals away from winning.
Luck’s absence is clearly the biggest gap on the roster this year, but Shaw and his Cardinal have to fill several other crucial positions to complement the strong foundation of the Pac-12 contenders. Luck’s favorite target, tight end Coby Fleener, joined him on the Indianapolis Colts roster and two of his starting linemen were also selected early in the NFL Draft.
Despite some uncertainty on the line and a heavier helping of playmakers at the wide receiver position, Stanford will stick to its run-first mentality on offense, says San Francisco Chronicle reporter Tom Fitzgerald. Who can blame them with a 1,300-yard rusher in senior Stepfan Taylor and a couple talented reserves?
“They’re still going to try to grind it out,” Fitzgerald said. “Last year it was about 50-50. This year with be more like 55-45 in favor of the run. If they can run it down your throat they won’t even try a pass.”
That philosophy is rare among offenses in the Pac-12 who like fast-paced, air-it-out attacks. Opposing passing attacks could be a problem for the Stanford secondary this year. Two senior safeties graduate leaving question marks at that position behind a very solid front seven. With offenses like USC and Oregon on the schedule, Stanford is going to struggle to get back in the BCS hunt this year.
Biggest Strength After Spring: Linebackers
Stanford had the third best rushing defense in the country in 2011, and that was without their best linebacker for most of the year. Senior Shayne Skov blew out his knee in the first month of the season and has yet to play since the injury. He is expected to be a major force in the middle when he returns after sitting out a game or two suspension for a DUI arrest in February.
Four-star recruit Andrus Peat may get a chance to start right away on Stanford's offensive line.
“He was the leader of that defense,” Fitzgerald said. “He had hoped to be a first round draft pick last season, but obviously that got put on hold.”
Skov is joined by another potential high draft pick in outside linebacker Chase Thomas. Senior Jarek Lancaster, last year’s leading tackler, will start on the inside with Skov. That trio might be joined by highly-touted newcomer Noor Davis when arrives in August. Fitzgerald said he expects the third best linebacker prospect in the country according to 247Sports to compete for a starting job from day one.
Biggest Question Mark After Spring: Offensive Line
There will be more freshmen competing for work on the offensive line. Stanford has to replace two All-Americans in guard David DeCastro and tackle Jonathon Martin. They might have nabbed the recruiting class that can do it. Headlined by Andrus Peat, Kyle Murphy and Josh Garnett, one or two of the offensive line recruits might get the rare opportunity to start in his first season.
Three returning starters give Stanford a solid base on the line, but those two very big openings mean whoever steps in will likely be a step back at least for this year.
“They’re quite sure that they’re going to be able to build a good offensive line they just don’t have all the pieces there yet,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s anybody’s guess right now who is going to fill those other two spots.”
Biggest Surprise of the Spring: WR Kelsey Young
Young was one of California’s top high school players a year ago but slipped under the radar after redshirting last year. He played running back in high school but emerged as a wide receiver threat this spring to get away from the log jam in the backfield. With Taylor, Tyler Gaffney and incoming freshman Barry J. Sanders running the ball, he has a much better chance of getting touches elsewhere.
He’ll have to compete with Ty Montgomery and Drew Terrell at wide receiver, but he is expected to make some plays after a strong spring game.
“He showed some flashes in the spring game,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s a guy that nobody has really paid much attention to this past year but he could certainly figure in the equation mainly at wide receiver. He could play quite a bit.”
Summer Storyline: Nunes or Nottingham
Of course the biggest question that remains is who will be heir to Andrew Luck’s throne at the quarterback spot. Junior Brett Nottingham is the frontrunner in most minds. He had a rough spring game and failed to separate himself from senior Josh Nunes. Shaw said after the spring game that the race was still a dead heat. Fitzgerald believes Nottingham, who has the better arm and quicker release, will ultimately win the job in August.