By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Stanford Cardinal 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 11-2, 8-1 Pac-12
Spring practice: Feb. 27-April 14
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 7
Passing: Brett Nottingham, 5 of 8, 78 yds., 1 TD, 0 INT
Rushing: Stepfan Taylor, 242 car., 1,330 yds., 10 TDs
Receiving: Ryan Hewitt, 34 rec., 282 yds., 5 TDs
Tackles: Jarek Lancaster, 70
Sacks: Chase Thomas, 8.5
Interceptions: Three players tied with 1
Redshirts to watch: QB Evan Crower, QB Kevin Hogan, DE Charlie Hopkins, S Wayne Lyons, OT Brendon Austin
Sept. 1 San Jose State
Sept. 8 Duke
Sept. 15 USC
Sept. 27 at Washington
Oct. 6 Arizona
Oct. 13 at Notre Dame
Oct. 20 at California
Oct. 27 Washington State
Nov. 3 at Colorado
Nov. 10 Oregon State
Nov. 17 at Oregon
Nov. 24 at UCLA
Offensive Strength: Stanford will certainly miss Andrew Luck, but there’s plenty of reasons for optimism that this team can stay in the Pac-12 North race. The Cardinal should have one of the top running back corps in the nation, led by Stepfan Taylor, Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney. Losing tackle Jonathan Martin and guard David DeCastro was a huge blow, but three starters are back up front.
Offensive Weakness:Obviously, it will be nearly impossible for Stanford to replace Andrew Luck’s production and leadership at quarterback. Brett Nottingham is the expected successor, but he will be pushed in spring practice by a handful of candidates. In addition to breaking in a new quarterback, the Cardinal desperately need to find some playmakers at receiver.
Defensive Strength: While the offense gained all of the accolades last year, the defense was quietly solid. Stanford finished fourth nationally in run defense and ranked second in the Pac-12 in points allowed. The linebacking corps will be among the best in college football, while the line can build around All-Pac-12 end Ben Gardner.
Defensive Weakness: The biggest question mark on the defense last season was the secondary. The Cardinal ranked 95th nationally against the pass and three starters must be replaced going into 2012, including first-team All-Pac-12 safety Delano Howell.
Spring Storylines Facing the Cardinal:
1. With 13 starters returning, don’t expect Stanford to fall completely off the national radar. Sure, replacing Andrew Luck is going to be a difficult task, but coach David Shaw has done a good job of recruiting and there’s enough talent in place to expect at least eight wins in 2012. Repeating a berth in a BCS bowl is unlikely, but Stanford isn’t about to slip back into Pac-12 mediocrity. The bigger question for Shaw and this coaching staff will be 2013 and beyond. Stanford football is riding a wave of momentum - can they keep that going?
2. There’s no question all eyes will be on the quarterbacks this spring. Brett Nottingham is the early leader to replace Andrew Luck after completing 5 of 8 throws for 78 yards and one score last year. The sophomore has the size (6-foot-4) and skill set to be a solid player for Stanford over the next couple of years. He ranked as one of the top quarterbacks coming out of high school and showed solid poise in limited action last season. Nottingham will be pushed by redshirt freshmen Evan Crower and Kevin Hogan, along with upperclassmen Robbie Picazo and Josh Nunes. The coaching staff wants this to be an open competition, but the odds are heavily in favor of Nottingham ending the spring as the No. 1 quarterback.
3. Whichever quarterback takes the first snap in 2012, they will have the benefit of working with a solid supporting cast. Running back Stepfan Taylor should challenge for All-American honors this year, while David Yankey, Sam Schwartztein and Cameron Fleming is a good trio to build around on the offensive line. Tight ends Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz are both capable of leading the team in receptions this year. The bad news? Stanford lacks playmakers at receiver and will miss Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro on the offensive line. Although there are some significant losses, the cupboard is far from bare for the new quarterback (likely Nottingham) this year.
4. Last season’s co-defensive coordinator Jason Tarver left to go to the NFL, but fellow co-coordinator Derek Mason is back, which means the defense won’t see too many changes in 2012. Mason will have seven starters to work with, including the return of linebacker Shayne Skov from an injury that forced him to miss nine games. Skov is facing a suspension from an off-the-field incident, but his return will only strengthen a solid linebacking corps. Mason’s biggest focus this spring will be finding some answers in the secondary. Safeties Michael Thomas and Delano Howell and cornerback Johnson Bademosi have finished their eligibility. Cornerback Terrence Brown collected 43 stops last year and will be the new leader in the secondary. Jordan Richards had a solid freshman year as he picked up 31 tackles, but overall, this group needs more speed and athleticism.
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