Irish Opponent: Stanford

The football culture is changing in Palo Alto, Calif. Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh runs around the practice field from station to station. He gets down and does pushups with his players. The first-year head coach is intense and clearly the opposite of his predecessor Walt Harris. Which is good, considering the Cardinal are coming off a very tough 1-11 season.

"He has all of that energy of a guy that is still playing," publisher Mike Eubanks said. Stanford will host Notre Dame on Nov. 24. "That reverberates through most of his players."

Harbaugh is trying to change the recent mentality around the Stanford program. The Cardinal have had five straight losing seasons, so no player on the roster has experienced a winning situation since their prep days.

The entire coaching staff comprises of guys that would probably be the youngest person on most BCS conference coaching staffs. Harbaugh uses the word enthusiasm often, and he and his youthful staff have brought a lot of that. According to Eubanks, the upbeat fast-paced spring practices continued into the winter and summer workouts.

"The way the coaches interacted with the players was eye opening," Eubanks said. "Harbaugh and his staff have found away to rekindle vibrance and enthusiasm and the will to fight when maybe the fight should be gone. The question is, if they have the players in place, and if they can pick up this scheme and if the best players can stay healthy."

Hopefully for Harbaugh and company, the injury bug has run out of eligibility. Health has been one of the major reasons why Stanford has struggled for the past five seasons. At one point last year, the Cardinal were playing only true freshmen or walk-ons at the receiver position. There were a lot of injuries this spring, and with the recent trend, who knows what bodies Harbaugh will be able to run onto the field by the time Notre Dame makes the late November trip.

***Offense: The new offense Harbaugh and his staff are instilling is supposed to be easy to learn and hard for defenses to read. There will be a lot of pre-snap motion and a lot of different formations and a lot of different personnel packages. However, there will mainly be just a few simple plays run out of these sets.

Fifth-year senior quarterback T.C. Ostrander lived in the film room following the coaching change, soaking up as much as he could. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound signal-caller has played a lot for the often injured Trent Edwards over the years, but has never entered the season as the starter. He is making the most of his final opportunity. It will be up to Ostrander to guide an offense that ranked last in the Pac 10 conference at just a shade over 10 points per game.

"He was probably the most improved player on the roster this spring," Eubanks said. Ostrander threw for 918 yards last season, with three touchdowns and five interceptions in 10 games. "Not to say he needed improvement, but he made that big jump from the guy getting No. 2 reps to the guy getting No. 1 reps. He came out of the chute firing on all cylinders at the start of spring. He watched a ton of film and was the most prepared.

"He made good decisions and was almost never intercepted," Eubanks continued. "In one scrimmage, he was 14-of-15 passing, and he threw two touchdowns."

It was Ostrander two years ago that led Stanford down the field for the go-ahead score against the Irish, before Darius Walker and Brady Quinn ended the upset bid in securing a BCS appearance. Heading into fall camp, red-shirt sophomore Tavita Pritchard and red-shirt freshman Alex Loukas will compete to back up Ostrander.

Both Anthony Kimble (6-1, 210) and Toby Gerhart (6-1, 229) return to the Stanford backfield. Though the top two rushers on the team last season, neither set the world on fire. In their defense, the offensive line was very inconsistent. The red-shirt junior Kimble ran for just 470 yards and two touchdowns. Gerhart, who also plays baseball, had 375 yards rushing as a true freshman.

"Kimble is the most experienced, most athletic and most complete package of the Stanford running backs," Eubanks said. "He started to have a very good spring and was injured and missed a big chunk of time. But when healthy, he should have his best year at Stanford and the best year a Stanford running back has had in the last few years."

Gerhart broke his hand during baseball season when he was hit by a pitch and did not participate in contact drills this spring.

"He is in the mold of Tommy Vardell," Eubanks said. "A big powerful, north-south runner."

Fifth-year senior Jason Evans (6-1, 205) could also get some carries, classmate Emeka Nnoli (6-1, 242) returns to his post at fullback. The nation's top-ranked fullback coming out of high school, Nnoli could have a more prominent role in Harbaugh's offense. He ran for just 49 yards last year.

With receivers Mark Bradford and Evan Moore returning from injuries that kept them out most of the year, Ostrander will have more talent to deliver the ball to compared to last season. The 6-foot-2 Bradford has all the tools to be one of the best receivers in the Pac 10, and the 6-foot-7 Moore can go up and get the ball against anybody. On top of those two seniors, sophomore Richard Sherman got to play a lot in their absence last season, and led the team with 581 yards receiving and three touchdowns. He was six yards shy of Bradford's school record for a freshman.

"They all bring different things to the table," Eubanks said. "Sherman is the speed guy, runs track for Stanford. He is the best guy for stretching the field based on speed.

"Bradford in my mind is really the most underrated wide receiver in the Pac 10. The one game he played in last year, he was pretty dominant in catching the ball when it was thrown to him against fast Oregon defenders (9 rec, 108 yards, 1 TD). He has explosiveness to separate from defenders, and the speed and athleticism to make plays after the catch. He participated in the spring but was not close to 100 percent. He will be near 100 percent at the start of fall camp.

"Evan Moore will be the top red-zone threat and a big receiver to find in the middle of the field."

Ostrander also has 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end James Dray (19 rec., 178 yards, 1 TD) returning. The Cardinal will run a lot of two tight end sets, so converted fullback Ben Ladner will play a lot. Eubanks said Ladner has been adjusting to his new position "marvelously." However, he got hurt during the spring, but should be ready to go this fall.

If injuries weren't the sole reason for the struggles Stanford has had offensively, the finger could be pointed towards the inconsistent play along the offensive line. Offensive line coach Chris Dalman, a Stanford graduate and seven-year NFL veteran is responsible for the improvement. He was the Atlanta Falcons offensive line coach the past two years, where his unit paved the way for Warrick Dunn to run for 2,566 yards in that span.

Three starters are back, and a few other guys with starting experience. Allen Smith (6-5, 298) returns to left tackle, right guard Alex Fletcher (6-4, 300) is back and Chris Marinelli (6-7, 320) started the last five games of the season last year at right tackle as a red-shirt freshman. He will compete against red-shirt junior Ben Muth (6-6, 302), who has also started during his career. Six-year senior Tim Mattran (6-5, 305) started at center in 2004, but missed all of last season with an injury. He will return to the center spot, and left guard looks to be senior Mikal Brewer (6-3, 291).

"I'd be concerned with the backup at any position," Eubanks said. "The offensive line would be a tough place to take an injury."

***Defense: Stanford will move away from the 3-4 defense back to the conventional 4-3 look this fall.

"The defensive line has a chance to be the strength of the defense," Eubanks said. "If this defense is going to be good, it will be because it's the best defensive line they've had since the Ty Willingham years. They don't have guys that come back with great stats, but they do return a lot. They have players that were hurt last year, or guys added to the defensive line through position changes giving them talent and depth."

Udeme Udofia (6-4, 245) has played outside linebacker the last three years, but Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Scott Shafer are hoping for big things from him at defensive end. Last season he had 39 tackles with just one for loss. Expected to be the other end is red-shirt junior Pannel Egboh (6-6, 278), who had 45 tackles with five and a half coming for loss. The wild card is Erik Lorig. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound sophomore moves from tight end and looked great during the spring.

"Some would say Erik Lorig is the best athlete on the Stanford football team," Eubanks said. "He had some learning curve problems, but at times was dominant and the offense couldn't stop him from blowing up plays. He is going to get a chance this fall to show he can be a playmaker there."

Fifth-year senior Emmanuel Awofadeju will also be in the mix to play at defensive end.

Ekom Udofia (6-2, 305) missed the spring with a broken hand, but will likely get the nod at defensive tackle or nose guard. He had 43 tackles and one sack last year. Chris Horn, a 6-foot-5, 278-pound red-shirt senior should start at the spot Udofia doesn't handle. He had 27 tackles with four coming for loss a year ago. Sophomore Levirt Griffen (6-4, 290) will get a chance to play more extensively than he did as a freshman, where he had five tackles.

The team's leading returning tackler, Clinton Snyder (83 tackles, 3.5 TFL) is the only proven player back at linebacker. Whether the 6-foot-4, 233-pound red-shirt sophomore plays weak-side or strong-side linebacker is up to how the other competitions pan out. "Clinton plays with tremendous ferocity, has great speed and has a high motor and pursues the ball well."

They would like Snyder to play on the strong-side if junior Pat Maynor (6-2, 220) can win the weak-side job this fall. Also in the mix at the outside linebacker spots are red-shirt senior Peter Griffen (6-0, 215) or former walk-on Fred Campbell (6-1, 229). Maynor could also line up as the team's mike linebacker. He will be competing with red-shirt sophomore Will Powers (6-4, 236) and classmate Tom McAndrew (6-5, 248).

"Other than Clinton Snyder, there is just tons of question marks," Eubanks said.

Three guys with heavy experience are back at cornerback. Tim Sims (54 tackles, 4 breakups), who missed the entire spring with a leg injury, and Nick Sanchez (27 tackles, 4 breakups) are fifth-year seniors that have started quite a bit. Red-shirt junior Wopamo Osaisai (52 tackles, 1 INT), and his 10.5 speed in the 100-meter dash is also in the mix.

"Between those three guys, you would think that you are good at the position," Eubanks said.

Red-shirt sophomore Bo McNally (21 tackles, 2 INTs), a former option quarterback in high school, is the safety returning with the most experience, and has the edge at the strong spot. As far as free safety, former receivers Austin Yancy and Marcus Rance will compete with oft-injured junior Carlos McFall.

"With these question marks at safety, a true freshman could be in the mix," Eubanks said.

Jimmy Clausen's top receiving target in high school, Sean Wiser, could get a look, as could Kellen Kiilsgaard if he doesn't show potential at the quarterback position.

***Special Teams: Eubanks said that all the return jobs will be decided in the fall.

Fifth-year senior walk-on Derek Belch has a lead on the kicking duties, while Jay Ottovegio will be the punter for the fourth straight year. He averaged 39.6 yards per boot last season.

***Overall: Though the Stanford faithful are excited about the Harbaugh hire and the direction of the program, they were also that way when Walt Harris left Pittsburgh for Palo Alto. Disappointed for the past five years, Eubanks said that everyone is waiting to see what the results are on the field before predicting future Rose Bowl appearances.

"The only measuring sticks that matter to most people, particularly fans, will be found in the fall," Eubanks explained. "Whether that is wins or losses, or a higher level of competitiveness against the better opponents on the schedule. Or if it's an exciting offense that has been the trademark of Stanford football in winning seasons and some losing seasons."

The Notre Dame game will be a nice barometer of where the program is at in Harbaugh's first season. Top Stories