Spring ball sees football reload

Andrew Luck, close to being Nike's newest darling, has departed to the professional ranks. The knee-jerk reaction of a number of national pundits? Stanford football will win as few as seven games in 2012.

But it takes a very lazy look at the program to think that overall level of play is going to drop off that far. Stanford ran the football over 55 percent of the time in 2011, and the Cardinal's stable of running backs will likely return a year better, faster, and stronger in 2012.

Additionally, early returns from the season's first week and a half of spring practice suggest that other facets of Stanford football's game can pick up the slack left with No. 12's departure.

It's funny to think that one of the most encouraging aspects of this spring season may be the boatload of talent that isn't even on the practice field for Stanford yet. A month ago, Cardinal assistant Lance Anderson was named National Recruiter of the Year after helping coach David Shaw ink the No. 6 recruiting class in the country, one that features what could end up being the best offensive line recruiting class in the history of college football.

"There are a lot of extremely talented football players who aren't even here yet that will be making noise soon," Shaw said, referring to his heralded recruiting class that is still finishing high school. "There is going to be a lot more competition for spots in a couple of months, and guys here now realize that."

Despite the anticipation surrounding the arrival of the 2012 class, Stanford football is already in talented hands. Healthy competition will be key in allowing the Cardinal to replace David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin, two studs who are projected to be selected in the first round of April's NFL Draft. But on the other side of the football, Stanford is already locking and loading for a big season.

Perhaps Shaw's most important "recruit" for immediate 2012 success is Chase Thomas, the star linebacker who decided to return to Stanford for his senior season. The Cardinal offense is already having trouble blocking the high-motor, 6-foot-4 inch, muscle-laden behemoth in spring ball, and he is expected to be joined by the Shayne Skov, the "missile" of a middle linebacker who will be returning from knee injury. Between those two superstars, A.J. Tarpley, Jarek Lancaster, James Vaughters (poached out of SEC territory), and the duo of Terrence Stephens and Ben Gardner on the line, Stanford has the potential to boast the strongest front seven in the nation next season. And that's before talented players like Trent Murphy and touted incoming recruit Noor Davis are even thrown into the conversation.

The Cardinal's most glaring deficiency in 2011 was its lack of athleticism on the perimeter of the field. This shortage was evident on both sides of the ball. Defensively, the team could not keep up with Oregon's jet-speed offense (53 points) and was torched by Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon for 186 yards on just eight catches in the Fiesta Bowl. Offensively, Stanford receivers struggled to emerge as steady downfield threats, and the Cardinal passing game had to instead rely on Luck threading the needle to his big trio of tight ends.

Both issues are on their way to being addressed this spring. According to Shaw, highly regarded defensive back Wayne Lyons, who missed most of 2011 with a foot injury, has been one of the top performers in practice so far. His elite athleticism alone will be a huge boon to the Stanford secondary.

"We've also got a ball-hawking safety and an outstanding linebacker coming," Shaw added, referring to recruits Zach Hoffpauir and Davis. "They will make us stronger as well."

On the offensive side of the ball, Shaw has been extremely pleased with the progress of Jamal-Rashad Patterson at the wide receiver position. If Patterson can finally emerge and play at his physical potential, he would form a formidable duo on the outside with star-in-the-making Ty Montgomery.

The impending arrival of prized recruit Barry Sanders, Jr. also has the potential to be a pivotal addition to the Stanford offense. Sanders has great hands, and his quickness and elusiveness can make him an excellent slot option for the Cardinal, especially considering that the team will already be stocked three-deep with returning downhill power backs.

Of course, the biggest question mark is the issue of who will replace Luck at the quarterback position. Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes are two of the names in the mix, and both have a lot to learn - although they have studied under a superb teacher in No. 12.

"My goal is to just get better every day," Nottingham said.

If the Cardinal follows Nottingham's lead as a team, they'll be just fine for another big season - with or without Luck at the helm. Stanford just has too much talent at all other positions to suddenly fall off the map, and they're reloading with a vengeance at their points of weakness.

About the Author: David Lombardi is a Stanford and Pac-12 Conference enthusiast. He has broadcast the Cardinal on KZSU for several years and is currently contributing to the Cardinal Channel. You can check several of his Stanford calls out at www.davidmatthewlombardi.com, where you can also read his West Coast-oriented blog via this direct link. For Stanford baseball insights, follow David on Twitter at davidmlombardi.

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