Sports

Heisman hype aside, Stanford is ready to kick off football season

By Rick Eymer

Palo Alto Online Sports

Make no mistake in regards to Andrew Luck and the Heisman Trophy -- he's uncomfortable talking about it, and, perhaps, even more uncomfortable that he's on the cover of Sports Illustrated as its preseason Heisman favorite.

Make that "the runaway preseason favorite."

Stanford's redshirt junior quarterback has the eyes of the college football world focused upon him as the curtain rises on a brand-spanking new season. The Cardinal, ranked seventh in the Associated Press poll, opens with a home game Saturday against San Jose State at 2 p.m. (Comcast Sports Net Bay Area).

It's been 40 years since Stanford opened a season with such anticipation. It's the first preseason ranking for the Cardinal since 1993 (the year after Bill Walsh led Stanford to a 24-3 victory over Penn State in the Blockbuster Bowl) and its highest debut since it was ranked seventh opening the 1950 season.

Luck doesn't understand all the fuss, even after finishing as the runner-up to Cam Newton in last year's Heisman balloting.

"It irked me when people started talking about it before the season," Luck said. "What have I done? I've done nothing."

Which is why there is so much anticipation. Luck helped Stanford finish with a 12-1 mark last year, a school record for victories, and the program's first appearance in a Bowl Championship Series contest.

Considered a lock to be the overall No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, Luck choose instead to return to Stanford to finish his degree, and play a little more football with his friends.

Instead of being hounded by writers about playing as a rookie in the NFL, he was badgered by writers about his prospects of winning the Heisman.

"It wasn't a pleasant experience," said Luck, who took time off with his family to visit friends and relatives in Germany over the summer. "I understand the quarterback is the face of the team and if it helps Stanford, fine. Football can change like that and, as a group, we have to pick up where we left off. No one has been caught up looking back or being complacent."

Everybody on the outside looks forward, with his name splashed across the pages of sports magazines around the nation, anticipating Stanford's Pac-12 showdown with Oregon, reaching the Pac-12 championship game and perhaps even playing in the national championship game.

The favorite's role has been bestowed upon Luck, with competition coming from Oklahoma's Justin Blackmon, Alabama's Trent Richardson, Oregon's LaMichael James, Michigan's Denard Robinson, Boise State's Kellen Moore and South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore. At least that's according to Sports Illustrated.

All that talk and Luck has yet to take a single game snap from new center Sam Schwartzstein (6-3, 278, RJr.), or line up behind newly appointed offensive line starters David Yankey (6-5, 305, RFr.) and Cameron Fleming (6-6, 299, RFr.), who join holdovers and All-American candidates David DeCastro (6-5, 307, RJr.) and Jonathan Martin (6-6, 297, RJr.).

"The good thing is DeCastro and Martin have set the standard for them," Luck said. "They are all prepared and ready to go."

Luck has had to develop relationships with a handful of new receivers as well. Chris Owusu and Griff Whalen will start, and both have been targets for Luck in the past. Others to watch are Jamal-Rashad Patterson, Jemari Roberts, Drew Terrell and Corey Gatewood.

"We're at a good spot now," Luck said. "Instead of taking five minutes to go over a mistake, we already know and nod to each other. We will continue to grow and we're all on the same page."

Stanford coach David Shaw said the starting tight end spot depends on what is called for the game's first offensive play. Fifth-year senior Coby Fleener and redshirt sophomore Zach Ertz are proven commodities and redshirt sophomore Levine Toilolo also saw action in one game last year before being sidelined by injury.

The running back position will also be determined by play-calling and game flow. Stepfan Taylor leads a committee of four who will see action. Taylor rushed for 1,137 yards and 15 touchdowns last year, a feat that would have drawn major attention had it not been for Toby Gerhart's success at running the ball. Anthony Wilkerson, Tyler Gaffney and Jeremy Stewart will be in the rotation.

"It's easier on the body when you rotate in," Taylor said. "I know coach will put us in a good spot. I didn't play to my expectations last year and my general goal is to play better than I did last year."

The running back position got so crowded (when was the last time you could say that at Stanford?) redshirt sophomore Usua Amanam was moved to defense as a cornerback.

"Since I've been here it's always run first," Luck said. "They may go overlooked but not in the locker room. They are all special players in their own way. The run sets up the pass and the offensive line is a big part of that."

Ryan Hewitt (6-4, 240, RSoph.) is set to start at fullback, taking over for Owen Marecic, a two-way player last season.

"Coaching running backs was fun for me last year," Shaw said. "I know we're deep. All the offseason talk has been about Andrew, which is great; that's how good he is. We're a running football team. The offense starts and ends with running the football and I'm excited about our combination of players."

Linebacker Shayne Skov and free safety Michael Thomas are the clear leaders on defense. Skov led the team with 84 tackles, including 7 1/2 sacks. Thomas was third with 61 tackles, six for losses.

A good chunk of Stanford's defense returns. Linebackers Chase Thomas (70 tackles, 7 1/2 sacks) and Max Bergen played in all 13 games last year. Trent Murphy, Blake Lueders and Alex Debniak also have experience.

Matt Masifilo (6-3, 278, RSr.) returns as a

starter on the defensive line. Nose guard Terrence Stephens (6-2, 287, Jr.) and defensive end Ben Gardner (6-4, 283, RSoph.) also saw extended action last year.

Thomas headlines a secondary that also includes seniors Delano Howell and Johnson Bademosi, along with sophomore Barry Browning. True freshmen Wayne Lyons and Jordan Richards are projected to receive plenty of opportunities.

Jordan Williamson will be the team's kicker, David Green will start as punter and Andrew Fowler returns as the long snapper. Backup punter David Zychlinski is the holder.

2011 STANFORD FOOTBALL

Date Opponent Time

Saturday San Jose St. 2 p.m.

Sept. 10 at Duke 12:30 p.m.

Sept. 17 at Arizona* 6:45 p.m.

Oct. 1 UCLA* TBA

Oct. 8 Colorado* TBA

Oct. 15 at Washington St*. TBA

Oct. 22 Washington* 5 p.m.

Oct. 29 at USC* 5 p.m.

Nov. 5 at Oregon St.* TBA

Nov. 12 Oregon* TBA

Nov. 19 California* TBA

Nov. 26 Notre Dame 5 p.m.

Dec. 2 Pac-12 championship

* Pac-12 game

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