By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Early warning system: the college football season is about to get started and that means all kind of talk about Stanford, its quarterback, first-year head coach, the post-Orange Bowl era and the brand new, sparkling alignment that is the Pac-12.
Stanford players officially reported Thursday and will take the field for the first time Monday with David Shaw blowing the whistle as the head man, his first stint as the man in charge after a lifetime of achievement as a player and coach's son.
The Cardinal is expected to begin the season as one of the top 10 ranked teams in the nation -- Stanford got a No. 6 ranking on Thursday from the USA Today/Coaches Top 25 preseason poll -- an honor hoisted upon the team thanks in large part to its dominating victory over Virginia Tech in January, with a major supporting role going to quarterback Andrew Luck.
Luck put his education ahead of monetary value when he declined to throw his name into the hat for last year's NFL draft. He was expected to be the first player chosen. He really never was a serious candidate to declare for the draft.
Luck was almost forced into making a statement regarding his final year at Stanford after the bowl victory because of outside pressures, well-meaning fans of the Carolina Panthers and because Jim Harbaugh had been hired away by the San Francisco 49ers.
"It was the guys in the locker room, wanting to finish with my recruiting class and going to college for four years," Luck said at the recent annual Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl college football kickoff. "It was always in the back of my mind that I would be going to college to get a degree and then move on. I sort of always knew."
He's the early favorite to win the Heisman Trophy after being voted runner-up to Cam Newton last year. He led Stanford to it greatest season in terms of wins (12-1) and recognition and he's expected to lead the Cardinal into rarified territory again this time around. He understands the attention and yet does not seek it.
Luck doesn't feel pressure in the same way normal athletes feel it and most certainly doesn't understand the pangs of anguish that constantly shoot through the veins of the Cardinal faithful. What he feels is a sense of competition, a way to test himself against the elements.
There are precious few words to describe what he feels because he's really only competing with himself, his ability to place unrequited faith in his teammates and to easily gather confidence within himself.
"I try not to lose sleep over any of my decisions," Luck said in a statement that lifts doubt and uncertainty off his shoulders and replaces it with joy and the pleasures of competition. His actions speak louder than his words.
Luck has led Stanford to bowl games in each of his first two seasons as the starter. An injured thumb cost him a bowl appearance in his redshirt freshman year, though he took satisfaction in handing the job off to friend and mentor Tavita Pritchard.
Luck remains focused on the present, he's still creating memories. He has no need to look back to yesterday, let alone January.
"I'm sure I will look back at all this some time and realize how special it is," he said. "You go through changes on any team every year."
Luck's offseason was a little busier than any other, though he still found time to unwind and get away from it all. He spent part of his summer in Germany, where he lived during his formative years, visiting friends and relatives.
It's time for football though and Luck feels the excitement.
"I'm always excited about camp," he said. "You get a little itch and you get ready to go."
The coaching changes have been as smooth as anyone could have expected, with Shaw making a seamless transition. It's the same offensive system he helped put in place.
"I am a systemic, methodical coach and I do not get enamored with things," Shaw said. "I was exposed to the NFL at an early age. It didn't faze me. My scope will just be wider. Instead of just the offense, I'll be involved in every facet of the game. I'm so concerned on what I have to do that I don't think about pressure."
The biggest questions facing Stanford as camp opens are the offensive line, the receiving corps and replacing the versatility of Owen Marecic, who finished 10th in the Heisman Trophy balloting last year.
Offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro are the only returning starters, though Shaw points out that three of the five players expected to battle for other spots have appeared in competition.
Sam Schwartzman and Khalil Wilkes are the frontrunners to open the season at center. Tyler Mabry, Cameron Fleming and David Yankey are in a battle for another spot and it appears Kevin Danser has a job he can only lose.
Chris Owusu and Griff Whalen are the top returning wide receivers, though Owusu missed six games to injury last year. Coby Fleener returns at tight end while Stepfan Taylor was also used out of the backfield.
Taylor rushed for 1,137 yards and scored 15 touchdowns last year when the Cardinal running game was thought to be nonexistent after Gerhart left.
Ryan Hewitt has the edge to assume Marecic's role as fullback. Look for linebacker Shayne Skov to take a more active role in the middle as a replacement for Marecic on defense.
It won't be long before Stanford begins to find out how it stacks up to the rest of the nation. The season begins at home against San Jose State on Saturday, Sept. 3 at 2 p.m.