|Running back Stepfan Taylor :: Getty Images|
The most prolific quarterback in school history may be gone, but that doesn't mean Stanford's offense will change. "We're going to run power," said Cardinal running back Stepfan Taylor. "That's what we hang our hat on." While two-time Heisman runner-up and No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck garnered the lion's share of credit for Stanford's 23-3 record and consecutive BCS bowl berths over the past two seasons, the offense implemented by former coach Jim Harbaugh and his successor, David Shaw, is a physical, run-first attack. The Cardinal ran the ball on 55 percent of its offensive snaps last season, and with a loaded backfield this fall, that number could rise.
"The coaches have made it known we're going to run a lot this year, especially with the new quarterbacks," said Taylor, a senior who quietly ran for 1,000-plus yards in each of the past two seasons and stands fourth on the school's career rushing list (2,770). He carried 35 times for 177 yards and two touchdowns against Oklahoma State in last January's Fiesta Bowl. Joining him in the backfield are junior Anthony Wilkerson and incoming freshman Barry Sanders Jr., a U.S. Army All-America and son of the NFL Hall of Famer. "It's going to help the new quarterbacks get comfortable, not having to throw the ball a lot," said Taylor.
At that position, junior Josh Nunes and sophomore Brett Nottingham both possess strong arms and athleticism and will vie to take the bulk of the snaps. The Cardinal must also replace two All-America offensive linemen, tackle Jonathan Martin and guard David DeCastro, and star tight end Coby Fleener. But the program is deep at the latter position, with veterans Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo back for more. Its veteran defensive front, led by linebackers Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas, should spoil many an afternoon for opposing quarterbacks.
Stanford's quarterback doesn't need to complete 71.3 percent of his passes, like Luck did last year, but he needs to avoid drive-killing mistakes. "That quarterback position, we don't expect it to get played at the same level that it was in years past," said Shaw. "We're not counting on it." Instead, he's counting on Taylor and the other running backs to keep powering the ball down opponents' throats.
Can Skov come back from a season-ending knee injury and a one-game suspension to help lead the Stanford defense?
30 -- Career touchdowns from scrimmage by Stepfan Taylor, tying for first among Pac-12 returnees and fifth in the FBS.
Ben Gardner, DE, Jr. -- The Mequon, Wis., native made second-team All-Pac-12 last year with 4.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss. His pressure off the edge helped Stanford total 39 sacks, second in the conference, and rank in the top 10 nationally in third-down conversion defense.
Shayne Skov, LB, Sr. -- The Cardinal missed its fiery defensive leader -- with his Mohawk and heavy eye black -- after he tore his ACL and MCL in 2011's third game. Skov, an all-conference honorable mention in 2010 when he notched 84 tackles, excels as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
Stepfan Taylor, RB, Sr. -- The Mansfield, Texas, native needs 1,264 yards to break Darrin Nelson's Stanford record. Last season he joined Nelson and Toby Gerhart as the only players in school history with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
Levine Toilolo, TE, Sr. -- Few teams rely on their tight ends as heavily as the Cardinal does. The 6-foot-8, 265-pound Toilolo, who caught 25 passes for 343 yards and six touchdowns in 2011, creates matchup headaches for opposing defenders.
Wayne Lyons, CB, So. -- The 6-foot-1, 187-pound Fort Lauderdale native played just two games as a freshman before suffering a season-ending foot injury, but the four-star recruit and U.S. Army All-America looks to be the kind of elite athlete Stanford has been lacking at cornerback. David Shaw has already boldly predicted that Lyons will eventually contend for the Thorpe Award.
Andrus Peat, LT, Fr. -- One of several highly decorated linemen to sign with the Cardinal, the 6-foot-7, 308-pound Arizona native, who drew a five-star rating from Rivals.com, could compete for the starting spot vacated by All-America second-teamer Jonathan Martin.
Chase Thomas delights in eliciting a certain reaction from a quarterback he has just sacked. "The best is when you hear that little squeak or whimper when you hit him really good," says Stanford's star outside linebacker. "That's probably the best feeling. I don't know what I can really compare it to. Maybe hitting a game-winning shot in basketball." With 20 sacks, Thomas has enjoyed that feeling frequently during his first three seasons with the Cardinal. Last season he made the All-Pac-12 first team by leading the conference in tackles for loss (17.5) and tying for second in sacks (8.5). "Just watching him on film, he seems unblockable," said running back Stepfan Taylor. "He knows how to get in just the right position to make you miss."
Thomas arrived on the Farm as a lanky 6-foot-4, 200-pounder from Marietta, Ga. After redshirting as a freshman, he got up to about 220 pounds by 2009 when, despite matching up against much bigger tackles and tight ends, he still started eight games and had four sacks as a defensive end. Thomas's experience as a high school wrestler helped him compensate for his size. "I knew leverage," he said. "Hand placement was probably the key contributor to me not getting demolished."
Thomas began to thrive when Stanford switched to a 3-4 defense for the 2010 season, allowing him to move to linebacker. By then he'd bulked up to 240 pounds. (He's now 248.) "His body structure is more suited to outside linebacker," said position coach Lance Anderson. "He gave us some great pass-rushing ability, but [as an end] teams would find where he was and get a tight end and tackle on him. A key was being able to play in space, where he could also drop into coverage." Starting all 13 games that year, Thomas became the Cardinal's second-leading tackler (70) and tied for the lead in sacks (7.5). Last season his tackle total dropped (to 52), but he spent more time in opponents' backfields.
Becoming a pass-rushing terror takes more than hand placement and leverage, however. While Thomas is generally mild-mannered off the field, his attitude in pads and helmet is rather different. "He's got a little snarl on his face, and he's always a little bit grumpy," said Anderson. "He's got an edge to him."
Thomas's nasty streak showed as a teenager on the lacrosse field. "Every time I hit someone, they would call unnecessary roughness or blow to the head because I was taller than everybody else," he said. "But I got my good hits in." To boost his speed and explosiveness, Thomas began working in the eighth grade with noted trainer Tony Villani, then based in Atlanta.
On the gridiron, although Thomas was undersized, SEC and ACC recruiters rigorously pursued him, including those from Auburn, North Carolina and Tennessee. "But I kind of knew I wanted to go far away," he said. "I preferred a change of scenery, and California is different than Georgia."
Indeed. He's had to make do for four years without sweet tea, Chick-fil-A or decent barbecue, but he's played an integral role in Stanford's rise from Pac-12 cellar dweller to national top-five team. With the return of standout inside linebacker Shayne Skov, who missed most of last season, the Cardinal's front seven should be even tougher. "Last year, without Shayne, teams could slide protection to focus a little more on Chase," said Anderson. "With both of them, it will be tougher for teams to do that." More opposing quarterbacks could be letting out a whimper.
SI: How does Stanford deal with life after Andrew Luck?
DS: At the first meeting for this team, I told the guys that the quarterback position is going to get a lot of attention, but it's not going to be because of anybody in this room. They all kind of laughed.
SI: Does it give them extra motivation?
DS: There is a sense amongst our team that people will want to discount us because Andrew's not here. ... Without that being our sole purpose, to prove people wrong is an added thing [to our message of], Hey, we're a good football team.
SI: How do the two quarterbacks compare?
DS: Brett [Nottingham] has got a little stronger arm, Josh [Nunes] maybe anticipates a little bit better, but they kind of balance each other out. They're pretty even.
SI: How will you decide who gets the job?
DS: These guys are talented and they can throw the ball. That's a given. The guy that makes the best decisions is the guy that's going to play the position.
SI: You signed a top-five recruiting class. How much impact will those guys have this fall?
DS: Physically, athletically, they're a special group. We won't downplay it. Our expectations are high.
SI: What's the next step for your program?
DS: We've been consistent, we've recruited well, but we don't have the long history. That's our job, to make sure as the years go by that Stanford football remains one of the top programs in the country.
This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' Pac-12 Preview.