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WHEN QUARTERBACK ANDREW LUCK ANNOUNCED LAST JANUARY that he would pass up the millions he would have collected as the likely No. 1 pick in the NFL draft to return to Stanford, the hallelujahs could be heard from the foothills to the Bay. (O.K., maybe not the East Bay.) Still, it will take a lot more than Luck to get the Cardinal back to last year's lofty heights: a school-record 12 wins and a BCS bowl victory.
Can it happen? The off-season losses were substantial: Jim Harbaugh, the coach who engineered the program's almost unthinkable rise to national significance, is now with the 49ers, as is defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who transformed a porous unit that was eighth in the Pac-10 in points allowed per game (26.5) in 2009 into one that was 10th in the nation (17.4) last year. The team also said goodbye to a number of stalwarts on defense; its top two receivers; and three starters, including All-America center Chase Beeler, from an offensive line that had given up just 13 sacks over the last two seasons.
But Cardinal fans do have reason for optimism. With Luck at the helm, the offense, which last year set a school scoring record (524 points), should fly high again, especially if electrifying senior wideout Chris Owusu, who was limited to seven games last year, can avoid injury. "We need Chris to stay healthy for the entire season," says new head coach David Shaw, who was the offensive coordinator under Harbaugh. "We're a different team when he's there [than] when he's not."
Either way Stanford will run the ball often. The top four rushers return, including Luck, who gained 453 yards on top of his 3,338 passing yards, and junior Stepfan Taylor, who was the first Stanford sophomore to crack 1,000 yards rushing since Darrin Nelson in 1978. "The best thing about our team is the diversity," says Shaw. "We have multiple running backs and receivers who could have 100-yard games. And our tight ends are explosive; any one of them could be the hero."
The defense, which had three shutouts in 2010, will have some unpredictable elements. Co-coordinators Derek Mason and Jason Tarver, who share some of Fangio's coaching DNA, plan to hew to his 3--4 base—with a few wrinkles. "We're going to keep pushing the envelope," says Shaw, "to keep our opponents off balance and keep winning games."
COACH David Shaw (1st year)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Pep Hamilton
CO-DEFENSIVE COORDINATORS Derek Mason, Jason Tarver