GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 02: Andrew Luck #12 of the Stanford Cardinal calls signals out at the line of scrimmage against the Oklahoma State Cowboys during the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on January 2, 2012 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
So much to replace.
The Stanford Cardinal are a totally different team going into spring practice. With the most successful caveman in college football history deciding he could make fire elsewhere, David Shaw has some adjusting to do, and by adjusting I mean he's going to run power-I jumbo set six out of seven plays with an occasional pass to the tight end/running back.
At least that's the script. Stanford has their way of doing things that made them very successful the past three seasons, and there's no reason for them to deviate from that script. Stanford's biggest consistency has been an offensive line that can move defenders out of the picture and pick up a regular five-six yards for their running backs, then having a quarterback robotically complete 70% of his passes and convert touchdown drive after touchdown drive. It's a stodgy formula that never stops working and never gets old, and has generally provided the perfect counter for the smaller and speedier offenses and defenses that permeate the conference.
But that's also no guarantee the formula will work forever, particularly if the personnel don't match the blueprint.
Stanford's front seven is set. The Cardinal lose only two of their seven starters and should be able to maintain the depth that made them a top running defense. If the uber-talented Shayne Skov can extricate himself from his various troubles, pair him up with Chase Thomas and Stanford could contend for having one of the most complete defenses in the country up front.
Not that everything is peachy clean. Stanford is losing some defensive backs, particularly starting safeties Delano Howell and Michael Thomas (along with cornerback Johnson Bademosi). Teams will be happy to try and exploit the passing defense this season if they can get enough protection to get the throws off.
Offensively speaking, the players that make Stanford's offense are mostly back. The deadly tight end combo of Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo should continue to give teams fits with their versatility and unguardability, even with Coby Fleener off and out. The running back platoon stays mostly intact with Stepfan Taylor, Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney all handling the workload. Taylor is the horse and could contend for top Pac-12 running back honors with LaMichael James and Chris Polk gone.
They'll need production from all those guy, because if Stanford's wide receivers were a question mark before, they are filled with blanks this time around. Other than Ty Montgomery, the Cardinal have no one to really stretch the field.
Replacing the big bodies up front isn't going to be easy. David DeCastro was one of the best interior linemen in college football his sophomore year, and Jonathan Martin has been defending the blind side. Stanford does have a good center in Sam Schwartzstein, but otherwise there are four question marks up front.
Stanford power offense is dependent on the beef up front. David Yankey has the size at tackle, but does he have the agility to protect the blind side? Replacing DeCastro in spring practice will be virtually impossible, perhaps even harder than finding the next quarterback.
Oh yeah. Quarterback.
Brett Nottingham seems like the likely candidate, as he's been the backup all of last season and the first man off the bench. Barring Evan Crower or Kevin Hogan wowing the Stanford coaches (Robbie Picazo and Josh Nunes have probably seen their chances come and gone unless they make a junior leap). However, with five guys all competing for this spot, the Stanford quarterback spot is probably going to be the one that draws the most intrigue around the conference.
Getting merely competence from the Cardinal signal-caller (someone who can plug it in to his receivers and minimize the mistakes) ensures Stanford remains a top competitor in some sense. There's too much returning talent on this team to fall off. But if Stanford plans on returning to the Rose Bowl, quarterback play will be absolutely imperative to maintain that sort of excellence with the team they have in place right now.