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February 27, 2010
Although it lost its best player, Stanford enters spring practice with optimism because Luck is on its side.
Finding an adequate replacement for departed running back Toby Gerhart, the Heisman runner-up, obviously is a top priority this spring. But even if a solid successor surfaces, the Cardinal still figure to begin building the offense around sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck, who passed for 2,575 yards in his first season.
Upgrading the defense also will be a spring focus. If the Cardinal can make progress on that side of the ball and see improvement from Luck this spring, they could be realistic contenders for the Pac-10 championship this fall.
Positions of strength
Luck made most freshman All-America teams last season after passing for 2,575 yards and 13 touchdowns with only four interceptions. A year's experience should make him better. So should four returning starters along a line that allowed only seven sacks in '09. Fingers are crossed that T Matt Kopa is granted a sixth season of eligibility. The Cardinal's receiving corps is strong with Ryan Whalen and big-play threat Chris Owusu.
Help is needed
Pick a place on defense. The line, linebackers, the secondary, even the coaches had issues in '09. Last season, the Cardinal ranked ninth in the Pac-10 in total defense and eighth in scoring defense; as a result, the staff was overhauled. Lance Anderson has moved from defensive tackles to coaching outside linebackers, while Vic Fangio was brought in as defensive coordinator and Randy Hart as defensive line coach. Oh, yeah, the Cardinal are switching to a 3-4 defense, too.
Three guys to watch
RB Stepfan Taylor: He spent his freshman season as a backup to Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart, who led the nation with 1,871 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns. The Cardinal will be looking for signs that Taylor, who ran for 303 yards, can keep the running game productive. He's expected to compete with sophomore Tyler Gaffney for the starting job.
LB Chase Thomas: He had a solid freshman season with 36 tackles and four sacks at defensive end. This spring, he's moving to linebacker in the 3-4 and needs to show he can be productive.
TE Levine Toilolo: A massive 6-foot-8 redshirt freshman, he impressed on the scout team after recovering from a foot injury last season. He could bring a big-play element to that position. He also may get some action at defensive end.
The pressure is on
LB Chike Amajoyi: After solid freshman and sophomore seasons, Amajoyi started the first six games of '09, but posted just 35 tackles in that span. He eventually was replaced in the starting lineup by true freshman Shayne Skov. The move to the 3-4 will provide Amajoyi a chance to again rise up the depth chart. But unless Amajoyi has a strong spring, he'll be in jeopardy of spending his senior season as a backup.
In a breakthrough '09 season that was highlighted by back-to-back victories over Oregon and USC, Stanford broke a streak of seven consecutive seasons without a postseason appearance. The Cardinal don't want to take a step back now, but maintaining that momentum won't be easy. Finding a successor for Gerhart is a huge task. An even larger priority is bolstering the defense, which allowed more than 30 points in six games last season. An improved defense will ease the loss of Gerhart's production and should be enough to boost the Cardinal to another bowl appearance.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.