STANFORD — David Shaw’s latest recruiting class is short on numbers and marquee names. If the past has shown anything, though, that might not matter much.
Looking for the right combination of brawn and brains, Stanford signed 12 players to national letters of intent Wednesday. That’s a considerably smaller — and less heralded — group than a year ago, when the Cardinal coach hauled in 22 players in what the program called the best class in its history.
The type of players signed, Shaw said, remains constant.
“You’re going to see toughness. You’re going to see guys play with the attitude that we have here,” said Shaw, sitting at a table flanked by the Pac-12 and Rose Bowl championship trophies. “You’re going to see guys that are bright and intelligent. First and foremost before we ever start this process, you’re going to see guys that fit us.”
That has been Stanford’s strategy during its recent renaissance.
With so many players returning from a team that just won the Rose Bowl, Shaw focused on finding targets to help breakout quarterback Kevin Hogan as he enters his redshirt sophomore season. Among those in the recruiting class are tight ends Greg Taboada (Atlanta), Austin Hooper (San Ramon) and Eric Cotton (Nampa, Idaho) along with wide receiver Francis Owusu (Oxnard), the brother of former Stanford speedster Chris Owusu who Shaw said is even bigger at this stage in his development.
The hope is that the tight end trio will, in time, alleviate the losses of All-American Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo at a position that desperately needs depth. Both decided to forego their final year of eligibility to enter the NFL draft.
“With two tight ends walking out the door, you’ll see three tight ends coming in the door,” Shaw said. “Big, physical guys that we believe have the talent both at the line of scrimmage and as pass receivers.”
If Signing Day 2012 was Shaw’s masterpiece, this year might be more of a patchwork.
Stanford is bringing back most starters — and their primary backups — just about everywhere on the field but tight end, wide receiver and linebacker. So it’s no coincidence those three positions makeup most of the Cardinal’s class.
The dozen signed come from five different states: Owusu, three tight ends, four linebackers, two offensive linemen, quarterback Ryan Burns (Leesburg, Va.) and three-way threat Taijuan Thomas (Monroe, La.), who is listed as wide receiver, cornerback and kick returner.
Shaw declined to discuss how many players were accepted to the university and turned down an offer. He did the same when asked about those the school targeted who didn’t meet the rigorous admissions standards. He likened both to “doctor-patient privileges.”
Linebackers coach and admissions liaison Lance Anderson said it was a normal recruiting year as far as the difficult Stanford standards. He said it’s always encouraging to see how hard prospects work to meet the grade, noting that Hooper took the SAT test four times before he qualified — still two shy of the record set by tight end Luke Kaumatule, part of last year’s class.
“We recruit a different kind of athlete here,” Anderson said.
The main difference from a year ago, when Stanford surprisingly rolled up rankings in the top 10 of most major recruiting services, is that this class lacks a star-studded punch. The Cardinal failed to crack the top 50 this February — not like Shaw cares much.
Instead, the two-time reigning Pac-12 Conference Coach of the Year has carried on the philosophy started by predecessor Jim Harbaugh: focus on players smart enough to clear Stanford’s admissions who could thrive in a throwback brand of physical football. And with few scholarships available this year, that approach resonated even more.
“It’s a small class because we didn’t have a lot of guys walking out the door,” Shaw said. “We have a lot of guys coming back with a lot of high expectations as far as their play and their improvement is concerned. We wanted to bring some guys in that could come in and compete.”
Shaw expects some of the success of this past season to have more of an impact on next February’s class.
On Jan. 1, Stanford outlasted Wisconsin 20-14 to capture the program’s first Rose Bowl victory since 1972. By that time, most of this class had been secured.
The Cardinal finished with a No. 7 ranking and are one of only three teams — Oregon and Wisconsin being the others — to have made a BCS bowl each of the last three years. Shaw was so at ease this signing day, he said he listened to folk-rock singer “Jack Johnson” while watching film instead of waiting by the fax machine for the official letters.
The same comfort has been felt on the road for Stanford with an established recruiting pipeline now.
“The first year we were here with Coach Harbaugh, a lot of the doors we had to kick open, some of those doors are open right now,” Shaw said. “Walking in, it’s not, ‘Hey, is that a Syracuse or North Carolina State ‘S’ on your chest?’ Now you walk in they say, ‘Oh, it’s Stanford. Stanford’s here.’”