For the first time in 40 years, the Stanford football team is kicking off a new campaign as the defending Rose Bowl champion.
With the majority of its top-ranked defense returning, the Cardinal snagged the No. 4 spot in the USA Today preseason coaches poll, but as usual, the team isn't paying attention to outside expectations.
“All the noise from outside doesn't change what we do,” junior safety Jordan Richards said.
Last year, the Cardinal ranked first in the Pac-12 Conference in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense, sacks and tackles for loss. They're returning eight starters, including fifth-year seniors Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy and third-team All-American Ed Reynolds.
Stanford will boast one of the top front sevens in college football again this year with Murphy, who led the team in sacks (10) and tackles for loss (18) last year, creating havoc from the outside linebacker position, and Skov, who's regained his explosiveness after recovering from a 2011 ACL knee injury, anchoring the defense on the inside.
Two years ago, the passing defense was the team's weakest link, ranking 95th in the nation, giving up 253.2 yards per game. But now, the secondary is as strong as any in the Pac-12 with Reynolds and Richards combining for nine interceptions last year, and sophomore Alex Carter emerging as a shutdown corner.
“There are a lot of guys coming back,” Richards said. “As a unit, we have to continue to communicate, communicate and communicate and execute our jobs. What we did last year and the year before, it really doesn't matter.”
As usual, Stanford will bully opposing defenses with one of the strongest offensive lines in the country. Consensus All-American David Yankey is returning to left guard after a year at left tackle now that former five-star recruit Andrus Peat is ready to jump in and protect quarterback Kevin Hogan's blind side.
The team will miss all-time leading rusher Stepfan Taylor and coach David Shaw plans to use a committee of backs in his place.
Speedy senior Anthony Wilkerson will see his share of touches out of the backfield and so will Tyler Gaffney, who's returning to the team after taking a year off to play professional baseball. Redshirt freshman Barry Sanders and fifth-year senior Ricky Seale are also expected to contribute.
“Two years ago, we played four backs in a game,” Shaw said. “Looking at it, I think we'll probably go back to that.”
If the team is facing uncertainty in any area, it's the passing game. Stanford, known as Tight End U in recent years, lost Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo to the NFL draft, so 6-foot-7 sophomore Luke Kaumatule will need to grow up fast. The team's trio of four-star recruits — Eric Cotton, Austin Hooper and Greg Tabaola — could also jump into the mix at some point.
The Cardinal also lost 88 percent of its wide receiver production, but with Ty Montgomery fully healthy and Michael Rector, Kodi Whitfield, Devon Cajuste and Kelsey Young ready for action, the coaching staff thinks the team is actually more talented on the outside.
Despite the new faces, quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford said he expects the passing game to gel sooner than later.
“A lot of these wide receivers that have such a chance to be special are guys that [Hogan] came in with,” Sanford said. “He's been throwing with them since he was a freshman, those were his peers, so he has a great rapport with those guys.”
3 KEYS TO STANFORD'S SEASON
Establishing the run
The turnaround at Stanford the past four years can be linked to focusing on playing a physical style of football, including a commitment to running the ball. Stanford lost its primary back, Stepfan Taylor (1,530 yards in 2012), to the NFL and will likely employ multiple backs this year, including Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney. However they do it, the Cardinal must produce a solid ground game to be successful.
As good as the Stanford defense was last season — it allowed a Pac-12 Conference low of 17.5 points per game — the secondary has some room for improvement. The Cardinal allowed the third-most passing yards in the conference last season. Making strides on those numbers will go a long way in 2013.
Filling the void
The quality tight ends that Stanford has produced the past couple seasons has been remarkable. But with Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo in the NFL, Stanford needs the next great tight end to emerge and provide QB Kevin Hogan a reliable target. Six-foot-7 Luke Kaumatule appears to have the makeup to do the job.
3 PLAYERS TO WATCH
The junior receiver was hampered by injuries last year which limited his production to just 26 catches, but he still averaged 26.6 yards per kickoff return. When you combine Montgomery's blazing speed with his 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame, he has the ability to create matchup nightmares for opposing defenses. If he can add a deep threat element to the Stanford offense, it will open up the running game that much more.
The versatile senior offensive lineman will be the cornerstone of what is expected to be one of the best offensive lines in the country. Yankey is a preseason All-American on just about every major outlet that produces a list. In his junior season of 2012, Yankey started all 14 games at left tackle after playing the previous season at left guard.
The fifth-year linebacker is the defense's vocal leader and is also a preseason second-team All-American by SI.com after starting 13 games in 2012. Last year, while still recovering from a torn ACL he suffered in 2011, Skov led Stanford with 81 tackles. If his explosiveness is all the way back, Skov could be in line for a monster season.
Sept. 7 vs. San Jose St., 8 p.m.
Sept. 14 at Army, 9 a.m.
Sept. 21 vs. Arizona St., TBA
Sept. 28 at Washington St., TBA
Oct. 5 vs. Washington, TBA
Oct. 12 at Utah, TBA
Oct. 19 vs. UCLA, TBA
Oct. 26 at Oregon St., TBA
Nov. 7 vs. Oregon, 6 p.m.
Nov. 16 at USC, TBA
Nov. 23 vs. Cal, TBA
Nov. 30 vs. Notre Dame, TBA