Football preview 2011: Passing game shaping up

Aug. 18, 2011, 3:03 a.m.

Of Andrew Luck’s 372 passes last season, two throws — his first and his last — are perhaps the best ways to sum up Stanford’s 2010 passing game and hint at what the future might hold.

The first pass was a 27-yard bullet across the middle to redshirt freshman tight end Levine Toilolo, who tore his MCL and ACL as he was tackled and sat out the rest of the year. The last pass was a 38-yard lob to redshirt junior tight end Coby Fleener, who scampered into the endzone untouched to cap off a 40-12 Orange Bowl win.

Football preview 2011: Passing game shaping up
Redshirt junior Andrew Luck, above, remains the cornerstone of a Stanford offense that's seeing a number of changes this season. (Stanford Daily File Photo)

The dominance of Stanford’s tight ends — and the untimely injuries sustained by some of Luck’s top targets — defined the Cardinal passing attack last season, and look to leave their marks yet again on this year’s squad. Holes need to be plugged at receiver, where there might not be enough depth to keep the Cardinal moving if key players again miss game time. Accordingly, the coaching staff is still considering schematic adjustments in favor of a tight end group that amassed over 850 yards a year ago.

Yet all eyes are still on the man who set single-season school records in both touchdowns (32) and completion percentage (70.7) last year, all while garnering enough media attention to earn a second-place Heisman Trophy finish, shock outsiders by forgoing the NFL Draft and inspire his own line of now-clichéd plays-on-words. “As Luck would have it,” a recent AP headline read, “Stanford QB returns.”

Luck does have it, and room for improvement for the defending Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year is quite hard to find as he enters his redshirt junior season. But Luck’s just going to keep looking.

“I’ve got a lot of work to do to have a successful college season,” he said. “You’ve got to be constantly hard on yourself to improve. I think once you’re satisfied and you’re complacent, you’ve done something wrong mentally.”

It’s true that, in his brief playing tenure on the Farm, Luck is still well short of Stanford career records in touchdowns, completions and passing yards. Padding his stats, however, is not exactly what Luck had in mind.

“Our thought process with Andrew is pushing Andrew to be as good as he can be,” said head coach David Shaw. “And thank god he has the personality and temperament that he has, because he expects nothing different. The thing is, he wants to come and work every single day, just like the rest of our guys, and what I love about him is that he’s a lead-by-example guy.”

“He’s not a guy that sits back on the laurels and accolades that people throw him. He rests on the work that he puts in,” Shaw added.

Luck has been his own worst critic in the early weeks of fall training camp, an approach that — though he might not be quick to admit it — has worked to near perfection over the past three years.

“His ability to stay humble and stay hungry [is amazing],” said senior wide receiver Chris Owusu. “You wouldn’t think that someone of that much talent would put so much pressure on himself, but he does every day, and it’s definitely helped him.”

The Cardinal’s primary gameplan under center is crystal clear for the moment, but the battle for Luck’s backup spot will continue to run throughout camp. Redshirt sophomores Josh Nunes and Robbie Picazo are early favorites, with redshirt freshman Brett Nottingham emerging as a dark horse.

Nunes is the only quarterback of the three with any experience; he played in four games last year, throwing two passes with one seven-yard completion. All three hopefuls have a steep learning curve ahead of them.

“The hardest part is not trying to hold them up to Andrew’s standard,” Shaw said. “It’s too high. We have to take a deep breath when Andrew comes out, kind of adjust our expectations. But the good thing is the competition is going great.”

Even with Luck quarterbacking what’s bound to be another high-powered offense, the passing game may not stay the same heading into this season. Two of the men expected to lead the squad in receiving last year — Toilolo and Owusu — saw very limited action in 2010 due to injury. As a result, Stanford came to rely more on the talents of receivers Doug Baldwin and Ryan Whalen, who have both since graduated. With Owusu seeing action in only seven games, the returning wide receivers account for less than a fifth of the Cardinal’s overall receptions last season.

Football preview 2011: Passing game shaping up
Senior wide receiver Griff Whalen, No. 17 above, caught two passes for 36 yards against Cal last season. (Stanford Daily File Photo)

Shaw has been hinting since Pac-12 Media Day that if young receivers don’t step up, Stanford’s talented tight ends will be even further incorporated into the passing attack. At least one wideout has risen to the task: Griff Whalen (no relation to Ryan), who caught 17 passes for 249 yards last year.

“He’s making every play, he’s doing everything right and he’s at the point now mentally in our offense where he’s helping younger guys,” Shaw said. “He’s not just concerned about himself anymore — he knows what we’re doing down pat — he’s now helping some of the younger guys. And for Andrew, and for our coaching staff, that’s very comforting, because that’s what Ryan Whalen and Baldwin did for us a year ago.”

Third-year receivers Jemari Roberts, Jamal-Rashad Patterson and Drew Terrell are also trying to prove themselves in camp. After the first day out on the practice field, Luck was impressed with their progress.

“I think the wideouts did a good job running routes,” he said. “We’ve obviously got to keep working on that position, but I think they did a good job.”

The receivers are well aware of the big shoes they have to fill. Baldwin and Ryan Whalen combined for 99 catches and 11 touchdowns, totaling nearly 1,300 yards and pulling off their fair share of leaping catches.

Though several strong wideout recruits are on their way to the Farm, the current receivers have their own goals in mind for this year.

“I think our whole wide receiver core as a unit is definitely putting pressure on itself, and it’s made us a lot better,” Owusu said. “This summer, we’ve been working our tails off, doing the little things right because that’s what’s expected of us.”

Owusu himself has to fight an uphill battle, despite his distinction as the team’s most experienced wideout. Not only did his receiving production tail off after a mid-season concussion and knee injury, but he lost the starting job returning kicks, where Owusu made a name for himself in 2009 with three returns for touchdowns, a school record.

Since a “100-percent” recovery from offseason knee surgery, Owusu has felt ready to contribute on special teams yet again.

“Coach Shaw and I are on the same page; I am going to be returning kicks,” he said. “How many I do is up in the air, but I’m definitely returning kicks.”

Regardless of Owusu and Whalen’s promise, a significant portion of the passing attack will be focused on the tight ends, who totaled 13 of Stanford’s 32 touchdowns through the air last year. Their role was especially pronounced in the Orange Bowl, where Fleener and then-sophomore Zach Ertz caught all four of Luck’s touchdown passes.

Though he claims that the tight ends were not specifically targeted in preparation for Virginia Tech, the game represented a coming-out party for Fleener on the national scale, with a nomination to the Mackey Award Watch List soon to follow.

“There were plays that we had planned, but not necessarily to be that open,” he said. “It was more about the offensive line giving Andrew a great amount of time and Andrew finding the open receiver. It just happened to be me.”

Fleener and Toilolo, expected to be Stanford’s one-two punch at tight end last year, will finally have their shot at playing together in 2011, now that the latter has fully recovered from his ligament tears.

“He’s an exciting player to watch, and I’m so happy that he’s back, because honestly, it really helps our team,” Fleener said. “Last year he was going to be a big part of the offense, and to have him out for the rest of the year just after the first game was a big blow.”

“If you walk down the street and see Levine, everybody realizes how tall he is. So he creates a lot of mismatch problems with his athleticism, height and ability to run down the field, jump over little guys and get around bigger guys,” Fleener added.

But for Toilolo, the tight ends and the receivers to contribute, they’ll have to stay healthy. The Cardinal probably doesn’t have enough depth to replace two of its top offensive players if injuries strike again; ever since Owusu had surgery, Shaw has been drilling him with the assertion that he must “play every game” this year.

So between the inexperience and injury concerns, the success of the Stanford passing attack could very well come down to luck. And Luck.

This is the final installment of a four-part series previewing the 2011 Stanford football team.

Part One: Front Seven (July 28)

Part Two: Secondary (Aug. 4)

Part Three: Running Game (Aug. 11)

Joseph Beyda is the editor in chief of The Stanford Daily. Previously he has worked as the executive editor, webmaster, football editor, a sports desk editor, the paper's summer managing editor and a beat reporter for football, baseball and women's soccer. He co-authored The Daily's recent football book, "Rags to Roses," and covered the soccer team's national title run for the New York Times. Joseph is a senior from Cupertino, Calif. majoring in Electrical Engineering. To contact him, please email jbeyda "at" stanford.edu.

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