Pac-10 spring practice preview: Stanford

Stanford Cardinal
2009: 8-5 (6-3)

Stanford has two major storylines that will start to play out as spring practice begins on Monday in Palo Alto.

First and foremost, how does head coach Jim Harbaugh and the Cardinal replace Heisman Trophy finalist Toby Gerhart and the productivity he brought to the offense? Gerhart rushed for 1,871 yards and a staggering 28 touchdowns in 2009 for a team that finished 8-5 and earned a Sun Bowl berth. Not only did he put up headline-grabbing numbers, but he led a rushing attack that was able to take pressure off of young quarterback Andrew Luck.

Entering spring practice, sophomores Tyler Gaffney and Stepfan Taylor are expected to receive the majority of reps in the competition to replace Gerhart, along with senior Jeremy Stewart. Redshirt freshman Usua Amanam could also get a look. Gaffney, Taylor and Stewart combined for 497 rushing yards and four touchdowns last season, so they have their work to do to if the Cardinal expect the power-running game to continue to succeed. Four starters returning from a cohesive offensive line will help.

“I don't think we can replace him with one person, but I do believe we can replace his production in combination,” Harbaugh told the San Jose Mercury News. "I'm hoping we can find some tandem that adds up to one Toby Gerhart.”

The other area to watch as spring unfolds is how successful new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will be in implementing the 3-4 defense, although it is expected to be more of a hybrid 3-4 while Fangio utilizes the 4-3 at times. The Cardinal defense finished ninth in the Pac-10 last season under now-reassigned coordinator Ron Lynn, and the team must replace six defensive starters from the porous unit.

Fangio, who spent the past four seasons as a Baltimore Ravens assistant, plans on making the blitz a major part of the defense’s identity in Palo Alto. And Harbaugh plans on doing everything necessary to make sure the ‘D’ isn’t the team’s Achilles ’ heel in 2010.

Starting fullback Owen Marecic will become the team’s starting inside linebacker after playing there off and on next season.

The secondary, which allowed 23 touchdown passes and a 63 percent completion rate last season, will get a boost as former quarterback Alex Loukas will get a shot at the safety spot held by Bo McNally. Loukas’ athleticism, along with some of Harbaugh’s recent recruits, should provide a lift in the back end of the defense.

The one aspect of the team that Harbaugh and the Cardinal can remain calm about is Luck’s play at quarterback. Luck, who had finger surgery in December and missed the Sun Bowl, is reportedly throwing fine and is expected to practice in full by the end of spring. Look for the Cardinal to be fully committed to finding a No. 2 quarterback, though, so Luck’s reps could be limited — not a major setback as he may be the most talented signal caller in the entire conference.

But how will Luck fare without a dominant presence in the backfield in Gerhart? Will defenses stack the line and force Luck to make plays? And will the defense be good enough to stop the big play on the other side of the ball?

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