Editor's note: Fifth in a series previewing the Pac-12 football season.
UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. — Andrew Luck put up some prolific numbers in his three years at Stanford. Before leaving for the NFL, the quarterback threw for 9,430 yards and 82 touchdowns.
Luck brought national prominence to a program that had endured seven consecutive losing seasons before his arrival. Over the past two years, Stanford has posted a sparkling 23-3 record.
Now comes a transition and it remains to be seen if it will be a seamless one.
Sophomore Brett Nottingham and junior Josh Nunes enter fall camp competing to replace Luck as the starter.
"Whoever wins that job will be the guy who does the job well (and) executes," Stanford coach David Shaw said while adding the importance of getting in the right protection and putting the ball where it needs to be. "That's what the position is going to boil down to for us. Let our playmakers make plays, which is what we can do."
Leading that charge is running back Stepfan Taylor. Shaw calls him "the most underrated back in the nation."
As Stanford's primary ball carrier the past two seasons, Taylor has scored 25 touchdowns. He rushed for 1,330 yards last season and 1,137 as a sophomore. At Pac-12 Media Day, Shaw predicted the senior will have a third straight 1,000-yard season.
Even so, he's not putting any extra burden on Taylor now that Luck is gone.
"I'm not going to ask Stepfan to do anything he hasn't done on film for two years, which is be a phenomenal football player," Shaw said. "And he will continue to do that."
Guys like Taylor who are already playing at high level, Shaw added, will allow the new starting quarterback to grow into the role.
"I don't feel the pressure," Taylor said. "I feel we have to just go out there and play our best game, every game."
OFFENSE: Luck's departure has left an obvious void. And there's more. Besides Luck, Stanford also bid farewell to a pair of starting offensive linemen and two receivers. The Cardinal still have a lot of talent, however, with weapons like Taylor and 6-foot-8 junior tight end Levine Toilolo. Senior center Sam Schwartzstein anchors the line.
DEFENSE: Nobody in the Pac-12 defended the run any better than the Cardinal last season. They allowed just 84.4 yards on the ground. Senior linebacker Chase Thomas is one of seven returning starters. He earned first-team all-conference honors in 2011. The biggest question on defense is the secondary, where three new starters are sought.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Sophomore kicker Jordan Williamson did plenty of kicking in 2011 with 54 PATs and 13 field goals. Question is, how will he bounce back after three misses in Stanford's 41-38 overtime loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl.
PLAYMAKERS: Taylor ran for 1,330 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and will likely be more of a focal point on offense. On defense, Thomas is a big-play guy who made 17.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and 8.5 sacks in 2011.
TOUGH STRETCH: After a favorable early schedule (four of their first five games at home), Stanford has back-to-back road tests at Notre Dame and rival California. The Cardinal have another challenging two-game stretch away from home — at Oregon and at UCLA — to close out the regular season.
EXTRA POINTS: Linebacker Shayne Skov, who led the Cardinal in tackles in 2010 but was limited to three games last season because of a knee injury, has been suspended for one game by Shaw in the wake of a DUI arrest in January. … Stanford has a new athletic director. Delaware's Bernard Muir has replaced Bob Bowlsby, who left to become the Big 12 commissioner.
2012 media poll: 2nd, North
2011 record: 11-2, 8-1
Head coach: David Shaw (2nd season, 11-2 overall)
Aug. 31 — SAN JOSE STATE
Sept. 8 — DUKE
Sept. 15 — USC
Sept. 27 — at Washington
Oct. 6 — ARIZONA
Oct. 13 — at Notre Dame
Oct. 20 — at California
Oct. 27 — WASHINGTON STATE
Nov. 3 — at Colorado
Nov. 10 — OREGON STATE
Nov. 17 — at Oregon
Nov. 24 — at UCLA
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