Senior College Football Columnist

Stringent standards help Stanford elevate itself in recruiting


Andrew Luck's success in college lends itself to Stanford's recruiting for the future. (US Presswire)  
Andrew Luck's success in college lends itself to Stanford's recruiting for the future. (US Presswire)  

If you ever wonder why you shouldn't get too fired up about recruiting rankings, just remember the story of the Stanford signing class of 2008. ranked the group No. 50 in the country and ninth-best in its conference. slotted the Cardinal 43rd nationally. ESPN left Stanford out of its top 25 classes and awarded the class a grade of "C+".

But if you were to re-rank the classes, four years later, based on what those recruits have actually developed into, you could make a strong argument that they'd be ranked no lower than No. 2 in the country. And considering that Stanford's class was only 17 recruits as compared to No. 1 Alabama's 32 signees, it's no stretch to think the Cardinal group has a legit claim to the top spot.

The group put together by former Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh included five signees who were invited to this week's NFL combine. Three of those -- QB Andrew Luck, guard David DeCastro and tackle Jonathan Martin -- are projected as top-15 NFL Draft picks and two others -- safety Delano Howell and linebacker Chase Thomas -- were first-team All-Pac 12 picks in 2011. The class signed with Stanford after going 4-8 in Harbaugh's first season, a year after the program went 1-11.

Saying a radical transformation has taken place since is an understatement along the lines of saying Harbaugh has stomped on a toe or two in recent years.

David DeCastro is one under-the-radar player Stanford is sending to the NFL. (US Presswire)  
David DeCastro is one under-the-radar player Stanford is sending to the NFL. (US Presswire)  
In the past two seasons, the Cardinal have won 23 games. Harbaugh has moved on to the NFL, where he has already had eye-popping success with the San Francisco 49ers. David Shaw, a Stanford grad himself and one of Harbaugh's top assistants, took over. And despite cynicism from some corners, it sure doesn't seem like this program is going to fall back off the national radar.

The Cardinal just signed a top-10 recruiting class that featured a celebrated group of offensive linemen. Obviously, given the example above, we'll refrain from getting too giddy about this class. What is fascinating is how Stanford did it, and how things have changed over those four years.

The metamorphosis of Stanford football is one of the most remarkable stories in the sport's history. The Cardinal have gone from doormat to "the cool school" in one recruiting class's college career.

"It is completely different, like night and day," Shaw says of the perception of the football program at his alma mater. The Cardinal didn't just beat the USCs, Alabamas, Floridas and Notre Dames for one recruit this year. Stanford beat them on several blue-chippers.

So what's the biggest reason for the boost in cache besides simply winning games?

"Andrew [Luck]," says Shaw.

"He is what every university wants in a student and what every coach wants in a player. And the only football player who has been more visible over the past year is Tim Tebow."

The other big component in the Cardinal's cool factor is all of the negativity surrounding college football these days with scandals in academics and recruiting, Shaw says. "I've been searching and I haven't found any other school recently that's been ranked both in the top 5 in college football and the top 5 by the U.S. News & Report."

Mike Sanford, the Cardinal running backs coach who helped land celebrated running back recruit Barry Sanders (son of the football legend), jokes that it's Revenge of the Nerds.

"It's even to the point, where our players are embracing that being a nerd is cool. They poke fun at it, but it has become a pretty strong brand. It's become a fun, clever deal: The Nerd Class. Even now you see people responding to [former Harvard basketball star] Jeremy Lin and [former Cardinal basketball player] Landry Fields, where it's been brought back that it's neat to be smart and to be a high achiever. You can see the professional organizations are attracted to it because you know these guys have to be so accountable."

In 2008, Andrew Luck was a top 100 recruit out of Texas. He had about 45 or 50 scholarship offers, but didn't get offered by home-state Texas and was somewhat in the shadows of more hyped quarterback prospects that year. Terrelle Pryor was the QB getting almost all of the attention, but Dayne Crist, Blaine Gabbert, Mike Glennon and E.J. Manuel also were touted more than the 6-4, 235-pounder from Houston. With Luck, there was still some skepticism from recruiting analysts whether he had an elite arm and many scouts didn't realize he was as good of an athlete as he was. DeCastro, Martin, Thomas and Delano Howell were all pegged as "three-star" prospects -- pretty good but not seen as future standouts. But Harbaugh couldn't have cared less about where they were ranked.

"I know a lot of coaches say they don't care about what the recruiting rankings say," recalled Jon Haskins, a former Stanford linebacker who was the Cardinal's Director of Player Development at the time, "but we really didn't care what they said."

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The year before Harbaugh and his staff arrived in Palo Alto, the Cardinal had a bunch of guys who would go on to play in the NFL, but the team still only went 1-11. "When we first got here, we were under strict orders from Coach Harbaugh that we're gonna find the toughest players we could find, guys that would practically ball up their fists and fight," says Shaw. "Back then, Stanford had a rep that it could play with anybody for awhile, but that the team did not have the toughness to finish the game. We had to change the mindset."

Harbaugh's staff viewed toughness as a "talent" not much different than speed or strength. Except grit might've been even more valued. A prime example was DeCastro, an unheralded lineman from the Seattle-area.

"We loved David [DeCastro] right away," says Haskins. "We knew he was gonna be a stud. He was playing center and just mauling guys, but maybe some people thought he was smaller on film than he was. When we saw him in person, it's 'Whoa!' It was a no-brainer.

"That whole class was special. They took a lot of ownership. Every class tries to do that but they really did. Those guys were such good teammates. They also mimicked Jim's intensity and focus."

Haskins points out that just because a guy plays football doesn't necessarily mean he's physically tough. From a mental side, Shaw maintains the Cardinal's rigorous academic requirements forces the program to get determined people. "To be honest, it's built in for us," he says. "We can look [at] the physical toughness when you watch a kid play, but we're also finding out about that stick-to-it-iveness when we're asking them to re-take tests, take AP courses and make tough decisions to try and get admitted here. That shows dedication, toughness and perseverance."

The trick, though, is to also find those guys who have that mental and physical toughness and also love football. Harbaugh's staff proved it had an eye for that.

As the Cardinal blossomed under Harbaugh, going from respectable to powerhouse, so did the program's approach to recruiting. College programs tend to be more liberal in throwing out scholarship offers whenever they deal with national recruits. With local kids, coaches figure those prospects are more likely to jump on any offer they get, while the national guys usually are pickier and see other programs doling out an offer just to catch their attention, to get in the game.

Lance Anderson deserves credit for keeping Stanford's recruiting on track.  
Lance Anderson deserves credit for keeping Stanford's recruiting on track.    
For a while few schools were as willing to extend an "offer" as Stanford. After all, the program with the strictest academic requirements in major college football would need a bigger recruiting pool.

Some rival coach claimed that Harbaugh would throw out offers knowing he could be selective on the back end by using the school's rigorous admissions policy to play bad cop. Shaw dismisses such criticism.

"There are some people that believe we do it on purpose, that we'll pull the rug out from under kids, and I take serious offense to that," he says. "It's wrong." But his staff's philosophy has changed from where Stanford was before the program starting winning.

"We're offering [scholarships to] significantly less people," Shaw says, adding that they need to see a genuine interest in attending Stanford before they extend an offer.

Says Sanford, who was earlier this month added the title of recruiting coordinator: "We're not just throwing offers out like its candy."


Stanford's recruiting process is opposite from virtually every other program in major college football and has been for the past few years. The staff doesn't watch film of prospects until after it receivers--and evaluates--a recruit's academic transcript. Many schools these days offer scholarships to kids whose transcripts they've never seen.

Not Stanford.

"We can't afford to waste time," says Shaw. "I need to look at kids who are great players and great students."

Just getting their hands on the transcripts is a challenge. Some high schools are reluctant to release them early. Other times there are technical glitches that muck up the process. "Some places phone lines are so crappy the faxes don't come through," says Haskins, who is now Florida's director of player personnel.

For the 2012 signing class, Stanford had 22 scholarships available. About a year out, the program's recruiting pool was under 200 prospects, Shaw said. By the end of those students' junior year, that pool had shrunk to under 100. The margin for error is dramatically different than almost everyone else the Cardinal play against on the field. It's also more challenging than even the "academic" football schools. Fallback options or Plan B recruiting scenarios aren't very common -- Cardinal staffers can rattle off players who ended up at some of these other programs after getting denied admission at Stanford.

The admissions component for many football programs with tougher academic reputations is a curious process to sort through. Much of it tends to be anecdotal. It often varies per school depending on who the head coach is and how successful that guy is, or isn't.

At Stanford, the admissions department wants to see, among other things, students taking two AP classes in their senior year of high school, Shaw says. That alone will reduce a football program's options. One former recruiting coordinator at a SEC program didn't recall having a single signee that even took an AP class.

"Most colleges [coaches] are telling kids, 'Don't take tougher classes. Take easier classes, so it's easier for you to get good grades, so you can graduate in the spring semester,' and I shudder when I hear that," Shaw says. "That spring semester is a huge part of the maturation process in a kid's development. Let them challenge themselves academically, let them go to prom, go to graduation."


The unsung star of the program's rise is a guy most die-hard football fans, even diehard recruiting fanatics, probably never heard of. His name is Lance Anderson, Stanford's 30-something year-old outside linebackers coach/admissions liaison. An Idaho State grad, Anderson is credited by online recruiting sites this year for reeling in a quartet of blue-chip O-line recruits -- Andrus Peat, Kyle Murphy, Joshua Garnett and Brandon Fanaika -- along with linebacker Noor Davis and defensive end Luke Kaumatule, but the coach's impact is much more significant than that for the Cardinal.

"Lance has been vital to us," says Shaw. "A lot of other coaches get notoriety for getting four- and five-star guys, but Lance realized we're not gonna change admissions here. He knew we need to change what we do, and that the key is to work with admissions and start the work early enough so those kids who are interested can plan to take AP courses. Those first few years we were looking to find guys, but we found them too late, and by then their courses were set, so it was too late. We lost out on some guys.

"Lance was the first one to realize and put that road map together."

Still, the process can be murky even for the Cardinal coaches.

"There's been instances where we think Player A will get in and Player B might not, and it turns out, Player B gets in and Player A doesn't," says Shaw.

As for the speculation the Cardinal football program can now get admissions to look the other way on an elite talent or two?

"That's all conjecture," says Sanford, who came to Palo Alto after having coached at Yale. "Stanford's not going to make exemptions. They're going to bring in the best group of people they can bring into this place. They're looking at the whole applicant. We don't have, say, two special exceptions a year. Nothing like that will ever happen. There's just too much pride in this place."

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.

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