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Stanford begins the process of replacing irreplaceable Luck

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Junior Josh Nunes and sophomore Brett Nottingham are the Cardinal's leading QB candidates. (US Presswire)  
Junior Josh Nunes and sophomore Brett Nottingham are the Cardinal's leading QB candidates. (US Presswire)  

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Pep Hamilton sits at a large, round wooden table with a pained look on his face, his head tucked into his left hand. The 37-year-old Stanford offensive coordinator has four tape recorders, an iPhone and a bottle of water scattered in front of him.

A half-dozen reporters are seated around Hamilton in a room in the front of the Cardinal Hall of Fame. It's a rainy Wednesday in mid-April, about 72 hours before Stanford's spring game. Hamilton is here for a briefing on the team's offense, which has to replace four projected first-rounders in next week's NFL draft. But the primary thing people seem to be curious about is how this program will replace Andrew Luck.

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After more than a month of spring ball, the media is convinced the five-QB battle has been reduced to two candidates: redshirt junior Josh Nunes and redshirt sophomore Brett Nottingham.

A gray-haired man seated a few feet from Hamilton is in the midst of a series of questions probing the attributes of all the Cardinal quarterbacks vying for the vacated job. The queries range from which passer has the strongest arm to who is most athletic to a more ambiguous question that sounds like the guy is asking about who has the quickest release but evolves into who is the quickest at going from recognizing his target to unloading the ball.

Hamilton, a former quarterback at FCS Howard, is measured in his responses. At one point, he stops short of saying Nottingham has the strongest arm, a point that has sprouted among many folks eager to get a sense of the new quarterbacks: "He has extreme arm talent," Hamilton says. "But arm talent is not the total answer."

Hamilton offers few immediate answers to these questions. Maybe it's because the quarterbacks are so close in certain categories. Maybe Hamilton doesn't want to inadvertently snub any of his guys. Or maybe the coach doesn't see how relevant some of these details are in actually sorting out Stanford's selection process.

(Hamilton later says, "It was combination. More than anything, I wanted to deemphasize the significance of any one individual attribute. There's a lot more that goes into playing quarterback than just arm strength. I coached Chad Pennington in the NFL. All the quarterbacks we have have a stronger arm than he does, but that doesn't mean they're going to play in the NFL.")

In truth, we do often fixate on measurables or things we're comfortable quantifying in simple, easily digestible morsels that we can later cite. This job search, though, will primarily be decided by the guy who demonstrates the best ability to manage the offense and get the Cardinal out of treacherous situations, given what the opposing defense is trying to do.

Stanford, Luck's eye-catching talents notwithstanding, still ran the ball 55 percent of the time last season. The Cardinal's M.O. is to run the power and wear you down. They want to win the time-of-possession battle, Hamilton explains. David Shaw, Stanford's second-year head coach, will have the ultimate say, Hamilton reminds the group, adding that the decision will be made at some point between "now and the second of third week of training camp."

And, for the record, Nottingham, Nunes and Kevin Hogan have the strongest arms. Hogan is the best athlete of the group and Nunes makes the quickest reactions.

  

David Shaw admits he thinks a lot about the magnitude of replacing Luck, and has been for awhile. He says he has explained many times to people this offseason about just what Andrew Luck has meant to this program and why this is such a big deal. Two years ago, the Cardinal had to replace Toby Gerhart, a bruising running back who was the Heisman Trophy runner-up. Great player. Great guy. But he wasn't Andrew Luck.

Luck, attending Stanford's spring game, led the Cardinal to 31 wins in three seasons. (US Presswire)  
Luck, attending Stanford's spring game, led the Cardinal to 31 wins in three seasons. (US Presswire)  
Before Luck took over at Stanford, the Cardinal had won 10 games in the previous three seasons. In the three years Luck started, the Cardinal won 31 games. Going into 2011, the Cardinal had to replace three starting O-linemen. Thanks in large part to Luck's savvy, they only surrendered 11 sacks all season, seventh fewest in the country. In Luck's three years as a starter, he was only sacked 23 times. Stanford only had three delay of game penalties in 2011, and two of those were due to the play getting in late from the sideline, Shaw says, "so those two were my fault."

Shaw says there is no doubt he got "spoiled" with Luck having been his quarterback. Last year, the rookie head coach was having dinner with Urban Meyer. The former Florida coach offered some advice.

"Relish every minute you have with Andrew," Meyer said. "I had Tim Tebow. You might not ever get anyone that is that special again."

Shaw: "I know. And I do."

  

The Stanford offense is rooted in the West Coast system. Shaw talks a lot about "positive plays," the way some coaches talk about their definition of "big" plays. "We take calculated shots," he said. If the Cardinal go from 1st-and-10 to 2nd-and-8 to 3rd-and-6, that's fine, said Shaw, who played receiver for the legendary Bill Walsh. "We want to stay in rhythm."

Negative plays such as sacks muck up an offense's rhythm. Quarterbacks who hold the ball too long couldn't play for Bill Walsh, Shaw said.

"Andrew Luck was perfect for what we do," he said.

Both Nottingham and Nunes said they learned well from observing Luck. "It was so much mental, and you tried to improve vicariously through Andrew," Nottingham says, adding that of all the great attributes Luck possesses, the best is his off-the-field approach. "He had a singular focus and was so methodical."

Said Nunes: "It's all about the process. You have to embrace the grind."

Of course, it's a lot easier to say than to do, particularly in the middle of a scrum with bodies flying all around you and your whole world ratcheted up to warp speed.

For young QBs, especially ones battling to replace a high-profile former star, there is a fine line between attacking a defense and being reckless, just like there can be between being cautious and tentative or between being analytical and obsessing. The unproven Cardinal quarterbacks are still sorting that stuff out as they get more reps.

"I take some shots that I shouldn't," Nunes said. "I can get caught up in a certain play. I'm kind of a perfectionist, whether that's in school or working on a paper."

Personality-wise, Nunes and Nottingham are quite different. "I'm a little bit more laid back," said Nunes.

Shaw described Nottingham as more aggressive, having more of a gunslinger style, whereas Nunes is more methodical. "I've been around quarterbacks who have been like either," he said.

Two key stats to keep in mind for the Cardinal: Third down percentage and red zone percentage. The past two seasons the Cardinal ranked third and first in the nation in third down conversion percentage and were first and ninth nationally in red zone offense. Both statistical categories will play a big role in determining who is Stanford's next starting QB. Shaw says they are charting every rep in practice -- mistakes, interceptions, completions as well as how each quarterback operates in third down and red zone situations and specifically how they handle a making a variety of checks.

"I do feel good about where we are at," Shaw told me before the Cardinal spring game. "We've got more than one guy that can play the position."

Just a few days later, after Nunes went 11-for-29 for 167 yards with two TDs while Nottingham was 12-of-19 for 118 yards with an interception, Shaw didn't sound as convinced, saying, "I don't care what the numbers say, that position didn't play well enough for us to win."

The Cardinal probably will still win a bunch of games based on the strength of its front seven on defense, and the grit of Stepfan Taylor, who Hamilton says could be a 2,000-yard back this fall. The 210-pound Taylor, a 1,330-yard rusher in 2011, is one of those inside runners who never seems to get hit squarely and looks like he's gained three yards on a play but it's actually eight or nine yards.

Still, the difference on whether this is an 8-4 team or a double-digit win team again will come down to quarterback play. We still have a long way to go before we find out who Stanford's next QB is, much less if he is ready to help keep this program in the top 10.


Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for CBSSports.com 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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