Olin Buchanan Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
When Jim Harbaugh accepted an offer to lead the NFL's San Francisco 49ers, Stanford lost the coach that transformed its program from a 1-11 disaster to a 12-1 Orange Bowl winner.
Yet, there isn't necessarily an atmosphere of gloom in Palo Alto because of who left. Instead, there's an atmosphere of excitement and possibilities because of who remains.
All-America quarterback Andrew Luck opted to return for his junior season even though he would have been the first selection had he entered the NFL draft.
New coach David Shaw, who held the offensive coordinator title last season, has holes to fill, particularly in the offensive and defensive lines. But with Luck back, the Cardinal see spring drills as the first step toward building on last season's success.
Here's a look at Stanford as it readies for spring drills.
QB Andrew Luck is back, but the Cardinal lost a lot of talented guys.
Coach: David Shaw Last season: 12-1 overall, 8-1 in the Pac-10. Beat Virginia Tech 40-12 in the Orange Bowl.
Spring dates: Feb. 21-April 9
RETURNING STARTERS (minimum seven starts last season)
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH: Luck passed for 3,338 yards, had four times as many touchdowns as interceptions (32 to eight) and was ranked third nationally in passing efficiency. He runs well, too. So, quarterback is in good hands. The Cardinal is well-stocked at running back, too. Stepfan Taylor, who rushed for 1,137 yards last season, heads a deep group of tailbacks. Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas form as good a pair of linebackers as there is in the nation.
HELP IS NEEDED: Stanford's offensive line was one of the best in the country in 2010, but three starters are gone, including All-America C Chase Beeler. The top two wide receivers are gone. The Cardinal defense must adapt to its third coordinator in three years after Vic Fangio joined Harbaugh's staff with the 49ers. Two of the three defensive line starters in 2010 must be replaced.
3 GUYS TO WATCH
DE Ben Gardner: He posted three tackles for loss as a backup in 2010. Gardner, who will be a sophomore this fall, has the chance to step in and replace Blake Bulcke in the starting lineup.
LB Trent Murphy: When OLB Thomas Keiser opted to declare for early entry into the NFL draft, Stanford lost an effective pass rusher. Murphy, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound sophomore, may be the guy to fill that void. He had only two tackles in a backup role last season, but one was a sack.
NT Terrence Stephens: Stanford needs a capable successor to All-Pac-10 selection Sione Fua. Stephens, who will be a junior, showed flashes as Fua's understudy, but he didn't get a lot of playing time. Fingers are crossed this spring that he can establish himself as a worthy successor kin the middle.
THE PRESSURE IS ON
WR Jamal-Rashad Patterson: He arrived as a four-star prospect from suburban Atlanta in '09, but he has been playing behind established and productive players. There also has been talk of poor practice habits. But with top receivers Doug Baldwin and Ryan Whalen completing their eligibility, Patterson needs to distinguish himself this spring or risk being bypassed by younger players on the depth chart.
There is some curiosity to see what changes are made and how the Cardinal respond with Shaw in charge. He has a more relaxed personality than the ever-intense Harbaugh. But Stanford has a strong nucleus with Luck and Taylor on offense and Skov and Thomas on defense. Last season, the Cardinal finished in the top five of the national rankings for the first time since 1940. The feeling is Stanford can do it again this fall, especially if significant strides are made along the lines this spring.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.