STANFORD, Calif. — David Shaw might have slept better the nights before games last year than any other coach in the country.
Not so this season.
Not without Andrew Luck.
The NFL’s No. 1 overall pick, two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up and perhaps the greatest player in Stanford history is gone. So are three others drafted in the first 42 picks and a half-dozen more now in NFL training camps.
Left behind is a talented mix of tight ends and running backs, one of the Pac-12’s top defenses and the league’s reigning Coach of the Year. Even he’s still tossing and turning trying to figure out who will be the once-in-a-generation quarterback’s replacement.
“It’s got to be which guy’s going to help me sleep at night,” Shaw said. “Which guy plays in a way that, the night before the game when I’m thinking about all the things that I think about, I think about the quarterback and I nod my head and say, ‘OK, I feel good about what we got going on and I can go to sleep.”’
No such luck yet.
After 15 allotted spring workouts, a summer of studying video and nearly two weeks of preseason practice, Shaw is still in the same position — without a starting quarterback — as he was following the Fiesta Bowl overtime loss to Oklahoma State on Jan. 2. In a competition coaches and players are still calling “50-50,” the only certainty is that either Brett Nottingham or Josh Nunes will win the job.
Nottingham, last season’s strong-armed backup and former favorite to replace Luck as a redshirt sophomore, has not taken the reins the way Stanford coaches had hoped. Nunes, the redshirt junior who often wows with his reads and game management but rarely with his arm, has stayed steady and efficient — and that might be all it takes to start this season.
Both quarterbacks agree that the lengthy competition has made them stronger and each goes into every huddle and hike thinking the same thing: “What would Andrew do?”
“I was behind Andrew for three years, which was one of the biggest blessings you could ever have as a quarterback,” Nunes said. “Watching how he handled the game from a mental standpoint as well as a physical standpoint was huge. So now I can think about what he did whenever I go into a drill.”
The one thing neither will have is the leverage Luck earned to call plays and organize the offense in a way almost no quarterback at any level does anymore. Not to mention the experience or proven pedigree.
Nottingham replaced Luck late in six games last year, finishing 6 of 8 passing for 78 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown to tight end Coby Fleener against San Jose State. Nunes, who missed most of last year with a right turf toe injury, played in four games in 2010 and completed 2 of 4 passes for 7 yards.
“We can’t shrink the offense,” Shaw said. “Now what we allowed Andrew to do, we’re not going to put that on the next starter. But that guy is still going to have to execute the full playbook.”
If there’s anything that should give Shaw solace, it’s Stanford’s recent history.
The program pushed forward following running back and 2009 Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart’s departure, weathered the loss of do-everything fullback and linebacker Owen Marecic after the 2010 season and stayed strong after Jim Harbaugh and his top coordinators left for the San Francisco 49ers before last season.
“I think it’s a special thing because not too many teams in the country can do it,” senior defensive tackle Terrence Stephens said. “Just because they don’t believe that they have what it takes. You can never build your thing on one player or coach. You have to develop that concrete soul.”
At this point, that soul is still not solid.
While most of the attention has centered on Luck, Stanford also lost left tackle Jonathan Martin, right guard David DeCastro and its top tight end in Fleener. The Cardinal return tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, and a stable of running backs led by senior Stepfan Taylor — aiming for his third straight year with at least 1,000 yards rushing — and incoming freshman Barry J. Sanders , who spurned his Hall of Fame father’s alma mater at Oklahoma State to come to The Farm.
One thing that should not be a concern is defense.
Shayne Skov’s return should energize a Cardinal defense that has already been among the Pac-12’s best, ranking second in scoring (21.9 points per game) to Utah and second in total defense (337. 6 yards per game) behind rival California last year. Skov, with his signature Mohawk and liberal display of eye black, led Stanford with 84 tackles and had 7 1/2 sacks two years ago, and now he rej oins a linebacker group headlined by Chase Thomas — who flirted with the NFL before deciding to stay for his senior season.
Skov likely would’ve entered April’s draft as well if he hadn’t torn a ligament in his left knee in the third game of the season at Arizona. He will be suspended for the San Jose State game because of an on-campus DUI arrest in January.
The schedule will do Stanford no favors.
The Cardinal host Southern California on Sept. 15 and face a more daunting road schedule this year with away dates at Washington (Sept. 27), Notre Dame (Oct. 13), rival California (Oct. 20) and Oregon (Nov. 17). While Luck’s brilliance bailed out Stanford so many times on the road last season, returning players are eager to prove the program has more to lean on than No. 12 now.
“We have to be able to play well, be able to get out there and show everyone we’re a great football team,” senior center Sam Schwartzstein said. “It wasn’t just Andrew.”