Coming off of its fourth straight trip to a BCS Bowl Game, Stanford Football has entered rarefied air - a continued level of success that most other programs would die for. Although there are obviously many factors that have contributed to Stanford’s rise and sustained excellence, the program’s "Next Man Up" attitude has probably played the biggest role in the program’s now-regular stop at big-time bowl games.
Stanford football turned around behind the efforts of truly special talents, but it has been able to maintain success through breakout stars who have stepped up to fill the void left by their predecessors. Quarterback Kevin Hogan, with his 10-1 record against ranked opponents, has done an admirable job of taking over from Andrew Luck while running back Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney each picked up right where Toby Gerhart left off. Outside linebacker Trent Murphy ramped up his production following the departure of Chase Thomas and junior left tackle Andrus Peat has more than adequately succeeded Jonathan Martin. And these names just scratch the surface of the Stanford’s ability to find the "Next Man Up."
Now, the question is this: Who will be the Cardinal’s breakout performers for the upcoming 2014 season? Here are my rankings of the players I think are primed to become household names with a big 2014 season.
1) Lance Anderson, defensive coordinator – Anderson, one of the few remaining members of Jim Harbaugh’s original 2007 staff, has already proven himself to be an invaluable member of the football program. As the liaison to the Admissions Office, Anderson has guided countless recruits through the gauntlet of applying to Stanford, allowing the football team to field elite talent while meeting the academic standards of the University. Now, Anderson finds himself with the additional responsibility of leading Stanford’s defense with the departure of Derek Mason to Vanderbilt. Throughout spring practice, Stanford head coach David Shaw raved about how well Anderson’s defense was performing, and his words were backed up by a stellar performance by the unit in the Cardinal and White Spring Game, which the defense won 40-27 in dominant fashion, mostly thanks to a monstrously aggressive front seven. It remains to be seen whether Anderson shares Mason’s gift of making in-game adjustments, but he is an incredible motivator and has already left his mark on the defense. Although not a player, we should hear Anderson's name a lot in 2014.
2) Kevin Anderson, senior outside linebacker – I hesitated to put KA on this list since he already "broke out" with a strong performance against Oregon State and his pick-six in the Rose Bowl last season, so I compromised with an Honorable Mention nod. Replacing the nation’s sack leader in Trent Murphy will be no easy task, but Anderson, by all accounts, turned a corner during the December practices leading up to the Rose Bowl and could very well become Stanford’s premier pass rusher next season. Although he didn't play in the Spring Game due to a minor injury, Anderson will likely be ready to take the next step forward in his game in 2014.
Top 5 Breakout Players
5) Francis Owusu, sophomore wide receiver – Owusu saw the field as a true freshman playing both special teams and receiver, most notably hauling in a touchdown against Cal. With a whole year to learn Stanford’s intricate playbook and physically develop under Shannon Turley’s strength program, Owusu is poised to play a greater percentage of snaps and could emerge as another deep threat to complement Ty Montgomery and Michael Rector. Quarterback Kevin Hogan certainly has some weaknesses in his game, but throwing the deep ball is not one of them. As a speedy, physical receiver, Owusu could become another explosive offensive weapon for the Cardinal offense.
4) Noor Davis, junior middle linebacker - A highly-touted recruit out of Florida, Davis kind of got lost in the linebacker shuffle his first two years on the Farm; however, he has impressed the coaching staff with a strong spring campaign and looked explosive and comfortable during the Spring Game, making quick reads and delivering big hits. Although fellow junior Blake Martinez looks to be the favorite to take over Shayne Skov’s vacant linebacker spot, Davis’ continued improvement should earn him a significant amount of playing time and the chance to use his great size and athleticism to become a premier defensive weapon for the Cardinal.
3) Barry Sanders, sophomore running back – It might finally be Barry Time in the Stanford backfield. Entering the Spring Game, Sanders was jockeying for playing time with senior Kelsey Young and fifth-year senior Ricky Seale, but turned in the most impressive performance out of the group with a team-leading 72 rushing yards and a 29-yard scamper off of a screen pass. Sanders is quick and shifty in the open field, and the gargantuan holes created by Stanford’s offensive line provide the perfect environment for him to thrive. His pass-blocking skills - along with the added competition from senior Remound Wright, who will return for summer training camp - might hold him back from seizing the starting spot, but, if the Spring Game is any indication, Sanders looks poised for a breakout 2014.
2) Eric Cotton, sophomore tight end – Tight End U has been desperately searching for the heir to Zach Ertz, and Cotton looks to have the best chance to wear the crown as the offense’s top pass-catching tight end. In addition to his leaping touchdown grab in the spring game, the redshirt freshman has received a lot of praise from Shaw and has the frame and athleticism - 6-foot-6, 242 pounds with a 4.7 40 yard dash - to be a matchup nightmare next season. The Idaho native could make those fans bemoaning the lack of a great pass-catching tight end last season very happy.
1) Aziz Shittu, junior defensive lineman – A former five-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American, Shittu has, by all estimations, underwhelmed in his first two seasons. In fact, last season’s injuries to Henry Anderson and Ben Gardner prompted Shaw and Mason to move Blake Leuders from linebacker to defensive end and convert Luke Kaumatule to the position as well. In other words, the coaching staff did not trust Shittu to perform. That moment, though, seems to have been a wake-up call as the 6-foot-3, 280 pound junior, and he's arguably been Stanford’s best player in spring ball. Playing at both the defensive end and defensive tackle positions, Shittu has showcased some valuable versatility and was extremely disruptive from both positions in the Spring Game. Next season, he will likely see a lot of playing time as the starting defensive end alongside Henry Anderson and as the backup defensive tackle to David Parry. Although Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro will be moving on, the Stanford D-Line looks to be in good hands with Shittu’s rapid ascension.