Stanford coach David Shaw drew laughs at the Cardinal's first 2012 team meeting by acknowledging the obvious. "The quarterback position is going to get a lot of attention," he said, "but it's not going to be because of anybody in this room." With two-time Heisman runner-up and presumed No. 1 NFL draft pick Andrew Luck now training for a likely job with the Colts, five Stanford QBs from last year's 11--2 team took to the practice field last week to compete for Luck's old job. No player in the country will draw more scrutiny from the time of his first start. "Some people think it's not very enviable to be the guy who replaces him," says Brett Nottingham, Luck's top backup last season, who will be a third-year sophomore in the fall. "At the same time, he set a standard here, and the way I look at it is, Who better to follow?"
The 6'4", 210-pound Nottingham and 6'4", 211-pound junior-to-be Josh Nunes shared most of the first-team reps during Stanford's first week of spring practice, but Shaw planned to get rising junior Robbie Picazzo and redshirt freshmen Evan Crower and Kevin Hogan more opportunities. Of the two perceived leaders, Nottingham, Rivals.com's fourth-ranked quarterback in the class of 2010, has the stronger arm, a better touch on the deep ball and a slightly quicker release, while Nunes is a tad more advanced in reading and anticipating defenses. As physically impressive as Luck was, his mastery at the line of scrimmage—changing protections and checking the offense in and out of running plays—played an important role in Stanford's consecutive BCS bowl berths. Shaw is looking for much the same in his next starter. "The guy who makes the best decisions is the guy who's going to play," says the second-year coach.
Whoever wins the job has the luxury of commanding a balanced attack. According to Football Outsiders's research, Luck accounted for 57.6% of Stanford's offense last season, significantly less than that of other departed standouts like Baylor's Robert Griffin IIII (65.4%) and Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden (64.7%). The Cardinal will lean heavily on a trio of talented tailbacks—Stepfan Taylor, Tyler Gaffney (who's with the baseball team this spring) and Anthony Wilkerson—provided it can find capable replacements for projected first-round linemen Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro. "Our pressure is going to go on our running game, our offensive line and our two tight ends [Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz], who we think are the best group in the country," says Shaw, whose team is picked to start behind fellow Pac-12 teams USC and Oregon in early Top 25 projections. "Those guys have to pick up for Andrew, not the next quarterback."
Shaw won't decide on a starter until at least mid-August. In the meantime Nottingham, a Bay Area native whose father, Paul, was a walk-on quarterback at Cal, is focused more on his own improvement. "It's a little bit like golf," he says. "I'm just trying to compete against myself." In reality, he's competing against four other quarterbacks and the long shadow of another.
SPRING STORY LINES
Urban Meyer gets back his whistle
After a year's hiatus, the two-time BCS-title-winning coach at Florida will return to the field at Ohio State. His first priority: finding playmakers on an offense that ranked 107th in yards in 2011. "Were they hiding [last] year?" says Meyer, 47. "I hope we have those guys."
TCU tries to focus on football
On Feb. 15, 10 days before spring camp, four Horned Frogs—including three starting defensive players—were expelled for allegedly dealing marijuana. (The players were arrested and released, and charges have yet to be filed.) Now, in addition to rebuilding a defense that can handle elite Big 12 passers, coach Gary Patterson must repair his team's image.
Missouri and Texas A&M prep for the SEC
The Tigers and the Aggies move from the Big 12 to the nation's toughest conference. New A&M coach Kevin Sumlin is installing much of the wide-open passing attack that he ran at Houston, while Missouri is intent on turning dual-threat quarterback James Franklin (above) into one of the SEC's best.
LSU turns the page
The four-month joyride of a 13--0 regular season ended with a crash on Jan. 9, a 21--0 loss to Alabama in the BCS championship game that had players and fans questioning coach Les Miles's game plan. Now the attention turns to Zach Mettenberger, the likely successor to beleaguered QB Jordan Jefferson.
UNDER THE GUN
Baylor quarterback Nick Florence
Replacing Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III is no small chore, but the senior from Garland, Texas, has done it twice before. He started seven games as a true freshman in 2009, when Griffin tore his right ACL, and threw two touchdowns in relief in a 66--42 win over Texas Tech last season.
Virginia Tech running back Michael Holmes
The departure of 1,709-yard rusher David Wilson to the NFL leaves the Hokies without an experienced tailback. Holmes, a 6'1" 200-pounder who redshirted as a freshman in 2011, will compete with early enrollee J.C. Coleman.
Boise State quarterback Joe Southwick
The junior-to-be enters spring as the leader in a four-way race to replace college football's alltime winningest quarterback, Kellen Moore. Southwick completed 23 of 30 passes for 198 yards last season.
Michigan defensive tackle Will Campbell
The former five-star recruit spent his first three seasons as a largely underachieving backup, but this year the 6'5", 322-pound Campbell (left) will be counted on to fill the void left by departed standouts Mike Martin and Will Heininger.
Darron Thomas's decision to enter the NFL draft opens the door for either rising sophomore Bryan Bennett or redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota. Bennett showed impressive poise and speed in subbing for an injured Thomas last season, but Mariota may have the better arm.
Texas running back
Malcolm Brown (right) and Joe Bergeron impressed as freshmen in 2011 and will continue jostling for carries this fall. They'll also have to fend off incoming freshman Johnathan Gray, the top-ranked recruit at that position, who ran for a national record 205 TDs at Aledo (Texas) High.
Alabama nose tackle
Terrence Cody (2008 and '09) and Josh Chapman (2010 and '11) anchored lines that helped produce national championships. Brandon Ivory, a 6'4" 308-pounder who played four games as a freshman last year, is their likely heir, or coach Nick Saban could move starting end Jesse Williams inside.
New offensive coordinator Brent Pease will pick between Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel. Because of injuries both saw action earlier than expected as freshmen last season, and they struggled accordingly.
Photograph by JED JACOBSOHN
WHO'S GOT NEXT? Nunes (far left) and Nottingham (second from left) lead a quarterback competition that won't be resolved until August camp.
PETER G. AIKEN/US PRESSWIRE (FRANKLIN)
ERIC GAY/AP (BROWN)
LON HORWEDEL/ICON SMI (CAMPBELL)