Cardinal will be physical, and will have players who will play both offense and defense

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At a luncheon table recently at Pac-10 media day, Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh is stoked at what he sees across from him — running back Toby Gerhart — and he’s fairly hyperventilating at the vision of the Cardinal ground game.

“Feed ’em the pads, right Toby?” Harbaugh exclaims. “Feed ’em the pads!”

“Feed ’em the pads” is Cardinal code for get physical, a novel concept Harbaugh has brought to a traditionally finesse program in three years, as Gerhart pounded for a school season-record 1,136 yards in 2008.

Now Harbaugh is getting innovative again. The latest brainstorm has several Cardinal players on both sides of the ball, a little slice of the old days of one-platoon football designed to help Stanford get to its first bowl game since the 2001 season.

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That last one? Tyrone Willingham — you might have heard of him — coached Stanford to the 2001 Seattle Bowl at Safeco Field before going on to Notre Dame.

“These kids are excited about the chance to play both ways,” says Harbaugh. “They want to get on the field.”

Half a dozen or more of the Cardinal could do it. The most notable is fullback Owen Marecic, a suburban Portlander known as Gerhart’s crunching lead blocker but also a player who has shown aptitude as a linebacker, where he starred in high school.

“Makes me feel like an athlete again,” said Marecic.

Richard Sherman, who led Stanford in receiving yards his first two years, is now stationed at cornerback but is expected to get snaps on offense as well. Linebacker Alex Debniak gained 91 yards on four carries in the spring game and could steal some snaps on that side.

Delano Howell, a running back as a freshman in 2008, moves to a primary position at safety, but could also roam to the backfield and his old spot.

“You’ve got to be in really good condition,” said Harbaugh, whose 5-7 team of 2008 missed a bowl game only because of a three-game, finishing losing streak. “But there are so many TV timeouts now.”

It’s not for everybody. The playbook for one position can be challenging enough. And the limited repetitions automatically mean the player is disadvantaged against one who doesn’t divide his time.

But, as the 244-pound Marecic points out, “It adds a lot of depth to different positions.”

Harbaugh introduced the idea before the spring, and, says Marecic, “Everybody was excited about it. A lot of guys wanted to take it and run with it.”

Running with it has become Stanford’s M.O. Harbaugh has transformed Stanford, saying, “Maybe that’s why the [Pac-10] is having so much success. We feel that’s the way to be successful — be physical and not try to out-finesse everybody.

“This program was built on a foundation of bedrock. It hasn’t been built on shifting sands.”

The Cardinal will unveil a couple of new offensive linemen at Washington State on Sept. 5, one of them Bellevue High redshirt freshman David DeCastro.

But everybody in the Pac-10 will recognize Gerhart, of whom Harbaugh says, “He has great balance, great feet, great vision. The thing people don’t take notice of is his speed.”

Still, the most-watched Stanford player will be at the spot Cardinal followers have always trained their eye. Quarterback Andrew Luck is the 6-foot-4, 235-pound redshirt freshman from Houston who unseated Clover Park High grad Tavita Pritchard.

“He’s going to be a great player,” said Marecic. “He has the respect of everybody on the team.”

Luck should eventually take his place among some of the bigger quarterback names at his school. And yet, Stanford will do what Stanford has come to do: Feed ’em the pads.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or

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