Long after the last whistle of an unsettling Stanford spring game sounded, after all the fans filtered out of cozy Kezar Stadium and workers folded up the autograph tables, Brett Nottingham returned to the field to toss passes to running back Kelsey Young.
That final image of Stanford’s spring seemed to be a fitting one.
Nottingham, last season’s strong-armed backup and long-time favorite to replace the NFL’s projected No. 1 overall pick, Andrew Luck, still needs time and work. So does Nottingham’s fast-emerging competition, Josh Nunes, who often wows with his reads and game management but rarely with his arm.
While all the wildflowers had sprouted up in San Francisco’s famous Golden Gate Park already, spring is officially over and Stanford is still waiting for its next quarterback to blossom.
Nottingham and Nunes did little to separate themselves in Stanford’s annual spring game Saturday, splitting time in the Cardinal’s 37-29 loss to the White in a glorified scrimmage the defense dominated.
”That competition is still even,” said Stanford coach David Shaw, no more certain on a starter after 15 allotted spring practices than he was following the Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State on Jan. 2. ”I don’t know what the numbers say, I don’t care what the numbers say, today that position was not played well enough for us to win a football game.”
Not even close.
Shaw flipped the format to an unconventional offense (Cardinal) vs. defense (White) game to give his quarterbacks a chance to shine. Instead, the defense – which received points for turnovers and stops depending on where each occurred on the field – outscored the offense in what was a runaway for most of the sun-soaked afternoon in San Francisco’s famous Golden Gate Park.
The defense led 35-15 at one point in the one-sided scrimmage.
The defense received four points for a stop and seven for a turnover before the offense crossed midfield. If the defense had a stop or turnover after the offense crossed the 50-yard line, it earned two or three points, respectively. Holding the offense to a field goal also was worth one point – even though the kick still counted.
”Not a whole bunch I did correct today,” said Nottingham, a redshirt sophomore from San Francisco’s East Bay. ”There’s more stuff to clean up.”
All eyes zoomed into the quarterbacks fighting to replace the school’s record-setting quarterback.
Running back Stepfan Taylor rested and most of the tight ends hardly played, especially after Zach Ertz’s hit near the head that briefly left him stunned. And as if the signal-callers needed any reminder of the large shadow the two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up left cast behind, Luck stood on the sidelines in a hooded sweatshirt and shades watching every move.
In a somewhat surprising move, Nunes worked with the starters for most of the game, while Nottingham played with the second-team offense against the first-team defense – mostly because Shaw wanted to see him get pressured more, but also because he had seen plenty of Nottingham in softer scrimmages previously.
Each had flashes of brilliance and long stretches of inconsistency.
Nunes threw for 167 yards and two touchdowns, including a wobbly 45-yard TD pass that Ty Montgomery caught leaping between two fallen defenders. But he completed just 11 of 29 passes, and never looked in rhythm.
”Maybe a questionable decision,” said Nunes, who had a lingering turf toe that kept him out most of last season. ”But it’s great that we have guys who can go up and make plays like that.”
Not that his competition’s arm created enough separation.
Nottingham completed 12 of 19 passes for 118 yards. He also had one interception – a bobbled ball by Jamal-Rashad Patterson that Jordan Richards corralled – and one lost fumble on the center exchange.
Nottingham’s passes still had more zip and found tighter seams. He even tossed routes Luck rarely threw, such as a back-shoulder pass to Nelson for 26 yards just short of the goal line that set up a TD on Nottingham’s opening drive.
”It’s a trust thing, really,” Nottingham said. ”I didn’t know if he was going to go back shoulder or not. You got to make a play on the ball, and it’s a trust thing that comes over time.”
The quarterback Shaw ultimately trusts to lead the Cardinal will likely win the job.
Shaw, who will enter his second year in place of Jim Harbaugh, now with the San Francisco 49ers, plans to wait until the end of fall training camp to decide on his next quarterback. He has offered little hints about a front-runner, insisting again that neither ”has the edge.”
”If it’s really neck and neck,” Shaw said, ”I’ll just make the call, and we’ll just go.”