SAN JOSE (CBS/AP) – The last time Josh Nunes took a hard hit came more than two years ago in spring practice.
Back then, former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh allowed defenders to sack the quarterback on select plays. Nunes ran into the huddle for his turn in the rotation, and Harbaugh threw him a curve.
“He’s like, ‘Quarterback’s live!”’ Nunes recalled. “I remember all the first-team defensive linemen perk up and come running back in to get some plays.”
Hits are about to start coming fast and furious from all angles again.
And this time, the stakes will be quite different.
The redshirt junior quarterback will lead No. 21 Stanford into the post-Andrew Luck era on Friday night, hosting south bay rival San Jose State in the season opener. The game will mark the first meaningful minutes for Nunes—who has thrown two passes in his collegiate career—since he was a senior at Upland High School in Southern California four years ago, and it will be the first glimpse of what life without Luck might look like this season.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been hit in a real game,” Nunes said. “I’m kind of looking forward to it. It’s always nice to kind of get that first hit and be like, ‘Hey, get back in the swing of things.”’
Stanford is trying to do just that this season.
Gone is the NFL’s No. 1 overall pick, two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up and perhaps the greatest player in Stanford history. So are three others drafted in the top 42 picks, two starting wide receivers and both safeties. Even the grass is new for the first Friday night game in Stanford Stadium history.
“It’s not the same,” senior defensive tackle Terrence Stephens said. “But I think we have a team full of people who believe in ourselves. We realize that not one team is good because of one player but because of the collection of ideas and beliefs and the things that we can do and our personal abilities.”
What’s left is back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher Stepfan Taylor, two talented tight ends, a vicious front seven anchoring one of the Pac-12’s top defenses and the league’s reigning Coach of the Year in David Shaw. Not to mention the uncertainty over how much Stanford leaned on Luck for victories.
About the only thing Shaw wants to see under the lights against an overmatched Spartans team—other than a victory, of course—is how so many new starters will respond to the slightest bit of adversity.
“It’s the biggest thing. It’s more important than anything else,” Shaw said. “Handing the ball to the running back and everybody’s blocked and he walks in the end zone? That tells me nothing. What happens when he gets hit in the backfield? What happens when he misses something and makes a mistake? What happens when a tackle gets beat? All that stuff is important.
“What happens when a young receiver catches the ball and gets hit hard? What happens the next play? That’s what happens with young guys. I tell the guys all the time, ‘It’s part of life. It’s not important what happens to you. It’s important how you respond to what happens to you.’ We’ll see that this Friday.”
Stanford will not be the only team with a new quarterback.
Junior college transfer David Fales also will make his first start for San Jose State, which made great strides last year, going 5-7 in coach Mike MacIntyre’s second season after posting a 1-12 record in 2010.
Fales transferred from Monterey Peninsula College before spring practice. He completed 61.8 percent of his passes for 4,635 yards and 37 touchdowns in two seasons. The native of nearby Salinas graduated from Palma High School and began his college career in 2009 at Nevada, where he redshirted that season.
“I think David is definitely ready to handle it and he has good weapons around him,” MacIntyre said. “He’s not going to do everything by himself, but again, Stanford’s front seven is one where we won’t play a better front seven all year long. They are very, very good.”
All eyes will still only be on one quarterback.
Nunes dreamed of attending Stanford since his father, Tim, dropped a Cardinal cap on his head when he was 8 years old—never mind that the family lived near the Rose Bowl. He turned down more than 30 scholarship offers and waited three years behind Luck for the chance to run out of the Stanford Stadium tunnel as the starting quarterback.
While he beat out strong-armed sophomore Brett Nottingham and earned the trust of coaches over nearly nine months of practice, what happens when it matters is anybody’s guess.
“I wouldn’t say nervous. Just prepared,” Nunes said, pausing for a few seconds. “Well, maybe a few butterflies.”