When Jim Harbaugh left the program he had built to join the San Francisco 49ers on January 7, 2011, Stanford football stood at a crossroads. Most observers believed the program would crumble and that the assembled recruiting class would splinter in the four weeks that remained before National Signing Day, but that didn't happen. This series will take a closer look at some of the players from that landmark class who are poised for greatness in 2013.
According to most of the recruiting experts, James Vaughters was the jewel of Stanford's 2011 recruiting class. Boasting offers from all the big schools -- Alabama, Auburn, Notre Dame, Ohio State, USC, and a dozen more -- he was one of the most hotly pursued prospects in America. He committed to Jim Harbaugh and the Cardinal in June before his senior season at Georgia's Tucker High School, but during the week before signing day speculation swirled that he was having second thoughts.
In the end he chose to stick with Stanford, providing further proof that the program had become more than just Harbaugh.
Vaughters arrived as in inside linebacker, and most expected him to follow an arc similar to Shayne Skov's. Skov had just completed his sophomore season and had developed into one of the best linebackers in the nation, but he had contributed mightily even as a freshman and had started the final seven games of 2009.
But when Vaughters first hit the field for summer workouts in July of 2011, his competition was much thicker than what Skov had faced as an incoming freshman two years earlier. Quite simply, the talent at Stanford was getting better, so Vaughters had to wait. Even so, he played in thirteen games as a freshman in 2011 and played all fourteen games last season, including starts in the first four. Still, it wasn't quite what was expected. Some observers of the program began to wonder if perhaps Vaughters had been overrated.
We'll learn the truth soon. Yesterday David Shaw announced that Vaughters had earned the starting outside linebacker job after beating out Blake Leuders. The coaches have been raving about Vaughters since he arrived on campus two years ago (their faith in him never wavered), but the reports have been even better this summer. Outside linebacker seems like a natural position for him, especially since when we saw him as a freshman he was almost always lined up on the line of scrimmage in obvious passing situations. He's still athletic enough for pass coverage, but his increased size (he now weighs in at a healthy 254 pounds) will undoubtedly make him a force in the running game and a beast when it comes to rushing the passer.
The Stanford front seven is quite possibly the best group in America, and it will be fun to watch a player of Vaughters's talent as he joins the #partyinthebackfield. I still believe he'll be something special.
[Photo Credit: Rob Holt/AP Photo]