Cardinal on the rise

By Patrick Klein

Arizona Daily Wildcat

You couldn't blame Stanford quarterback Steve Stenstrom if he was a little down after Cardinal coach Dennis Green jumped ship to coach the NFL's Minnesota Vikings and offensive coordinator Ron Turner left to become head man at San Jose State after the 1991 season.

Stenstrom, then a redshirt sophomore, had just completed a successful first season as starting quarterback, only to see his offensive braintrust broken up. What would happen now?

Enter Bill Walsh, who has had fairly decent success when it comes to coaching quarterbacks. Stenstrom, in fact, is in his third year under Walsh's watchful eye.

"This has been a chance of a lifetime," Stenstrom said about his tenure. "It's a great experience, I'm learning new things everyday. You never reach a plateau, you just keep getting better."

It was the Walsh factor that convinced Stenstrom to delay a job that awaits in the NFL to stay for his senior year after throwing for 3,627 yards and 27 touchdowns last year.

"I'm staying another year because of Walsh," Stenstrom said. "The more I stay around him the better I'll be. But I also wanted a degree and a run at the Rose Bowl."

Walsh must be thrilled by his quarterback's decision, for Stenstrom has single-handedly pulled the Cardinal offense which until this year has lacked a consistent running game through games on the strength of his arm.

A sample: Oct. 19, 1991, Stenstrom threw for 267 yards and three touchdowns as the Cardinal upset Southern Cal. Sept. 11, 1993, he threw for 330 yards and four TDs as the Cardinal held off San Jose State 31-28. The next week, he added 382 yards and five touchdowns, the final one coming with eight seconds to play, as Stanford pulled off a 41-37 upset of Colorado.

"He has taken it to the next step," Walsh said of Stenstrom. "It's a natural progression. He had to learn to make spontaneous plays and now he's better within our system. He's still learning, he should run more often. He's a wonderful player and throws beautiful passes."

Those passes have taken Stenstrom to the brink of national prominence. The Sporting News ranked him the No. 1 quarterback in the nation this year, and he is being pushed as the Cardinal's first legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate since John Elway in 1982, as well as a probable first-round choice in April's NFL draft.

Additionally, Stenstrom should break the Pacific 10 Conference records sometime this year for career touchdown passes (he is currently tied for second with 60), passing yards (third with 8,694) and total offense (seventh with 8,055 yards).

Even Arizona head coach Dick Tomey has jumped on the Stenstrom bandwagon.

"He's one tough hombre," Tomey said.

One of the quirky things about the interconnected world of college football is the relationship between Stenstrom and USC quarterback Rob Johnson, who The Sporting News tabbed as the second-best QB in the nation behind Stenstrom. At El Toro (Calif.) High School, Stenstrom was the quarterback and Johnson was his No. 1 wide receiver. The two remain friends, and still play catch in the offseason.

"We're both so busy that we don't get to talk a lot, except in the offseason," Stenstrom said. "I never thought (the combined success) would happen. We both did well in high school, but I never thought that it would come to this."

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