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Stanford Is Stenstrom’s Quarterbacking Clinic : Football: Under Walsh’s tutelage, El Toro graduate prepares for his senior season with the Cardinal, and possibly the NFL.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stanford’s Steve Stenstrom takes the snap, drops back and faces a decision most college quarterbacks only dream of making one day.

San Francisco wide receiver Jerry Rice is open on a deep fly pattern, as usual.

Tight end Jamie Williams looks good crossing over the middle.

And how about Roger Craig, who’s free coming out of the backfield?

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Stenstrom gets an NFL preview during off-season workouts, when current and former pro players work out at Stanford under the scrutiny of their former coach, Bill Walsh.

Walsh, Stanford’s coach the past two seasons, is grooming Stenstrom for his senior season . . . and beyond.

“Guys like Jerry (Rice) give me a lot of confidence telling me that I throw the ball well,” said Stenstrom, a former El Toro High standout. “You never know what to expect going to the next level.

“I’ve thrown with a lot of NFL guys, and there will definitely be an adjustment period for me in the pros, but I think I can make that transition when the time comes.”

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That time will be next spring, when Stenstrom learns if he truly is ready for the NFL or has merely been a product of Walsh’s successful offensive system.

Will Stenstrom, who is only 6 feet 1, be the second coming of Joe Montana, or is he too small and too slow to become anything more than a guy holding a clipboard on the sidelines?

“We have the best quarterback in college football,” Walsh said. “And I qualify that by saying there are some outstanding quarterbacks in the Pac-10. But I believe Steve is the best.

“He is further along than two out of three NFL quarterbacks in technique, mechanics, and in the decision-making process. It’s not hard to note that as you watch the NFL games.”

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Dennis Green, now coach of the Minnesota Vikings, recruited Stenstrom to Stanford in 1990. But it has been Walsh’s coaching that has developed Stenstrom into a Heisman Trophy contender.

A redshirt senior and a three-year starter, Stenstrom already has broken four Pac-10 passing records and is on track to break some of John Elway’s career school records.

Stenstrom had one of the best seasons in conference history last year, when he completed 300 of 455 passes (65.9%) for 3,627 yards with 27 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

Based on that, Walsh says Stenstrom could be the next in a long line of Cardinal quarterbacks to be drafted in the first round: Elway in 1983 (Baltimore Colts), Jim Plunkett in 1971 (New England), John Brodie in 1957 (San Francisco), Bobby Garrett in 1954 (Cleveland) and Frankie Albert in 1942 (Chicago Bears).

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Stenstrom’s play last season impressed former Washington Redskin Coach Joe Gibbs, who attended Cardinal games to watch his son, Coy, a linebacker.

“There are two things I always want with a quarterback--mental toughness and smarts,” said Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls with different quarterbacks--Joe Theismann, Doug Williams and Mark Rypien.

“I put those assets before arm strength, everything else. And Steve definitely has the mental toughness and smarts you want. He will be the guy the experts will be analyzing this year, trying to see if he can play at the next level. He has a chance.”

So what do the scouts and analysts think? Not all of them agree that Stenstrom is a lock as a first-round pick, even with expansion teams Charlotte and Jacksonville in the hunt for young quarterbacks.

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“No,” said Joel Buchsbaum, draft analyst for Pro Football Weekly. “Right now, Stenstrom is in the middle rounds, the fourth or fifth.

“He’s really smart, very well coached and makes excellent decisions in a great system. And there’s no questioning his courage and toughness--he has taken some unbelievable hits.

“But he’s a small kid, doesn’t have a strong arm, and he isn’t very mobile. And after four years playing in a great system, you wonder how much better he can get. Is there any way he can improve in the pros, or is he another Steve Dils or Guy Benjamin?”

John Becker, director of player personnel with the Rams, has watched videotape of Stenstrom but plans to take a closer look this season.

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“I know he’s from a hell of a program, and mechanically he’s way ahead of everyone else,” Becker said. “And he’s been a damn productive guy.

“There will be a lot of people looking at him (going into the draft). We have him down as a guy we’ll take a hard look at, but that’s nothing unique. Twenty-seven other teams are doing the same thing.”

Stenstrom explored the possibility of turning pro after his junior season. Although it was a relatively weak draft for quarterbacks beyond the top two prospects--Tennessee’s Heath Shuler and Fresno State’s Trent Dilfer--scouts, coaches and analysts told Stenstrom he would go anywhere from the middle to late in the first round to not being drafted at all.

That was more than enough to persuade Stenstrom to return for his senior season.

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“It was never much of a thought for me,” he said. “I looked into it briefly after the season because I felt I owed it to myself to at least explore what all these people were talking about.

“I loved being at Stanford too much, and I wasn’t ready to leave yet. I have some goals I still want to accomplish.”

Stenstrom admits he needs some work on his scrambling and running before he’s ready for the NFL. He has a tendency to look for a third or even a fourth receiver when his primary targets aren’t open--a risky move even with a competent offensive line.

“Mobility hasn’t been a problem (for) me,” he said. “It’s tucking the ball under my arm and running with it when nobody’s open.

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“We’ve been working on me becoming more of a threat to run the ball instead of being purely a passer. I’ve always known I could do it, but it just hasn’t been part of my thought process.”

Walsh hopes to change that.

“He needs to move outside the pocket a little better and run it two or three times a game, get five or six yards a time, and get a couple first downs,” Walsh said. “If he does that, the only (detriment) for him as a pro is his size.”

Stenstrom is more than two inches shorter than the average height of last year’s NFL starting quarterbacks. In fact, the shortest quarterback was part-time starter Erik Kramer, then with Detroit, at 6-1.

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“Size is really the only major factor for Steve,” Walsh said. “Montana is 6 feet 2, and Steve’s an inch shorter. But Joe is very mobile, and Steve doesn’t possess that.”

Said Gibbs: “I was working with all those guys (pro quarterbacks) at the Quarterback Challenge a few weeks ago, and all of them were humongous. You need to be big to play quarterback at that level.”

But first, Stenstrom must measure up with this year’s group of college quarterbacks, which includes USC’s Rob Johnson, his former El Toro High teammate, Alcorn State’s Steve McNair, Georgia’s Eric Zeier and California’s Dave Barr.

Timing could prove to be their downfall when they enter the draft next spring. Because of the league’s new $34.6-million salary cap, teams can’t spend a high-round pick--and the corresponding salary--on a quarterback they want to develop.

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For example, many draft analysts projected Boston College’s Glenn Foley and Michigan State’s Jim Miller as late first-round to second-round picks last April. Buffalo liked Foley as a potential successor to Jim Kelly, and the Rams raved about the skills of Miller, whom they wanted as a backup for free-agent acquisition Chris Miller.

But on draft day, Jim Miller was taken in the sixth round by Pittsburgh, and Foley slipped all the way to the seventh round, where the New York Jets took him.

In fact, after Tampa Bay took Trent Dilfer with the sixth overall pick, 104 players were drafted before the next quarterback (Perry Klein of C.W. Post to the Atlanta Falcons in the fourth round) was picked. Only nine quarterbacks were selected in the seven-round draft, seven after the third round.

Based on where Foley went in the draft, Buchsbaum believes Stenstrom wouldn’t have been taken last year.

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“Steve could really drop to the late rounds this year, too,” Buchsbaum said. “Foley and Miller had first-round grades last year, but they dropped to the sixth and seventh rounds because of the new system.

“Teams just can’t expect to bring guys in and let them develop any more with that system. Some guys you need to bring in and give three or four years. Look at Montana, he wasn’t a starter until his (second) season.”

Stenstrom, who watches game film like it was HBO, has studied Montana’s every move.

“You never reach a point where you run out of things to improve on,” Stenstrom said. “All I have to do is pop in a Montana tape and I realize that.

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“He and I have the same physical qualities, and he played in this offense with San Francisco, so he’s an ideal guy to compare to.”

Stenstrom has been a proven winner, leading the Cardinal to a 21-11 record in nearly three seasons as a starter. As for Montana, the 38-year-old quarterback is trying to win his fifth Super Bowl ring.

“That’s what I admire about Montana,” Stenstrom said. “He’s not the most impressive physical specimen you’ve ever seen, but he has the unique ability to win, that competitive edge and (he) stays poised under pressure.

“I’ve tried to emulate that in my game.”

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Steve Stenstrom

Stanford

Hgt.: 6-1; Wgt.: 205; Year: Sr.

College career statistics: 30 starts in 32 games. 616 of 987 (62.4%) for 7,709 yards with 56 touchdowns and 30 interceptions.

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Honors: A preseason consensus All-American and is billed by several publications as a Heisman Trophy candidate. He was second-team All-Pac-10, academic All-Pac-10 honorable mention and team MVP as a junior.

Team’s record with Stenstrom as starter: 21-11

High-school highlights: A Times’ all-county first-team selection as a senior at El Toro, Stenstrom completed 117 of 179 passes (65.4%) for 2,175 yards and 25 touchdowns and led the Chargers to a 12-2 record.

College records: Broke John Elway’s school and Pac-10 records for passing yards in a season with 3,627, surpassing Elway’s mark, set in 1982, by 385 yards. Stenstrom also set season Pac-10 records for total offense (3,398 yards) total offense per game (308.4 yards) and most completions (300).

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Miscellaneous: His favorite target as a high school senior? Junior wide receiver Rob Johnson, now the starting quarterback at USC. Johnson became the starting quarterback at El Toro the year after Stenstrom left. . . . Will graduate in December with a degree in public policy. . . . Is involved in the Stanford Community Outreach Program, speaking to youth groups on education, drug awareness, nutrition and fitness.

The Series

Sunday: Three quarterbacks who played high school football in Orange County will be starters in the Pac-10 this season; two more will be key backups. A look at the area’s quarterback-rich tradition.

Today: Steve Stenstrom, El Toro and Stanford.

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Tuesday: Rob Johnson, El Toro and USC.

Wednesday: Danny O’Neil, Mater Dei and Oregon.

Thursday: Tim Carey, Los Alamitos and Stanford; and Pat Barnes, Trabuco Hills and California.


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