Spring football 25: Stanford Cardinal

Dr. Saturday will be looking at the 25 most interesting teams headed into spring football through March, examining which programs have the biggest questions, the most expectations and the best storylines. This isn’t a list of the 25 best teams going into the spring, just the 25 we’re keeping the closest eye on. Previously this week: Notre Dame, Texas, Oklahoma.

What happened in 2012
Stanford was supposed to be down after losing all-everything quarterback Andrew Luck, but the Cardinal season ended up being right in line with some of the best in Stanford history.

It took the Cardinal a little while to figure out its quarterback situation, but freshman Kevin Hogan was spectacular down the stretch and proved that he could be the next great Stanford quarterback (and a career understudy for James Van Der Beek in Varsity Blues). He beat four consecutive ranked teams, led the Cardinal to a win over UCLA in the Pac-12 title game and helped Stanford beat Wisconsin 20-14 for the program’s first Rose Bowl win since 1972.

[Also: Exiled Mark Mangino returns to college football]

This program is no longer and up-and-comer, it’s at the top of the heap.

What makes them interesting in 2013
In the past three seasons, Stanford is 35-5 and played in three bowl games, and there’s no reason to think it's slowing down anytime soon. However, there are some major holes to fill on offense, including at running back, tight end and wide receiver. Of those three, tight end is probably the biggest issue. Gone are Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, who accounted for 10 of the team’s 19 touchdowns and 93 of the team’s 240 catches.

For all that the Cardinal lost on offense, they return eight from a defense that was one of the best in the country, especially along the front seven. The Cardinal lost linebacker Chase Thomas, but has a slew of talent to replace him and the front seven could be the best in the country, which is scary considering it led the country in sacks and finished second in tackles for loss nationally a year ago.

What needs to happen this spring
Coach David Shaw outlined a couple things he would like to see out of his team this spring and the priority starts with Hogan’s maturity. Shaw said Hogan needs to begin with showing command for the offense not just understanding. For playing in a limited number of games, Hogan did put up nice numbers. He completed 71.7 percent of his passes for 1,096 yards, nine touchdowns and just three interceptions.

However, he didn’t throw for more than 160 yards in any of his final three games. It’s a stat that wouldn’t be worrisome if the Cardinal had a proven running back returning, but it doesn’t. Stepfan Taylor is off to the NFL, leaving Shaw to look at Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney as possible replacements. Wilkerson had 50 carries for 224 and a score. Gaffney, who rushed for 449 yards in 2011, missed last year to play professional baseball with the Pittsburgh Pirates. That didn’t work out and he’s back in school.

Add to that the loss of the two tight ends and top receivers Drew Terrell and Jamal-Rashad Patterson, who were the only receivers to have touchdown catches, and the offense will need a lot of time gelling this spring.

If there’s one thing working in the Cardinal’s favor, it’s that the offensive line remains mostly intact with four returning starters. David Yankey is moving from left tackle, where he was first-team all-conference, to his natural position at guard. Khalil Wilkes will replace Sam Schwartzstein at center, and Andrus Peat and Kyle Murphy will battle for the left tackle position.

Game changers
Sophomore Luke Kaumatule is expected to fill the main tight end spot, but will need a lot of work this spring to live up to his predecessors. Kaumatule played sparingly last season and had no catches. Building a good report with Hogan will be key this spring.

Former starting quarterback and current backup Josh Nunes will miss the spring because of what Shaw termed a “freak” accident. Although Shaw didn’t elaborate, he did say Nunes would be sporting a sling this spring. That leaves the door open for Evan Crower to possibly sneak into that backup role and even challenge Hogan the way Hogan challenged (and ultimately beat) Nunes. Having three strong quarterbacks wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

Receiver Ty Montgomery will be expected to fill some of the void left by Terrell and Patterson. Montgomery has 26 catches for 213 yards last year as he missed games after suffering a knee injury early in the season.

Wild cards
There are a lot of spots to be filled, especially on offense, but a player that could make an immediate impact is running back Barry Sanders. Taylor is gone, leaving the job open to the best candidate. Sanders will have to contend with veterans Wilkerson and Gaffney, but has shown the potential to be a playmaker. At the very least, Sanders will get a look as a punt returner as the Cardinal look to replace Terrell, who was one of the school's best at that special teams position.

Key games
Sept. 21 Arizona State
Oct. 5 Washington
Oct. 19 UCLA
Oct. 26 at Oregon State
Nov. 7 Oregon
Nov. 16 at USC
Nov. 30 Notre Dame

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