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August 7, 2013

Stanford Camp Questions

As with any preseason top-five team, Stanford's 2013 roster is loaded. The Cardinal's defense will return nine of 11 starters from last season's unit that was among the best in school history. The offensive line and power running game should return to form, even with the departure of Stepfan Taylor. And quarterback Kevin Hogan is one of the talented young signal callers in the nation.

But, as always, the team faces several questions entering fall camp. How will the Cardinal replace the production it received from Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo? How much will the surprising departure of Terrence Brown impact the secondary? Who will be the Cardinal's starting center? Who will comprise the committee in Stanford's running back by committee approach?

Cardinal Sports Report will examine those questions in the days leading up to camp. First, we look at some of the other questions facing Stanford this summer.

Backup quarterback development

If Stanford has its way, this will be somewhat of a moot topic. The Cardinal would love to see Kevin Hogan handle every meaningful snap this season. But with Josh Nunes taking a medical retirement, no quarterback on the roster outside of Hogan has even so much as taken a snap during a regular season game.

That's not to say the backup quarterback outlook is totally bleak, however. David Shaw recently identified Evan Crower as one of the biggest risers from spring ball.

"Evan Crower (made a big leap during spring)," Shaw said. "Knowing that Evan's put himself in a position to be ready to play. He has the trust of his teammates, has the trust of the coaching staff, and that's a tough position to be in, to be your quote unquote backup quarterback. But you never know. As I say Kevin Hogan can break a shoelace the first play of the game and we feel great about Evan coming and playing the rest of the game."

While Crower emerged as a solid backup candidate during spring, there's actually a chance he wouldn't be the second quarterback to see playing time behind Hogan. Depending on his development during camp, that distinction might go to redshirt freshman Dallas Lloyd. Lloyd is still raw as a passer but is a dynamite athlete who could be effective in limited packages. His development as a reliable and accurate passer will be worth watching in camp.

Finally, while he seems ticketed for a redshirt year, incoming freshman Ryan Burns might have the most physical talent of any quarterback on the roster. Burns, who played in a single-wing offense for much of his high school career, will have to adapt to Stanford's pro-style system and the Cardinal's expansive playbook. But camp could provide an opportunity for Burns, a player who has been somewhat overshadowed by Keller Chryst and even Josh Rosen/Ricky Town in the past months, to remind everyone why he was such a touted recruit.

Who will replace Daniel Zychlinski at punter?

OK, so it's not the highest-profile position battle. But as Daniel Zychlinski proved time and again last season, a quality punter can play a significant role in a team's success. The field position battle is even more important for a team like Stanford, which is expected to rely heavily on a ball control offense and attacking defense again in 2013.

There are technically three candidates to replace Zychlinksi this season: Ben Rhyne, who saw game action last year, redshirt freshman Conrad Ukropina and incoming freshman Alex Robinson.

Rhyne and Ukropina are currently the leaders in the clubhouse. Stanford special teams coach Pete Alamar sized up the candidates in an interview with Cardinal Sports Report at the end of spring.

"Ben is a little bit longer-levered," Alamar said. "He's got longer legs from the hip to the toe. Conrad's a little more compact. Both of them are two-step guys, both of them are very economical. As far as operation times with both of them, they're in a great place."

"For Conrad it's all about staying repeatable with his drop and just getting up nice and smooth through his swing. He has a tendency to sometimes drive the ball, so we want to increase his hangtime, and just get him consistent with his drop. If you don't have a consistent drop you can't be a good punter. And right now, there are times when his drop is money, and there's times where he's a little big wiggle waggle with it and it's inside or it's outside. So just locking him in there.

"Ben has hit some nice balls and has had some really nice days, but consistency still... Ben sometimes (hits) a little bit across the ball, so he's a little right to left with it. He cuts the ball sometimes. That's one of the things he's been working on. He hits a little better hangtime ball right now than Conrad. And so because of that, he doesn't put the coverage team in as much peril as sometimes Conrad does with it. Conrad hit one today that was a rocket at about 56, 57, but it was closer to 4.2 hangtime than 5.2 hangtime."

Who will start at outside linebacker opposite Trent Murphy?

While the identity of the player who will replace Chase Thomas at outside linebacker is unknown, there won't be a ton of sleep lost over the competition between James Vaughters and Blake Lueders. Thomas was a special player for Stanford, but Vaughters and Lueders should have the talent and experience to minimize the effects of his departure. Vaughters has played both inside and outside linebacker for Stanford over the past few seasons, and before suffering a shoulder injury, Lueders was a productive outside linebacker for the Cardinal in 2011.

Moreover, Vaughters' and Lueders' strengths complement each other well. Lueders is remarkably stout against the run - even moreso now that he's playing without shoulder pain - while Vaughters is a very talented pass rusher off the edge. While neither player might be able to replace Chase Thomas' production on his own, together, they should come close.

How does Stanford get Kelsey Young more touches?

There's no doubt that redshirt sophomore Kelsey Young is one of the most explosive players on Stanford's roster and in the entire Pac-12. If the eye test is not evidence enough, Young averaged more than 11 yards a carry and 9.3 yards per reception in 2012.

Yet, despite being one of Stanford's most productive playmakers on a per-carry/reception basis, he received only 22 touches over the course of the season.

The question with Young, then, is not about his raw athleticism and football skills; rather, because he's not a traditional receiver or running back, Stanford's offensive coaching braintrust will be challenged to find ways to get Young the ball. Stanford seems to have partially remedied that concern by giving Young his own spot: the "KY" position, a receiver/running back combination, though the sense is that Young will see more time catching the ball than running with it out of the backfield.

The good news for both Stanford and Young is that the dynamic athlete made significant strides at receiver in spring, Shaw said.

"I think for the first time (Kelsey) looked natural at receiver," Shaw said. "He played RB his whole life and even last year split time doing different things. Now to see him feeling natural at the WR position (is very encouraging)."

The departure of Toilolo, Ertz, Drew Terrell and Jamal-Rashad Patterson leave a significant void in the offense. Young's emergence as a significant part of the game plan could go a long way towards mitigating the effects.

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