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August 12, 2013

Camp Question: Passing Game

By and large, Stanford's 2013 roster is filled with established players in already-determined roles. Nine of 11 starters return on defense, and the two vacancies will be filled by experienced and talented veterans.

Though there is some uncertainty in the interior, the Cardinal's offensive line should be one of the best in the nation. Led by a pair of seniors in Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson, Stanford's goes five, maybe even six-deep at running back. Quarterback Kevin Hogan is the reigning Rose Bowl Game MVP, and while far from a finished product, should improve in his second season as Cardinal starter.

With that in mind, the biggest question facing the 2013 Stanford football team is, far and away, the team's passing game. The Cardinal more or less knows what to expect from its defense and run game. The aerial attack is a major unknown.

Tree's Company no longer

While Coby Fleener left for the NFL after the 2011 season, the final two members of Stanford's vaunted tight end trio - Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo - left The Farm this offseason. With Ertz and Toilolo receiving the majority of the tight end minutes, neither of the other tight ends on the Cardinal's roster so much as registered a single reception in 2012. In fact, not a single current Cardinal tight end has a career catch to his credit.

Clearly, with the emphasis Stanford has placed on the tight end position in previous years, this is a concern.

The two leading candidates to replace some of the production Ertz and Toilolo provided are sophomore Luke Kaumatule and redshirt junior Davis Dudchock. Kaumatule played sparingly as a true freshman last season but received praise from the coaching staff and his fellow teammates. Dudchock played some as a redshirt sophomore in 2011 and has the most experience at tight end of anyone on the roster.

The x-factors in the tight end position group are Stanford's three incoming freshmen tight ends - Greg Taboada, Austin Hooper and Eric Cotton. There will be every opportunity for one or more of the trio to make an early impact. If none of the tight ends are up for the task, and either Kaumatule or Dudchock falters, the receivers will have to taken on even more responsibility in the passing game.

Note: Eddie Plantaric, Charlie Hopkins, Chris Harrell and Alex Frkovic will also compete at tight end. Frkovic is expected to be fully cleared from his ACL injury sometime during camp. The quartet faces long odds to make the two-deep, but there's some thought that Hopkins, who was a touted recruit out of high school, looked better during summer conditioning and could emerge.

Top two wide receivers depart

They were never stars for Stanford, but Drew Terrell and Jamal-Rashad Patterson made several big plays for the Cardinal and were the team's two leading receivers (by yards gained). Terrell in particular was a safety valve for Hogan, a strong route runner with elite hands who made numerous timely catches. With the duo gone, the Cardinal will have to look elsewhere for production.

Unlike tight end, however, several receivers seem primed to replace the contributions Stanford received from Patterson and Terrell. First and foremost, Ty Montgomery looked healthy and explosive during spring. He has all the tools to be a legitimate No. 1 receiver.

Devon Cajuste is big-bodied receiver who could be very effective playing alongside Montgomery and some of the team's other big play receivers. He had a very solid spring and is penciled in as a starter.

Redshirt freshman Michael Rector was in line to play last year before he was sidelined by a knee injury. He could provide the deep threat Stanford has lacked over the past few seasons.

Sophomore Kodi Whitfield doesn't have Rector or Montgomery's speed but has an advanced knowledge of the playbook and game experience.

Redshirt junior Jeff Trojan, the veteran of the group, was as productive as any receiver on the team during open scrimmages in spring ball.

While not a receiver in the conventional sense, the dynamic Kelsey Young is expected to have a larger role in the offense, and should be among the team's top playmakers in 2013.

Stanford coach David Shaw admitted that a group of receivers has separated itself from the pack, but said the opportunity is still present for others to insert themselves into the competition.

"To a certain degree (a group has separated itself) although the door will be open for more competition," Shaw said. "But Ty and Devon Cajuste and Kelsey Young and Kodi Whitfield all did extremely well. Jeff Trojan's battled for playing time, did really well in the spring game. I'm excited about where Michael Rector is right now. We'll see."

Shaw also singled out redshirt freshman Conner Crane as a player trending in the right direction.

"I'm excited about Conner Crane," Shaw said. "Spring was the first time he had been healthy in a while, so he learned a lot. I'm fired up to see him come and compete in training camp."

Coaching shakeup

Former Stanford and current Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton drew criticism at times during the 2012 season for Stanford's offense, but his departure still has to be considered a loss for the offense.

In addition to Hamilton, Stanford lost tight ends coach Ron Crook to West Virginia, where he accepted a position as the Mountaineers' offensive line coach. Though he was not one of the more high-profile assistants on staff, Crook was well respected and did a nice job on The Farm.

David Shaw hired two first-time college coaches to fill the openings left by Hamilton and Crook - former Stanford quarterback Tavita Pritchard and longtime offensive assistant Morgan Turner. Turner will coach the tight ends, Pritchard the running backs.

In addition to the new hires, the two returning offensive assistant coaches - Mike Bloomgren and Mike Sanford - earned promotions. Sanford is now the quarterbacks/wide receivers coach (his responsibilities will essentially be the same as Hamilton's last year), and Bloomgren added the offensive coordinator title, though he'll still focus on coordinating the offensive line and run game.

As such, similar to its receivers and tight ends, Stanford's offensive coaching staff has much to prove. Shaw opened some eyes by promoting from within twice, which is not a practice generally associated with top-10 type programs. And even proven coaching talents (and rising stars in the business) like Sanford and Bloomgren will have to adjust to new positions on staff with new responsibilities.

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