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January 10, 2014

Season in Review: Part Three





Prior to the start of fall camp, Cardinal Sports Report analyzed some of the pressing questions facing the 2013 Stanford Cardinal. Now, days after Stanford's season ended last week with a 24-20 loss in the 100th Rose Bowl, we review how those questions were answered over the course of the season, and what those answers mean for the future of Cardinal football.

The first part of our season in review series focused on Kelsey Young, outside linebacker, the development of Stanford's young quarterbacks and the punter position. The second reviews the cornerback and running back spots.

This article focuses on the development of Stanford's passing game and offensive line.

Preseason question: How will the offensive line dominoes shake out: With four starters returning and several talented underclassmen maturing, Stanford was widely expected to have one of the nation's top offensive lines heading into the 2013 season. But who, exactly, would comprise the starting five was more of a mystery.

Stanford decided early in the offseason that David Yankey would move from left tackle, where he played in most of 2012, back to his more natural guard position. That cleared the path for sophomore Andrus Peat to stake his claim to protecting Kevin Hogan's blindside. On the heels of a dominant spring and fall camp, Peat did just that. With Cameron Fleming and Kevin Danser returning at right tackle and right guard, respectively, the remaining intrigue was at the center position - mostly.

While Khalil Wilkes and Conor McFadden figured to be the primary candidates to earn the nod at center - each had experience at the position and had competed for the center position in previous years - Stanford opened the competition to a third player: Danser. With Josh Garnett and Johnny Caspers waiting in the wings at guard, Stanford would have had plenty of depth to handle Danser switching positions.

But relatively early in training camp, Stanford decided that Danser would be best suited to stay at guard. So the center competition narrowed to Wilkes and McFadden, with Wilkes the eventual winner. And though the New Jersey native had an uneven redshirt junior campaign playing left guard, Wilkes was superb at center in 2013. He elevated his stock to the point that he'll likely have a chance to prove himself in an NFL training camp; before then, Wilkes will play in the East/West Shrine game on January 18th.

With a starting five of Peat, Yankey, Wilkes, Danser and Fleming that started all but one game together (David Yankey missed the Washington State game to attend to the sudden death of his father), and an emerging group of young linemen that shined the Cardinal's 'Jumbo' packages, Stanford's offensive line was widely considered one of the best in the nation in 2013. Though perhaps not as dominant as the David DeCastro-led lines of a few years back, the Cardinal's line allowed only 16 sacks in 14 games and paved the way for its run game to average 5.0 yards per carry. By comparison, opponents surrendered 44 sacks and averaged 2.9 yards per carry against the Cardinal defense.

Stanford should be solid up front once again in 2014, but they will have to replace at least two and as many as four starters. Kevin Danser and Khalil Wilkes completed their collegiate eligibility in 2013. David Yankey does have a fifth year of eligibility in 2014, but is projected to be a high pick in the 2014 NFL Draft; as a result, he'll likely turn pro and forego his final year on The Farm.

The big question mark is redshirt junior right tackle Cameron Fleming. Fleming isn't as coveted by the NFL as Yankey, but has gone through the pre-draft evaluation process and could try his hand at the next level.

If Fleming turns pro, Kyle Murphy will likely take over at right tackle, and Johnny Caspers will headline the competition to replace Danser at right guard. If Fleming returns, Stanford will have no shortage of options. The Cardinal could keep Murphy as its top reserve at both right and left tackle and a frequent contributor as a blocking tight end and replace Danser with Caspers or another guard. Or, they could get creative. The Cardinal could move either Fleming or Murphy to guard to free the right tackle spot. It's highly unlikely, but they could conceivably even opt to redshirt Murphy and save a year of eligibility.

As for the vacancies at center and (likely) left guard, a pair of class of 2012 recruits will likely have the inside track at earning starting nods. Josh Garnett, who played well in David Yankey's absence at Washington State and has been a contributor in Stanford's Jumbo sets for two seasons, is the frontrunner to replace Yankey at left guard. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Graham Shuler will likely lead the competition to replace Wilkes. Shuler had an excellent fall camp and drew rave reviews from both David Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren.

Preseason question: How will Stanford's passing game unfold in 2013?: While the Cardinal more or less knew what to expect from its run game and defense entering the 2013 campaign, the passing game was a significant unknown.

That was the case for several reasons. First and foremost, five of its six top receiving targets from the 2012 Rose Bowl team had exhausted their eligibility or moved on to the NFL. Additionally, though undefeated in five starts in his redshirt freshman campaign, quarterback Kevin Hogan was still somewhat unproven. Hogan relied heavily on his tight ends and running game, and wasn't asked to win games for Stanford as much as he was put in positions to avoid losing them.

That, along with the departure of Pep Hamilton, who had experience coaching quarterbacks at both the professional and collegiate levels, created significant uncertainty.

The encouraging news for Stanford, however, is that while its top receiver and top tight ends were gone, a crop of dynamic receivers - including a healthy Ty Montgomery -- were waiting in the wings, ready to be unleashed in the downfield passing game. That much was evident early in the season; in the first four games of the year, Stanford's wide receivers accounted for nine touchdowns - Cardinal receivers only scored eight touchdowns in the entire 2012 campaign.

What was also clear early on was that the consistent tight end production Stanford had enjoyed for nearly the entire Harbaugh/Shaw era was gone. The Cardinal's starting tight end, Luke Kaumatule, never emerged as a threat in the passing game, and was moved to defensive end midway through the season. Charlie Hopkins, Davis Dudchock and Eddie Plantaric took snaps at tight end as well, but the position was essentially utilized as an extra blocker for nearly the entire year. Case in point, Stanford's tight ends accounted for only 10 catches and 69 yards in 2013. Zach Ertz had 11 receptions for 106 yards and one touchdown in only one game in 2012 - Stanford's victory over Oregon.

As a result of the new-look passing game, Kevin Hogan's pass efficiency numbers dropped (he completed 61 percent of his passes in 2013 compared to 71.7 percent in 2012), but his passing yards per attempt improved from 7.2 in 2012 to 8.9 in 2013. Hogan's passer rating also improved, from 147.9 in 2012 to 151.5 in 2013.

Though Hogan had his ups and downs in 2013, there's reason to believe that the Cardinal passing game could take another step forward in 2014. Along with Hogan, all of Stanford's top receivers are expected to return to The Farm with another year of experience under their belts. The group should be among the most explosive in the Pac-12 in 2014. Three wideouts - Ty Montgomery (15.7 yards per catch), Devon Cajuste (22.9 YPC) and Michael Rector (30.8 YPC) - had at least 400 receiving yards in 2013. Only one wide receiver (Drew Terrell) surpassed the 400-yard receiving mark in 2012, and Terrell averaged only 14.0 yards per reception. And that doesn't even take into account dynamic freshman Francis Owusu, who's among the team's most physically gifted playmakers, or Jordan Pratt, who emerged as a steady and sure-handed target late in the season.

Additionally, Stanford's touted trio of freshman tight ends - Eric Cotton, Austin Hooper and Greg Taboada - will have an opportunity to see the field after redshirting in 2013. Along with the possible addition of four-star 2014 prospect Dalton Schultz, the Cardinal's tight end corps should be significant deeper and more productive next season than it was this one. That, along with the continued development and health of Hogan and the Cardinal receivers, should pave the way for Stanford to have its best passing offense since 2011.


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