While the departure of several of Stanford's defensive stars will garner many of the headlines, Stanford will face a stiff task in replacing several departed offensive players as well in 2014. Specifically, many of the key cogs in Stanford's massively productive run game have moved on to the NFL; as a result, major questions remain about which current Cardinal players will fill the void left by those players' departures.
Stanford will have three open practices (four, including the Spring Game). Here's a look at what to keep an eye on during those sessions and throughout the entirety of spring ball.
Saturday, March 1: 9:30 A.M. - 11:35 A.M.
Saturday, March 8: 12:30 P.M. - 3:10 P.M.
Saturday, April 5 (TBD)
Saturday, April 12: Stanford Spring Game
Offensive Line: Tasked with replacing four of five starters from last season's team, Stanford's 2014 offensive line will be one of the most inexperienced in the David Shaw/Jim Harbaugh era. But it could also be one of the most talented. Stanford's vaunted 2012 offensive line recruiting class - considered by some to be the top line class in the last decade (or longer) - will finally have its time to shine.
Andrus Peat, a top NFL Draft pick whenever he chooses to leave school, is an anchor at left tackle. Josh Garnett, the only current Stanford offensive lineman other than Peat to have started a game along the offensive line (he started in David Yankey's absence against Washington State), is the frontrunner for Yankey's vacant left guard job.
Graham Shuler, who contributed in some of Stanford's Jumbo packages last year, should be considered the frontrunner in the center competition. He'll compete with veteran Kevin Reihner, freshman Thomas Oser, and walk-on freshman Jim Grace for the job. (We have heard that Oser impressed last year on Scout team, but he'll need to add more mass to have a legitimate shot at winning the competition).
Johnny Caspers could have the upper hand at Kevin Danser's old right guard spot and Kyle Murphy will be the favorite to win the right tackle position. Redshirt junior Brendon Austin will likely compete with Murphy at right tackle; it also wouldn't be a complete shot if he received reps at guard and pushed Caspers. Nick Davidson will also be in the mix at tackle, but he's a longshot to earn the starting nod. True freshman Dave Bright also worked at right tackle last season, but he, too, faces an uphill climb in the right tackle competition.
Stanford will also begin the process of sorting out its Jumbo package personnel this spring - many of the linemen who played major roles in the Jumbo personnel last season are slated to move into starting spots in 2014. Austin (if he doesn't earn a starting spot), Davidson, Reihner, Bright and Oser will be in the mix to earn time in the Jumbo sets. They aren't on campus yet, but when Stanford's five incoming freshmen arrive - Brandon Fanaika, Casey Tucker, Reilly Gibbons, Austin Hall and Jesse Burkett - they, too, could insert themselves into the conversation for one of the Jumbo spots. Out of that group, Tucker probably has the best chance to play early.
Running Back: With Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson gone, Stanford's running back corps is as unproven and inexperienced as it has been in many years. Remound Wright, the team's most experienced back, has only 43 career rushes. The other backs on Stanford's roster have a combined 63.
Still, there is talent for new Cardinal running backs coach Lance Taylor, who came to The Farm from the Carolina Panthers, to work with. Wright and Seale had immensely productive high school careers and have showed flashes in limited playing time. Young, who played his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons as a WR/RB, will spend spring as a pure running back. Barry J. Sanders made several impressive plays in limited opportunities last season. And incoming freshman Christian McCaffrey is a dynamic and elusive athlete who could earn a role early in his Stanford career. Freshman walk-on Pac McFadden rounds out the running back group.
All five of Stanford's scholarship running backs (including McCaffrey) were four-star recruits out of high school.
Spring ball could shed light on which and any new wrinkles Stanford might decide to introduce to the running game to fit its personnel - there won't be as many between-the-tackles power backs on the 2014 Cardinal as there have been in years past - and which, if any of the backs, starts to separate himself from the pack.
Wide Receiver: Unlike several of the other offensive positions, the wide receiver spot is quite settled entering the 2014 campaign. In fact, one of few the major changes from 2013 isn't even related to the on-field personnel; while the unit was coached by Mike Sanford last season, Tavita Pritchard will oversee the receivers and quarterbacks in 2013. (The other major change involves the move of Kodi Whitfield, who caught 16 passes for 170 yards and one touchdown last year, to safety.)
Senior Ty Montgomery and redshirt junior Devon Cajuste will lead the receivers again in 2014. Together, they comprise one of the best starting receiver tandems in the conference. Speedster Michael Rector, talented freshman Francis Owusu (the only member of Stanford's 2013 recruiting class to actually play last season), former walk-on Jeff Trojan and elder statesman Jordan Pratt will provide depth and be featured in various packages.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of spring will pertain to the development of two of the team's younger receivers, Rector and Owusu. One of the team's top deep threats all year, Rector was utilized more in the intermediate passing game in the second half of the season. He showed the ability to be far more than just a deep threat in those situations. Owusu, meanwhile, was one of the top receivers in the country as a recruit and has the size/speed combination to be a special player.
Quarterback: Kevin Hogan will enter spring as Stanford's starting quarterback and he will in all likelihood exit it in that same spot. But at some point, whether it be during fall camp, sometime next season, or even next spring, Hogan could be pushed by one of Stanford's two young quarterbacks - Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst. Chryst won't arrive on campus until this summer, but Burns will have an opportunity to elevate his stock this spring.
At 6-foot-5, 219-pounds, Burns has the physical presence Stanford looks for at the quarterback position. He's also a very good runner, and has a cannon for an arm. In short, he's the most physically gifted quarterback Stanford has had since Andrew Luck. Spring ball should provide some sort of indication about whether Burns will push Evan Crower for the backup job, and how close he is to being ready to be in the conversation for the starting position. With only three signal callers on the roster this spring (Dallas Lloyd will be working primarily at safety, and David Olson's Stanford career is over), there will be plenty of reps to go around the quarterback room.
Tight End: Perhaps more than any position on the team, tight end should be much better in 2014 than it was in 2013. That's not saying much, of course, given the lack of production from the tight end position in 2013, but there's genuine optimism that each of Stanford's freshmen trio will develop into productive players. If that happens, the intermediate passing game, so long a staple of Stanford's offensive success, could return to The Farm in 2014.
Spring ball could provide a glimpse of how Stanford plans to use the three freshmen in its offense, and how far along each is in his development.
Fullback: Ryan Hewitt is off to the professional ranks, but Stanford still has several solid fullbacks on its roster, and will get even more help this summer with the arrival of Daniel Marx. As things currently stand, fifth-year senior Lee Ward, a devastating run blocker, figures to have the edge at earning the starting job. Ward will compete with redshirt junior Patrick Skov, who's probably the superior athlete of the two, for playing time at the position.
Five Spring Ball Questions: Offense
How do the three freshmen tight ends fit into the offense and the offensive depth chart?
How far along is Ryan Burns in his development?
How do the offensive line dominoes start to fall - from replacing four starters to identifying Jumbo formation personnel, there's a lot to be determined - and how do the youngsters hold up against Stanford's solid front-seven?
How are Michael Rector and Francis Owusu utilized in the passing game?
Will any of the running backs start to separate from the pack and demand more carries than the rest of the running back committee? And how, if at all, will Stanford tweak its run game to cater to the different personnel it has this season (and will have for several years moving forward)?