Stanford enters spring amid huge expectations

Stanford opened spring practice on Monday roughly two months after its victory over Wisconsin at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

David Shaw and the Pac-12 defending champs return a lot of talent from last season, although the Cardinal lost a lot as well. Stepfan Taylor, Chase Thomas, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo are all gone, but their replacements just may be ready to assume larger roles and help the Cardinal once again reach Pasadena — and play for the national championship in the final year of the BCS system.

Let's take a look at a few of the most important storylines for the Cardinal this spring as they work toward the Spring Game on April 13 at Stanford Stadium.

Continued development of Hogan

Kevin Hogan US PRESSWIREThe continued development of Kevin Hogan is crucial to Stanford's success in 2013.

Quarterback Kevin Hogan stepped in late last season and performed admirably, even earning Pac-12 title game MVP honors. The junior signal-caller helped the Cardinal stabilize a position that was a little shaky with Josh Nunes at the helm. Hogan was a big reason why the Cardinal were able to claim the division, the conference and the victory in the Rose Bowl. He will only grow as a leader this spring, but beginning to develop strong chemistry with his receivers will be huge going into the summer months and preseason camp.

Are there enough weapons on offense?

Despite the loss of all-time leading rusher Stepfan Taylor, the Cardinal have talent and depth in the backfield. So this program will still have a run-first mentality. Tyler Gaffney will be back in Palo Alto on April 1 for a final season after missing 2012 to play minor league baseball. Senior Anthony Wilkerson is healthy and is the big back who can be physical and provide enough speed to break off long runs. If he can find consistency, he could emerge as the No. 1 back. Sophomore Barry J. Sanders will also battle for carries after redshirting last fall. He could be the game-changer in space that the Cardinal could use, particularly as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. And, of course, there is fifth-year senior fullback Ryan Hewitt, who knows this offense better than perhaps any offensive player on The Farm.

Last year's starting receivers, Drew Terrell and Jamal-Rashad Patterson, are gone. But the Cardinal have a variety of skilled players at WR, although it is a young group. That's why building rapport with Hogan throughout spring, summer and fall camp is vital for this offense. Junior Ty Montgomery has all of the physical tools to be one of the Pac-12's best, but can he be consistent week to week? Junior Kelsey Young will get looks at both receiver and running back because he is a true playmaker, and the coaching staff hopes that junior Devon Cajuste can continue to develop because he has a good size-speed combo. And senior Keanu Nelson could be a valuable slot receiver for Hogan. However, he will miss the first spring session for disciplinary reasons.

The tight end position, though, remains of utmost importance to this offense, and losing Ertz and Toilolo hurt. The expectation, however, is that the group of emerging receivers help make up for their losses. In the meantime, sophomore Luke Kaumatule will step in as the top tight end after playing as a true freshman. The former high school defensive lineman has the athleticism to be an offensive force. Senior Davis Dudchock will also get his chance to have a breakout campaign.

The defense remains stout

On the defensive side of the ball, fifth-year senior Shayne Skov leads a unit that only really loses star outside linebacker Chase Thomas, but there is depth at that position. Plus, the Cardinal have a lot of inside 'backers that will be competing for that open spot. Skov will miss the first spring session while serving a suspension, but that gives younger players more of an opportunity to shine early this spring. With All-America candidate and fifth-year senior Trent Murphy, along with juniors Kevin Anderson and James Vaughters, and seniors A.J. Tarpley, Jarek Lancaster and Blake Lueders, this should remain one of the best linebackers corps in the nation.

Along the defensive line, four experienced players return, and they are all flexible to play different roles. Fifth-year senior Ben Gardner is the best of the bunch, while senior Henry Anderson was instrumental in the team's effort in shutting down Oregon's high-powered offense in a 17-14 victory last fall. And senior David Parry, who started the final three games last season at defensive tackle, returns as the team's top nose tackle.

In the secondary, the Cardinal have proven safeties in senior Ed Reynolds and junior Jordan Richards, and there are a good number of cornerbacks who are expected to grow up this spring. Sophomore Alex Carter started the final eight games of his freshman year and should have one of the starting jobs at corner, while senior Barry Browning and juniors Wayne Lyons and Ra'Chard Pippens will compete for the other starting spot. Browning, however, will be limited this spring while he recovers from an injury. Meanwhile, junior Ronnie Harris and fifth-year senior Usua Amanam will contribute in the nickel package.

Looking at Stanford's 2013 schedule, it's not unreasonable to think that the Cardinal could reach Pasadena for the BCS title game if Hogan continues his development and the skill players shine. While the Cardinal do have to play Oregon and Notre Dame, they get them at home. And we know defensively they match up well with the Ducks, and the physical nature they bring on defense matches up well with the Irish, too. A road game at USC looks less difficult these days because the Cardinal have owned the Trojans recently. And then there would be a potential Pac-12 title game — which could have a lot of significance.

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