Spring grades: the offense

With spring practice in the books, the Stanford football program will be closed to the public eye until training camp gets under way in August. A lot of changes were evident this spring, and there's more yet to come before the season opener on Sept. 1, especially with the Cardinal's highly touted recruiting class entering camp in the fall.

First, the offense, starting with the race to become the face of the program as it embarks on the post-Andrew Luck era.

Quarterback: There are two things that can be said with 100 percent certainty about the battle for the starting quarterback job: it's a two-man race between Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes, and neither decisively gained the upper hand through spring camp. The coaching staff has been unhelpfully ambiguous on the subject, with head coach David Shaw continually declining to name a front-runner or do anything to appear to publicly favor either player. With the small sample of one open practice and last Saturday's spring game, Nottingham certainly looks like the better player. His arm strength and accuracy are unquestionably superior, and he's shown a Luck-esque ability to scramble and improvise that Nunes seems to lack. Nottingham's performance has been especially impressive because of who he has been paired with. In both the open practice and the spring game, Nottingham played with the second team while Nunes practiced with the starters; in the spring game, Nunes got the added benefit of playing against the second-team defense for much of the afternoon. My personal view is that Nottingham is the front-runner right now, and Shaw wanted to keep Nottingham off the first team in public practices and see how he fared under pressure by throwing the starting defense at him in the spring game. Grade: B-

Running back: This position is the one with the most continuity for Stanford. The only significant contributor gone is Jeremy Stewart, leaving the core of Stepfan Taylor, Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney intact. It would be very surprising if there were any changes at the position next year, as Taylor remains top dog with Wilkerson and Gaffney likely splitting carries behind him. However, none of these players played in the spring game—the coaches kept Taylor on the sidelines, Wilkerson is injured (though he's expected to be healthy in the fall) and Gaffney is currently playing with the baseball team. Ricky Seale and Kelsey Young handled the majority of the halfback duties in the spring game, with Young looking especially good out of the backfield (though the coaching staff appears to be trying to convert him to wide receiver). At fullback, the picture is similar to 2011, with Ryan Hewitt and Geoff Meinken filling out the depth chart, though Meinken left the spring game early with an injury whose extent is still unknown. Grade: A-

Wide receiver: The Cardinal's glaring weakness on offense is the wide receiver position, and an observation of the receiver corps this spring revealed few causes for optimism. The lone bright spot is Ty Montgomery, who is stepping nicely into the primary receiver role vacated by Chris Owusu and Griff Whalen and made a ridiculous touchdown catch over two defenders in the spring game. The top two players behind Montgomery are Drew Terrell and Jamal-Rashad Patterson; neither player looked particularly sharp during spring ball and have done little in their careers to distinguish themselves. (Patterson's one moment of fame came when he was ejected before the 2010 Big Game in Berkeley). A number of younger receivers—mainly Devon Cajuste, Jordan Pratt and Keanu Nelson—have shown some promise, but it's unclear whether they can make an impact next season. Nelson did have a pretty good spring game, hauling down three catches for 51 yards. Grade: A (for Montgomery), D (everyone else).

Tight end: From a personnel point of view, there's not much to report at tight end. I didn't see any three tight end sets in the spring game, suggesting that last year's weight on those types of plays came from the fact that there were three talented tight ends on the roster, rather than any preference by the coaching staff. More interesting is the fact that Josh Nunes targeted the two starting tight ends, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, infrequently when the first-team offense was on the field, preferring to throw outside. It will be interesting to see Nottingham's chemistry with the tight ends when we finally get a chance to see him practice with the first team, as well as any novel ways the coaching staff might try to use the talents of both starting tight ends. Grade: B

Offensive line: The first team offensive line for the spring game was the same one as the first open spring practice, with David Yankey, Khalil Wilkes, Sam Schwartzstein, Kevin Danser and Cam Fleming (from left tackle to right tackle) lining up with the first team. The line did a decent job on pass and run protection, but the decline from last season is fairly evident. The addition of freshman talent in the fall should add some intrigue to the mix, with Wilkes' hold on a starting position the most vulnerable. If I were a betting man, I would guess that Yankey will move back to left guard and either Andrus Peat or, more likely, Kyle Murphy will be the opening day starter at left tackle. Danser has played pretty well at the right guard spot this spring, and he stands a very good chance of holding off a likely challenge from Joshua Garnett. Grade: B-

Overall take: It's very easy to see that the offense has taken several steps back from last season. A regression was expected; it's not easy to replace one of the best quarterbacks in school history, not to mention three other potential first-round draft picks. Still, the question marks at receiver are troubling, as are both quarterbacks' struggles. The offense has a lot of work to do before the Sept. 1 opener against San Jose State, but at least they have a lot of time to make those improvements. Grade: C+


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