After Kevin Hogan struggled through Saturday's first two possessions, David Shaw approached him with a simple message.
"You started in the Rose Bowl," the master told his pupil. "You can't be nervous about the spring game."
Hogan smiled at his coach and trotted back out onto the field. He heaved a ball into the air and let Michael Rector do the rest. The freshman wrestled the 44-yard floater away from safety Kyle Olugbode in one motion before diving to secure the end zone deflection in the next, cementing his spot on national television highlight segments.
Rector's touchdown, the quintessential first-team effort, came against Stanford's second-team defense. It coaxed the loudest roar out of the Stanford Stadium crowd on an afternoon that featured 58 Stanford passes and only 18 runs, a ratio that definitely isn't the norm for the Cardinal's blue-collar course.
"There was no reason to have Gaffney and Wilkerson come in here and carry the ball 30-plus times," Shaw said. "We've got some young receivers that can do some things for us, and I wanted to make sure those guys had some opportunities."
Despite the new aerial focus, the Farm Boys minimized intrigue Saturday. They spent most of the afternoon pitting their first-team offense against the defensive reserves, and vice versa. A number of players said that Stanford stuck exclusively to its simple "Day One" offensive playbook, and Shaw essentially confirmed this notion afterward.
"This was on national TV," he said. "We're not going to do everything that we're going to do during the course of the year."
So, if there existed a spring day to thoroughly evaluate Stanford football's 2013 plan, Saturday was not it. Hogan, though inaccurate at times, played mostly without his signature mobility threat because of special rules designed to protect the quarterback. And Kelsey Young, perhaps the team's most-discussed potential "X-factor", watched in street clothes after tweaking his hamstring in practice. That further curtailed an already-limited offensive playbook.
The spring game was still good for a peak into Shaw's mindset regarding the complexion of his team moving forward. Whereas the 13 spring practices leading up to Saturday had divulged much more, this final session hammered home some critical overarching themes.
The 2013 Offense: The Ideal Complexion
Stanford's offensive vision is now clearer than ever. David Shaw considers the 2010 Orange Bowl champion team a prototype for the 2013 club, and he elaborated on that thought following Saturday's festivities.
The Cardinal's tight end production in 2010 was powerful: the group racked up 860 yards on 66 catches, an effort that included Coby Fleener's six-catch, 173-yard South Florida effort. But Stanford's wide receiver output that year was even better: Doug Baldwin led a diverse receiving corps (featuring Ryan Whalen, Chris Owusu and Griff Whalen) that accumulated 2,015 yards over 147 catches.
In 2012, on the other hand, the combined numbers of six different receivers did not come close to equaling the production of just two Stanford tight ends. Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo combined for 1,291 yards on 93 catches, while the entire receiving corp hauled in just 79 passes for 969 yards.
"I'm going to shoot for balance," Shaw said. "I think we had it two [and three] years ago, but I don't think we had it [in 2012]."
Saturday's action featured a bevy of emerging pass-catchers who combined to haul in 40 receptions. That crew is reinforcing the staff's confidence as it strives to implement a more explosive offense that possesses a big-gain, quick-strike ability on top of the existing, clock-chewing structure.
"We have a better opportunity to be more versatile, very similar to what we were the Orange Bowl year, where we could go two or three tight ends but we could also go three or four receivers," Shaw explained. "In the perfect world, that's where I would love to be."
Rector's speedy play has aided that effort. Meanwhile, the resurgence of a healthy Ty Montgomery (five catches, 59 fluid yards) gives the Cardinal a veteran leader at the position, with Montgomery the firm No. 1 at the position. There's much more potential ammunition: Devon Cajuste, Kodi Whitfield, Jordan Pratt (five catches, 78 yards), and Jeff Trojan (six catches, 41 yards, and an excellent rapport with Evan Crower) all showed significant potential. Of course, Kelsey Young will also be reinserted into the pass-catching mix on the outside.
"We used to talk about our games feeling like a hockey game," Shaw said. "I want line changes. I'd love to be able to throw our big jumbo personnel out there [on one play]: extra tight ends, extra tackles. [Then] the next play might be five receivers. The next play might be three backs."
Tight End Position: Dudchock's Strides
Such 2010-like versatility could certainly flummox opposing defenses, but reaching that level of performance will require more than Stanford's new receivers. Stanford's tight ends must bring bruising production, too. With Ertz and Toilolo are both gone, the situation becomes dicier at this position group.
Davis Dudchock impressed Saturday (five catches, 36 yards) and commanded noticeable respect as the leader of the tight end meeting group after the game. Blocking strength remains his focus headed into this conditioning phase. Meanwhile, youngster Luke Kaumatule, already a bulldozer, will continue working on his hands over the offseason. The 6-foot-8 Hawaiian must become a ball-gobbling machine to milk the potential out of his massive frame. He struggled with a pair of passes Saturday, but still has plenty of time to adapt to a position that's relatively new to him. When he did catch the ball during the spring, Kaumatule was a load to bring down.
"He eats a lot and he eats often," strength and conditioning coordinator Shannon Turley said. "And he enjoys it."
Shaw also didn't rule out the possibility of true freshmen contributions to the position. By extension, incomer Francis Owusu should have a shot to make noise in the crowded wide receiver room too, though it's impossible to gauge how physically ready the new talent will be.
"We've got three freshmen tight ends coming in," Shaw said, referring to Eric Cotton, Greg Taboada, and Austin Hooper. "We're going to see how ready they are to play."
A Primary Determinant: Quarterback Play
Perhaps most importantly, it must be noted that Hogan's accuracy is the glue that Shaw is counting on to hold together his ambitious vision of offensive versatility. (Of course, we can't forget offensive line play, which has been consistently good.) When Luck delivered two entire seasons' worth of virtuoso performances in 2010 and 2011, he made Stanford's offensive flexibility appear seamless. Though Hogan isn't expected to replicate No. 12's level of mastery, he must perform crisply enough to integrate the entire range of possibilities that the Cardinal's roster has to offer.
By most accounts, Hogan is progressing toward that goal, though Saturday's 14-for-23, 170-yard performance was a hard gauge to read: good throws complemented early inaccuracies.
"He progresses every day," wide receiver Cajuste said of his quarterback. "Maybe it's the torque of a fake pass, more power out of his throw, the way he looks downfield, his presence in the pocket, every day he has something that's improving."
That observation fits with the progress report of quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford, who also emphasizes that a huge part of Hogan's success depends upon his running game, something which has been virtually absent outside of the live action the regular season will bring.
During this restriction on Hogan's running game, Sanford has been meticulously ingraining intricate fundamentals into No. 8's play that he feels will help the quarterback's pick up the Cardinal's full offensive arsenal.
"With him, it's just about having his feet and his eyes in the right place at all times," Sanford said. "And that's muscle memory. And we train the heck out of the muscle memory of the quarterbacks in terms of where they progress from [read] one to two to three."
Back-up Evan Crower has been another beneficiary of this instruction, and the tall lefty enjoyed extensive playing time Saturday in his accurate 26-for-35, 197-yard performance. Most of Crower's work was short (he averaged only 5.63 yards per attempt), but the tall lefty was accurate and poised working behind a second-team line against Stanford's first-team defense.
With news that Josh Nunes may not be back for 2013 camp because of the same workout-related injury that kept him out of spring ball, Crower has officially assumed the Cardinal's No. 2 quarterback role.
"I wanted to make sure that Evan Crower got opportunities," Shaw said. "I wanted to make sure he got as much live feeling and action as possible."
Shaw also did not rule out the possibility of using athletic third-stringer Dallas Lloyd in his own package, similar to how Hogan debuted last season.
Though limited running made backfield evaluation a crapshoot on Saturday, Ricky Seale (five carries, 29 yards) and Jackson Cummings (five carries, 19 yards) both proved slippery and solid. Seale, especially, frequently stands out at open exhibitions like the spring game, and Shaw's mantra that multiple running backs will see significant time in 2013 makes sense when Seale and Cummings put their nifty moves on display. Barry Sanders had a rougher go of it Saturday, fumbling a punt and struggling in pass-blocking situations, but his talent in the open field is apparent too.
Since Remound Wright sat out for precautionary reasons (he was banged up at the previous Saturday open practice), Stanford didn't have a chance to experiment with its potential short-yardage running back, but it's likely No. 22 will again fill that role. Much like Shaw talked about mimicking the 2010 Orange Bowl squad in the passing game, his 2013 team will also strive to duplicate that team's spread-the-wealth complexion out of the backfield. Though Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney find themselves atop the pack, it's becoming clear that an entire load of bodies will have a chance to contribute in a mix-and-match approach.
Stay tuned for The Bootleg's extensive spring report on Stanford's defense and special teams units.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com.
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