Days after A.J. Tarpley and Henry Anderson announced their intentions to return to Stanford for their fifth years of eligibility, David Yankey, Ed Reynolds, and Cam Fleming all declared for the NFL Draft. Yankey and Reynolds were expected to leave, while Fleming appeared to have to the toughest decision of the players deciding what to do with their fifth year of eligibility. On track to finish his degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics this year, he ultimately decided to go pro a day before the January 15 deadline.
"I'm not leaving here without my degree," Fleming told me before the Rose Bowl.
Offensive Line: 2012 Put to the Test
That means the future is now for Stanford -- particularly along the offensive line and at the safety position. David Shaw did fantastic work on the recruiting trail in his first year on the head coaching job, and those efforts will be thrust into the spotlight in 2014: All five projected starters on the Cardinal's offensive line will be products of the program's heralded 2012 class.
Left tackle Andrus Peat will be the only one with a full season's worth of starting experience. Josh Garnett, the likely left guard, has started one game. The projections for center, right guard, and right tackle reside with Graham Shuler, Johnny Caspers, and Kyle Murphy, respectively. If those three earn nods at those positions, they'll be forced to gel quickly, as the September 6 match-up against USC will mark just their second career start.
The 6-foot-7, 318-pound Peat is first round material, and some have even speculated that he may leave to the NFL after his junior season. Murphy's fantastic footwork immediately positions him to be a force on the right side, while Garnett's extensive experience at the Cardinal's 'Ogre' position should help him in his quest to fill Yankey's big shoes on the left side. Stanford's biggest questions come at center and right guard, where Shuler and Caspers have not seen nearly as much playing time as their other three classmates.
Caspers has added about 30 pounds of strength since his arrival at Stanford, and that physical development earned him some time at the Ogre spot in 2013. Meanwhile, Shaw has regarded Shuler as the Cardinal's most athletic center in this era of unprecedented success. The junior will be counted on to have a full mental grasp of the position that directs the offensive line.
Depth of the Hogs
Since Stanford employs more than five offensive linemen in many of its formations, its depth up front will be truly tested next season. Dillon Bonnell, who played the Ogre in 2012 before Garnett unseated him at that spot in 2013, has a fifth year of eligibility remaining and can presumably re-assume his old role moving forward. Tackle Brendon Austin (6-6, 304 pounds) has developed well physically, and is certainly in position to earn playing time next season. Nick Davidson (6-7, 289 pounds) is a year younger, and another offseason of strengthening can put him in line to contribute as well. Amongst the youngsters, freshman Thomas Oser's versatility should make him a valuable utility next season. Walk-on Lucas Hinds (6-4, 290) also has intriguing size.
Line coach Mike Bloomgren has done a fantastic job developing the Cardinal's front and coordinating the team's running game. The 2014 season offers him a unique yet promising challenge: On signing day in 2012, some said Stanford's offensive line haul could become the best in college football history. With Yankey, Fleming, Khalil Wilkes, and Kevin Danser all departing, the opportunity is there to translate stellar recruiting rankings into dominant on-field performance.
A Big Question Mark at Free Safety
Reynolds' departure opens a precarious void in Stanford's defensive backfield. Devon Carrington, the Cardinal's second-string free safety, exhausted his eligibility this season, so the Cardinal will now be forced to scramble to effectively fill the position. The situation has been complicated by the medical retirement of Drew Madhu (concussions), who was Reynolds' heir apparent at the position.
A Zach Hoffpauir move to free safety appears unlikely. He came into Stanford as a strong safety and has since moved to contribute at nickel back, where he'll likely be needed to at least partially fill Usua Amanam's void next year. The Cardinal have moved quarterback Dallas Lloyd to the safety position. He played there early in his high school career and certainly has the physical build (6-3, 212 pounds) to handle the job. In the interview below, Lloyd told me that his experience as a quarterback will help him learn the mental aspect of the safety position.
Stanford may also consider moving cornerback Wayne Lyons to free safety. He was a highly touted recruit at that position coming out of high school and showed the necessary physical prowess in run support from cornerback in 2013. Such a move would open up a spot on the perimeter opposite Alex Carter, and Ronnie Harris would presumably be a leading candidate to start in Lyons' place.
Tucker De-Commits: A Recruiting Blow
The Cardinal's incoming recruiting class has some talent in the defensive backfield, too, and early playing time for one of next year's incoming freshman should not be ruled out, either. Safeties Brandon Simmons and Denzel Franklin are both expected to sign with Stanford on February 5. The class did suffer a blow, though, when Georgia speedster Kirk Tucker was not admitted to Stanford. He de-committed from the school on Wednesday and is reopening his recruitment.
It all adds up to a rather precarious situation in Stanford's defensive backfield. It's one that can be quickly fixed if Lloyd can make an effective transition to the free safety position, but that obviously remains a big question mark at this early point in the offseason. A few key variables here have not broken in the Cardinal's favor lately, so the program's ability to improvise and adapt will be put to the test in 2014.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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