Pac-12: Conor McFadden

Video: A Beautiful Mind

October, 26, 2013
10/26/13
11:27
AM ET

Stanford is putting backup center Conor McFadden's photographic memory to good use on the sidelines.

Stanford Cardinal spring wrap

May, 8, 2013
5/08/13
8:30
AM ET
STANFORD CARDINAL

2012 record: 12-2
2012 conference record: 8-1
Returning starters Offense: 7; defense: 8; kicker

Top returners: QB Kevin Hogan, OT David Yankey, LB Shayne Skov, LB Trent Murphy, DE Ben Gardner, S Ed Reynolds

Key losses: RB Stepfan Taylor, TE Zach Ertz, TE Levine Toilolo, OLB Chase Thomas

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Stepfan Taylor (1,530 yards)
Passing: Josh Nunes (1,643 yards); Kevin Hogan* (1,096 yards)
Receiving: Zach Ertz (898 yards)
Tackles: Shayne Skov* (80)
Sacks: Trent Murphy* (10)
Interceptions: Ed Reynolds (6)

Spring answers

1. Better to receive: Stanford's passing offense has been notoriously tight end focused the past few years, but that was more pronounced last season. Expect that to change in the fall, and not just because of questions at the position. The Cardinal has improved depth and athleticism at receiver, starting with Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste. Heck, you might even see some four-wide formations!

2. O-line? Oh, my: To say that Stanford coaches are giddy about their offensive line's potential might undersell it. There are NFL teams that will have less talented combos on their left side than tackle Andrus Peat and All-American guard David Yankey, who are both future first-round NFL draft picks. The right side ain't bad either.

3. No secondary issues: Richard Sherman used to get peeved at the Pac-12 blog in the past for questioning the athleticism of Stanford's secondary, with the Pac-12 blog obviously just trying to help kick-start Sherman's NFL career. This Cardinal secondary, led by All-American Ed Reynolds, is experienced and talented, the best unit during the Cardinal's recent rise in the national pecking order.

Fall questions

1. Who's the center? The one question on the O-line is who will replace Sam Schwartzstein, and spring ended in a three-way tie between Khalil Wilkes, Conor McFadden and Kevin Danser. If Danser, a returning starter at guard, prevails, that will mean coaches believe touted, 317-pound sophomore Josh Garnett is ready to take over at right guard.

2. Step back at tight end? Davis Dudchock and Luke Kaumatule have a chance to give the Cardinal a better-than-average combo at tight end, but it remains to be seen if they can become weapons in the passing game. Kaumatule, a 6-foot-7, 260-pound sophomore, has star potential but his hands have been inconsistent.

3. Ready for pressure, schedule? This team looks like a national title contender. It will be ranked in the preseason top-five and there will be plenty of hype. But Stanford has gown accustomed to high expectations and high rankings. The real issue is the schedule from Oct. 19 until Nov. 30. No team in the country faces a tougher road to a potential title game.
Unlike last year, there is no quarterback competition at Stanford. But the recently released post-spring depth chart does reveal some potentially interesting developments to eye-ball heading into fall.

Starting on offense -- there are only two running backs listed -- Anthony Wilkerson "or" Tyler Gaffney as the starter. Both are trying to replace three-time 1,000-yard rusher Stepfan Taylor, though it's widely believed the Cardinal will take more of a committee approach than they did last year, when Taylor led the Pac-12 with 322 carries. There is plenty of depth, albeit mostly inexperienced, behind Gaffney and Wilkerson.

Also of note offensively is the addition of Kevin Danser on the depth chart at center. He's slated to start at right guard, though there is also an "or" separating Khalil Wilkes, Conor McFadden and Danser at center. It will be interesting to watch in the fall if Danser continues to get work at center. And if he wins the job, it would allow the Cardinal to insert Josh Garnett into the starting rotation at guard. That would give the Cardinal a starting front of Andrus Peat (LT), David Yankey (LG), Danser (C), Garnett (RG) and Cam Fleming (RT).

With the news of Josh Nunes' retirement yesterday, Evan Crower is locked in as the backup to Kevin Hogan and, for now, Devon Cajuste looks like he'll start opposite Ty Montgomery at receiver.

Fullback Geoff Meinken also announced he'll retire after struggling to return from a knee injury that kept him out of 2012.

At tight end -- Stanford's go-to receiving position the last couple of years -- Luke Kaumatule and Davis Dudchock are separated by an "or." However both will probably get a ton of work in Stanford's two-tight-end sets.

Defensively, there are only two "ors" on the depth chart. Henry Anderson and Josh Mauro have a good competition going at defensive and Blake Lueders and James Vaughters are undecided at the outside linebacker spot to release Chase Thomas. Though the Cardinal rotate backers and defensive linemen so frequently that "starter" is more of an honorary title.

Worth noting also that Devon Carrington, who has spent his career at safety, is also listed as a backup with Usua Amanam at right cornerback behind Wayne Lyons. Amanam is Stanford's go-to nickelback and Carrington is also backing up Ed Reynolds.

Looking at the specialists, up for grabs is the punter, which could go to either Ben Rhyne or Conrad Ukropina. Montgomery looks set at kick return while it's a four-way race between him, Kodi Whitfield, Keanu Nelson and Barry Sanders to return punts.

You can see the complete depth chart here and interpret it as you see fit.
You might have noticed a theme this week. We kicked off the "Biggest Shoes" series and had two polls (North and South) on replacing departed players. So that means it's now time for your Pac-12 bloggers to weigh in on which two players we believe leave the biggest holes. Given our penchant for quarterbacks, you might find our two choices surprising. Read on.

Ted Miller: I do not know what size 6-foot-3, 320-pound Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei's shoes are, but I'd bet they are among the biggest in the Pac-12 -- in more ways than one.

The thing about replacing a dominant interior defensive lineman is that it's difficult to measure what you're losing. An All-America receiver or running back or even cornerback leaves, and you feel fairly comfortable quantifying what is lost and must be replaced. Lotulelei, however, was more than the sum of his stats -- 42 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, five sacks, four fumble recoveries, three forced fumbles and a very important blocked kick.

Lotulelei changed what an offense could do. He changed blocking schemes. He demanded specific attention from an offensive coordinator and a line coach. He made sure the interior of the opposing offensive line -- even if the offense was winning the overall battle -- wanted to ask for its check.

He was a unique presence. An anomaly. A college center could start 48 games in his career and face a guy like him just once. That's why Lotulelei will be a first-round NFL draft pick, even with a heart condition. He could get picked in the top five if a team deems him healthy.

But his shoes are even bigger because Utah, after a disappointing defensive campaign in 2012, is replacing three of four defensive linemen. Moreover, the Utes were unhappy with their linebacker play last fall, even with all the protection Lotulelei provided. Opposing offensive lines, unencumbered by the need to double-team Lotulelei every play, will get a lot more hats on those linebackers in 2013. Not what coach Kyle Whittingham wants.

[+] EnlargeSam Schwartzstein
Charles Baus/CSMCenter Sam Schwartzstein was a huge piece of Stanford's recent offensive success.
The cupboard isn't empty. The Utes are high on Tenny Palepoi, a 305-pound senior who played well as the backup to defensive tackle Dave Kruger last season. And there are other big bodies: LT Tuipulotu, Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, a 320-pound redshirt freshman, and Viliseni Fauonuku will be in the mix.

Yet the Utes defensive coaches won't even pretend one of those guys will fill Lotulelei's shoes. They are just too big.

Kevin Gemmell: This is a tough one. I've been going through a bunch of players all week long trying to come to a conclusion on which one I wanted to write about (and Lotulelei was already taken). All of them are important -- Matt Barkley, Khaled Holmes, Robert Woods, Jordan Poyer, Travis Long, Markus Wheaton, Brandon Magee, Desmond Trufant, Stepfan Taylor, Johnathan Franklin, Zach Ertz, Dion Jordan and … (insert name I unintentionally omitted and now you feel wildly offended).

There really is no wrong answer here. Each player is a major contributor to his team in his own way. But the one name that kept coming back to me is Stanford center Sam Schwartzstein. I know, not as exciting as Kenjon Barner or glamorous as Matt Scott. But in terms of sheer contributions to the team that will be tough to replace, Schwartzstein has to be in the conversation.

In 2011, he was regarded as having the second-best football mind on the team -- behind only Andrew Luck. And he didn't lose any of that in 2012.

After the quarterback, there is no more important position on Stanford's offense than the center. He makes all of the scheme and protection calls at the line of scrimmage. He even calls plays in the huddle when the Cardinal go into the Wildcat.

Schwartzstein started every game since taking over for All-American Chase Beeler, and twice he blocked for a 1,000-yard rusher in Taylor. The Cardinal played 14 games in 2012 and allowed just 20 sacks. In the 12-game regular season, they had allowed a conference-best 17. The year before that? Just 11 in 13 games. I know for a fact that there were zero quarterback-center exchange fumbles in 2011. And none comes to mind in 2012.

Khalil Wilkes, who started almost every game last year at left guard (one start at left tackle) moves over to compete with Conor McFadden for the gig. Maybe the transition from Schwartzstein to one of those guys will go as smoothly as the handoff from Beeler to Schwartzstein. After all, the new center will have one bona-fide All-American at his side and potentially a couple more on the line.

But they won't be the ones making the calls. That falls on the center -- and Schwartzstein was outstanding at it. He was second-team all-conference and honored with the school's leadership award. Not Taylor, not Ertz. Not Shayne Skov nor Ryan Hewitt nor the aforementioned All-American David Yankey. The center … the most crucial position in Stanford's offense that you never hear about.

Tough shoes to fill, indeed.

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