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Stanford Cardinal 2016 Spring Practice Preview

Christian McCaffrey

Christian McCaffrey

Jim Harbaugh, the man responsible for elevating Stanford football from the basement of college football almost a decade ago, is making national headlines at Michigan.

His former colleague and current Stanford head coach, David Shaw, is far more low-key. Rather than bringing in celebrities like Ric Flair to sell his program, the Cardinal coach flashed a few of his own friends on social media.

Shaw let Stanford's hardware do his talking, and in the 2015 season, the Cardinal cranked up the volume. Stanford is coming off its third Pac-12 Conference title in four years, and won its second Rose Bowl over the same period.

With Heisman Trophy runner-up and record-setting, do-everything running back Christian McCaffrey still in the fold, the Cardinal have the pieces to expand Shaw's trophy case further. But Stanford also embarks on its 2016 spring football practices with notable areas that need addressing.

5 Storylines to Watch in Stanford Spring Practice

1. A New-Look Offensive Line
Paving the way for Stanford's rise to prominence is a consistently excellent offensive line. The Cardinal starting front five replaces NFL-caliber with more NFL-caliber, following up groups with players like Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro with successors like Andrus Peat, Kyle Murphy and Joshua Garnett.

The play of Stanford's offensive line manifested in 2015 with McCaffrey's run to New York City and the Heisman ceremony, and Garnett picked up some honors of his own with All-American recognition and the Outland Trophy.

Garnett leaves, along with entrenched starter Murphy. Graham Shuler's retirement means the Cardinal have three starting spots to fill in the offseason.

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2. Playing in Mount Rushmore's Shadow
Following Stanford's Pac-12 Championship Game defeat of USC, Shaw said reporters asked him about quarterback Kevin Hogan's legacy. Shaw said the four-year starter belonged on a hypothetical "Mount Rushmore" of all-time great Cardinal quarterbacks with Jim Plunkett, John Elway and Hogan's predecessor, Andrew Luck.

Considering Hogan led three Pac-12 championship teams and a pair of Rose Bowl winners, the praise was warranted. Hogan leaves with a lofty standard for his replacement to meet.

Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns will compete for the opportunity. Chryst, a celebrated recruit when he arrived at Stanford, was Stanford's primary No. 2 on the depth chart a season ago.


3. Sack Production
When Trent Murphy, Ben Garnder and others were patrolling the Stanford front seven, they coined the hashtag #PartyInTheBackfield. The 2013 Cardinal led the nation in sacks with 44, racked up another 46 in 2014, and finished last season with 34. Eleven came in Stanford's final two games.

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Of last season's most prolific partiers, Stanford says goodbye to ends Aziz Shittu and Brennan Scarlett, who combined for 9.5 sacks. Linebackers Mike Tyler, Joey Alferi and Peter Kalambayi return, along with Solomon Thomas in the middle.

It's a solid foundation, but replicating the production at end is a must to keep Stanford's party going.


4. The Running Back-ups
McCaffrey garnered the headlines and hardware, but Stanford's depth across the entire running back corps was impressive. Remound Wright established himself as one of the nation's best goal-line ball carriers, scoring a team-high 13 touchdowns. His eligibility lapsed.

Barry Sanders Jr. averaged an impressive 6.2 yards per carry in limited action and scored four touchdowns. He opted to transfer to Oklahoma State where his workload should increase — and where his father was a legend.

Shaw prefers a multifaceted approach from his offense, even with a superstar like McCaffrey in the backfield. Expect a jump in touches for Bryce Love, starting with a bigger role in spring practices.

5. Progress in the Secondary

The Stanford secondary entered 2015 one of the Pac-12's least experienced. At times, it showed. The Cardinal ranked No. 71 nationally against the pass, allowing just shy of 3,200 yards.

By season's end, however, the group started to shine. Quenton Meeks' pick-six of Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard in the Rose Bowl was an emphatic way to cap the 2015 season, while setting the tone for the Stanford defensive backs heading into 2016.

With Meeks, Alijah Holder and Justin Reid all gaining important playing time as underclassmen, the Cardinal have a solid corps around which to focus the secondary in 2016.

Pre-Spring Stanford Outlook in the Pac-12

Until another team takes it away from them, the Pac-12 championship is the Stanford Cardinal's to defend. The conference will not be lacking for challengers, particularly from the North.

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The Cardinal's burgeoning rivalry with Oregon has been a gem, with the Ducks taking last season's matchup to move to 4-3 since the two programs became the conference's standard-bearers in 2009. Oregon again has the make-up to compete with Stanford for Pac-12 supremacy.

Chris Petersen is building something special at Washington, and the 2016 Huskies could be the Pac-12's dark-horse contender. The Huskies' counterparts at Washington State also took an important step in Mike Leach's fourth season.

The Pac-12 is not without potential pitfalls, and Stanford has holes to fill. However, few programs anywhere in college football have proven as adept at sustain success — and Shaw has the trophy case to speak to it.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of CFBHuddle.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.