Davis Mills heads into spring the clear starter at quarterback
Stanford Cardinal football opens its 2020 spring practice slate in unusual territory. The Cardinal put together a run of 10 consecutive bowl games from the end of Jim Harbaugh's tenure as coach, through the first eight years of David Shaw's tenure.
The longest run of consecutive postseason appearances in the Pac-12 came to an end last season in a disappointing 4-8 campaign. Shaw remains on the Farm, but there will be plenty of new faces reshaping the program in the new decade, most notably at quarterback.
5 Storylines to Watch During Stanford's Spring Practice
1. Davis Mills in charge at QB
K.J. Costello posted impressive passing numbers in 2018, setting the stage in '19 for some modest preseason buzz. Might Costello lead the Cardinal to a Pac-12 title, as Kevin Hogan had twice, or even emerge as a Heisman like two-time finalist Andrew Luck?
Instead, a head injury sustained Week 1 on a cheap shot against Northwestern and a lingering thumb sabotaged Costello's season with false starts. He opted to transfer to Mississippi State in the offseason, leaving two quarterbacks who took significant snaps in 2019 to vie for the starting job. Mills appeared in eight games, completed 158-of-241 passes for 1,960 yards, and had 11 touchdowns to five interceptions.
Mills' numbers were better all-around than Costello's last season, and the Cardinal won two Pac-12 games with him under center against Oregon State and Washington. He started the last three games, all losses. Jack West appeared in two games and started the streak-ending loss against UCLA, finishing 15-of-32 for 143 yards.
2. Can the run game be rebuilt?
Stanford's quarterbacks have had more pressure to carry the offense the last two seasons, commensurate with significant dips in run-game production. With no clear No. 1 back to step up amid Bryce Love's lingering ankle injury in 2018, the Cardinal slid to 11th in the Pac-12 at 107.9 rushing yards per game. The 2019 campaign was even leaner at 105.5 rushing yards per game.
In both cases, injuries played a role: The loss of 2017 Heisman runner-up Love in 2018 negatively impacted Stanford's approach, and in 2019, a litany of losses on the offensive line complicated things.
Walker Little's return after missing all but Week 1 helps. Stanford also has Drew Dalman back after an All-Pac-12 season at center. But in losing Devery Hamilton and Henry Hattis, depth will be a question, at least until high-4-star tackle prospect Myles Hinton arrives. But the perhaps more pressing concern is who can stand out in the running back rotation?
3. Defensive stars and emerging contributors
Despite losing a variety of players to transfers, and others to graduation, Stanford scored a major return for 2020 with cornerback Paulson Adebo declaring his intent for another season. The All-America-caliber performer sets the tone on the back line, while defensive end Thomas Booker established the pass-rushing presence upfront. That duo, along with linebacker Gabe Reid, gives Stanford the pillars for the defense in 2020.
The key for Lance Anderson's defense is establishing contributing playmakers around them.
Three of the team's leaders in sacks need to be replaced, with Casey Toohill graduated and Jovan Swann transferring. Despite Toohill's absence, the linebacker corps should be strong with Jordan Fox and Curtis Robinson back in the mix. Kyu Blu Kelly's progression in Year 2 at the other cornerback spot is a major development that could help shape Stanford's defense.
4. Already aboard the Simi Fehoko bandwagon
Quietly, one of the best players in the Pac-12 in the season's back-half was Fehoko. The 6-foot-4 wideout caught five touchdown passes Oct. 26 or later and finished the campaign with six receptions against Notre Dame.
His positive momentum into the offseason could carry him into 2020 as a candidate to break through as one of the Pac-12's top pass-catchers in 2020. Fehoko brings a quality akin to JJ Arcega-Whiteside in Stanford's prolific 2018 passing offense.
5. David Shaw's response in uncharted territory
Stanford's worst season prior to 2019 was an eight-win 2014 in which a promising young freshman named Christian McCaffrey finished with a flourish that signaled promising times ahead. Veteran quarterback Kevin Hogan was back in the mix, and Stanford returned a ton of production.
This past season did not conclude with the same kind of bright outlook ahead of it. Losses to rivals Cal and Notre Dame kept Stanford out of the postseason, but it also marked the first home loss to the Fighting Irish in more than a decade and ended the Cardinal's decade-long hold on the Stanford Axe.
The 2020 offseason may be the most important in Shaw's time on the Farm.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.