Stanford's 2013 passing attack was actually its most explosive of the Jim Harbaugh-David Shaw era. Because of the insistence to run against Michigan State's stacked front, an unfamiliar observer would not have been able to recognize this fact during crunch time of the Rose Bowl. But wide receiver production did indeed go through the roof this season, and more of the same improvement can reasonably be expected in 2014 -- assuming Shaw utilizes his guns downfield in a season which will see some turnover in rushing talent. Here's the early outlook:
Quarterback Kevin Hogan will return in 2014, this time with a full season of experience under his belt. No. 8's maturation became readily evident near the end of 2013, when he began making complex play changes at the line of scrimmage, delivering pretty deep balls, and efficiently orchestrating the Stanford attack in Arizona State's hostile road environment. Though Ryan Burns and incomer Keller Chryst will both presumably compete for the starting job, it would be a shock if Hogan were not the man under center to begin next year.
Stanford will be tasked with replacing Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson at running back, so Remound Wright, Ricky Seale, and Barry Sanders will jockey for time in the backfield, while incoming freshman Christian McCaffrey will have an opportunity to begin his college development. Fullback Ryan Hewitt will be gone, but Lee Ward has a fifth year of eligibility remaining, while Pat Skov is only a junior.
The perimeter, unlike the backfield, will sustain very few losses this offseason. Ty Montgomery will return for his senior season following an excellent campaign (61 catches, 958 yards), the most productive for a Cardinal wide receiver since Troy Walters in 1999. Devon Cajuste (22.9 yards per catch) matured into a match-up nightmare in 2013, and his presence alongside speed threat Michael Rector (30.8 yards per catch) is certainly intriguing moving forward. Kodi Whitfield and Jordan Pratt will also both be back, while talented size-speed threat Francis Owusu looks primed to make a run into a significant pass-catching role following a freshman season of peripheral action.
Remember, Stanford entered the 2013 season returning a grand total of zero touchdown catches from its wide receiver position group. The unit finished with 140 grabs for 2,459 yards and 20 touchdowns, so expectations should be high in 2014 for a passing game that returns almost all of its statistics (Jeff Trojan is a senior who does have a fifth year of eligibility). For the aerial arsenal to be complete, though, the Cardinal will have to do a better job in the mid-range passing game. Following the departures of Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, that dimension of the Stanford attack was noticeably absent for much of 2013. As the extremely high per-catch averages illustrate, the Cardinal followed a bomb-or-bust aerial formula this season.
Though receivers should be able to address this intermediate range productivity themselves (a lumbering tight end should not have to be a requirement to run a slant or a crossing pattern), Stanford does hope to reopen the flow of the tight end pipeline following a disastrous 2013 season at the position (10 catches, 69 total yards following a 2012 season that saw 93 grabs for 1,291 total yards). Davis Dudchock does have a fifth year of eligibility remaining, but especially intriguing hope lies in three freshmen who redshirted this year: Greg Taboada, Austin Hooper, and Eric Cotton. The emergence of any of those players has the potential to fill a glaring void in Stanford's passing offense.
The centerpiece of Stanford's offensive effort is its line, and there will undoubtedly be turnover here. Left guard David Yankey will almost certainly declare for the NFL Draft, while center Khalil Wilkes and right guard Kevin Danser both exhausted their eligibility after the Rose Bowl. There's a chance that right tackle Cam Fleming goes pro, but he still has a year of eligibility left and told The Bootleg there's a good chance he'll be back in 2014.
All told, it appears as if the three interior starting positions will be filled by fresh faces. Josh Garnett, who has played well in the 'Ogre' position this season, seems like Yankey's natural successor at left guard. Johnny Caspers, who added 30 pounds of strength before the 2013 season to earn a jumbo lineman role, will likely fill in on the right. Stanford has been working hard to groom sophomore Graham Shuler to take Wilkes' center position. If the formerly touted recruit is indeed ready to step into the position that directs the offensive line by 2014, the Cardinal will have answered a pressing question up front.
Kyle Murphy, who has also seen extensive action as a jumbo tight end, should be ready to bring his polished footwork to Fleming's position if needed (otherwise, he'll again be a perfect fit for Stanford's versatile jumbo tight end position). Don't forget the tremendous value that Andrus Peat will bring to the table: He'll remain a looming fixture at left tackle to protect Hogan's blindside.
The losses of Yankey, Hewitt, Gaffney, and Wilkerson -- all of whom were instrumental in the running game -- coupled with Hogan's expected maturation and the return of virtually every single Stanford wide receiver suggests that the passing game may become a bigger part of Shaw's attack in 2014. Outside of the Rose Bowl's stretch run, of course, the Cardinal upped the aerial ante here in 2013, and it appears that complementing that explosiveness with mid-range stability is the team's ticket to a better offense next season.
Let's make this much clear, though: Given the physical prowess of the offensive line, the running game certainly won't go away. There just appears to be a strong chance that the 2014 offense can be the team's most dynamic since Andrew Luck graduated. It'll likely have to be that strong for Stanford to crack the inaugural four-team playoff, since defensive production will almost certainly erode with the departures of Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Josh Mauro, and others. I'll gauge how much ground the Cardinal's offense will have to make up in my next piece, in which I'll provide a prospectus on the other side of the ball.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our award-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up)!