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Which Stanford recruits will see the field soonest?

Recruiting analysis is an inherently hypocritical business. In a good year, we write about all these highly ranked players that will change our team’s future; in a bad year, we just complain that recruiting rankings are worthless anyway.

There’s a whole lot of truth to both perspectives. Yes, Stanford’s fifth-ranked class of 2012 has already made an impact, and yes, the Cardinal’s 50th-ranked class of 2008 drastically changed the complexion of the Stanford football program. (I see you, Mr. Luck.)

This year’s class probably falls somewhere between those two extremes. Due to the return of several fifth-year seniors, only 12 players will join the Cardinal this offseason — compared with 22 a year ago — which makes for the sixth-smallest class in the nation, according to Rivals. Since the crop of incoming freshmen is so small, the class was ranked as low as 64th in the nation (and no higher than 39th) on Signing Day.

For the very near future, the tiny class is actually a great thing for Stanford fans. Who wouldn’t rather have a redshirt senior over a freshman during the 2013 season?

But when these incoming freshmen are seniors in four years, there’s going to be a whole lot of pressure on the Cardinal’s next group of recruits (which should be much larger than this one) to step up. It’s quite possible that Stanford will lose three starting linemen, Barry Sanders and Kevin Hogan on offense alone during a single offseason, leaving behind just the 12 seniors as Stanford’s elder statesmen. Junior leadership could very well define the 2016 season.

By then, college football will have a playoff and the Pac-12 might not be 12 any longer. I don’t know about you, but I can’t quite think that far ahead. So who in the class of 2013 is poised to make an impact early in their career, say, next season?

Of course, the temptation is to look to the highest-rated recruits: quarterback Ryan Burns, linebacker Peter Kalambayi and wide receiver Francis Owusu. Each earned four stars from Rivals, which, for reference, is better than current Stanford three-star starters Hogan and safety Jordan Richards.

Don’t expect to see Burns in 2013. It took the skillful Hogan a year and a half to master enough of Stanford’s complex playbook to earn playing time and even Luck was benched as a freshman. Even though he has a chance to eventually unseat a fellow Virginian in Hogan as Stanford’s starter, Burns will probably be behind older passers Josh Nunes, Dallas Lloyd and Evan Crower for 2013 unless the coaching staff decides to go back on what has worked so well in the past.

It might also take some time for Kalambayi, who is rated even higher than Burns, to break into the rotation. The last Stanford recruit at Kalambayi’s position to play frequently as a freshman was James Vaughters, who even as a sophomore last year seemed to fade to the back of the Cardinal’s inside linebacker rotation at the end of 2012. Stanford’s front seven is still stacked, and Scout.com had speed listed one of Kalambayi’s areas for improvement — a dangerous fault in a conference that boasts Oregon, Arizona, Washington State and other spread attacks.

Owusu, on the other hand, could be an impact player instantly. The Cardinal lost five of its top six pass-catchers in the offseason and hasn’t been solid at wide receiver since 2010. Given Owusu’s pedigree — his brother, Chris, starred as a Stanford kick returner and receiver from 2008-11 and got to play as a freshman — Cardinal fans could see him on Saturdays pretty soon. And since Stanford lost out on other big-name receivers such as Devon Allen and Jordan Cunningham this recruiting season, the pressure will be on Owusu right away.

Meanwhile, three-star recruits Eric Cotton, Austin Hooper and Greg Taboada will be locked in an intriguing competition at tight end, which is suddenly the least experienced position on Stanford’s roster.

It’s a tough position for a freshman to play in the Cardinal’s physical offense — the feat was accomplished by neither Jim Dray, Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz nor Levine Toilolo. But the new tight ends fit well in Stanford’s system, much like last year’s defensive back recruits did. Though only one true freshman, Alex Carter, started in Stanford’s resurgent 2012 secondary, two others, Drew Madhu and Zach Hoffpauir, played in all 14 games — as three-star recruits, no less. Maybe Cotton, Hooper and Taboada will get a chance of their own in 2013.

Overall, a sense of cautious optimism permeates most analysis of this class. After years of recruiting so well, Stanford’s coaching staff has earned a lot of trust that it will bring in players that fit its system and will star on Saturdays, even if not on scouting reports.

And besides, we all know recruiting rankings suck anyways.

Joseph Beyda signed his letter of intent in the parking lot of the local Panda Express. For a photo of the moving ceremony, email him at jbeyda “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @DailyJBeyda.

About Joseph Beyda

Joseph Beyda is the executive editor of The Stanford Daily. Previously he has worked as the football editor, a sports desk editor, the paper's summer managing editor and a beat reporter for football, baseball and women's soccer. He co-authored The Daily's recent football book, "Rags to Roses," and covered the soccer team's national title run for the New York Times. Joseph is a senior from Cupertino, Calif. majoring in Electrical Engineering. To contact him, please email jbeyda "at" stanford.edu.
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