While Cardinal fans will have to wait an extra week to see their team kick off its highly anticipated 2013 campaign, head coach David Shaw provided a clear picture of who will take the field first when Stanford hosts San Jose State on Sept. 7.
Following the conclusion of practice Thursday morning, Shaw named starters at several tightly contested positions: fifth-year senior Khalil Wilkes at center, junior James Vaughters at outside linebacker, junior Wayne Lyons at cornerback, senior Ben Rhyne at punter and junior Ty Montgomery returning kickoffs.
During last season’s Rose Bowl run, Khalil Wilkes started 12 games for the Cardinal at left guard. Undoubtedly, his biggest moment came when he recovered Kevin Hogan’s fumble in overtime against Oregon, allowing Jordan Williamson to set up for the game-winning field goal.
Now, with All-American David Yankey talking over the left guard spot, Wilkes will slide over and replace two-year starter Sam Schwartstein at center. In one of the closest battles all throughout camp, the fifth-year senior edged out Conor McFadden for the starting spot after a strong performance during the team’s open scrimmage last Saturday. At the beginning of camp, senior Kevin Danser was also in the mix to replace Schwartstein, but, ultimately, Shaw decided to keep him at guard, where he has started the past two seasons.
“We feel like we’ve got three awesome centers that can play,” Shaw said, “but Khalil will start the season as our center and hopefully carry us all the way through. He’s a fifth-year senior. You can feel his leadership and his command of the offense. “
When discussing outside linebacker competition between Vaughters and senior Blake Leuders, Shaw emphasized that while Vaughters will start, both players will receive considerable playing time at the position.
“Both of them are so physical and so great, they’ll both play in base and both play in nickel,” Shaw said. “They’re just really, really good football players. The best thing for us is we’ll rotate guys. There shouldn’t be a drop-off.”
Vaughters and Leuders now face the challenge of replacing former All-American Chase Thomas, the lone loss from last season’s dominant linebacking corps.
Following Thursday’s practice, Shaw also shed some light on who will take over several key special teams roles.
Rhyne, a senior, will replace sure-handed punter and holder Daniel Zychlinski, after beating out sophomore Conrad Ukropina.
In perhaps the most predictable announcement Thursday, Shaw also announced that Montgomery will serve the team’s primary kick returner.
The one major remaining question on special teams is who will return punts with the departure of Drew Terrell. Shaw has indicated that both Kodi Whitfield and Barry J. Sanders will take on the job, but it is unclear what their respective roles will be.
The final position battle resolved Thursday — and the one that Shaw acknowledged was probably the toughest to decide — was the starting cornerback spot opposite sophomore Alex Carter.
Although Shaw named Lyons the starter over seniors Barry Browning and Devon Carrington, he noted that the Cardinal will rotate defensive backs.
“Over the length of camp, we base everything on pure competition,” he said. “The best thing is, all those guys that I mentioned in the competition, they’ve showed us they need to play. Barry Browning needs to play. He’s too good not to play. Devon Carrington is too good not to play… But, who’s the first guy on the field? That’s the only decision we made.”
On a general level, Shaw recognized that this ability to rotate many capable players during games provides a strong indicator of just how far Stanford football has risen over the last few years.
“We feel we do have depth,” Shaw said. “We have multiple guys that could or should start. And can start. And play a lot. That’s been the biggest thing that’s changed in Stanford football in probably the past five years…We feel like we are at least two deep at just about every position on both sides of the ball.”
Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan “at” stanford.edu.