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2015 Pac-12 Football: A Cardinal Q & A

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Stanford fans I ran into last year worried about QB Kevin Hogan all of last season. Do the Rule of Tree writers agree? For an insider's perspective into this year's edition of football at Leland Stanford Junior University, we turn to nickdempsey and Matt Vassar of Rule of Tree, SB Nation's Cardinal community.

Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

1) What is the most important position of worry for you, and why is it quarterback?

nickdempsey: There seemed to be two Kevin Hogans last season. The one we saw in the first part of the year was less than impressive. The Kevin Hogan we saw at the end of the season (particularly against Cal, UCLA and Maryland) was very impressive. For me I'm worried about which Kevin Hogan shows up next season, if Stanford gets the Kevin Hogan that showed up at the end of last year, then it could be a great season.

Matt Vassar: Nice try, but I ain't taking the bait.

Kevin Hogan is an NFL-caliber quarterback (projected, e.g., by CBS as the fourth-best QB prospect for the 2016 NFL draft).

And don't forget that behind Kevin Hogan, we have Keller Chryst who was recruited as the #1-ranked pocket passer in the entire country. He red-shirted last year and is chomping at the bit waiting for his turn.

Put simply: Stanford will be strong in the QB position for years to come, and this isn't an area of concern.

So, where should the Cardinal be concerned?

I realize it's not a sexy answer, but the honest answer is at the placekicker position. Last year, David Shaw drew a lot of ire when in the losing game vs. USC, he called for a punt (instead of a field goal) from the USC 29-yard line.

Here's the thing, though: despite fans' perceptions, Shaw was absolutely right in calling for a punt (due to a combination of a sub-par kicker and the fact that that kicker would've been kicking into 17 MPH winds). Among FBS placekickers who played in at least 75% of their teams' games, Williamson wasn't exactly lighting the world on fire; in fact, Williamson's 68.2% success rate last season ranked him toward the very bottom of the barrel (82nd out of 99).

And not only did our veteran placekicker struggle last year, but he also graduated at the end of the season, meaning that we'll need to be promoting one of the backups (likely Conrad Ukropina) to the position.

But it gets worse. When the Stanford Spring Game aired, Ukropina's prospects looked even bleaker as he proceeded to miss every single one of his field goal attempts.

You might say that the placekicker isn't that big a deal and he isn't even in the game except for special situations, but the placekicker is an important part of Stanford's game plan. When your game plan revolves around slowing down the tempo of the game and beating up the opponent until you're the only one who can play late in a close game, each and every three points you make off of a field goal can be huge. After all, it was only by the foot of Jordan Williamson that Stanford upset Oregon in 2012 and went on to win the Pac-12 Championship and the Rose Bowl.

2) Which player should Cal fans worry about who will torture our souls next season?

nickdempsey: Christian McCaffrey could have a tremendous 2015. He is incredibly athletic, and very talented. McCaffrey is still young and inexperienced, and at times he was poorly utilized. If Coach Shaw and the offense can find a way to get this guy the ball in space, he can cause some serious damage. Having said that, there is quite a bit of football to be played and quite a lot can happen before we get to the Big Game.

Matt Vassar: The entire offense should be fierce next year, with Stanford returning many of its starters, including: QB Kevin Hogan, WR Devon Cajuste, RB Barry Sanders Jr., TE Austin Hooper, C Graham Shuler, RT Kyle Murphy, and both guards Joshua Garnett and Johnny Caspers.

With that many starters returning with another year of experience, the offense should be much improved.

If I were to choose just one player, though, to have a breakout season, I'm going to give another decidedly unsexy answer: RT Kyle Murphy.

I know, I know. As soon as I start talking about offensive guard play, half of your readers instantly stopped reading this article.

(On the other hand, maybe getting people bored with talk about offensive tackle play was my evil ploy to sabotage your article all along!)

But Kyle Murphy was recently named to the All-Pac 12 First Team by Athlon Sports. This came on the heels of last season when he was a part of an offensive line that ranked 18th in the country in tackles for loss allowed.

And while I realize a sexier pick may have been RB Christian McCaffrey, RB Barry Sanders Jr., or WR Devon Cajuste, just remember that whenever a running lane opens for either McCaffrey or Sanders, it's by Murphy's doing. And when Hogan is given enough time to develop that big passing play to Cajuste, it started with Murphy at the offensive line.

3) Tell us about your coach and why you dislike him.

nickdempsey: Coach Shaw is one of the best at developing talent. The one thing that did frustrate some Stanford fans last season was his insistence on trying to force players into a scheme that may not have been the best fit for their talents.

Matt Vassar: Trying to set me up with another leading question, eh? You seem to have forgotten that just a couple questions ago, I defended David Shaw's play call to punt from the USC 29-yard line.

And if I could defend him for that, I'm pretty sure I can defend him on anything!

Seriously, though, David Shaw is one of the most sought after coaches in the NFL and the NCAA. He's 42-12, won two conference championships in four years, and made two Rose Bowls.

By any objective metric, he's been wildly successful and has done more than enough to earn our respect.

4) How do your fans view Cal this season, and why do you love us so much?

nickdempsey: Even though we may be a small bunch, I would not presume to speak for the entire Stanford fan base. I will say, despite the stereotypes about Stanford alums, there is a healthy amount of respect for our rivals across the bay. For myself, I would like to see Cal make the Air Raid (or Bear Raid if you prefer) work and put together a solid season. As much as I have enjoyed the last half decade or so of Big Game victories, rivalry is more fun when both teams are competitive.

Matt Vassar: Man, ANOTHER leading question? I feel like you're throwing all of your Jedi mind tricks at me, Lord SithNHook.

Well, I only know two things: 1. these aren't the droids I'm looking for, and 2. I love Cal.

Wait, what?! What did you just get me to admit to!?

Cal got a bum rap during the 2013 season when the Bears only won one game. But what people fail to notice is that Cal not only had a very young team, but also suffered an absurd/record-setting number of injuries in 2013.

After returning many of their young starters with a year of experience, Cal improved noticeably in 2014, but still fell one game short of earning a bowl.

To me, 2015 will be the year when Cal finally shakes the 2013 monkey off its back and gets back into the swing of things.

Cal may not be in the upper-echelon of the Pac-12, but they should have enough to compete and upset some of the heavyweights on "any given Saturday."

I expect this to be the beginning of good things to come for Cal and my best advice is just to bear with it; my senior year at Stanford was the same year that Stanford went 1-11, so I know how frustrating it can be. But I also know that once you start seeing flickers of hope, just how quickly things can turn around.

It's all cyclical, really.

5) What were your biggest questions heading into spring practice? Were they addressed during the spring?

nickdempsey: The biggest question headed into the spring was whether Stanford could replace the 8 defensive starters they lost. Losing 8 starters on one side of the ball is certainly a lot but the unit looked sharp in the spring game. Look for Blake Martinez to have a tremendous season, and a few breakout stars to emerge from the young squad.

Matt Vassar: Will Stanford's nationally elite defense of the past few years continue to hold up after losing so many players to either graduation or the NFL draft last year? And boy did they answer with a resounding "YES!"

In the Spring Game, Stanford's defense completely smothered the offense, only allowing a single touchdown all game long. It didn't look like there was a single weak link in the defense, as the linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs all wreaked havoc on the offense.

Dallas Lloyd, who recently converted from QB to SS, looked a natural fit in the new position. And Noor Davis looks like he's on the precipice of a breakout year.

6) What are your biggest needs for improvement after the spring?

nickdempsey: Consistency from the offense, particularly better play calling and solid quarterback performance.

Matt Vassar: As mentioned above, the placekicker position is a huge area of concern as Ukropina failed to hit even a single field goal in the Spring Game.

More broadly, though, special teams in general is an area of concern since we also lost our punter Ben Rhyne to graduation as well as expert returner Ty Montgomery to the NFL.

7) Post-spring analysis: Your team is going to be a Contender, Pretender, or Middle of the Pac?

nickdempsey: If Stanford can reproduce the kind of offensive production they had at the end of the season, and the defense continues to be reliable, then Stanford could once again contend for the Pac 12 championship. If not not, they could be looking at another middle of the Pac, 7- 9 win season.

Matt Vassar: Contender. Until proven otherwise, it's Oregon-Stanford in the North vs. UCLA-USC in the South.

All four of these teams not only had outstanding recruiting classes this year, but also will be returning tons of their starters.

8) Who do you want to punch in the face?

nickdempsey: https://youtu.be/8QJiAK-s5a0?t=2m26s

Matt Vassar: Oski.

I mean, he looks like such a bizarre mixture of Yogi Bear and Richard Nixon.