With the Cardinal kicking off spring ball next week, there will obviously be a lot of focus and attention on position battles. Who will be the quarterback? Who will step up on the offensive line? What about the safeties?
Chances are, most or none of those questions will be answered by the time spring turns to summer. In fact, we might not have some of those answers until kickoff against San Jose State. So rather than speculating, let's take a look at 10 players on the current roster who will be vital to Stanford's success next season. (Trust me, trimming the list to 10 was tough).
No. 10, Jordan Williamson, K: What we need to know is if his head is right following the debacle in the desert. No need to re-hash the gory details. We all know how his teammates rallied around him. If he's fully healthy in his leg -- and his mind -- he will be critical to Stanford's success since they are likely to play some closer games next season.
No. 9, Trent Murphy, OLB: The other outside linebacker. Chase Thomas is going to draw double-teams, trap blocks and all sorts of creative crack-backs to keep him out of the opponent's backfield. That means Murphy -- who quietly had a very good 2011 with 40 tackles and 6.5 sacks -- should get more one-on-one attention.
No. 8, Ty Montgomery, WR: Coming off a fantastic freshman campaign, the pressure is on to see if he can 1) produce over the course of an entire season; 2) produce without Andrew Luck throwing him the ball. There is a lot of inexperience at wide receiver and incoming freshmen that will press him. He can be a stabilizing factor for whoever gets Luck's old gig.
No. 7, Terrence Stephens, NT: Under-appreciated for the role he plays on the defensive line, Stephens does the dirty work that lets the linebackers claim all of the glory. He's also a vocal, emotional leader that the defense is going to need with the oft-quoted Michael Thomas graduated and pursuing a professional career.
No. 6/No. 6A, Zach Ertz & Levine Toilolo, TEs: (Yes, I'm cheating a bit with two players) Both were security blankets for Luck on third down, dangerous red zone targets and much improved blockers. They'll have to be all of that and more. A new quarterback is likely to check down more often than not, which means the remaining dos Amigos could have big years.
No. 5, Wayne Lyons, DB: Coming off a foot injury, Lyons should quickly play his way back into the cornerback rotation -- if not win a starting job outright. He entered with a ton of hype as a true freshman and even though he missed the majority of the season, expectations shouldn't be tempered if this dynamic defender can stay healthy.
No. 4, Chase Thomas, OLB: He's the No. 1-rated senior outside linebacker in the country and a terror to quarterbacks and running backs. The next step for him is to do more of the same -- but do it quicker and more consistently. Knowing his work ethic, that shouldn't be a problem. Thomas should have a monster year if he stays healthy and his decision to return should be rewarded with a nice bump in his draft status.
No. 3, Sam Schwartzstein, C: David Yankey and Cameron Fleming should continue to improve upon very good first years starting. But Schwartzstein is the guy who makes the line go. He's a tireless worker -- both at the physical and mental aspects of the game -- and should provide a calming presence to whoever takes the snaps from him. He's not a vocal leader -- but neither was David DeCastro. Guys follow guts and brains and Schwartzstein has both.
No. 2, Ryan Hewitt, FB: Another player whose efforts often go overlooked. He'll likely see his short-yardage carries increase with the graduation of Jeremy Stewart and as a blocking back -- he's one of the best in the country. He's versatile enough to play tight end (the three-tight-end-sets didn't leave with Coby Fleener) and you have to love a guy that loves contact.
No. 1, Stepfan Taylor, RB: The workhorse. Taylor will be the catalyst for Stanford's offense next year. He'll get plenty of reps while the new quarterback develops and should get better reps as the new guy matures. He's the best blocker of the running backs and when he does go out for passes, he's sure-handed and shifty in the open field. He does everything. And in a time of transition, those kind of guys are simply invaluable.