STANFORD, Calif. – One of the last things that might come to mind when most people think about Stanford is a spread-option formation and a running quarterback.
Now times really are changing without Andrew Luck this season.
With Josh Nunes struggling to find consistency, Stanford coach David Shaw has started to mix things up more at quarterback. Not because he has lost confidence in the redshirt junior. It's more that backup Kevin Hogan has just been that impressive, and the different looks might benefit both.
"It's kind of like having, excuse me for saying it, but like a Tim Tebow on our team," fullback Ryan Hewitt said. "He relishes the role. He likes it."
Hogan's role has been expanding each of the last four games.
The redshirt freshman tossed his first collegiate pass — a 9-yard touchdown to tight end Levine Toilolo — at a critical point in the No. 19 Cardinal's 21-3 victory at rival California last week, and he's another piece Washington State coach Mike Leach has to game plan for ahead of Saturday's matchup at Stanford Stadium.
Shaw shelved most of Luck's running plays — "to Andrew's dismay," he said — last season to protect the NFL's eventual No. 1 overall pick from an injury.
After watching Hogan play the scout team quarterback last year, when he mimicked opponents' styles such as Oregon's spread and UCLA's pistol offenses in practice, Shaw saw something that might work on Stanford's side. Shaw started implementing packages for Hogan similar to the way Stanford (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) did with Alex Loukas in 2008, and Hogan ran his first play for 5 yards in a 17-13 loss at Washington in the fourth game of this season.
Hogan entered at quarterback for six plays against California — although one was a false start penalty, and another appearance the previous week at Notre Dame was wiped out by a penalty. The Cardinal added another wrinkle when Hogan rolled right and tossed the touchdown to Toilolo in the first half of the victory at Cal last week.
"This is not a wildcat. This is not a running back that's just a running back. He's an athletic guy that can pass," Shaw said. "Those are things that we can take advantage of as an offense."
Shaw had trumpeted Hogan's skills during fall practice. He often told reporters not to discount him from the starting quarterback competition, which had been largely a two-man race between Nunes and Brett Nottingham in the spring and most of the summer, though most laughed that off at the time.
Shaw still considers Nottingham, who is listed second on the depth chart, ready to run the offense should anything happen to Nunes. But Hogan has been the one earning plays on the field with his "unique" set of skills.
"Some people think that some of these guys are like wind up, you wind them up and you put them out there and say, 'Well, how come he doesn't play?'" Shaw said. "No. 1, our team, you have to earn the right to get on the field by practicing well in practice. We've known Kevin can run and throw, but we weren't going to put him out there until he was efficient in that role."
Hogan ran some at his Virginia high school in a spread-style offense. But he was almost exclusively in a shotgun formation and often tossing quick passes to the outside — not starting under center, looking for tight ends or barking out orders to a bulky offensive line before the play.
While Hogan still has hopes of Stanford's starting job one day, he has embraced his new role as the change-of-pace quarterback.
"It's new. I'm adjusting to it and getting more and more comfortable with the certain packages," Hogan said. "I ran a little bit in high school, so it's good that I had a little bit of a base. But I'm just going to keep working at it every week, and if it gets called, just do my best with it."
Nunes, for his part, said he likes Hogan's role.
Running off the field for a play or two, he said, allows him to gather his thoughts for a moment and listen to coaches on the sideline. And while neither Shaw nor Nunes will say it publicly, it also has likely motivated the quarterback to improve.
Nunes has thrown for 1,484 yards, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions in seven starts, including an interception and a fumble against Cal. He remains somewhat of a mystery, playing spectacularly in the second half to upset then-No. 2 Southern California and rallying the Cardinal for a 54-48 overtime win against Arizona, but then he looked lost for stretches in losses at Washington and Notre Dame.
If nothing else, Hogan has shown he can move the Stanford offense at times, too.
"Kevin is a gifted athlete and a good player," Nunes said. "It's nice as an offense to be able to utilize his strengths."
NOTES: Starting WR Ty Montgomery has returned to practice and will likely play against Washington State after sitting out the last two games with a lower leg injury. ... OL David Yankey, who left the Cal game briefly with an undisclosed injury, will start Saturday.
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP