STANFORD, Calif. – Dry conditions, cool temperatures and the smell of clean-cut grass brought a smile to the face of Stanford coach David Shaw on the first day of spring practice.
"It started off warm," he said. "It felt like spring a little bit when we first got out here."
This February sure feels rosier on The Farm.
Under a colorful sky and a Silicon Valley sunset, the Cardinal began the first half of their split spring practice schedule Monday evening with something even more comforting than the weather: a starting quarterback. The defending Pac-12 Conference and Rose Bowl champions also return most of a stout defense, too.
Stanford still needs to sort out starters at running back, tight end, wide receiver, left tackle and center under new offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren. While those competitions will likely last through the summer, this spring should give a glimpse of whether they're worthy of what so many are forecasting this fall: a top-five ranking in The Associated Press preseason poll.
After two hectic months on the road recruiting and attending coaching clinics, Shaw felt at ease being back on the field. His message to players at the start of spring: keep it simple.
"I'm excited about how we started," Shaw said at the end of practice, when a full moon illuminated the night sky. "We started much better than we did a year ago on the first day of spring. I think we've got a lot of retention, a lot of guys coming back, there's a lot of energy. I think they remembered the beginning of last spring, so our seniors did a great job of getting these guys ready to go. We started fast. It was a good day."
Expectations will be far different at Stanford this year.
Last February, the Cardinal appeared headed for a major rebuilding project. Andrew Luck left to become the No. 1 overall pick of the Indianapolis Colts. Replacements also had to be found at safety, cornerback, wide receiver, tight end, left tackle and right guard.
Josh Nunes didn't beat out Brett Nottingham at quarterback until August, and he lost the job to redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan after nine games. Hogan carried the Cardinal to five straight wins as the starter, including at Oregon and in the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin — the program's first victory in "The Granddaddy of Them All" in 41 years.
Shaw already has declared Hogan the starter this spring. He said he wants Hogan to take more command of the offense and more of a leadership role.
Hogan, now sporting a scruffy, Luck-like beard, had just started immersing himself in the full playbook this time a year ago after spending the previous season on the scout team. Now he's solidified as the starter and has spent the last two months tossing passes to receivers about three times a week, when most of the returning starters organized voluntary workouts.
"It was nice to be out and have it really organized tonight," said Hogan, who has set goals to improve his footwork along with his leadership and command of the offense. "Everyone was flying around, excited to be out here."
Middle linebacker Chase Thomas leaves the biggest hole on defense, though the Cardinal had such a legion of linebackers, playing time proved to be the only real problem at the position last season. Leading tackler Shayne Skov, who will not participate in the first portion of spring while he attends to a family matter with his brother, fullback Patrick Skov, also is among those coming back from a defense that ranked in the top five in yards rushing allowed (97), sacks (4.07) and tackles for loss (8.86) per game.
By far the biggest concerns are on offense.
Stepfan Taylor, the school's record-setting running back, is set to graduate and enter the NFL draft. Tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo decided to forgo their final year of eligibility to turn pro.
Running back Tyler Gaffney is returning for his senior season after a year in the Pittsburgh Pirates' minor league system and should help alleviate Taylor's loss. But Gaffney won't be in school until the spring quarter begins, so he'll miss the first half of workouts, which he sat out anyway in previous years playing baseball.
Anthony Wilkerson, Remound Wright, Ricky Seale and Barry Sanders are among those vying for carries. Sanders and wide receiver Keanu Nelson could also see time at punt returner with Drew Terrell gone.
Fullback Geoff Meinken also is back after a severe knee injury in last year's spring game sidelined him for the season. So is outside linebacker Blake Lueders, who redshirted last season because of injuries.
Centers Graham Shuler and Kevin Reihner will miss the first session of spring, Shaw said. Shuler is out for disciplinary reasons, while Reihner is sidelined with an undisclosed injury. That means Khalil Wilkes and Conor McFadden are splitting the workload in one of the most crucial position battles.
"We're going to wear them out, which is good. They need it," Shaw said.
The first half of spring drills, which go until March 9, will focus on installing plays and basic practices. The second half, which begins April 1, will include more game situations and scripted plays, such as down and distance.
The annual Cardinal & White Spring Game will be at Stanford Stadium on April 13. For now, most are just happy to be practice together again.
"To come back on the field, it's like, 'Thank goodness,'" Shaw said. "This is what we enjoy. And I told the guys, 'If you're wired the right way, you've been excited all day today.' And hopefully we got enough guys that felt that way."