What to watch for: Stanford's Cardinal & White Spring Game

For years - decades, really - the Cardinal was almost exclusively a hunter. As Stanford wraps up spring practices Saturday and heads into the summer, the program finally is the hunted.

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That's not a bad thing for David Shaw as he keeps his players focused on what comes next. Here are a few things to watch as the defending Pac-12 champions conclude practice with the annual Cardinal & White game at Stanford Stadium Saturday at 3 p.m. PT, the last of five springs games on Pac-12 Networks that day.

Kevin Hogan 2.0

Stanford surged to a Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl title thanks in large part to the play of Kevin Hogan at quarterback, who could make the clutch throws while also mixing in the threat of running for first downs. If the team is to defend its crown and weather the loss of several key contributors on offense, Hogan will have to take the next step and evolve into an even better version of what he was last season when the team went 5-0 with him as a starter.

"We've been working on our deep passes and he's been hitting them," Shaw said after the Cardinal's final scrimmage on Saturday.

The deep ball has been a particular area of emphasis for Hogan under new quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford, a former signal-caller himself. With a group of receivers that should stretch the field, an improved Hogan is a scary thought for defenses.

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Big guys and fast guys

Center is still up for grabs at the moment and that's no small thing considering how much emphasis is placed on the position in the Stanford offense. Right now it's a three-man rotation with Khalil Wilkes, Connor McFadden and Kevin Dantzer, but that figures to be pared down as fall camp inches closer. Left tackle is also open with Andrus Peat and Kyle Murphy both pushing to start as young players on the outside of the line. The depth the Cardinal has at every position is impressive, and there are a number guys who will see playing time up and down one of the country's best offensive lines.

Among the fast guys to watch, running back Tyler Gaffney figures to be first on the list. The second-leading rusher in 2011, Gaffney departed to focus on baseball last year but has jumped down from the stands and strapped on the pads again. He's immediately forced his way into the rotation and impressed coaches with how he's picked up where he left off two years ago. He will team with Anthony Wilkerson to form a dangerous one-two combination at tailback.

There's also a group of wide receivers looking to emerge as go-to threats for Hogan with a pair of talented tight ends departing for the NFL. Ty Montgomery is healthy again and showing flashes of being a difficult guy to cover, while Kelsey Young, Michael Rector, Kodi Whitfield and Devon Cajuste have been making plays all spring. Luke Kaumatule has stepped up at tight end and will be one to keep an eye on as the Cardinal look to bring along the next wave at the position.

[Related: Stanford 2013 football schedule]

Stepping up on defense

"We played a lot of guys last year, but every season you tear it down and build it back up," Willie Shaw Director of Defense Derek Mason said. "2012 has nothing to do with 2013. Everybody talks about the front seven, and they're phenomenal, but people don't realize that our safeties fit as good as anybody in terms of stopping the run. The thing that we can't do is let the ball get over our heads."

With so many returnees from one of the best defensive units in the nation last year, one would think Mason would be somewhat content this spring to just play a few young guys and give others some rest. While there are some underclassmen seeing some increased reps, it's mostly because the team is that deep and that good that spots are up for grabs.  It's all part of the philosophy that has been established on The Farm that there's no getting worse, only getting better.

"Everybody else - whether it's USC, Oregon, Notre Dame - is getting better," Mason added. "Everybody is looking at our film and we're looking at theirs."

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