STANFORD, California — There is no momentum from a major bowl berth, no satisfaction from surprising skeptics and no sugarcoating the challenge ahead for Stanford.
For the first time in five years, the Cardinal kicked off spring practice Monday night the way so many other programs do: out to show they belong among the country's best after a season that fell short of expectations.
"I love it," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "There's a hunger right now. As much as we try not to worry about what other people say about us, it's nice when people talk about our conference and don't talk about us. Our guys get a little upset. I think that's great. Because the bottom line is you have to prove yourself every year."
Stanford routed its final three opponents — California, UCLA and Maryland in the Foster Farms Bowl — to finish 8-5 last season, which not long ago would've been considered a success on The Farm.
But nobody around here will praise that kind of record these days, not after winning the Pac-12 title the previous two years and making a BCS bowl the previous four.
Shaw is as curious as anybody to see if the Cardinal can carry their late-season surge over to spring practices, voluntary summer workouts and fall Saturdays and re-establish the program as a College Football Playoff contender.
"Both extremes, you get a chance to see what kind of character you have," Shaw said. "When you have a lot of success, you get a chance to see if guys come back and still work. When you don't have success, you don't reach your goals the year before, you want to see if guys are hungry and want to come back and reach those goals."
Players said they've already noticed a difference in the attitude at practice.
"It's nice that the expectation is so high that if you do mess up, you have someone who is going to be on your back," wide receiver Devon Cajuste said. "Whereas last year, it might have been a little different, like, 'Hey, it's OK. But we expected you to do better.' That leisurely attitude kind of is what caused us to have the season that we had."
Stanford has replaced key contributors in each of Shaw's first four years as coach, whether it be quarterback Andrew Luck, running back Stepfan Taylor or any number of defensive standouts in the NFL now.
The task will be equally difficult this year, however, the challenge comes in different places.
The Cardinal lost cornerbacks Alex Carter and Wayne Lyons, safety Jordan Richards and all three starters on the defensive line — Henry Anderson, David Parry and Blake Lueders. Left tackle Andrus Peat, a possible first-round pick in the draft, is the lone starter on the offensive line who left.
Versatile wide receiver and return specialist Ty Montgomery also is gone, and running back Kelsey Young and backup quarterback Evan Crower — along with Lyons — are not on the spring roster. All three are pursuing opportunities to transfer and would be eligible to play immediately as graduate students.
Despite those departures, the notable names coming back have Stanford feeling optimistic.
Quarterback Kevin Hogan is entering his fourth and final year as the starter. Christian McCaffrey is coming off a sensational freshman season and could take over as the primary running back, where junior Barry Sanders and fifth-year senior Remound Wright also will compete for carries.
Shaw said Wright will miss the first spring session because of a disciplinary issue. He also missed a session last spring because of a disciplinary issue and had to play catch up in the fall.
The wide receiver group should remain strong with the return of Cajuste, Michael Rector and Francis Owusu. The young tight end trio of Austin Hooper, Eric Cotton, and Greg Taboada showed significant progress last season, and decorated recruit Dalton Schultz — who redshirted as a freshman — will finally get his chance to emerge as a fourth option.
"I know that we have a lot of talent, and everyone's really hungry," Hogan said. "Just looking forward to getting back to that high level of play."
NOTES: DE Aziz Shittu and DB Ronnie Harris will miss all of spring practice with undisclosed injuries. ... LB Kevin Anderson will be limited early in spring practice because of a hand injury. ... FB Patrick Skov will miss the first session with a swollen knee. ... Stanford's first spring session runs through March 7, and the second session starts March 30 and culminates with the annual spring game April 11.
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: http://www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP
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