By Mark Soltau, Stanford Athletics
STANFORD, Calif. - When Kevin Hogan left the field at Colorado last year after his first offensive series, reality was about to sink in: He was Stanford's new starting quarterback.
"I always talk to Pep Hamilton up in the press box," he said of his former offensive coordinator. "We had scored a touchdown and he said, `No looking back from here.' ''
Subbing for struggling Josh Nunes, Hogan led the Cardinal to six consecutive scoring drives en route to a 48-0 victory and never relinquished the job. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound redshirt freshman from McLean, Va., received his first career start the following week against Oregon State and closed the season with five straight wins, capped by a 20-14 triumph against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
This spring, Hogan is the undisputed starter and has emerged as a team leader. Tough and athletic, he is effective running and throwing, and was Stanford's second-leading rusher.
"Nothing rattles him," said senior offensive lineman David Yankey. "He's always had nerves of steel, but now I've really seen him develop in the playbook. He's managing our offense the way we need our quarterback to manage it."
Hogan said he is miles ahead mentally compared to last spring. He will be expected to guide the Cardinal offense at the line of scrimmage, make proper reads, and keep defenses honest with occasional deep throws to open up its trademark power running game.
"Last year I would have worried more about what's going on on the defensive side," Hogan said. "Now I can go up to the line, check to make sure everyone is in their position, and then see what's going on on the other side of the ball. It's night and day for sure."
The strong and sturdily-built Hogan doesn't shy away from contact. Many times last year, he used his legs to extend drives.
"It was baptism by fire," said quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford. "He's just so naturally gifted that a lot of his instincts carried him and carried our football team. Now he knows he can't rely strictly on his instincts, but he has to have a mastery of the system and a mastery of what defenses are trying to do to him."
While some were clamoring for David Shaw, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football, to insert Hogan into the lineup sooner, he knew his young quarterback wasn't ready.
"I was definitely lost at times," Hogan said. "I was still trying to find my way in the playbook. That kind of takes away your ability to play at a high level, a fast level, because you're worried, `OK, what am I doing here?' ''
So Shaw waited patiently. Hogan rewarded him with a hard-fought win against the Beavers, then engineered a pulsating 17-14 overtime win against top-ranked Oregon in his first road start, snapping the Ducks' nation-best 13-game winning streak. He followed with back-to-back wins against UCLA, the latter in the Pac-12 Championship Game, then helped secure Stanford's first Rose Bowl title since 1972.
"I think I did OK," said the humble and low-key Hogan. "But I want to eliminate all of the mistakes. I really want to master this offense."
Much like former Stanford star Andrew Luck, Hogan is a team-first guy and doesn't care about personal accolades.
"I think he and Andrew are very, very different personalities," Sanford said. "But there are a lot of similarities in the fact that they enjoy the process more than the recognition.
"I think they enjoy their teammate's success more than their own praise. That's a thing you see genuinely with Kevin. He enjoys being in the locker room and he enjoys being around his teammates, and I think Andrew was the same way. They enjoy the work and enjoy pushing themselves to see how far they can go."
"Now he knows he can't rely strictly on his instincts, but he has to have a mastery of the system and a mastery of what defenses are trying to do."
- quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford
Luck, heading into his second season as the starter for the NFL's Indianapolis Colts, texted Hogan last year to offer praise and encouragement. The two have talked even more this spring since Luck has been on campus working out with former Cardinal players.
"He's been great," said Hogan. "I've been able to pick his brain at times. I try not to overdo it - maybe just a few questions here or there. He's been telling me about his own experiences and giving me advice on how to deal with things."
Hogan knows teams will come after Stanford this year and that he must step up his game for the Cardinal to continue to win. According to Sanford, he's done just that.
"He understands there are so many more things he can improve on," Sanford said. "Just becoming an expert on what we're doing offensively and what defensive structure looks like and how we want to attack certain coverages and fronts. He takes it literally one play at a time."
Typically, Hogan will come to the line of scrimmage with two or three plays called. Once he sees the defense, it's his job to check into the right play.
"He's done a great job of that," said Yankey, the Morris Trophy winner, who has shifted from left tackle to his more natural left guard position. "As an offensive lineman, you can tell because he gets up to the line and he's already processing. That's awesome to see and builds a lot of confidence in your quarterback."
Once again, the Stanford defense is expected to be among the best in the country. Sanford said competing against the unit in practice will pay dividends next fall.
"To be honest, what our defense does is as challenging as anybody out there, at any level," he said. "Just the mental part of his game has been tested on a daily basis. He's done very well."
With new starters at center, wide receiver, tight end, and running back, Hogan is working hard to find a comfort zone and is encouraged by what he has seen. Stanford concludes spring practice Saturday with the Cardinal & White Spring Game at 3 p.m. at Stanford Stadium.
"It's been going well," said Hogan. "Everyone is motivated and competing. I don't think we'll miss too much. Right now, it's just getting the experience and timing down."
Hogan said Mike Bloomgren, the new Andrew Luck Director of Offense, continues to install new plays and is excited about the possibilities.
"I wouldn't say anything has changed," he said. "I would just say that we have added a lot of things that will really benefit us as far as stretching out the defense and opening up the middle. He's brought a lot of great wrinkles that will allow us to utilize our speed."
After reaching BCS games three straight years, the bar has been raised. Some think the Cardinal can contend for the national championship, which incidentally, will be played in Pasadena.
"We're not going to worry about anyone but ourselves," Hogan said. "We're not worried about who is gunning for us or what pressure there is. That's all a mental thing. You can only control what you can control."