By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Khalil Wilkes became the center of attention Thursday and he would not have it any other way. The fifth-year senior has been waiting for this a long time and it finally came to fruition following a great competition during fall camp.
Wilkes will be the starting center for the fourth-ranked Stanford football team when the season opens next Saturday at home against visiting San Jose State. Conor McFadden figures to be the back-up.
"He's done a great job all training camp and is really close," Cardinal football coach David Shaw said of Wilkes. "We feel like we've got three awesome centers that can play but Khalil will start the season and hopefully carry us all the way though. You can feel his leadership and his command of the offense. Having him start at guard last year, his understanding of what we do and how we do it, has been great."
Shaw and his staff also settled on James Vaughters, who played in all 14 games last year, four as a starter, as one of the starting outside linebacker and Wayne Lyons, 14 games with one start and one interception last season, will fill one cornerback spot. Ben Rhyne will handle punting duties.
"Corner has been even tougher than center," Shaw said. Wayne Lyons will start. Knowing that, Devon Carrington and Barry Browning will both play. Devon's had a phenomenal camp. He's going to rotate in at safety and at corner. He's just one of those utility guys that plays both positions at a high level."
This will be the first year in recent memory that Stanford will be able to start and utilize players specifically recruited for the positions. In the past, the Cardinal moved players like Richard Sherman and Delano Howell to the secondary. Sherman, now a top NFL cornerback, started as a wide receiver at Stanford. Howell began as a running back.
There have been others, dating to the 1992 Blockbuster Bowl when John Lynch was moved to safety from quarterback and was a major reason the Cardinal finished ranked among the top 10. Lynch went on to have a successful NFL career.
Carrington ran down Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota after a 77-yard gain to Stanford's 15. As the game played out, that proved to be the key play. The Ducks did not score on that possession.
Browning made five starts a year ago while appearing in 13 games. He recorded 24 tackles, including two for a loss.
"Barry Browning has had a lot of really good practices. He had the great day the other day," Shaw said. "He's getting his hands on balls, he's playing great, he had an interception today; it was phenomenal. As much as you guys talk about who actually starts, those guys are going to play and play a lot."
Lueders, who missed last season with an injury, could just need more time to return to playing shape. He was one of Stanford's top special teams player as a sophomore and also recorded a pair of sacks.
"The same thing at the outside linebacker position," Shaw said. "James Vaughters will start but Blake Lueders is going to play a lot. Both of them are so physical and so great they'll both play in base and both play in nickel. They're just really, really good football players. The best thing for us is we'll rotate guys. There shouldn't be a drop off. We believe we've got guys that are 'starters' at all those positions."
Wilkes appeared in 10 games during his first two years with Stanford and then started at left guard last year.
"They kind of tried to wait till the last second to keep you pushing," Wilkes said of being told at the end of practice. "Happy. Very happy. But I can't let off the gas pedal. Our team's going to need me."
Wilkes started 12 of 14 games last season at left guard, which becomes the sole property of David Yankey this season.
Yancey moved along the line, earning second-team All-American honors and the Morris Trophy winner for the conference's top offensive lineman last year. He shared time at left tackle, which now belongs to Andrus Peat.
Kevin Danser, who also competed at center at the start of training camp along with Graham Shuler, will start at right guard for the second straight season next to right tackle Cam Fleming. As they have in the past, Stanford will rotate multiple linemen to keep everybody fresh and for its old-school jumbo packages.
"Just intellectually, you have to know everything," Wilkes said. "You're counted on to be the quarterback of the offensive line. I'm looking forward to that opportunity."
Receiver Ty Montgomery will return kickoffs, which comes as no surprise. Kodi Whitfield and Barry Sanders will take turns returning punts.
"We aren't going to name any 'starter' at running back," Shaw said. "It depends on what the first play of the game is. If the first play of the game is best for Ty Montgomery to play running back, he'll play running back. I say that jokingly, but our two lead dogs are going to be 25 and 32, (Tyler) Gaffney and (Anthony) Wilkerson. They're both big, physical guys who run the ball the way we want to run them. We won't name a 'starter' there. You will see Barry Sanders play. You will see Ricky Seale play. You will see Remound Wright play, he's had another outstanding camp."