In Kevin Hogan's fifth collegiate start, he won the Rose Bowl, an achievement that eluded John Elway and Andrew Luck during their illustrious football careers. Now, in his first full year as Stanford's starting quarterback, he just needs to master the Cardinal's complex pro offense.
On paper, the sophomore quarterback left little room for improvement last season. He completed 71.7 percent of his passes, converted 45 percent of the team's third-down plays and led the offense to points every time he stepped into the red zone.
With his size, athleticism and arm strength, Hogan's potential is boundless. But coach David Shaw said his quarterback still needs to take the next step and learn the offense inside out.
“We've got to take the training wheels off to a certain degree and make sure that he has a chance to grow,” Shaw said.
At this point last year, Hogan was taking snaps in the team's “young huddle” as juniors Josh Nunes and Brett Nottingham duked it out in the race to replace Luck. Quarterbacks and wide receivers coach Mike Sanford said he looked like a talented redshirt freshman who was still learning how to play at the next level.
“He was struggling with just knowing concepts, knowing where receivers were,” Sanford said. “He had such a long ways to go.”
Sanford said things eventually clicked during the fourth week of the season. Six weeks later, Hogan replaced Nunes in Colorado, leading the offense to scoring drives on six straight possessions against the Buffaloes.
After that, he started the next five games, beating ranked teams in four straight before capping it off with a win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
Hogan hadn't mastered the offense, but he showed poise under pressure and he added a new dimension to the offense with his ability to run.
“What we saw when he actually started playing on Saturdays is that he has excellent instincts,” Sanford said. “It's live football and you have to tackle the quarterback, not just tag him off like you do in practice.”
In an offense with running back Stepfan Taylor, tight end Zach Ertz and center Sam Schwartzstein, Hogan didn't need to have a big personality in the huddle right away.
But he took the reigns in the offseason, running the offense during captains practices without any input from the coaching staff.
“I think it forced him to get a good handle on everything that we're doing,” Shaw said. “He did all the scripts, he decided what they were doing every day. He put it all together and did it all summer.”
With the media, Hogan is quiet and poker-faced. He follows the company line and sticks to the script.
But Sanford described his off-camera personality as “magnetic.”
“Kevin's always been a guy that his teammates have gravitated toward, even when he was in the shadows of the quarterback race a year ago,” he said. “His class that he came in with, they've always rallied behind him.”
Like Luck and Taylor, Hogan motivates teammates with his own willingness to do whatever it takes to get better.
“I'm not going to be the one to start yelling and getting crazy,” Hogan said. “We have other guys for that.”
This season, Hogan will be running the offense without several key pieces from last year's Rose Bowl team, like Taylor, Ertz and tight end Levine Toilolo. The team lost 88 percent its receptions.
Nevertheless, the coaching staff thinks it has more talent at wide receiver this year and Hogan should benefit from the chemistry he has already developed with guys, including junior Ty Montgomery and sophomore Devon Cajuste.
“He's been throwing consistently with those guys since he was a freshman. They're his peers, so he has a great rapport with them,” Sanford said.
“I've probably thrown more passes to them that I did to Zach, Drew [Terrell] and those guys from last year,” he said.
In addition to learning the offense, Hogan is looking to elevate his fundamentals, like his footwork and delivery, to an AP level while tightening up his deep ball.
“The deep balls eluded us for a couple of years,” Sanford said. “And we're trying to be a team that can throw it over the wall, especially the way people defend us.”
Shaw said Hogan's awareness of the offense has improved significantly since last year. Hogan still has questions, but he's grasping the details.
How much better can he possibly be?
“It's up to him,” Shaw said. “It's all up to him.”