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Stanford's football coordinators work to replace starters
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STANFORD  (AP) — Pep Hamilton put his hands on his forehead, closed his eyes and scrunched his face. When it comes to talking about the quarterback competition, Stanford's offensive coordinator is still searching for the answers.

Same goes for the rest of the Cardinal's reconstruction.

Hamilton and defensive coordinator Derek Mason held an informal roundtable discussion with a small group of reporters Wednesday, an annual get-to-know-you-type meeting that was especially pertinent this spring. Stanford is replacing four likely first-round picks in the NFL draft, including projected No. 1 overall selection Andrew Luck, along with a slew of other starters.

There's still much to learn about the new crop of Cardinal players, and even the program's two coordinators are still waiting for the answers to emerge.

"It's a tough situation at this point in the offseason," Hamilton said. "Just offensively, you're trying to rebuild in a sense, but you're replacing four first-round NFL draft picks. How do you do that?"

Nobody quite knows for sure.

Brett Nottingham, Luck's strong-armed backup last season and the presumed favorite to land the quarterback job come fall, is competing with junior Josh Nunes — who was injured most of last year — for the starting spot. Both will split time with the first-team offense at Stanford's annual spring game Saturday in cozy Kezar Stadium in San Francisco's historic Golden Gate Park, and no decision is expected until at least the second week of training camp.

"It's still up in the air," Hamilton said. "You don't know if he's a fighter until you see him take a punch."

Hamilton expects to give senior Stepfan Taylor — who ran for 1,363 yards and 10 touchdowns last season in a four-man rotation — upwards of 30 carries per game and see if he can make a run at 2009 Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart's school record of 1,871 yards rushing. And if nothing else, the hope is Stanford's stout running back and powerful offensive line will take pressure off any quarterback.

"In my opinion, we have the best running back in the country," Hamilton said.

The defensive side of the ball is a little more proven.

Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov headline a linebacker group that has more talent than spots available on the field. The defensive line remains almost entirely intact and could help Stanford remain one of the Pac-12's best defenses.

"Our defensive front is salty, man," Mason said. "They're salty."

The bigger challenge comes replacing safeties Delano Howell and Michael Thomas — hopeful late-round draft picks who struggled to defend more athletic wide receivers — and cornerback Johnson Bademosi. Mason remained mum on who might feel the voids, but expects to have a clearer idea come fall, when freshmen from a recruiting class largely considered

Another challenge is replacing co-defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, who moved across the bay for the same position at the Oakland Raiders. Mason said he will assume Tarver's responsibilities — including taking over all the play calling, which he did most of anyway — and is ready to bear the brunt of any criticism for a unit that failed miserably in losses to Oregon and Oklahoma State last season.

"I'm the one responsible. I'm the man in charge when it comes to did you get it done, or did you not get it done," Mason said. "That's on me. And I wholeheartedly take responsible of everything we do."

How it all shakes out is still unclear.

The Cardinal finish up spring practice this week, and then coaches won't be able to have a full grasp on players again until August. As Hamilton wanted to make clear before leaving the room, "It's early."