STANFORD — Khalil Wilkes was walking off the field following Stanford’s practice Thursday morning when offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren tapped him on the shoulder to deliver the news he had worked so hard to hear.
Wilkes won the starting center job.
“They kind of tried to wait till the last second to keep you pushing,” Wilkes said. “Happy. Very happy. But he also said I can’t let off the gas pedal. Our team’s going to need me.”
The fifth-year senior from Teaneck, N.J., beat out Conor McFadden in the most crucial competition in training camp. The announcement solidifies what should be one of the country’s best offensive lines when the fourth-ranked Cardinal open the season against San Jose State on Sept. 7.
The remaining position battles also have been settled.
Stanford coach David Shaw said James Vaughters will start at outside linebacker over Blake Lueders and Wayne Lyons will play cornerback opposite Alex Carter, though the Cardinal rotate so many players on defense who plays the first snap is often for statistical purposes only. Senior Ben Rhyne also won the punting job over freshman Alex Robinson.
By far the most uncertain position for the defending Pac-12 and Rose Bowl champions entering preseason practices was replacing center Sam Schwartzstein.
Wilkes started all 14 games last season at left guard, which David Yankey — a second-team Associated Press All-American and the Morris Trophy winner for the conference’s top offensive lineman last year — is taking back after splitting time at left tackle to ease then-freshman Andrus Peat’s transition.
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 — which could be super-sized this season.
“The depth in and of itself is the best I’ve ever had at any place at any time,” said Bloomgren, who doubles as the offensive line coach. “We’ve had so much fun in the past having six, seven, eight linemen packages. We’re talking about maybe coming out with nine on the field. It’s laughable, but it’s serious too. We could do that.”
Bloomgren said Wilkes was more consistent throughout spring and fall practices, and his understanding of the playbook and pre-snap reads has grown rapidly. Bloomgren said the deciding factor for coaches came during Saturday’s scrimmage, when Wilkes made all the right calls and all the right blocks.
“Just having to stick that ball between your legs and take a step after making all those calls, it can be a blur,” Bloomgren said. “The nice thing for Khalil is he has played center, then started at guard, and now we’re moving him back. So it’s not as difficult.”
Wilkes worked on building his flexibility, particularly ankle flexibility, to improve his leverage at the line this offseason. He said he’s up to nearly 295 pounds, about 10 more than last year.
It also helped that he played last season next to Schwartzstein, who beat Wilkes out in a close competition for center in 2011 before starting the last two years. Wilkes, who played tackle and guard in high school but was recruited as a guard and center by Stanford, said that experience has prepared him for his new role.
“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.”
NOTES: Shaw said WR Ty Montgomery will return kickoffs, as expected. Kodi Whitfield and Barry Sanders will likely split time returning punts, though who gets most of the opportunities is still unclear. ... Players voted LBs Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, DE Ben Gardner and Yankey team captains.
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/