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Duck Dive: Stanford Football Preview

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Going deep with the Cardinal’s scheme, returning personnel, and unknowns

NCAA Football: Stanford at Oregon Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Addicted to Quack readers were, as in most things, ahead of the national media in understanding that Stanford’s offense would be undergoing significant change in 2018, as your intrepid film reviewer explored in film study last year. That difficult transition will probably continue in 2019, as they return the same staff and quarterback, but must replace almost every contributor on the line and at the skill positions.

The Cardinal face some interesting contrasts in their schedule as well – quite possibly the toughest non-conference slate in the country, but a fairly favorable conference draw. They get both of their usual rivals for the North divisional title at home, miss what will probably be the two best non-California schools from the South, and get some well timed byes before the November stretch.

Thanks to Jack Blanchat, managing editor of Rule of Tree, really interesting stuff on coaching, recruiting, media, and the state of the Cardinal. You can follow him on twitter @jackblanchat.


Offense - #26 in S&P+

Stanford’s advanced statistical line tells the tale: #8 in passing offense, #107 in rushing offense. The poor performance of Stanford’s run game came as something of a shock to those of us who, in the previous offseason, had pegged the Cardinal’s offensive line as the best in the conference, filled as it was with highly recruited veterans who’d performed excellently for years under former OC and OL coach Bloomgren.

Offensive Line

At the end of 2017, Bloomgren left to become the head coach at Rice, NFL vet Kevin Carberry became the new OL coach and run game coordinator, and QB coach Pritchard became the OC. What I saw in 2018 was o-linemen out of position in run blocking, insipid playcalling, and a long delay in abandoning the failed power run game in favor of the far more productive passing attack. Jack feels it’s too early to put all the blame on Carberry and Pritchard, pointed out that all of the linemen were dealing with nagging, low level injuries all year, and led us to an interesting discussion in the podcast of the role of now-dismissed Strength & Conditioning Coach Shannon Turley.

At any rate, the line is now replacing four of the guys who got the most starts, plus two more experienced backups. They return #72 LT Little, who I thought had a fairly similar and underwhelming success rate as the rest of the line, plus three more who came in due to injuries – #74 OG Hamilton, #51 C Dalman, and #55 OG Powell, who have 13 combined starts between them. They also get back from injury #79 RT Sarrell, a former 5-star who got quite a bit of game experience as a true freshman in 2017.

I think those five will constitute the starting lineup, with #78 OT Hattis and #76 OT Pease providing depth. The rest of the roster are freshman without any experience, and Jack reminded us that Stanford has historically been reluctant to play those. Surprisingly, given Coach Shaw’s commitment to power rushing, I think this is an undersized group: Little and Sarrell are the only returners listed over 300 lbs, with the rest of those I’ve named averaging under 280 lbs, and all of the new recruits could use a freshman 15 as well.

Skill Players

Stanford compensated (eventually) for their run game problems with a fairly unique passing game: having returning starter #3 QB Costello lob the ball to stationary tall receivers boxing out, who proved to be almost undefendable for most defensive backs. But in 2019 they’re losing their top three targets in #19 WR Arcega-Whiteside, #2 WR Irwin, and #82 TE Smith, and replacing them will require confronting and choosing what type of offense they want to play with.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Oregon Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The most experienced of the returners in last year’s mold is #84 TE Parkinson; Jack tells us he’s more of a vertical threat than Smith was and a better pass-catcher too, but didn’t see the field nearly as much because he’s a poorer run-blocker – does Stanford want to fully commit to abandoning the power run game by building the offense around him? There are two wide receivers in that mold as well, but neither have any experience: #13 WR Fehoko and #19 WR Higgins.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Utah Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

In the other direction, they’ve got #5 WR Wedington, who Jack tells us is wearing Christian McCaffrey’s number by no coincidence, and could see much of the offense instead run through him in a similar style to 2015 and 2016. He’s returning from a leg injury last year.

And in the conventional receiver mold, they’re returning #9 WR St. Brown and #4 WR Wilson ... I thought they were pretty good at their jobs but underutilized since the offense was going in a different direction, getting only 22 receptions between them in 2018. It’s tough to imagine anyone else seeing the field; the rest of the roster are freshmen or non-scholarship players Stanford generally doesn’t play, or upperclassmen for whom, as Jack put it, “the die has been cast.”

NCAA Football: Stanford at UCLA Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

As for Costello himself, I think he’s a known quantity at this point - he’s very good at what the offense asked him to do last year, but he lacks mobility and doesn’t respond well to pressure. So much of Stanford’s passing game in 2018 ran through those lobs that it’s tough to say how he’ll deal with a more traditional set of guys who have to beat coverage and require precision throws to moving targets.

The Cardinal also lose former Heisman finalist #20 RB Love, but I’m not sure it matters much until the offensive line is rebuilt. They’re returning four backs -- #22 RB Scarlett, #23 RB Speights, #28 RB Maddox, and #25 RB Woods -- none of whom had significantly different per-play numbers than Love’s disappointing season.


Defense - #43 in S&P+

I’m a little surprised that Stanford’s overall ranking is that high, considering the component rankings are all in the mid-60s to high-80s, and there isn’t any one aspect of their defense that I thought excelled. This will be DC Anderson’s sixth year in the job and I wouldn’t anticipate much change to his 3-4 scheme, although he’s facing some tough roster choices in 2019.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Secondary

I think Stanford should be fine at corner - they’re losing #13 CB Holder, but returning #11 CB Adebo who Jack and I agree is the Cardinal’s best returning defender and was second in the league in pass break-ups behind Thomas Graham. They’re also losing #4 CB Murphy, but he was limited in effectiveness as he was coming back from an ACL injury and I noted a hitch in his step; I thought the two returning backups in #22 CB Eboh and #29 CB Williamson did fairly well in coverage.

Safety, on the other hand, I think might be a big problem. While they return the free safety #3 S Antoine, they’re losing #5 S Buncom and #9 S Edwards, as well as backup strong safety #2 S Simmons, and that’s most of the punch this secondary had. I didn’t see any other safeties take the field; Jack told us to keep an eye on freshman #32 S McGill in Fall camp and that #19 S N. Williams might be ready to play, but I didn’t see either of them last year.

That uncertainty at safety adds to a problem I observed all year long: these guys hesitate to make the tackle and have a problem getting run over instead of shutting a big play down hard. I’d like to see a lot more aggression out of the DBs in 2019 and am not sure where it’ll be coming from.

Front Seven

The exterior of this front looks to hold steady. At defensive end they’re bringing back two of the three guys who saw the most action: #34 DE Booker (who Jack thinks is primed to take a big step forward) and #51 DE Swann (who I noticed playing pretty aggressively although had a lot of penalties to show for it), while only losing one big contributor in #97 DE Jackson. They’re also returning a few backups I saw in fairly limited action, #91 DE Schaffer and #23 DE Johnson.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Stanford Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

And at outside backer (which this defense uses pretty extensively up on the line, often on both sides), they’re losing the backer who I thought played the best despite a broken hand, #32 OLB Alfieri. But they’re returning three of the four most productive players, and all upperclassmen, in #10 OLB J. Fox, #90 OLB Reid, and #52 OLB Toohill. They’ve also converted #6 OLB A. Fox (no relation, apparently) from a defensive end; he had a pretty memorable sack and nearly a safety against Jake Browning last year.

Where I think this defense could be in trouble is right up the middle. I thought the strength of the defense last year were the inside backers: #20 ILB Okereke and #27 ILB Barton, plus backup #31 ILB Branch. All three of them are gone, and those are the crux of this entire system - they do everything from A-gap blitzes to dropping into deep middle coverage, and I thought Okereke in particular was excellent at the role. Jack tells us to watch for #2 ILB Robinson and #25 ILB Pryts to take their spots, but both are converts from other jobs (OLB and safety, respectively) and I don’t believe I saw either take a snap last year. This position might represent a significant recruiting bust, and Stanford isn’t well situated to address it with transfers or organic development (check out the podcast for an extended and pretty interesting discussion of the issue).

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Stanford Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The other problem in the interior of the front is the defensive tackles. Stanford returns both guys who played the whole year, #57 DT M. Williams and #24 DT Wade-Perry, and I doubt there’s any controversy who’ll play here, but I wasn’t thrilled with them in last year’s film study and Jack indicated that Stanford fans have been grumbling about their execution as well. In truth, I think Stanford has had an alarming amount of under-performing defensive lines ever since legendary line coach Randy Hart retired after 2015, and unlike the Bloomgren situation enough time has passed that I think the verdict is in on his replacement, DL coach Reynolds.

As remarkable as this is to say about Stanford, I think that given the issues at tackle, inside backer, and safety, this defense could be vulnerable to a lot of rushing right up the gut … sound like anyone you know?

NCAA Football: Sun Bowl-Pittsburgh vs Stanford Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

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