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Duck Dive: Stanford Football 2020 Preview

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

Oregon v Stanford Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Special thanks to Jack Blanchat (@jackblanchat) for jumping on the Quack 12 Podcast to help break down the Stanford roster. You can check out the episode HERE!


Stanford went 4-8 in 2019. A number of commentators believe that was just an unlucky aberration, and that HC Shaw’s strong culture plus a team led by three 5-stars and at least 10 more 4-stars among the likely starters will bounce back quickly.

I don’t buy it. I think that 2019 was the bottoming out of a program in structural decline from its ahistorical peak, that their blue-chip talent has been underperforming for years even when healthy, and they just as easily could have gone 2-10 as 6-6. (Colorado and UCLA were unlucky losses, but Washington and Oregon St were lucky wins.) I expect that Shaw’s conservative nature and refusal to move on from ineffective assistants or adapt to a shifting recruiting culture means that this program will continue to miss bowl games until they clear out the staff.

I also think the 2020 schedule will be a harder one overall than last year’s: four of their toughest six games are on the road, and the two home games on that list are against teams that blew them out in 2019. Of the easier half of the schedule, one of those opponents should have beaten them last year and two of them did.

California v Stanford

Offense

The starter will presumably be 5-star #15 QB Mills, who played six and a half games last year. Previous starter KJ Costello has transferred out of the program; he played four and a half games, with #10 QB West playing the final game (against UCLA, an atrocious performance that got the Bruins one of their four wins and which likely disqualifies him for the job, explaining the transfer in of Air Force’s graduate #0 QB Sanders as insurance). As it happens, I charted 3.5 Costello games and 3.5 Mills games.

Comparing the two, Mills is slightly more efficient (getting sufficient yardage to keep the sticks moving, given the down and distance on each play) as a passer, largely because he’s willing to try a normal amount of intermediate throws whereas Costello threw a disproportionately high number of short passes. With either QB, Stanford was operating at under 50% efficiency when throwing the ball in games I charted.

Mills strikes me as a downgrade in terms of pocket presence and handling the ball as well. Broken dropbacks (sacks, scrambles, and throwaways) were double the rate with Mills compared to Costello. He often showed difficulty handling shotgun snaps, something that Stanford has transitioned into heavily (they’re only under center about 22% of the time), and he fumbled or blew the read on a number of option-run exchanges. That contributed to a significant drop in rushing efficiency: the Cardinal was successful on 55% of designed runs with Costello in, but only 48% with Mills.

I don’t think Mills is a terrible quarterback; he’s clearly talented and I’d take him over half of the QB rooms in this league. But these problems aren’t freshman acclimation or opening-day jitters - Mills was a junior last year with the same QB coach his entire time on the Farm, and his effectiveness in all metrics I charted stayed the same from the beginning to the end of the year.

Oregon fans will recall, perhaps painfully, that Stanford salvaged their 2018 season by switching to a unique passing game that essentially consisted of lobbing basketball passes to NBA-sized receivers. With the departure of Costello and tight end Colby Parkinson, all five of those involved in such plays are no longer with the team. The four starting wideouts from the 2019 team all return, they’re all 4-stars, and they all played in every game: #4 WR Wilson, #5 WR Wedington, #9 WR St. Brown, and #13 WR Fehoko. But the first three simply aren’t the towering, undefendable threats that the 2018 team featured; they’re average size for a Power-5 receiver and produced fairly average numbers. Stanford’s combined receiving yards from their top four wideouts (2007 yds) came in at slightly below the Pac-12 average for each team’s top four WRs in 2019.

Parkinson was both QBs’ 2019 safety blanket, and the last real remnant of that undefendable 2018 passing game. Now that he’s left for the NFL, I don’t think that his likely replacement, #80 TE Harrington, is going to fill his shoes - Harrington will be a 5th-year but only has 45 career yards, and flirted with the transfer portal earlier this year. Stanford appears to have put all of its eggs in TE prospect Hudson Henry’s basket in the 2019 recruiting cycle, and when he spurned them for Arkansas as his brother Hunter did, it left the Cardinal without much in the way of a pass-catching TE to continue their strong legacy at that position. There’s a redshirt freshman, #87 TE Archer, who might fill in, as well as a couple of true freshmen who aren’t on campus yet (all are 3-stars), but I wouldn’t be surprised if Stanford just sticks with four-wide or 11-personnel with the almost-exclusively blocking #88 TE Fisk. Jack thinks the “designated 3rd & 20 role” will default to Fehoko, not a TE.

Fehoko is a puzzle to me: he’s taller than the rest of the WRs, but hardly a lethal threat. For six of the first seven games he was completely ineffective, pulling in only four total passes. But in four games during the year, he got two or three targets and 90+ yards a game, at 37.6 yards per catch, which is astonishing. Then in the final two he was targeted more often but his production collapsed: nine receptions for 13.1 yards per catch. I really can’t tell if that’s his quality rising then tumbling or just noise. At any rate, I suspect he’s not the second coming of JJ Arcega-Whiteside.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 14 Stanford at UCF Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Despite a falloff in rushing effectiveness over the past two years (really the past four, but Christian McCaffery and Bryce Love’s occasional game-breaking huge run papered that over in 2016 and 2017), I think Stanford’s running back room will improve significantly in 2020. #20 RB Jones should be taking over and he was a much more promising backup than the starter last year; I also agree with Jack’s speculation on the podcast that true freshman and fellow 4-star #22 RB Smith (son of NFL all-time rushing leader Emmitt Smith) will jump the other 2019 backups for the second-string job.

However, I’m just not convinced that Stanford’s offensive line will open the holes for the rushing offense to return to the Cardinal’s heyday, despite returning three starters and three backups who played most of the year. 5-star #72 LT Little was injured for virtually all of last year and missed a chunk of 2018 as well, so I only have sparse and dated notes for him, but I’ve never been impressed and I’m not the only one. I think fellow 5-star #79 RT Sarrell has similarly disappointed, and I have a lot more tape on him as he only missed 1.25 games last year - his error rate of 16.5% is one of the highest I’ve tallied in the Pac-12. Sarrell tends to bend at the waist instead of the knees and ankles to maintain a straight back in pass-pro, and his footwork in run-blocking is unrefined:

I think #51 C Dalman is a good solid performer who thankfully played every snap, but the guards next to him have been a real adventure. The two starting guards both suffered season-ending injuries before the midway point last year and ultimately transferred out of the program. They were replaced with true freshmen 3-stars #63 LG Miller and #73 RG Hornibrook. I expect them to keep their jobs in 2020, though I’m not sure what’ll happen to the other true freshman 3-star who filled in for Little, #75 LT Rouse … perhaps he’ll compete with one of them for a guard spot, or perhaps 4-star sophomore #66 OL Bragg who played for a bit in 2019 will be in the mix.

I’ve been writing for two years now that I think the loss of former OC/OL coach Mike Bloomgren has been a disaster for Stanford. His playcalling duties went to Shaw’s myrmidon, OC/QB coach Pritchard who has only ever experienced David Shaw’s offense, and OL coaching went to former NFL coach Carberry. In my opinion the verdict is in on Carberry: I just don’t think he’s an effective developer at all, and his recruiting strategy left Stanford in this lurch: they only had 12 o-linemen on the roster in 2019, and due to taking very few OL in 2018 then filling up with half a dozen 3-stars in 2019 they were forced to play guys way before they were ready.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 30 Notre Dame at Stanford Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Defense

There was a lot of attention paid to the fact that 16 Stanford seniors entered the transfer portal this offseason. It’s beyond the scope of this article to solve the mystery of why that happened (the local Bay Area media seems as incurious about it as every other intrigue surrounding the school), but many of those entries seem unlikely to have a big impact on the 2020 season: some elected to stay at Stanford, and most of the departures were either unlikely to win a starting job or had replacement-level backups at their position.

However, the exception is the defensive tackles, where two of the three starters, Jovon Swann and Michael Williams, transferred out without any explanation or threat of their position being usurped. In fact, after losing never-used 300-lb backup Bo Peek to transfer as well, Stanford currently lists only two scholarship tackles on its entire roster: the veteran is unspectacular #50 DT Wade-Perry and true freshman #40 DT Phillips. Even if Stanford gives up its traditional 3-4 under DC Anderson and goes to a fulltime 2-4-5, that’s still nowhere near enough depth and would present serious run-stopping issues, particularly in short-yardage situations (for comparison, Washington has used a 2-4-5 for years and they have seven scholarship DTs).

Jack suggested on the podcast that Stanford might address this by moving #34 DE Booker and #91 DE Schaffer inside from 3i or 4-techs to be more like a 2i stance, and then convert some of their overabundance of outside backers to hand-down defensive ends. That’s the best solution I could think of since both of them are seniors and close to 300 lbs, and they’ve got a 4-star freshman in #19 DE Pakola who might play either position. Still, this hasn’t been a great defensive line since the 2015 retirement of longtime DL coach Randy Hart and I doubt it gets better in 2020. In games I charted, the defense came out significantly underwater in terms of both inside and power-blocked rushing efficiency; they finished #100 or worse on 3rd downs, 4th downs, and red-zone TD attempts throughout FBS … and that was with three senior DTs.

The cup runneth over for Stanford OLBs, who are mostly line players and only occasionally drop into coverage. They’ll have six scholarship upperclassmen on the roster, and that’s after losing one I really liked to the NFL (Casey Toohill) and another who moved inside. #90 OLB Reid will surely keep his starting job, and I expect #10 OLB J. Fox to get Toohill’s spot on the other side. This has been a pretty strong position from the Cardinal, and they get a decent edge rush here. While finishing in the bottom third of the conference in most defensive stats, they were 6th at both sacks and TFLs. Oregon fans may recall them giving the Ducks’ o-line the most trouble they faced in Pac-12 play (though some of that may have been on poor protection calls since the starting center was out that game).

Calling the inside backer spots confusing would be an understatement. When both starters Bobby Okereke and Sean Barton departed after 2018, it left Stanford with a talent vacuum they were never able to adequately fill in 2019, and I believe that will continue in 2020. The chief problem is recruiting and development: Okereke was a surprise, and in 2019 they simply didn’t have enough ready bodies at the position and had to convert a safety and an OLB to be their starters in #25 ILB Pryts and #2 ILB Robinson, respectively. From film study I thought it was clear that both were playing out of position because they were frequently late to the play and were poor in underneath pass coverage. There were also some pretty ugly injuries in this unit, though only a game or two missed for the starters.

Pryts entered the transfer portal in December, reportedly decided to stay at Stanford the next month, but is not currently listed on the official team roster. There’s an oblique reference in a late February 24/7 article to his possible retirement (thanks to BobK of The CardBoard for directing me there), but I’m unable to confirm that with any other source as of press time, and we may just have to wait and see if he’ll show up at Fall camp. Pryts was Stanford’s leading tackler in 2019 with a modest 72. If he has to be replaced, it’ll likely be one of four backers — #14 ILB Mangum-Ferrar, #45 ILB Miezan, #36 ILB Sinclair, #30 ILB Damuni — whom I saw very little out of in 2019 and have combined for 14 tackles in their entire careers.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 26 Arizona at Stanford Photo by Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Stanford’s secondary has one of the senior transfer portal departures as well, starter #22 CB Eboh. But I don’t think this is any great mystery or loss; he simply wasn’t very good and Jack thinks he was on track to lose the position anyway to a backup who got a lot of play as a freshman last year, #17 CB K. Kelly. Stanford returns an excellent corner opposite him in #11 CB Adebo, as well as a couple of 5th-years at free safety in starter #3 DB Antoine and backup #4 DB Parson. I saw about an equal rotation at strong safety from #18 DB Head and #21 DB Williamson, and I believe #32 DB McGill will return at his nickel spot assuming that he recovers from his MCL injury.

Aside from Adebo I wasn’t really thrilled with any of Stanford’s secondary (not that surprising, he’s the only 4-star of the group and one of them was a walk-on), and in particular I’ve noted for two straight years a widespread hesitancy to come down hard and wrap up to make a sure tackle, resulting in a lot more yards after contact than they should be giving up … the Cardinal defense surrendered 8.12 yards per passing attempt in 2019, which was #105 in FBS. But bringing back seven experienced players under DB coach Akina, one of the few bright spots on Stanford’s staff in my opinion, should at least provide some stability.


Washington v Stanford Photo by David Madison/Getty Images

Accountability Corner

In last summer’s Stanford preview, I predicted an offensive falloff due to losing the receivers that made their backup-plan offense viable in 2018, as well as the problems at offensive line continuing to limit their rushing game. My skepticism about whether Costello would be able to thrive in that changing landscape probably can’t be fairly evaluated given that he didn’t play the majority of the season, but I’ll take credit for noting the structural problems in Stanford’s offensive coaching that preceded their injuries. For the in-season preview, I predicted that Mills was not any meaningful departure from Costello’s effectiveness and that it didn’t really matter which one would take the position, and that basically held up all year long.

I was baffled as to how Stanford’s porous defense was ranked #46 in SP+ in 2018, and so when they fielded essentially the same squad but came in at #87 in 2019 I felt vindicated. I think I nailed the secondary description pretty well in that all the replacement safeties and corners outside Adebo looked mediocre at best to me in their backup minutes in 2018. I correctly predicted that the front seven would be strong on the edges but weak up the middle, though I can hardly be credited with foreseeing whatever caused Swann and Williams to transfer out.


Previous entries in this series

Colorado 2020 preview

California 2020 preview