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Duck Dive: Stanford Football 2021 Preview

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

NCAA Football: Stanford at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Special thanks to Jack Blanchat for speaking with me on the Quack 12 Podcast during our deep dive into the Stanford roster. Listen HERE.


University of Oregon v Stanford Football Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Offense

For a program renowned for its stability, Stanford’s offense is undergoing more change this offseason than just about every other team in the Pac-12. They’re losing all three of their 5-stars — the starting QB and two offensive tackles — in addition to their starting center, their leading tight end, and three of their top four wideouts.

But beyond personnel, the offensive scheme and philosophy has been in flux the last several years, and part of the change here is that they may be finally returning to their iconic power rushing offense. Jack and I attempted to sort out what’s been driving these changes on the podcast, since there’s a real chicken-or-the-egg problem between quarterback play, offensive line drama, and attempts to adapt the offense to shifting receiver types.

Determining whether last year’s starter, #15 QB Mills, lived up to his 5-star billing is beyond the scope of this article, and probably beyond your humble film reviewer’s abilities as well. He was enormously frustrating to watch, because I’d see him swing wildly between obvious NFL talent that single-handedly dominated the opposing defense, and repeated boneheaded decisions that would single-handedly cost them the game. At the end of last year he showed both in the same game.

Mills is now off to the NFL, and replacing him is basically a two-man race: #10 QB West, a low 4-star from the 2018 class, and #18 QB McKee, a high 4-star who enrolled in 2020 after an LDS mission. West got his first start in the 2019 season against UCLA after the two quarterbacks ahead of him were injured, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call it a disaster with an 84.4 NCAA passer rating. But his second start, against Oregon in 2020, was a lot better at 136.5, about the FBS average last year. McKee also came in during that game and attempted seven passes, completing three of them. After that week Mills returned to action and took every remaining snap of the season, so that’s all we’ve ever seen of West or McKee.

My best guess is that West will be the starter at the beginning of the season, as he’s older, substantially more experienced, and doesn’t need to re-acclimate himself to football. What’s keeping McKee in the race is that he clearly has more arm talent, and since he’s got a lot farther to go before he hits his ceiling I think it’s just a matter of time before he passes West up. Both Jack and I think there’s a good chance that happens before the end of the 2021 season and there’ll be a late starter change.

I suspect that means that Stanford will be leaning heavily on its running game, which by the end of 2020 looked like it was returning to form with a lot of power running behind 22- and 23-personnel sets. The running backs look like the strongest unit for this offense, returning both starter #20 RB A. Jones and backup #8 RB Peat. Jones is quite possibly the best back in the Pac-12, and since his debut as a true freshman in 2019 I’ve been noting his ability to play very effectively both within the structure of this offense and outside of it when the blocking isn’t there. There’s also no real dropoff when Peat is in, since his average last year of 4.7 ypc (after removing one very long run) was slightly better than Jones’ 4.4 ypc.

They return several more experienced backups as well: #21 RB Woods who got a few carries last year, #22 RB Smith (son of NFL legend Emmitt) who curiously got no carries but three receptions, and longtime backup #28 RB Maddox. They also have four more backs in the unit, two scholarship and two walk-ons. So it’s very unlikely that depth is a problem here, and in fact the room is so full that it seems they’re sometimes on loan to the wideouts as slot receivers, as that unit lacks any of the smaller, shiftier players.

Parsing the pass catchers is a real challenge for this offense, especially since what talent was available here in many ways drove the schematic flux for the squad over the past three seasons. There’s a long discussion on the podcast between Jack and I as we laid out the history here; suffice it to say that for 2021 Stanford will have several very tall wide receivers, no obvious dedicated slot receivers, and potentially (but not certainly) no pass-catching tight ends at all.

Stanford loses their third and fourth leading receivers in career yards from the 2020 team, #5 WR Wedington and #9 WR St. Brown. Both were clearly very talented and would have been starters at most other Pac-12 programs, but neither are the towering receivers that Stanford has been relying on for the past several seasons and I don’t think this scheme ever really got the most out of them - in fact, attempts to reconfigure the offense to a four-wide look in order to use them were in many ways counterproductive. Far more significant is the loss of #13 WR Fehoko, who by the end of 2019 and throughout 2020 was a dominant outside receiver and the team’s leading pass catcher.

NCAA Football: Stanford at UCLA Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The receivers who return are a curious bunch. The most effective was a 2-star, #81 WR Tremayne, who came on late last year but looked like an excellent replacement (the few times we saw him) for those tall, undefendable wideouts Stanford has deployed in the last couple years. They also return #6 WR Higgins, a high 4-star from the 2019 class who had 15 catches last year but I think still has a lot of refinement to do, and at 235 lbs is a bit heavy for the job (I speculated on the podcast whether he might not be more suited to switch to tight end). 2020 true freshman #5 Humphreys, another 4-star, got a few catches as well last year and is the tallest of all of them at 6’5”. The odd man in the group is #4 WR Wilson, who has the most career yards of any returner but at 6’2” is more akin to Wedington and St. Brown than the rest, and seemed to be the guy who had most of his reps taken away when Stanford returned in 2020 to heavily favoring sets with fewer than three WRs on the field.

It is entirely possible that trend may continue, and only having two or three tall outside receivers is all this offense needs because they use two-TE sets so much. But there are substantial changes in the tight end room that make me question if that’ll happen, and we’ll just have to wait and see what effect that has on the wide receivers and the offense as a whole. There’s a chance that the way this plays out is a return to the 2018 offense of forgoing the jumbo running sets and instead putting four tall undefendable receivers on the field at once.

The Cardinal loses #80 TE Harrington, possibly the last in a long line of pass-catching tight ends who have been central to this offense for over a decade. He was in on virtually every snap last year but only got eight catches - it’s tough to tell if that was a part of the ongoing flux with the scheme or that they just didn’t trust his hands as much as previous TEs. Stanford returns #88 TE Fisk, who’s been their primary blocking tight end for years and is very effective in that role, though not much of a pass-catcher. But interestingly, Fisk was practicing with the defensive line during the Spring game, and there have been reports that Stanford may be planning to play him both ways, something they haven’t done since Owen Marecic in 2010.

I don’t know how to read this situation. It could be that Fisk is switching full-time to the defense because the d-line really needs him, or it could be that it was just a one-time thing for the Spring game and he’ll be back blocking for the offense like always. Another possibility is that he’s getting pushed out by the emergence of some of the new tight ends we haven’t seen any of yet: #87 TE Archer from 2019, and #89 TE Unger and #84 TE Yurosek from 2020, all high 3-stars. Yurosek looked like he was getting the most play in the Spring game and Jack thinks he’s the most likely to take over as the primary pass-catching tight end.

Stanford returns both of its fullbacks from last year, #34 FB Heimuli and #24 FB Symonds, plus they took two more in the 2021 class but who aren’t on campus yet, Coco Lukrich and Shield Taylor … this might be the only team in the country with four fullbacks on scholarship. Each of them except Heimuli is 6’3” or over, so it’s also possible that one or more will switch to being a blocking or even pass-catching tight end before all is said and done. Again, there are so many possibilities for position and scheme changes here that I think we’re not really going to know until their opener against Kansas St in Arlington.

In 2018 and 2019, Stanford’s offensive line performance was simply not up to expectations, which was probably the biggest single factor in their falloff in those years. That time coincided with the departure of longtime coordinator and OL coach Mike Bloomgren, now head coach at Rice, and his replacement with Kevin Carberry, who has now left the program. It’s difficult to disentangle whether coaching or just bad injury luck was the biggest factor in the o-line’s poor performance - on the one hand I don’t think they ever really got anything out of their pair of 5-star tackles from the 2017 cycle, #72 LT Little or #79 RT Sarrell, and I repeatedly saw poor posture and technique from them; but on the other they were forced to play four true freshman in 2019 because nobody could stay healthy.

It’s a better outlook for 2021, given how things went in 2020. New OL coach Heffernan, formerly of the Buffalo Bills and FCS Eastern Kentucky, inherits three starters — #75 LT Rouse, #63 LG Miller, and #66 RG Bragg — plus a backup, #73 OG Hornibrook, who played extensively last year (though not as well) when Miller was injured. Those four were the 2019 true freshmen and I think the harsh experience of that year paid off with better play in 2020. They also return #78 OT Hinton, who came in for Stanford’s frequent 23-personnel jumbo packages as the sixth offensive lineman instead of a third tight end (one of the reasons that they may be returning so little experience at TE despite all the 23-pers reps).

At this point I’m sure that Rouse, Miller, and Bragg have starting jobs sewn up, but there are conflicting reports about whether Miller will stay as a guard or switch to right tackle to replace Sarrell. Hinton may become the full-time right tackle instead, or he may stay as that specialist sixth lineman for jumbo looks - the Spring game didn’t give us any information here because Hinton and Rouse were unavailable for it, and so Miller sliding over to left tackle may have just been a one-time necessity.

I think Heffernan will have his work cut out for him here considering that probably one starter and all of the backups haven’t seen the field before, and it’s a very green and relatively small room outside the seven linemen mentioned so far. It’s just three 2020 recruits and two 2021 recruits on scholarship, only one of whom is a 4-star. The depth situation is precarious enough that with Rouse and Hinton out, two of the four walk-ons were getting substantial Spring game reps.

Stanford is losing its longtime starting center, #51 C Dalman, who in my opinion might have been the Pac-12’s best for the last few years. He’ll probably be replaced by #60 C Nugent or #55 C Metcalf instead of sliding a guard over, since those two were snapping the ball during the Spring game, though again they were short-handed at the time and neither have seen the field in live ball before. That’s likely to be a significant downgrade, at least at first.

Even though the line was improved in 2020, I still didn’t think it was a dominant group and I believe a lot of credit for their run game success should be reserved for the running backs and tight ends. On top of that they’re losing two very talented starters and will need to go with someone who’s inexperienced snapping the ball. Overall I expect this to be a decent line but not an elite one, and if they start facing injuries they’re in a worse position than even 2019 due to the talent of the backups. Given how absolutely reliant Stanford’s offense is on their line play, I think that means average production at best.


NCAA Football: Stanford at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Stanford’s defense has been on a steep decline since former defensive coordinator Derek Mason left for Vanderbilt after 2013. DC Anderson was promoted to the position after being an assistant at Stanford since 2007 and kept them a top-15 defense his first and third years, but since their most recent peak in 2016 the falloff has been unmistakeable, down to #108 in advanced statistics last season.

In my opinion this is at least as important as the offensive struggles, probably more so, in understanding Stanford’s collapse from a perennial New Year’s contender. There haven’t been any fundamental schematic changes to the 3-4 structure and while I don’t think Anderson is a great coordinator he has fielded a few pretty good squads, so I think the most likely explanation is that they’re just not accumulating high quality talent anymore.

The clearest personnel issue is the defensive tackles, where they’ve simply run out of bodies. In 2020 they only had one returner, #50 DT Wade-Perry, and he took every snap last year in which they fielded a tackle. As a result, on the vast majority of reps Stanford was playing out of a 2-4-5 instead, with two down linemen and two OLBs on the line, and most of the time it was actually just two DEs with Wade-Perry resting for the occasional short-yardage situation where they needed three down linemen.

Wade-Perry returns again in 2021, and I think he’s a pretty good tackle when he’s in, but he desperately needs help and I don’t think he’s going to get it. They took a high 3-star in the 2020 class, #40 DT Phillips, but I don’t think I saw him on the field last year or in the Spring game, and Jack tells us he hasn’t heard him discussed much in practice reports. The only other tackle on the roster is a walk-on from 2020, #99 DT Lester, whom I saw a bit of in the Spring game and thought looked undersized for the role. Stanford took four defensive linemen in the 2021 cycle (plus had an edge player commit reclassify last week from 2022 to 2021), but every one seems about 50 lbs underweight to be a DT and I doubt they see the field as true freshmen at all, much less rotating with Wade-Perry.

The pair of defensive ends who were getting most of the line reps were #4 DE Booker and #91 DE Schaffer, and I think these two were the best part of Stanford’s defense. Booker returns but Schaffer was signed by the Bears. I think he’ll be replaced by #23 DE R. Johnson, a 4-star from the 2017 class whom we hadn’t seen until some late rotational reps in 2020. He looked alright, but I think a step down from Schaffer and there’s a reason he hasn’t seen the field much over the last four years.

The ends are also probably going to be pretty thin. There’s only one other confirmed returner, #92 DE Keneley, who was a mid 3-star in the 2020 class and didn’t play last year. The rest of the room is two walk-ons who haven’t played and the four freshmen mentioned above - one is a 4-star, Aaron Armitage who was the headliner on signing day, but the other three are low 3-stars and none of them are on campus yet. There’s also a mystery player, #19 DE Pakola, who’s technically the highest rated of any Stanford lineman in the 24/7 composite, but has only played I think two reps since 2019 - he entered the transfer portal in January, then got out of it in March, but is not officially listed on the roster and I didn’t see him in the Spring game. I suspect this is a situation similar to linebacker Andrew Pryts last year, where he’s actually just left the team but we won’t get confirmation till the opener.

Stanford simply didn’t have the beef last year to stop runs up the middle even with the starters, and had little ability to rotate on top of that. I don’t see any reason to think that situation reverses in 2021 and a few reasons to think it’ll get worse. There are a couple of talented players they’ve taken recently who may bolster the line down the road, but I doubt they’ll play right away or be able to arrest this unit’s overall decline much at all.

Stanford Cardinal defeated the UCLA Bruins 48-47 in overtime during a NCAA Football game at the Rose Bow. Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

The other relatively bright spot on Stanford’s defense in 2020 was the outside linebackers. They return longtime starter #90 OLB Reid who I’ve always thought is pretty good, and got a pleasant surprise when 2019 4-star #15 OLB Herron jumped the queue to become the other starter by the end of the year. He surpassed #6 OLB A. Fox and #10 OLB J. Fox (no relation, I believe) who are both older than he is, as well as former walk-on #11 OLB Keck who was pressed into action last year and earned a scholarship for it.

There are three other scholarship OLBs on the roster, all mid 3-stars, and the aforementioned reclassified player, Wilfredo Aybar, looks to be an OLB as well - he’ll join the team in the Fall and as the highest rated player on the defense might even see the field. So depth at this position is pretty good. The issue is that, as reliable as the unit has been in recent years, it just isn’t generating the havoc that they had been during the Cardinal’s heyday - sacks, TFLs, and other disruptive plays from this unit on my tally sheet have been steadily declining over the last several seasons. Jack thinks it’s an overall talent problem and I agree, but I also think being short-handed on the d-line is creating ripple effects - the OLBs have to pick up the slack with the opposing o-line and aren’t free to create havoc.

This will be the eighth consecutive season in which Stanford has to replace at least one starting inside linebacker - in this case, #2 ILB Robinson, a converted safety who got the start in 2019 when they had to replace both. Last year they had four backers who could have filled in for the aforementioned Pryts at the other spot, and they went with #3 ILB Damuni - I thought he played pretty well, if unspectacularly. It’s basically the same options again to find another replacement - #45 ILB Miezan is Jack’s guess, since he got a few backup reps last year, though curiously he’s the lowest rated of them as a low 3-star. The other remaining options from the last time they did this are #8 ILB Sinclair and #14 ILB Mangum-Farrar; we simply haven’t seen these guys on the field over the last few years as there have been significant injury limitations throughout this unit. There are a couple other possibilities too - #0 ILB DiCosmo hasn’t played yet, #29 ILB Jorgensen is a walk-on who got a couple reps and earned a scholarship, and true freshmen mid 3-star Ese Dubre will join in the Fall.

That Damuni was basically a competent linebacker last year despite never really playing before wasn’t a huge surprise, since Stanford has a pretty long history now of plucking a previously unknown backer out of the bin and him turning out decently well. Given all the options here I’d have to guess that happens again, though beats me who it’ll be. Still, I think given all the churn and opportunities to play over the last couple seasons, if there were another Blake Martinez or Shayne Skov on the roster we probably would have seen him by now, and I suspect adequate play is the best they can hope for.

The secondary loses two longtime safeties, #3 DB Antoine and #4 DB Parson. I’m not sure how much of a loss they represent since I’ve never been wild about their play, and they’re returning three other experienced safeties in #2 DB McGill, #9 DB Williams, and #21 DB Williamson. That being said, I haven’t thought much of the returners over the years either, and while I do like McGill’s willingness to hit, I think it’s telling that the safeties have given so many reps over the years to walk-ons Parson and Williams.

Depth is also looking like it might be an issue at safety, since the only other returning scholarship player is #33 DB Gilman, a mid 3-star from 2020 who didn’t play last year. They took two more safeties in the 2021 class, Caleb Ellis and Mitch Leigber, but both are also mid 3-stars and neither are on campus yet. I suspect that if there are some unavailabilities here they’ll need to move over a cornerback, where there are a few more bodies and they’ve had more backup reps, but none of them look like they have ideal frames or playing weights to convert easily to safety.

Blue-chip corner Paulson Adebo opted out of the 2020 season and was drafted by the Saints. I’m not sure how fair I can be in evaluating the guys who’ve played alongside or behind him, since the comparison was never going to be flattering and a dominant corner tends to make his opposite look worse (quarterbacks have to throw against somebody), plus I always have a hard time with corners because I’m stuck with broadcast angles. Stanford’s pass defense wasn’t very good the last couple seasons, but it’s entirely possible that returning starters #17 CB Kelly and #28 Turner-Muhammed are perfectly fine and are just getting hung out to dry by the total lack of a pass rush - it certainly happened to Adebo a lot in 2019. But I think I’d know if they were lockdown corners and I don’t think they will be in 2021.

Four different defensive backs officially listed as corners got backup reps in 2020, most prominently #13 CB Bonner and #31 CB Manley, both mid 3-stars. They lost one of only two 4-stars on the secondary in #8 CB Butler, who didn’t play last year and has left the team. I don’t have enough film on the backups at this point to speak intelligently about their quality, and I’m not even sure they will be backup corners. There are some unresolved issues here stemming from the departures and lack of depth at safety and defensive line, because they’ll likely be playing a lot of nickel and I’m not sure how they’re going to move the pieces around to make that happen. Like a lot of positions on the defense, we’re just going to have to wait till Fall camp or maybe the opener to get some pretty significant positional moves resolved. As Jack put it on the podcast when I asked about all the unanswered questions after Spring, “Welcome to Stanford football in 2021.”


University of Oregon v Stanford Football Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Accountability Corner

Revisiting last year’s preview, I think my skepticism about Mills and how he fit into an offense in flux was borne out. The observation that their “basketball pass” offense that so demoralized the Ducks in 2018 was a product of mere desperation and a specific set of receivers, and as such wouldn’t be viable in 2020, was also accurate. I think the general description of the running game — that it would improve with Jones as the new starting back and they’d return to trying it a lot more after abandoning it in the second half of 2019 — certainly turned out to be true. But the offensive line improved a lot more than I was expecting it to. I did praise the returning center and suspected the 5-star tackles wouldn’t do much, but the guard play and inside rushing turned out to be more robust than I thought. The “battle-scarred” offensive lineman theory has been around a long time and I’ve always thought it was overly sentimental, but it looks like it really was the case this time and I’ll take the possibility more seriously in the future.

The defense went almost exactly as I predicted at every position, including how the defensive line would shake out after all their transfers and that it would result in a lot more two-down fronts and the attendant continuing falloff in overall performance. I didn’t see Herron coming at OLB but nobody really did. I said that Robinson would continue as ILB starter though I wasn’t wild about his out-of-position play, and while I didn’t offer a guess as to the other starter I did have it narrowed down to a few candidates of which the winner was one. The secondary was pretty easy to predict given all the returning starters, and that changes were unlikely because of the lack of upcoming talent in the backups and the program’s general conservatism.


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