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Duck Dive: Stanford Football 2022 Preview

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

University of Southern California vs Stanford University Set Number: X163796 TK1

Special thanks to Jibriel Taha of the Stanford Daily for joining me on the Quack 12 Podcast to discuss Colorado’s roster. LISTEN HERE


Offense

Last season was the fourth straight year in which Stanford’s mish-mash offense of power running, spread concepts, and pro-style downfield pocket passing only did one thing effectively, which was lobbing the ball to tall and nearly undefendable receivers. That they were so reliant on miracle passes (and for long stretches, stubbornly insistent that they were a better rushing team than they were) severely limited the offense even when their passing game was working. Based on where they’re returning talent and the fact that there has been no meaningful staff turnover in years (nor does there appear to be any administrative urgency to change anything up), I expect we’ll see more of the same in 2022. Last year the Cardinal offense ranked 94th in F+ advanced stats — their unfortunate run of injuries at wide receiver dampened that a bit, so if they’re healthier this year I think they can improve somewhat but still be one-dimensional – and I believe they’ll again wind up well below the Power-5 average.

There’s an argument to be made that returning starter #18 QB McKee is the most valuable player to his team out of anyone in the Pac-12. He was a borderline 5-star in the 2020 class and I think will be an NFL prospect in the future, and I’m sure that if he were operating a more effective scheme behind a decent offensive line he’d be putting up far better numbers. I’m very impressed with how unflinching he is in the pocket, delivering accurate throws a split second before getting crushed by the basically unblocked pass rush. It’s also the case that McKee was the only QB in the room who could work the one functioning lever of the Cardinal offense: his NCAA passer rating last year was a decent 138.7; the combined rating of the other four QBs was a miserable 83.7 when McKee was out with injury or at the beginning of the year when the staff was still splitting his time with Jack West.

West has left the team, as have backups Dylan Plautz and Isaiah Saunders. Stanford returns borderline 4-star #11 QB Patu, who got one start late last season as a true freshman in a loss to Oregon St (a team that had just fired its DC for poor performance). The only other scholarship quarterback in the room will be the 2022 mid 3-star Ashton Daniels, who won’t arrive until Fall. I agree with Jibriel’s take on the podcast that if McKee is unavailable again – something that’s unfortunately plausible given his lack of escapability and the poor protection he’ll probably get – the Cardinal will be almost totally incapable of moving the ball.

The running back room lost both of its leading rushers to the portal, Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat, and two longtime senior backups in Dorian Maddox and Justus Woods. I think Jones is one of the most naturally talented backs in the conference and his transfer to in-state rival USC is a pretty tough one to take. But given Stanford’s poor overall rushing performance over the last several years — averaging 117th in rushing yards per game over the last four seasons — I don’t think these losses will impact the bottom line much.

The Cardinal return #22 RB Smith, the third leading rusher in 2021, who had the same YPC average as Peat although on only a third as many carries. He was a high 4-star in the 2020 class and is built well for the job so I think he’ll be ready to become the primary back. I’m not sure he’ll get a lot of relief though, since #2 RB Filkins is the only other experienced returner and he was a notable step down in performance on film. Rounding out the room is #8 RB Barrow, a mid 3-star redshirt freshman, and low 4-star 2022 recruit Arlen Harris who’ll arrive in the Fall, plus a couple walk-ons. Given this staff’s conservatism I expect we’ll just see Smith and Filkins, but Jibriel and I both think that things are desperate enough in the running back room that Harris could make the jump to the third back as a true freshman. At any rate, if Smith is unavailable for any reason there’ll likely be a falloff from what are already low expectations in the run game.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Oregon at Stanford Photo by Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The wide receivers return all six players who caught a pass last year, though all but one was held out of the Spring game. Health is the critical thing here, possibly to the entire offense – Jibriel tells us there’s been no official word on which if any of their productive receivers are going to be at full strength for the season and it’s the top thing I’m going to be watching for during Fall camp.

This unit was plagued by injuries all season long in 2021, with the most dangerous in my opinion #81 WR Tremayne getting hurt late in week 5, then #5 WR Humphreys the next week, and then leading receiver (though probably just because he stayed healthy the longest) #6 WR Higgins two weeks after that. #4 WR Wilson returned after a long injury recovery to play the last four games and got the fourth most yards on the season in this unit. Backups #3 WR Farrell and #19 WR Starr round out the experienced returners, though those two don’t seem to be favored targets for McKee because when the top three guys were hurt, tight ends, backs, and then Wilson were the ones getting increased receptions instead of them.

Stanford also returns #9 WR Bowman, a former low 4-star senior, and #82 WR Raines, a mid 3-star redshirt freshman, plus a couple walk-ons; I didn’t see any of them on the field in 2021 but I did see them in this year’s Spring game and I didn’t think they represented near the threat that last year’s top four did. They’ve added three mid 3-stars in the 2022 cycle: #0 WR Reuben who also played in the Spring game and has some potential to be the next big target, plus Elic Ayomanor and Jason Thompson who’ll join in the Fall.

Jibriel made the case on the podcast that if the top four of Tremayne, Humphreys, Higgins, and Wilson are healthy this could be the most dangerous WR group in the conference and he might just be right. There are going to be plenty of bodies in the room, but in terms of effective depth we saw what happened last year when their key receivers got hurt – there’s a big falloff in utility to this particular offense between the top guys and the rest of the unit.

The TEs lose their best blocker in Tucker Fisk to the NFL, who was splitting time at the defensive line last year. They return senior #87 TE Archer and junior #89 TE Ungar from last year; I thought each was a notable step down from Yurosek at receiving and Fisk at blocking. They got three 2022 recruits at the position, notably the 4-star #86 TE Roush who played in the Spring game and looked pretty good, though like the wideout Reuben, I’m not ready to put much stock in that because almost the entire secondary was held out. I think Jibriel is right and they won’t play the true freshman here, instead preferring Archer and/or Unger and hoping for better blocking performance out of the three returners.

On the podcast we discussed extensively whether the offense is going to adapt to the fact that receiving options look to be much better than their blocking options and as such abandon the traditional Stanford offense and go wide open, maybe switching to a four-wide or 11-personnel offense with the TE split out. It’s probably what I would do if I were running the team and Jibriel thinks it would be the rational move, but I’ve been watching this team for too long to think it’s going to happen.

Stanford returns every single offensive lineman, including all the backups – there were no departures at all from this unit. The starting lineup last year, which I expect will continue in 2022, was #75 LT Rouse, #60 C Nugent, #66 RG Bragg, and #78 RT Hinton, with #73 LG Hornibrook and #63 LG Miller splitting time. All except Hinton, a junior who came in with the 2020 class, are seniors from the 2019 cycle. These six had the highest average talent rating of any starting offensive line in the Pac-12 last year at .8982 in the 24/7 composite (that’s a low 4-star rating if it were a single player), which is pretty impressive recruiting considering that they lost both of their 5-stars, Walker Little and Foster Sarell, at the end of 2020.

The problem is that this line was one of the worst in the Pac-12 on virtually every statistical index, including my own tally sheet, and I believe this was most severe underperformance vs talent rating I’ve ever observed. In the raw stats most correlated with offensive line performance, Stanford in 2021 ranked out of 130 FBS teams:

  • 96th in sacks allowed per game
  • 87th in TFLs allowed per game
  • 126th in rushing yards per game
  • 115th in 3rd down conversion rate

The Spring game gave us a look at who the likely backups are – when the second-team offense was in, Hornibrook slid over to center and the four new players in the lineup were #74 LT Pogorelc, #57 LG Rogers, #72 RG Uke, and #71 RT McLaughlin. Those four were also pretty highly rated out of high school in the 2020 class, with an average over .89 in the 24/7 composite, but they’ve gotten zero game experience and have been laboring under what looks to be a pretty substandard development program from Kevin Carberry their first year on the Farm and current OL coach Heffernan.

There’s nothing else to report here – I think the poor performance of this unit has been central to the offense’s struggles for the past four seasons. Jibriel says there’s a clear path for improvement and if they just play at an average level this offense could be really dangerous, and I think he’s right about that potential. But the players, coaching staff, and scheme will be the same in 2022, and since they’re all upperclassmen they’re probably locked in to their size and techniques so I don’t have any hope of more than minor incremental improvement.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Oregon at Stanford Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images


Defense

Stanford ranked 103rd in defensive F+ last year, the bottoming out of an alarming slide in defensive performance under DC Anderson since he took over in 2014. In raw stats, the Cardinal ranked 106th or worse in every defensive category but one last year. With no coaching or structural changes plus significant talent losses on the defensive front, it’s hard to predict this squad getting any better in 2022.

The scheme started out as the 3-4 that previous coordinator Derek Mason installed, but over the last several years as Stanford has lost talent, size, and bodies at the defensive line they’ve been forced more and more often to go to their 2-4-5 passing-down configuration even on standard downs. By 2021, I don’t believe I saw them take a single standard-down snap with three down linemen all season long, outside certain rare short-yardage situations.

Jibriel tells us that officially Stanford is switching its structure to a 4-3 from a 3-4. We talked about this quite a bit on the podcast; I believe that this change is entirely semantics and that they will simply continue with what is effectively the 2-4-5 structure they’ve been forced into playing by the depletion of their defensive line, and it doesn’t matter what they call it. On the official roster, all remaining linemen are built like 260 – 285 lbs one-gappers, and they’ve simply given a position name change to all their outside backers.

The defensive line loses starters Thomas Booker and Dalyn Wade-Perry, plus backups Ryan Johnson and Joshua Pakola. All of them were 4-stars, the only blue chips the unit had due to poor recruiting of the position over the last five cycles. As mentioned above, they’ve also lost Tucker Fisk, the tight end who was moonlighting as a d-lineman.

There are currently only six linemen in the room, and three of them are walk-ons. #94 DL Franklin and #40 DL Phillips were the only ones who got any experience at all last year, which was a combined three solo tackles between them. Both were playing with the number one defense in the Spring game and I expect they’ll be the starters. They also return #98 DL Buckey, #96 DL Katona, #99 DL Lester, and #55 DL Merritt from the 2020 and 2021 classes, none of whom have played a snap yet. Buckey was a low 3-star, and I’d guess he gets one of the backup spots; the last three were the walk-ons, and Jibriel tells us that Lester is the most likely guy to get the other one.

In the 2022 recruiting cycle, Stanford took four guys I expect to be defensive linemen given their sizes, all low-to-mid 3-stars. None were on campus for Spring practice and given this staff’s conservatism I don’t think they’ll see the field this year. Jibriel made an interesting suggestion that, since the offensive line returned everybody but most of them won’t play, there could be a couple guys from that room switch to the d-line … that’s a possibility, but I didn’t see it at all during the Spring game and it’s just speculation at this point. Given all the problems this unit had last year and that by all metrics it’s getting worse for this year, I doubt that Stanford is going to pick itself off the mat defensively.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 18 Stanford at Vanderbilt Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I expect the “EDGE” players, as just OLBs with a new name, to have virtually identical assignments as they have for the last decade - to drop into coverage as a surprise on about the same 15% of plays and otherwise mainly be responsible for outside run containment and rushing the passer. None of them have the frame for, nor transformed their bodies into, actual DEs who would be recognizable in a true 4-3 defense. Instead they’re all in the 220 – 250 lbs OLB range, and that’s how I’m going to refer to them.

They’ve lost both their starters – Gabe Reid whom I’ve always liked is making a grad transfer to Utah, and Jordan Fox has run out of eligibility. They’re also losing four other third- and fourth-stringers who got few to no reps last year.

This unit got by far the best of the 2022 recruiting class for the defense and arguably the entire team. All three recruits are bluechips, including Ernest Cooper and Tevarua Tafiti who’ll join in the Fall, plus high 4-star #23 OLB Bailey who was on campus for Spring. Bailey was with both the number one and two defenses in the Spring game and looked ready to play to me; I think that, uncharacteristically for this staff, they’ll make him a true freshman starter right away, and Jibriel agreed on the podcast.

The other spot and the backups are harder to pick out. Reid and Fox got almost every rep last year so while four returners got some experience, it wasn’t much. I think #15 OLB Herron, who was the most frequently used backup and has flashed at times in the past as a mid 4-star, is probably in pole position. #9 OLB Armitage, #0 OLB DiCosmo, and #92 OLB Keneley got a handful of reps last year; Armitage has the highest ceiling I think but was held out of the Spring game and is just a true sophomore while the other two are upperclassmen. #5 OLB Aybar was a 4-star in the 2019 class but has yet to record a single stat. The rest of the room are four walk-ons; three haven’t played yet but the fourth is #11 OLB Keck who earned a scholarship, got in the portal, then decided to come back. He was playing with the twos in the Spring game.

There are plenty of bodies here and what looks like some real talent. I suspect they’ll take a small step back given all the experience they’re losing with the starters, but the replacements look more than manageable to me. I don’t think the outside backers were really the problem with last year’s defense and I believe that’ll continue to be the case this year.

On paper the inside backers look like they’re in great shape, as they return all four upperclassmen in the rotation: starters #3 ILB Damuni and #45 ILB Miezan, and heavily used backups #14 ILB Mangum-Farrar and #8 ILB Sinclair. They all came in during the 2018 or 2019 classes and have been in the system for a long time, with 281 career tackles between them.

However, I’ve been watching film and writing about them all those years and I can’t say I’ve ever been impressed with any of them. I think if there’s a clear culprit in Stanford’s defensive problems besides Anderson and the deterioration of the line, it’s this group of backers. I just don’t see a lot of talent or athleticism here, and my tally sheet for this unit shows very high rates of getting to the play late and tackling with questionable technique across the board. Jibriel brought up the point that a couple of the guys have been battling injuries so it’s still possible that something finally clicks for them, but outside of that I don’t have much hope for a turnaround here.

I doubt there’s any chance the 2021 two-deep will be changed at all in 2022, not just because of the staff’s conservatism but also because there’s no obviously appealing prospects to replace them. The rest of the room are three walk-ons and a mid 3-star true sophomore, #30 ILB Dubre, who didn’t play last year. They also got a pair of low 3-star 2022 recruits who weren’t on campus for Spring ball; I think the odds they play are pretty much zero.

Stanford v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Almost everybody whom I expect to be in the two-deep of the secondary was either unavailable or playing in a different position for the Spring game, so Jibriel and I had to talk these positions through on a lot of speculation, and there might be some fluidity in Fall camp.

At cornerback, they’re returning last year’s standout starter #17 CB Kelly and he no doubt has his job locked down. Stanford also returns five other corners who were rotating through last year, which makes guessing the other starter and the primary backups tricky. Jibriel thinks the other starter will be #4 CB Turner-Muhammad, the only 4-star in the room, though he’s been battling injuries his entire career and I’ve never really seen him play. I’m more inclined to think it’ll be #13 CB Bonner or #6 CB Toomer due to their seniority and getting substantially more playing time last year. And I think #31 CB Manley and #18 CB Wyrick are going to wind up playing nickel roles; each has more experience than Turner-Muhammad does. There are also four other guys in the room who have minimal to no playing time: #20 CB Slocum, #34 CB Jackson, #25 CB B. Jones, and the true freshman Joshua Thompson.

Safety is a lot easier to pick out. Longtime starter #21 DB Williamson returns, as do a couple of relatively experienced backups in #33 DB Gilman and #2 DB McGill. They lose the other longtime starter, Noah Williams, but they’ve picked up a grad transfer in #24 DB Fields who was a starter at Oklahoma last year. When reviewing the Sooners’ tape last year I thought Fields was their sharpest safety and Jibriel and I both think he’s going to slot right in as a starter, though he was held out of the Spring game. (Jibriel had a funny story about his transfer on the podcast.)

There are three other returners in the safety room though none played last year, plus three true freshman I believe will be safeties who’ll join in the Fall. Between the four veterans and a couple experienced roamers from the cornerback room in Manley and Wyrick, I doubt those other six will see the field.

There’s plenty of depth and experience here so I don’t think the Cardinal will face any difficulty fielding a playable secondary. But other than Kelly and Fields I’m just not that impressed with the film on the returning DBs, who are almost entirely low-to-mid 3-stars. Jibriel tells us that most of the Stanford fanbase disagrees and has high expectations for the secondary. It’s worth taking into consideration that they basically haven’t had a pass rush for years and so the corners are left on islands a lot, and it’s true that the one defensive stat that wasn’t absolutely abysmal last year was passing yards allowed. But I doubt they’ll have a pass rush again this year and they were still below the Power-5 average in pass defense.


Accountability Corner

It’s tough to find a single miss in last year’s preview; Stanford is such an utterly predictable team that this one was a breeze. I figured West would get the start at QB but he’d eventually be pulled for McKee, and that’s exactly what happened. I thought Stanford would continue to try their power running game and that Jones and Peat would perform as well as they could but they’d be stymied by poor offensive line play – the Cardinal finished at the bottom of FBS in rushing offense and both backs transferred out. I thought that Stanford’s experiment with shorter speedy receivers was over and they’d resume exclusively throwing the ball to their taller outside guys Tremayne and Humphreys, with Higgins and the tight end Yurosek getting the rest, which is what they wound up doing and with precisely that personnel, though I didn’t expect all the injury issues. I called the offensive line starters correctly, including the conversion of their 2020 sixth man Hinton (on their jumbo six-OL sets) into the starting RT, and that they were facing a significant downgrade at center and no improvements anywhere else, which was accurate and probably the single most salient fact abou the team in 2021.

The defensive line depletion and by extension the devolution of this defense into a perpetual 2-4-5 made picking out the starters on the front an easy call to make, including predicting that Pakola was never really on the team despite being listed on the official roster. I think saying that Reid has been a bright spot at OLB was appropriate (and probably explains his transfer to Utah), however I was apparently too enthusiastic about Herron at the other spot, as Fox reclaimed his starter role and Herron was the primary backup. I got the ILB rotation right and the general commentary on the quality of their play as well, I think. For the DBs, I nailed the safety starters but possibly overstated the depth questions, though they did just take their second transfer ever at the position. I allowed that the corners could be better than I thought because they were getting stranded without any pass rush, which was probably true. But I said I think I’d know if Kelly or Turner-Muhammad were future stars and didn’t think so, and missing on Kelly like that is the sole black eye of the article … which is giving me second thoughts about my doubts on Turner-Muhammad in this one. I don’t think there’s anything I can learn from that though, I’ve always known that cornerbacks are the hardest for me to evaluate from broadcast angles and I’m going to miss on some good ones at a higher rate than any other position.

Stanford University vs University of Oregon Set Number: X161466 TK1