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Pac 12 Opponent Preview - Stanford

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A Preseason Preview of the Stanford Cardinal

Stanford Cardinal

Coaching Staff

Head Coach: David Shaw (9th Season, 13th Overall)

Offensive Coordinator: Tavita Pritchard (2nd Season, 10th Overall)

Defensive Coordinator: Lance Anderson (6th Season, 13th Overall)

2018

Regular Season: 8-4 (6-3)

Overall: 9-4

ESPN Football Power Index: 21

Offensive Efficiency Rank: 15

Defensive Efficiency Rank: 37

Special Teams Efficiency Rank: 8

A Potential Shift from the “Ground and Pound” on the Farm

For the first season in well over a decade, Stanford attempted more passes than runs in 2018. This was unexpected with the Cardinal returning an experienced offensive line and Hesiman runner-up tailback Bryce Love. Attrition up front fused with Love’s nagging ankle injury prevented the running game from gaining traction last season. Their team rushing yards were nearly cut in half from the previous season, and Stanford turned to the passing game for offensive success. They found plenty of it boasting one of the conference’s top passing attacks. Their new pass-first mentality may be employed again in 2019 under one of the nation’s premier quarterbacks, K.J. Costello.

Though Costello returns poised for another big season, he loses his three favorite downfield weapons. The reload is prepared, however, with young talent that has flashed in subordinate roles. The wide receiver spots will be heavily contested among underclassmen Connor Wedington, Michael Wilson, Osiris St. Brown, and Simi Fehoko. All were highly recruited and have revealed enough promise to expect more solid play from the wide receiving corps. Meanwhile, “Tight End U” graduates Kaden Smith but returns 6’7’’ Colby Parkinson after his seven touchdown campaign and has solid depth behind him. Running back Bryce Love moves on to the NFL after a historic Cardinal career leaving an opening for his former backups. Upperclassmen Cameron Scarlett, Trevor Speights, and Dorian Maddox will battle for the lead role behind an offensive line that hopes 2018’s run game struggles are not a precedent for the future of Stanford football.

Stanford is the stalwart of the power running game in the Pac 12. They are revered for their ability to line up with extra offensive linemen and control games putting a hat on a hat. It has been a fixture on the farm for a decade until last season’s head scratching struggles averaging a mere 3.7 yards per carry. Though the pass protection was solid, David Shaw does not want his offense to stray from its power run identity. Health may be the most critical concern for the offensive line after trotting out eight different player combinations over the course of last season. While the losses are heavy in 2019, they return four players with starting experience including premier left tackle Walker Little. Former five star recruit Foster Sarell joins after missing nearly all of last season to injury while Devery Hamilton, Drew Dalman, and Dylan Powell are the most likely candidates to fill out the unit after serving as part-time starters last season. There is some quality depth competing for playing time, but this does not feel like the dominant unit most fans expect from Stanford. It will be interesting to see how well they run the football, but their focus may lie heavier on keeping Costello clean to aid the passing attack.

Overall, the offense had some success last season despite its struggles to run the football. The run game needs to improve for them to find more consistency and shorten games, but they do not appear to have the same kind of home-run threat in the backfield like they had in recent years. Even if the struggles in the run game continue, they will have a potent air attack to fall back on with a more experienced Costello, a promising young receiving corps, and an NFL calibre left tackle.

Key Strengths, but Critical Weaknesses

In Stanford’s best years, they won games by dominating time of possession with efficient run-first offense and by keeping opponents in check their sturdy, disciplined defense. The past two seasons, Stanford’s defense has not quite lived up to the program’s standards. Their play in 2018 was decent but got gashed for too many big plays through the air. Improvement is possible in 2019 but will not be an easy task for a group losing six starters.

One area where the Cardinal will almost certainly upgrade, however, is on the defensive line. Four of its top five contributors from last season’s group return including honors candidate Jovan Swann and starting nose guard Michael Williams. Thomas Booker is one of the team’s breakout candidates after impressing as a true freshman and they have some functional depth to complete a solid rotation. Great linebacking play has been Stanford’s trademark on the defensive side for the past decade and they lose some good ones in Bobby Okereke, Sean Barton, and Joey Alfieri. Stanford did a stellar job pressuring the quarterback last season finishing second in the Pac 12 with 36 sacks. The pass rush should not lose a step in 2019 with OLBs Casey Toohill, Jordan Fox, and Gabe Reid, returning to complement the emerging defensive line. ILB is less assuring after losing its top three tacklers. Curtis Robinson is a likely starter after missing last season to injury, but there is plenty of unknown here with very little returning experience. There is plenty of highly recruited talent, but much of it is young and has yet to be tested.

Despite a strong duo at cornerback, Stanford’s pass defense was not quite where it wanted it to be in 2019. Safety play was hit-or-miss after losing a starter after week three and Stanford surrendered its most passing yards in a season since 2009. There are plenty of questions in 2019, but the Cardinal does return, perhaps, the best cornerback in the country in Paulson Adebo. Cal fans may remember his ridiculous one-handed interception of Chase Garbers in the Big Game last season and he could be the first cornerback off the board in the 2020 NFL Draft. Obi Eboh will likely start on the other side forming another strong pair at CB in 2019, though experience is scarce in the two-deep. Returning starter Malik Antione is back to staff one safety spot but the group surrounding him is another critical question mark posing the defense heading into the season.

Season Outlook

After their period of dominance in the first half of the decade, Stanford has quietly slid into the nation’s second tier winning nine games or less in each of the last three regular seasons. 2019 projects similar results for a program that continues to be a mainstay in Pac 12 title discussions, though its national relevance has taken a slight turn. The leadership of K.J. Costello will be critical for a team that has more question marks entering the season than folks are used to seeing with Stanford. Though they dodge Utah in the South, the Cardinal faces the most lively non-conference schedule in the conference with Northwestern, UCF, and Notre Dame.