Many indications suggest that 2014 will see at least a slight shift in Stanford offensive strategy. This has been thoroughly documented here, but it bears repeating: The Cardinal's attack, though explosive, was ultimately inconsistent last season. If the preseason words of David Shaw and Kevin Hogan ring true, the Pac-12 will see a more dynamic Stanford offense this year. In the final episode of our 2014 Insider Preview Show (embedded below), R.J. Abeytia and I delve into the importance and strategic details behind this evolution.
The coach and his quarterback both spoke at the Cardinal's first weekly Tuesday press conference of the season. Both discussed the situation for an offense equipped with significantly different personnel than last year. Aside from replacing 80 percent of its starting offensive line, Stanford no longer has a 227-pound bell cow at running back (the heaviest member of that position group is now 204-pound Remound Wright). On the other hand, the Cardinal are stocked with what may be the most talented receiving corps in school history, and they have a crop of tight ends who are pass-catching threats, too. The latter is expected to fuel a 180-degree departure from last year, when the tight end position combined to grab only 10 passes in 14 games.
The New Running Situation
Kelsey Young, the team's fastest and most consistent body since spring practice at the position, has earned the start in the backfield. But Shaw insisted that there's not much separation between Young and the three players listed behind him on the depth chart. The coach emphasized that Barry Sanders, Ricky Seale, and Remound Wright will all see plentiful time. He even said that true freshman Christian McCaffrey will certainly see action -- though his exact role remains to be determined (he may fill Young's old specialty weapon slot for his inaugural campaign).
"It just won't be the same back in there every single play," Shaw said.
Tyler Gaffney carried the ball a remarkable 330 times last year, but it's apparent that no single body on this 2014 roster can be reasonably expected to endure that kind of pounding this season. In fact, Stanford's staff will plan to equally distribute carries between its top four running backs this Saturday.
"I'll try to keep it as even as possible," Shaw said. "But it'll get skewed a bit."
The coach offered little indication of the Cardinal's choice for a short yardage running back, though Shaw suggested that handing off to a fullback (Lee Ward or Pat Skov, for example) is possible. For now, Stanford's plan is to experiment in short yardage situations versus the Aggies.
The New Passing Situation
An ultra-talented Stanford wide receiver corps returns intact for the 2014 campaign, so unbridled optimism certainly abounds there. The real hope for greater offensive consistency, though, lies in the return of the pass-catching tight end position. Austin Hooper, Eric Cotton, and Greg Taboada will all be newcomers to playing time there, and the hope is that they'll fill the missing link that caused so many of the Cardinal's 2013 woes in the short passing game.
According to Hogan, Stanford's tight end position will look like a combination of the best aspects the team has seen from it over the past three years. He said that the three-tight end sets used in 2011 (Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz, Levine Toilolo) will return here in 2014.
"We've returned focus to many intermediate concepts," Hogan said. "It'll all come together."
Stanford dedicated a significant chunk of its offseason toward re-establishing the basic patterns of its passing game, and that effort was on display in extended seven-on-seven throwing drills during open practices. Though Michael Rector and Devon Cajuste finished one-two nationally in per-catch average last year, the Cardinal struggled mightily with the short-yardage fundamentals that are instrumental to consistent success in a pro-style scheme. In fact, the team enjoyed a better conversion percentage on third-and-long (50 percent on 7-9 yards) than it did on third-and-short (40 percent on 1-3 yards).
The renewed offseason core focus, then, should help address that funky disparity in performance. Quarterbacks coach Tavita Pritchard (interview embedded above) is also confident that Hogan's own attention to detail this offseason will spur improvement. The quarterback has been working to shorten his release and improve his footwork on short-to-intermediate throws, and Pritchard thinks he'll enjoy an extra boost because of an increased potential to throw to running backs. Young spent his last two seasons at wide receiver, and there's talk Stanford can find ways to incorporate some of his developed route-running ability into the running back position.
Hogan says that, unlike last year, he's mastered the Stanford offense, and that he's now moved onto analyzing the structure of opposing defenses.
"It's night and day," he said of the improvement in his playbook knowledge. “I know where all my guys are going to be. I know our offense. I know our playbook, the concepts. I know each of our guys. Now I’ve really been focusing on the defensive side of the ball and figuring out defensive structure and getting in the mind of the coordinator, seeing what he’s going to do and kind of playing off of that."
The quarterback also hinted that, while Stanford's offense will remain based on the power run, it may feature fewer jumbo packages.
"Our wide receivers and tight ends are too good and too athletic," Hogan said. "We have to find a way to utilize them."
- Aziz Shittu left Tuesday's practice in a boot due to a toe injury. On Wednesday, Shaw announced that he won't play against UC Davis. The Cardinal are hoping that their versatile defensive lineman will be ready for the September 6 showdown versus USC. Shittu is David Parry's back-up at nose tackle. Without him, the Cardinal plan to rotate Henry Anderson or Blake Lueders to tackle whenever Parry needs a breather. In that situation, Luke Kaumatule, Jordan Watkins, or Nate Lohn can get chances to pick up the slack at defensive end. Shaw also mentioned that Alex Yazdi, known as the "Iranian Meatball," is a candidate to fill in behind Parry.
- As a reward for his excellent offseason, Ronnie Harris (interview embedded above) will start at cornerback over Alex Carter on Saturday. Carter is now completely healthy after battling a hip injury in the offseason. "We'll rotate him in and build his reps as the season goes along," Shaw said. Wayne Lyons (interview embedded below) will start opposite Carter. "On Monday, I was already in game mode," Lyons said. "I had to pull back a bit because I didn't want to blow a fuse too early."
- The Stanford secondary intends to operate an interesting rotation this year to account for Usua Amanam's former nickel back spot. Cornerback Wayne Lyons will team up with safeties Zach Hoffpauir, Kyle Olugbode, and occasionally even Jordan Richards to man that versatile position on passing downs. Harris would presumably slide over whenever the opposition lines up with an extra receiver and Carter is in the game at cornerback, while Olugbode and Richards would be able to move down if a new safety like Kodi Whitfield proves he can handle the center field role. It still seems that Hoffpauir remains the most likely candidate for extended action at nickel back. New defensive backs coach Duane Akina discussed his unit after Wednesday's practice, and that audio is embedded below.
-Hogan is confident that Stanford's new offensive line is ready to play and protect him. “I think it’s already jelled," he said. "I’m not worried about it all.”
- After Shaw said that McCaffrey will certainly play this season, he also indicated that cornerback Terrence Alexander, fullback Daniel Marx, and offensive lineman Casey Tucker all have a strong shot to also see the the field this year.
- Doctors have fully cleared Ty Montgomery to play in the opener against UC Davis. Remember, about a month ago, Shaw wasn't sure about Montgomery's early-season status following arm surgery. "He attacked the rehab," Shaw said. "And he's poured everything into his senior year."
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our award-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up)!