It’s the middle of September and half the home schedule is already completed. After a three game homestand, Stanford football finds itself at the quarter turn for the 2014 season. It is a difficult team to grade, as Stanford has two easy wins against lesser opponents and one very frustrating loss to a team that they outplayed. So we grade based on what we have seen and how it may impact the future.
This will be the most controversial of my grades and I have to admit that I find this a bit unfair as well. Part of this is the old cliché that the quarterback gets too much credit when a team wins and too much blame for losses. Kevin Hogan has looked good this year. The stats are there. 73% completion percentage, 9.53 yards per attempt, seven touchdown passes to just one interception. The numbers are there, but I’m still left wanting more.
Despite the numbers I don’t feel Hogan is any better than he was last year. In his third year of starting, it’s time for Hogan to improve from good quarterback to very good quarterback. Hogan may be the best deep ball thrower in college football. He throws the deep ball better than some NFL quarterbacks. But he is still inconsistent on the short ball. How many of those quick outs to Ty Montgomery does #88 have to break stride to pick the ball up off the ground? Hogan rarely misses the wide receiver 40 yards down field but the 10-yard out can be a challenge.
It appears Hogan’s mechanics are the reason. The big windup throw serves him well on the deep corner to Devon Cajuste, but on the quick slant to Montgomery he has to shorten the windup or it will lead to inaccuracy.
While Hogan has been able to eat up the likes of Davis and Army, he does share in some of the responsibility for the red zone struggles against USC. Head coach David Shaw gives Hogan a lot of credit for his mastery of the playbook, but are we seeing that benefit on the field?
Entering the season with a new offensive line and a stable of running backs, Hogan needs to be a great player to get the Cardinal through to the next level. So far Hogan has been the same quarterback, which is good, but will it be good enough long term?
RUNNING BACKS: B
So many running backs and nobody has staked claim to the job. Barry Sanders leads the team with 142 yards and a 7.9 average. Kelsey Young checks in with 122 yards and 5.8 yards per carry. Young leads the team with 21 carries. Just pause to consider that for a Stanford team – an average of seven carries per game. That would have been a quarter for Tyler Gaffney, Stephan Taylor or Toby Gerhart.
Including Montgomery, but not including the quarterbacks, eight players have rushed the ball for the Cardinal. The stats on both Sanders and Young were greatly improved by one mighty drive against Army in which they combined for 88 yards. Over all the run game has been solid but unspectacular.
Remound Wright missed the Army game. With 15 carries for 88 yards, he is the best runner for the power play that Stanford is known for. He also may be the best tailback for pass protection.
Christian McCaffrey has been quite a find for Stanford as a true freshman. Will there be enough carries for him to play a big factor this season?
This is the big question now for Stanford. As conference play really kicks into gear, is it time for Stanford to narrow the committee and commit to two or three running backs? While none of the running backs have separated themselves, true running backs need rhythm and need to touch the ball more than seven times a game. The talent seems to be there, but at some point it may be time for the coaches to trust their game plan to fewer backs.
WIDE RECEIVERS: A
Ty Montgomery is a beast. Everything that head coach David Shaw has said about him has been true. He has shown speed, strength, good hands. With 22 catches for 246 yards in three games, he is the difference-maker Stanford needs. Cajuste has looked good in his two games played. The supporting receivers have done their part when asked.
As long as Montgomery stays healthy, there is really good depth at this position as long as Hogan can deliver them the ball.
TIGHT ENDS: A
Austin Hooper has been quite the find. Two drops against Army puts just a small damper on his breakout season where he has made some big and difficult catches. The redshirt freshman is the second leading receiver with 12 catches for 170 yards. He has shown some flashes that have to make Cardinal fans thrilled about the future.
Eric Cotton and Greg Taboada have been overshadowed by Hooper’s play, but the position is back for Stanford with good talent and great depth. By having three tight ends that can not only catch, but are also getting better at blocking, Stanford is allowed to not resort to the “jumbo” package nearly as often.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B
Four new starters and Andrus Peat. The results have been pretty good so far. The key continues to be repetitions. The line seems to gel a little more each week and there is no reason to think they won’t continue to get better as the season progresses.
Peat continues to look like a top ten pick in the NFL Draft. Josh Garnett is really developing at left guard and has shown both power blocking and the ability to pull. On the right side, Kyle Murphy has very quick feet.
The group though has been plagued by penalties at inopportune moments. (Sometimes they were very questionable calls.) That is the major part the unit has to clean up. They can’t take those big penalties that turn into drive-stoppers, especially as the Cardinal hit the road. Graham Shuler looks a little undersized at center, although some of that could be standing next to the enormity of Garnett on his left. Johnny Caspers isn’t Kevin Danser yet but he is improving which is all that can be expected right now.
Bottom line is this unit has played well so far and the future is incredibly bright for later in the season as they continue to play together.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A
So the defense has given up 13 points in three games. You can guess what all the grades will be on this side of the ball. David Parry has been tremendous at nose guard. Can we call him “the wrecking ball?” He is forcing defenses to consider using two guys to block. Parry has been the perfect nose guard in that sometimes the job is to just occupy blockers and create a mess and sometimes it’s to beat blocks and make tackles. He has done both.
Henry Anderson has been a little quieter, but that is mostly because the potential All-American is facing at least double teams on every single play. Blake Lueders has had his moments but mostly has just held his position well.
Aziz Shittu is improving as he provides depth to the starting three, but depth is the real wild card moving forward. The top three players are top notch. But once past the top three it gets dicey. Shittu is developing. Luke Kaumatule still has a ways to go. And after that? Stanford has been able to get rest for the D-Line by going nickel and just using two linemen at times. That may just work in a passing oriented conference. But if there is an injury to Anderson or Parry, Stanford’s defense will notice.
Blake Martinez has stepped in to the hole vacated by Shayne Skov and has been great. Shaw called A.J. Tarpley one of the top linebackers in all of college football. He has 19 tackles so far. Noor Davis has had a breakout year providing depth. Kevin Palma missed one game but has great size and speed and looks like a player.
At outside linebacker, Kevin Anderson has 16 tackles. He and James Vaughters have been very solid at the point of attack. Peter Kalambayi has been very good rotating in to rest the starters. Joe Hemschoot is expected to return from injury for the Washington game and that will just add more to the depth.
There haven’t been many missed tackles. Physically they have looked dominant at times. There is tremendous talent and even better depth at linebacker for Stanford.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: A
Jordan Richards is the star with 18 tackles. He has been playing all over the place and is surely making himself appealing to those who watch from that Sunday league. The corners, Alex Carter and Wayne Lyons, have both been tremendous. Lyons has really improved since last year. They are both physical against the run and have no problems covering in a man defense.
A big question mark entering the season is who would start at free safety in place of Ed Reynolds. Kyle Olugbode got the first crack and played well. But he has been replaced by Zach Hoffpauir solely because Hoffpauir has been fabulous. A fierce competitor who is strong on hits, but still playing within the scheme of the defense, the outfielder has been big surprise.
KICKING GAME: C
The numbers speak for themselves here. Jordan Williamson has become Stanford’s all-time leading scorer. But this season he is just 2-5 on his field goal attempts. Obviously two of those misses played a vital role in the outcome against USC. Williamson has done some great things during his tenure but he still needs to find consistency and reliability. Stanford can’t afford to not take advantage of scoring opportunities.
Ben Rhyne is a good punter with ability to kick for yards but also place a team inside the 20 yard line.
Derek Mason who? Okay, that was a cheap shot. But Lance Anderson gets an A+ as the new defensive coordinator. Again, 13 points allowed in three games. That is tremendous. Anderson has not missed a step. And given some of the departures on defense coming into the season you can really argue he is getting the most out of the young defenders. Army may not have a great offense, but the triple option is always difficult to prepare for and the Cardinal defense was more than up for the challenge.
On offense, the red zone offense against USC just says it all. By no means is it to suggest that the coaching is solely responsible, but the offense just has to get it done in those spots and so far it has not. Even against Army, the offense sputtered early before finding rhythm in the second half.
I believe that the coaches are still trying to figure out what they have on offense. Who works well in what scheme and with what plays? As suggested earlier, now that the season is a quarter over, it’s time to know who this team is and start calling plays in a manner to maximize the talents on the roster.
There is nothing terribly wrong about 2-1. The pain is just that Stanford outplayed USC in the loss. (Watching USC lay an egg at Boston College just brought the pain back.) This still sets up to be a strong season for the Cardinal. But with a brutal road schedule ahead, Stanford needs to focus, limit mistakes, and just be all around better and more consistent.
For now, it is a bye week, so we can all ponder what we are supposed to do without Stanford football on a Saturday. Ugh!