Burning questions for the fall

Five burning questions leading up to the new Stanford Football season



September 5 is coming.  Life springs anew come the fall if you're a Stanford Football fan. That weekend starts the four-month labor of love that is rooting for the Cardinal. Right now, Shannon Turley is putting the squad through the paces, sprints, lifts, and stretches designed to carry the Cardinal back to the heights of recent history. Compared to many other teams in the Pac-12, there is a lot more known (starting QB, offensive line, featured running back) inside the offices at Arrillaga Center. However, questions abound about Stanford's 2015 campaign and because baseball and NBA Summer League can only distract for so long, let's explore some of them, shall we?

1. Can an Experienced Offense Carry An Inexperienced Defense Farther Than An Experienced Defense Carried an Inexperienced Offense?-We'll get into the bipolar season that was Stanford in 2014 in a moment, but for now, this is the macro question that ultimately matters the most, and is as good a leaping off point as any. Let us take the last part of that question first.
      
Overall, Stanford's defense in 2014 was the strength of the team.  The squad went 8-5 and in only three of those 13 games did Stanford's opponent score 20 or more points. Stanford lost two of those three games (Oregon, Utah).  The Cardinal finished as the #1 rated defense in the Pac-12.  That result was the composite of the conference's best pass defense and its second-best run defense (both metrics Conference Games only.  Stanford overall had the Pac-12's best run defense, by the way).  Only three of the eleven players who started the Foster Farms Freeze-Out on defense currently reside on the Cardinal's roster.  Along the defensive front, Stanford loses Henry Anderson and David Parry, losses which the Cardinal will be seriously challenged to overcome.  It's telling that on Stanford's official roster, there is literally nobody listed as a defensive tackle or nose guard.  From somewhere within the group of Nate Lohn, Harrison Phillips, Aziz Shittu, Solomon Thomas, and Jordan Watkins, must not only come the core of Stanford's defensive interior but it's defensive ends as well.  Dominating the line of scrimmage has been at the core of Stanford's success the past five seasons, and while that dominance slipped significantly on the offensive side of the ball, the defense held the line as well as any in the country.  Word through the spring was that Thomas and Phillips had developed physically enough to man the trenches for Stanford, but it's going to be a challenge for two relatively inexperienced players to anchor the most important part on the field in 2015.  Color me hopeful but dubious at this point.
   

Moving to the linebacking core, Stanford returns two starters in Kevin Anderson and Blake Martinez.  Both are stand-out players who should play starring roles this season.  When you add in a talent like Peter Kalambayi (Code Name: The Squid) and Luke Kaumatule, as well as experience like Joey Alfieri and Kevin Palma, it's pretty clear that this position group projects as the defense's best headed into 2015.  Stanford's last line returns only Ronnie Harris, so the obvious pressing need is to replace its safety positions. Dallas Lloyd and Kodi Whitfield, both offensive transplants, are listed as strong safeties and remain the two most likely candidates to start.  Despite the dearth along the D Line, this is the part of the defense that gives me the greatest pause.  This is NOT the conference to be shaky and/or inexperienced in the secondary, and the Cardinal will undoubtedly be the latter and in the worst case scenario the former as well. The first part of this question leads us into the next set of questions, but I promise an answer (of sorts) at the end of this piece.


2.  Will the Real Stanford Offense Please Stand Up?- Every Cardinal fan knows about Stanford's ascent over the final three games of 2014, and no Stanford fan can say definitively what precisely flipped the switch for the Cardinal to close out the season.  Stanford averaged a whopping 38 points a game against Cal, UCLA, and Maryland.  Now, that's not exactly a murderer's row of defenses (National Ranks in 2014:  123, 77, and 89, respectively) I grant, but there is no doubt that Stanford stepped up its play noticeably at the end of the year. Lee Ward talked about the team airing out some issues as well as becoming less predictable based on formation when we chatted with him a couple months ago.
   
Certainly another part of the equation was the gelling of an offensive line that was old but not experienced as Coach Shaw shrewdly pointed out during the season. Last season Stanford was replacing four members of a very good offensive line.  This season they return that many.  Though the loss of Andrus Peat is a significant one, most have faith in Kyle Murphy sliding over to Kevin Hogan's blind side, leaving only his vacated right tackle spot to be replaced. Add to that the transcendent talent of Christian McCaffrey, the return of Tight End U (Cotton, Hooper, Taboada, and Dalton Schultz), and a wide receiver core of Devon Cajuste, Michael Rector, Francis Owusu, as well as sophomore lightning Isaiah Brandt-Sims, and Stanford will almost certainly look closer to the group that lit up the scoreboard in the final three games of the year than the oderous offense it was for the first ten games of the year.

3. Will the Real Kevin Hogan Please Stand Up?- Much of my conviction that Stanford is going to be a vastly better offense in 2015 rests upon the premise that Kevin Hogan is ready for a stellar season senior season at quarterback.  Hogan took numerous shots from fans and press for much of the 2014 season, but it's hard not to factor in the grave personal issues he faced when looking at his performance. Who among us would have been at their best under the same circumstances?  Regardless, here is what Kevin Hogan did in the final three games of the year vs. his overall season totals:


Comp.
Att.
Comp. %
TD
INT.
Yards
Yards/Att.
Hogan First 10 Games 187
293
64
15
7
2,155
7.4
Hogan Last 3 Games
45
59
76
4
1
637
10.8
Kessler Last 3 Games
77
113
68
10
2
907
8
  
 On a hunch, I looked up the numbers for the Trojans' ballyhooed Bakersfield Bandit, and isn't it interesting how similar they were to close the season?  I mention this not to disparage Kessler, who is excellent and worthy of the Heisman hype he's getting, but to give some context to just how much better Hogan was to end the season. And lest we argue that the competition was varied, consider that both players played UCLA in the Rose Bowl to close out the season.  Yes, Kessler destroyed a Notre Dame defense that stymied Hogan, but Hogan played Notre Dame on the road in a monsoon, while Kessler got them in the Coliseum sunshine after they'd sustained a number of personnel losses on defense. Clearly, Kessler did a lot more throwing, but at the end of the day Hogan was at least as efficient and effective as Kessler was to close out 2014.
   
This is not to say that Hogan has to be as great as Kessler this year for Stanford to succeed, but he does need to be great. Like, last three games of the year great. Certainly he's going to have to match or outplay Kessler on September 19 in the Coliseum, and these numbers strongly suggest it's not out of the realm of possibility that Hogan is up to the job. When you factor in the insane amount of talent he's got running routes for him from all three receiving positions, the table is certainly set for Hogan to feast on opposing defenses this season.

4. Can Coach Shaw Turn the Dead Zone Back Into the Red Zone? Stanford was painfully futile inside the opponents' 20 last year, a malady that cost the Cardinal dearly in games against USC, Utah, and Oregon.  It's also a malady for which Coach David Shaw took full responsibility to his credit. Stanford made it to the red zone 57 times last year, 5th most in the conference.  They had the lowest overall scoring percentage in the conference from there, and they were 10th in TD%.  Those are whole season totals. In conference play, the Cardinal was last overall in scoring percentage and 11th in TD%.  Their 47% TD rate was better than only Washington's putrid 36%.  Cal and USC were essentially tied for the best TD% in conference at 71%.  So where does the Cardinal go from here?
  
 First of all, like the offense as a whole, Stanford's Red Zone struggles became strengths in the final three games. The Cardinal scored on a phenomenal 16 of 18 trips in the final three games, and in even better news, scored touchdowns on 13 of those 16 scores.  That TD% of 72% is the most encouraging, and as we can see above would have been the best in the Pac-12 had it gone on for the entire season.  It seemed clear that the Cardinal figured out how to use its personnel, that personnel got better, and that Stanford turned a corner on arguably its single biggest flaw of 2014.  Add to that the influx of tight end depth and talent, and Stanford should be one of the better red zone teams this season. Tight Ends and Fullbacks are invaluable in the red zone, and Stanford should be looking to those players when they get inside the twenty.  I'll go ahead and predict that Stanford has put its red zone problems in the rear view.

5.Who's Kicking?  Stanford needs to replace departed Senior Jordan Williamson in the kicking game as well as Punter Ben Rhyne. Based on the spring game, the need for a kicker persists and neither Conrad Ukropina nor Alex Robinson particularly impressed. Incoming Freshman Jake Bailey is going to have a legit shot at both positions when he arrives for summer camp.  Stanford's special teams fell off dramatically last year.  In 2013, Football Outsiders rated the Cardinal's special teams the second best in the nation, second only to Alabama. Last year the Cardinal's special teams efforts yielded a ranking of 79th in the nation, even worse than Cal. Where were some of the biggest declines?  The return games, for one.  Stanford was the best kickoff return team in the nation in 2013, but that plummeted to 70th last season.  They were the 29th best punt returning team in 2013, but only 65th best last year.  Part of that can be attributed to Ty Montgomery's decreasing involvement (culminating in his season-ending injury) but in any event, it was a significant part of Stanford's special teams decline.
   
The area with more crucial implications this season is the significant dropoff in punt coverage.  Stanford rated 52nd in 2013, but fell all the way to 106 in 2014. This is a decline that needs to halt immediately when you factor in the inexperience of so many of the defensive players this season. We all hope that Stanford's improved offense will reduce the need for punting at all, but the Cardinal needs to clean this area of its game up if it's going to threaten in the Pac-12 North this year.  The kick coverage, interestingly, basically held steady.  They were ranked 15th in 2013 and 18th in 2014.  Jordan Williamson took some shots in his time at Stanford, but this aspect of his game remained fairly efficient throughout his final two seasons at Stanford.

    So back to our initial question.  I believe the answer is yes.  I think Stanford's offense will improve significantly this year, and that improvement will lead to a better record than the 2014 mark of 8-5.  The defense will slip, but Lance Anderson, Randy Hart, Duane Akina, and the rest of the defensive staff are too good to let the defense crater the way Stanford's offense did in 2014. The schedule is daunting, but most of the Cardinal's toughest opponents come to Stanford Stadium, where the Cardinal has been outstanding in recent years.  I reserve the right to alter this prediction after summer ball, but right now even with all the questions above, I'm saying Stanford bounces back, though not all the way to a Pac-12 Championship.  9-3 is the call here, and as always, I'll be happy to be wrong should a 10-13 win season unfold in 2015.





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The Bootleg Top Stories

\r\n\r\nFollow @RJ_Abeytia\r\n\r\n

\r\n\r\n September 5 is\r\ncoming.  Life springs anew come the fall if you're a Stanford\r\nFootball fan. That weekend starts the four-month labor of love\r\nthat is rooting for the Cardinal. Right now, Shannon Turley is\r\nputting the squad through the paces, sprints, lifts, and stretches\r\ndesigned to carry the Cardinal back to the heights of recent\r\nhistory. Compared to many other teams in the Pac-12, there is a\r\nlot more known (starting QB, offensive line, featured running\r\nback) inside the offices at Arrillaga Center. However, questions\r\nabound about Stanford's 2015 campaign and because baseball and NBA\r\nSummer League can only distract for so long, let's explore some of\r\nthem, shall we?
\r\n
\r\n1. Can an Experienced Offense Carry An Inexperienced Defense\r\nFarther Than An Experienced Defense Carried an Inexperienced\r\nOffense?-We'll get into the bipolar season that was Stanford\r\nin 2014 in a moment, but for now, this is the macro question that\r\nultimately matters the most, and is as good a leaping off point as\r\nany. Let us take the last part of that question first.
\r\n      
\r\nOverall, Stanford's defense in 2014 was the strength of the\r\nteam.  The squad went 8-5 and in only three of those 13 games\r\ndid Stanford's opponent score 20 or more points. Stanford lost two\r\nof those three games (Oregon, Utah).  The Cardinal finished\r\nas the #1 rated defense in the Pac-12.  That result was the\r\ncomposite of the conference's best pass defense and its\r\nsecond-best run defense (both metrics Conference Games only. \r\nStanford overall had the Pac-12's best run defense, by the\r\nway).  Only three of the eleven players who started the\r\nFoster Farms Freeze-Out on defense currently reside on the\r\nCardinal's roster.  Along the defensive front, Stanford loses\r\nHenry Anderson and David Parry, losses which the Cardinal will be\r\nseriously challenged to overcome.  It's telling that on\r\nStanford's official roster,\r\nthere is literally nobody listed as a defensive tackle or nose\r\nguard.  From somewhere within the group of Nate Lohn,\r\nHarrison Phillips, Aziz Shittu, Solomon Thomas, and Jordan Watkins, must not only come the core of Stanford's defensive\r\ninterior but it's defensive ends as well.  Dominating the\r\nline of scrimmage has been at the core of Stanford's success the\r\npast five seasons, and while that dominance slipped significantly\r\non the offensive side of the ball, the defense held the line as\r\nwell as any in the country.  Word through the spring was that\r\nThomas and Phillips had developed physically enough to man the\r\ntrenches for Stanford, but it's going to be a challenge for two\r\nrelatively inexperienced players to anchor the most important part\r\non the field in 2015.  Color me hopeful but dubious at this\r\npoint.
\r\n   
\r\n
\r\n\r\n

Moving\r\nto the linebacking core, Stanford returns two starters in Kevin Anderson and\r\nBlake Martinez.  Both are stand-out players who should play\r\nstarring roles\r\nthis season.  When you add in a talent like Peter Kalambayi\r\n(Code Name:\r\nThe Squid) and Luke Kaumatule, as well as experience like Joey Alfieri and\r\nKevin Palma, it's pretty clear that this position group projects\r\nas the\r\ndefense's best headed into 2015.  Stanford's last line\r\nreturns only Ronnie Harris, so the obvious pressing need is to replace its safety\r\npositions. Dallas Lloyd and Kodi Whitfield, both offensive transplants, are listed\r\nas strong\r\nsafeties and remain the two most likely candidates to\r\nstart.  Despite the\r\ndearth along the D Line, this is the part of the defense that\r\ngives me the\r\ngreatest pause.  This is NOT the conference to be shaky\r\nand/or\r\ninexperienced in the secondary, and the Cardinal will\r\nundoubtedly be the latter\r\nand in the worst case scenario the former as well. The first\r\npart of this\r\nquestion leads us into the next set of questions, but I promise\r\nan answer (of\r\nsorts) at the end of this piece.

\r\n\r\n
\r\n2.  Will the Real Stanford Offense Please Stand Up?- Every\r\n\r\n\r\nCardinal fan knows about Stanford's ascent over the final three\r\ngames of 2014, and no Stanford fan can say definitively what\r\nprecisely flipped the switch for the Cardinal to close out the\r\nseason.  Stanford averaged a whopping 38 points a game\r\nagainst Cal, UCLA, and Maryland.  Now, that's not exactly a\r\nmurderer's row of defenses (National Ranks in 2014:  123, 77,\r\nand 89, respectively) I grant, but there is no doubt that Stanford\r\nstepped up its play noticeably at the end of the year. Lee Ward\r\ntalked about the team airing out some issues as well as becoming\r\nless predictable based on formation when we chatted with him a\r\ncouple months ago.
\r\n   
\r\nCertainly another part of the equation was the gelling of an\r\noffensive line that was old but not experienced as Coach Shaw\r\nshrewdly pointed out during the season. Last season Stanford was\r\nreplacing four members of a very good offensive line.  This\r\nseason they return that many.  Though the loss of Andrus Peat\r\nis a significant one, most have faith in Kyle Murphy sliding over\r\nto Kevin Hogan's blind side, leaving only his vacated right tackle\r\nspot to be replaced. Add to that the transcendent talent of\r\nChristian McCaffrey, the return of Tight End U (Cotton, Hooper,\r\nTaboada, and Dalton Schultz), and a wide receiver core of Devon Cajuste, Michael Rector, Francis Owusu, as well as sophomore\r\nlightning Isaiah Brandt-Sims, and Stanford will almost certainly\r\nlook closer to the group that lit up the scoreboard in the\r\nfinal three games of the year than the oderous offense it was for\r\nthe first ten games of the year.
\r\n
\r\n3. Will the Real Kevin Hogan Please Stand Up?- Much of my\r\nconviction that Stanford is going to be a vastly better offense in\r\n2015 rests upon the premise that Kevin Hogan is ready for a\r\nstellar season senior season at quarterback.  Hogan took\r\nnumerous shots from fans and press for much of the 2014 season,\r\nbut it's hard not to factor in the grave personal issues he faced\r\nwhen looking at his performance. Who among us would have been at\r\ntheir best under the same circumstances?  Regardless, here is\r\nwhat Kevin Hogan did in the final three games of the year vs. his\r\noverall season totals:
\r\n
\r\n
\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n

\r\n
Comp.
\r\n
Att.
\r\n
Comp.\r\n%
\r\n
TD
\r\n
INT.
\r\n
Yards
\r\n
Yards/Att.
\r\n
Hogan\r\nFirst 10 Games187
\r\n
293
\r\n
64
\r\n
15
\r\n
7
\r\n
2,155
\r\n
7.4
\r\n
Hogan\r\nLast 3 Games
\r\n
45
\r\n
59
\r\n
76
\r\n
4
\r\n
1
\r\n
637
\r\n
10.8
\r\n
Kessler\r\nLast 3 Games
\r\n
77
\r\n
113
\r\n
68
\r\n
10
\r\n
2
\r\n
907
\r\n
8
\r\n
\r\n   
\r\n On a hunch, I looked up the numbers for the Trojans'\r\nballyhooed Bakersfield Bandit, and isn't it interesting how\r\nsimilar they were to close the season?  I mention this not to\r\ndisparage Kessler, who is excellent and worthy of the Heisman hype\r\nhe's getting, but to give some context to just how much better\r\nHogan was to end the season. And lest we argue that the\r\ncompetition was varied, consider that both players played UCLA in\r\nthe Rose Bowl to close out the season.  Yes, Kessler\r\ndestroyed a Notre Dame defense that stymied Hogan, but Hogan\r\nplayed Notre Dame on the road in a monsoon, while Kessler got them\r\nin the Coliseum sunshine after they'd sustained a number of\r\npersonnel losses on defense. Clearly, Kessler did a lot more\r\nthrowing, but at the end of the day Hogan was at least as\r\nefficient and effective as Kessler was to close out 2014.
\r\n   
\r\nThis is not to say that Hogan has to be as great as Kessler this\r\nyear for Stanford to succeed, but he does need to be great. Like,\r\nlast three games of the year great. Certainly he's going to have\r\nto match or outplay Kessler on September 19 in the Coliseum, and\r\nthese numbers strongly suggest it's not out of the realm of\r\npossibility that Hogan is up to the job. When you factor in the\r\ninsane amount of talent he's got running routes for him from all\r\nthree receiving positions, the table is certainly set for Hogan to\r\nfeast on opposing defenses this season.
\r\n
\r\n4. Can Coach Shaw Turn the Dead Zone Back Into the Red Zone?\r\nStanford was painfully futile inside the opponents' 20 last year,\r\na malady that cost the Cardinal dearly in games against USC, Utah,\r\nand Oregon.  It's also a malady for which Coach David Shaw\r\ntook full responsibility to his credit. Stanford made it to the\r\nred zone 57 times last year, 5th most in the conference. \r\nThey had the lowest overall scoring percentage in the conference\r\nfrom there, and they were 10th in TD%.  Those are whole\r\nseason totals. In conference play, the Cardinal was last overall\r\nin scoring percentage and 11th in TD%.  Their 47% TD rate was\r\nbetter than only Washington's putrid 36%.  Cal and USC were\r\nessentially tied for the best TD% in conference at 71%.  So\r\nwhere does the Cardinal go from here?
\r\n  
\r\n First of all, like the offense as a whole, Stanford's Red\r\nZone struggles became strengths in the final three games. The\r\nCardinal scored on a phenomenal 16 of 18 trips in the final three\r\ngames, and in even better news, scored touchdowns on 13 of those\r\n16 scores.  That TD% of 72% is the most encouraging, and as\r\nwe can see above would have been the best in the Pac-12 had it\r\ngone on for the entire season.  It seemed clear that the\r\nCardinal figured out how to use its personnel, that personnel got\r\nbetter, and that Stanford turned a corner on arguably its single\r\nbiggest flaw of 2014.  Add to that the influx of tight end\r\ndepth and talent, and Stanford should be one of the better red\r\nzone teams this season. Tight Ends and Fullbacks are invaluable in\r\nthe red zone, and Stanford should be looking to those players when\r\nthey get inside the twenty.  I'll go ahead and predict that\r\nStanford has put its red zone problems in the rear view.
\r\n
\r\n5.Who's Kicking?  Stanford needs to replace departed\r\nSenior Jordan Williamson in the kicking game as well as Punter Ben Rhyne. Based on the spring game, the need for a kicker persists\r\nand neither Conrad Ukropina nor Alex Robinson particularly\r\nimpressed. Incoming Freshman Jake Bailey is going to have a legit\r\nshot at both positions when he arrives for summer camp. \r\nStanford's special teams fell off dramatically last year.  In\r\n2013, Football Outsiders rated the Cardinal's special teams the\r\nsecond best in the nation,\r\nsecond only to Alabama. Last year the Cardinal's special teams\r\nefforts yielded a ranking of 79th in the nation, even worse than\r\nCal. Where were some of the biggest declines?  The return\r\ngames, for one.  Stanford was the best kickoff return team in\r\nthe nation in 2013, but that plummeted to 70th last season. \r\nThey were the 29th best punt returning team in 2013, but only 65th\r\nbest last year.  Part of that can be attributed to Ty\r\nMontgomery's decreasing involvement (culminating in his\r\nseason-ending injury) but in any event, it was a significant part\r\nof Stanford's special teams decline.
\r\n   
\r\nThe area with more crucial implications this season is the\r\nsignificant dropoff in punt coverage.  Stanford rated 52nd in\r\n2013, but fell all the way to 106 in 2014. This is a decline that\r\nneeds to halt immediately when you factor in the inexperience of\r\nso many of the defensive players this season. We all hope that\r\nStanford's improved offense will reduce the need for punting at\r\nall, but the Cardinal needs to clean this area of its game up if\r\nit's going to threaten in the Pac-12 North this year.  The\r\nkick coverage, interestingly, basically held steady.  They\r\nwere ranked 15th in 2013 and 18th in 2014.  Jordan Williamson\r\ntook some shots in his time at Stanford, but this aspect of his\r\ngame remained fairly efficient throughout his final two seasons at\r\nStanford.
\r\n
\r\n    So back to our initial question.  I\r\nbelieve the answer is yes.  I think Stanford's offense will\r\nimprove significantly this year, and that improvement will lead to\r\na better record than the 2014 mark of 8-5.  The defense will\r\nslip, but Lance Anderson, Randy Hart, Duane Akina, and the rest of\r\nthe defensive staff are too good to let the defense crater the way\r\nStanford's offense did in 2014. The schedule is daunting, but most\r\nof the Cardinal's toughest opponents come to Stanford Stadium,\r\nwhere the Cardinal has been outstanding in recent years.  I\r\nreserve the right to alter this prediction after summer ball, but\r\nright now even with all the questions above, I'm saying Stanford\r\nbounces back, though not all the way to a Pac-12\r\nChampionship.  9-3 is the call here, and as always, I'll be\r\nhappy to be wrong should a 10-13 win season unfold in 2015.
\r\n
Follow @stanfordrecruit\r\n\r\n

\r\n\r\n\r\nTweet\r\n\r\n
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Are you fully subscribed to The\r\nBootleg? If not, then you are missing out on\r\nall the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our\r\naward-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest and best in\r\nStanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com\r\n(sign-up)!

","mobileBody":"
Follow @RJ_Abeytia

September 5 is\r\ncoming.  Life springs anew come the fall if you're a Stanford\r\nFootball fan. That weekend starts the four-month labor of love\r\nthat is rooting for the Cardinal. Right now, Shannon Turley is\r\nputting the squad through the paces, sprints, lifts, and stretches\r\ndesigned to carry the Cardinal back to the heights of recent\r\nhistory. Compared to many other teams in the Pac-12, there is a\r\nlot more known (starting QB, offensive line, featured running\r\nback) inside the offices at Arrillaga Center. However, questions\r\nabound about Stanford's 2015 campaign and because baseball and NBA\r\nSummer League can only distract for so long, let's explore some of\r\nthem, shall we?
\r\n
\r\n1. Can an Experienced Offense Carry An Inexperienced Defense\r\nFarther Than An Experienced Defense Carried an Inexperienced\r\nOffense?-We'll get into the bipolar season that was Stanford\r\nin 2014 in a moment, but for now, this is the macro question that\r\nultimately matters the most, and is as good a leaping off point as\r\nany. Let us take the last part of that question first.
\r\n      
\r\nOverall, Stanford's defense in 2014 was the strength of the\r\nteam.  The squad went 8-5 and in only three of those 13 games\r\ndid Stanford's opponent score 20 or more points. Stanford lost two\r\nof those three games (Oregon, Utah).  The Cardinal finished\r\nas the #1 rated defense in the Pac-12.  That result was the\r\ncomposite of the conference's best pass defense and its\r\nsecond-best run defense (both metrics Conference Games only. \r\nStanford overall had the Pac-12's best run defense, by the\r\nway).  Only three of the eleven players who started the\r\nFoster Farms Freeze-Out on defense currently reside on the\r\nCardinal's roster.  Along the defensive front, Stanford loses\r\nHenry Anderson and David Parry, losses which the Cardinal will be\r\nseriously challenged to overcome.  It's telling that on\r\nStanford's official roster,\r\nthere is literally nobody listed as a defensive tackle or nose\r\nguard.  From somewhere within the group of Nate Lohn,\r\nHarrison Phillips, Aziz Shittu, Solomon Thomas, and Jordan Watkins, must not only come the core of Stanford's defensive\r\ninterior but it's defensive ends as well.  Dominating the\r\nline of scrimmage has been at the core of Stanford's success the\r\npast five seasons, and while that dominance slipped significantly\r\non the offensive side of the ball, the defense held the line as\r\nwell as any in the country.  Word through the spring was that\r\nThomas and Phillips had developed physically enough to man the\r\ntrenches for Stanford, but it's going to be a challenge for two\r\nrelatively inexperienced players to anchor the most important part\r\non the field in 2015.  Color me hopeful but dubious at this\r\npoint.
\r\n   
\r\n

Moving\r\nto the linebacking core, Stanford returns two starters in Kevin Anderson and\r\nBlake Martinez.  Both are stand-out players who should play\r\nstarring roles\r\nthis season.  When you add in a talent like Peter Kalambayi\r\n(Code Name:\r\nThe Squid) and Luke Kaumatule, as well as experience like Joey Alfieri and\r\nKevin Palma, it's pretty clear that this position group projects\r\nas the\r\ndefense's best headed into 2015.  Stanford's last line\r\nreturns only Ronnie Harris, so the obvious pressing need is to replace its safety\r\npositions. Dallas Lloyd and Kodi Whitfield, both offensive transplants, are listed\r\nas strong\r\nsafeties and remain the two most likely candidates to\r\nstart.  Despite the\r\ndearth along the D Line, this is the part of the defense that\r\ngives me the\r\ngreatest pause.  This is NOT the conference to be shaky\r\nand/or\r\ninexperienced in the secondary, and the Cardinal will\r\nundoubtedly be the latter\r\nand in the worst case scenario the former as well. The first\r\npart of this\r\nquestion leads us into the next set of questions, but I promise\r\nan answer (of\r\nsorts) at the end of this piece.

\r\n
\r\n2.  Will the Real Stanford Offense Please Stand Up?- Every\r\n\r\n\r\nCardinal fan knows about Stanford's ascent over the final three\r\ngames of 2014, and no Stanford fan can say definitively what\r\nprecisely flipped the switch for the Cardinal to close out the\r\nseason.  Stanford averaged a whopping 38 points a game\r\nagainst Cal, UCLA, and Maryland.  Now, that's not exactly a\r\nmurderer's row of defenses (National Ranks in 2014:  123, 77,\r\nand 89, respectively) I grant, but there is no doubt that Stanford\r\nstepped up its play noticeably at the end of the year. Lee Ward\r\ntalked about the team airing out some issues as well as becoming\r\nless predictable based on formation when we chatted with him a\r\ncouple months ago.
\r\n   
\r\nCertainly another part of the equation was the gelling of an\r\noffensive line that was old but not experienced as Coach Shaw\r\nshrewdly pointed out during the season. Last season Stanford was\r\nreplacing four members of a very good offensive line.  This\r\nseason they return that many.  Though the loss of Andrus Peat\r\nis a significant one, most have faith in Kyle Murphy sliding over\r\nto Kevin Hogan's blind side, leaving only his vacated right tackle\r\nspot to be replaced. Add to that the transcendent talent of\r\nChristian McCaffrey, the return of Tight End U (Cotton, Hooper,\r\nTaboada, and Dalton Schultz), and a wide receiver core of Devon Cajuste, Michael Rector, Francis Owusu, as well as sophomore\r\nlightning Isaiah Brandt-Sims, and Stanford will almost certainly\r\nlook closer to the group that lit up the scoreboard in the\r\nfinal three games of the year than the oderous offense it was for\r\nthe first ten games of the year.
\r\n
\r\n3. Will the Real Kevin Hogan Please Stand Up?- Much of my\r\nconviction that Stanford is going to be a vastly better offense in\r\n2015 rests upon the premise that Kevin Hogan is ready for a\r\nstellar season senior season at quarterback.  Hogan took\r\nnumerous shots from fans and press for much of the 2014 season,\r\nbut it's hard not to factor in the grave personal issues he faced\r\nwhen looking at his performance. Who among us would have been at\r\ntheir best under the same circumstances?  Regardless, here is\r\nwhat Kevin Hogan did in the final three games of the year vs. his\r\noverall season totals:
\r\n
\r\n
\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n

\r\n
Comp.
\r\n
Att.
\r\n
Comp.\r\n%
\r\n
TD
\r\n
INT.
\r\n
Yards
\r\n
Yards/Att.
\r\n
Hogan\r\nFirst 10 Games187
\r\n
293
\r\n
64
\r\n
15
\r\n
7
\r\n
2,155
\r\n
7.4
\r\n
Hogan\r\nLast 3 Games
\r\n
45
\r\n
59
\r\n
76
\r\n
4
\r\n
1
\r\n
637
\r\n
10.8
\r\n
Kessler\r\nLast 3 Games
\r\n
77
\r\n
113
\r\n
68
\r\n
10
\r\n
2
\r\n
907
\r\n
8
\r\n
  
\r\n On a hunch, I looked up the numbers for the Trojans'\r\nballyhooed Bakersfield Bandit, and isn't it interesting how\r\nsimilar they were to close the season?  I mention this not to\r\ndisparage Kessler, who is excellent and worthy of the Heisman hype\r\nhe's getting, but to give some context to just how much better\r\nHogan was to end the season. And lest we argue that the\r\ncompetition was varied, consider that both players played UCLA in\r\nthe Rose Bowl to close out the season.  Yes, Kessler\r\ndestroyed a Notre Dame defense that stymied Hogan, but Hogan\r\nplayed Notre Dame on the road in a monsoon, while Kessler got them\r\nin the Coliseum sunshine after they'd sustained a number of\r\npersonnel losses on defense. Clearly, Kessler did a lot more\r\nthrowing, but at the end of the day Hogan was at least as\r\nefficient and effective as Kessler was to close out 2014.
\r\n   
\r\nThis is not to say that Hogan has to be as great as Kessler this\r\nyear for Stanford to succeed, but he does need to be great. Like,\r\nlast three games of the year great. Certainly he's going to have\r\nto match or outplay Kessler on September 19 in the Coliseum, and\r\nthese numbers strongly suggest it's not out of the realm of\r\npossibility that Hogan is up to the job. When you factor in the\r\ninsane amount of talent he's got running routes for him from all\r\nthree receiving positions, the table is certainly set for Hogan to\r\nfeast on opposing defenses this season.
\r\n
\r\n4. Can Coach Shaw Turn the Dead Zone Back Into the Red Zone?\r\nStanford was painfully futile inside the opponents' 20 last year,\r\na malady that cost the Cardinal dearly in games against USC, Utah,\r\nand Oregon.  It's also a malady for which Coach David Shaw\r\ntook full responsibility to his credit. Stanford made it to the\r\nred zone 57 times last year, 5th most in the conference. \r\nThey had the lowest overall scoring percentage in the conference\r\nfrom there, and they were 10th in TD%.  Those are whole\r\nseason totals. In conference play, the Cardinal was last overall\r\nin scoring percentage and 11th in TD%.  Their 47% TD rate was\r\nbetter than only Washington's putrid 36%.  Cal and USC were\r\nessentially tied for the best TD% in conference at 71%.  So\r\nwhere does the Cardinal go from here?
\r\n  
\r\n First of all, like the offense as a whole, Stanford's Red\r\nZone struggles became strengths in the final three games. The\r\nCardinal scored on a phenomenal 16 of 18 trips in the final three\r\ngames, and in even better news, scored touchdowns on 13 of those\r\n16 scores.  That TD% of 72% is the most encouraging, and as\r\nwe can see above would have been the best in the Pac-12 had it\r\ngone on for the entire season.  It seemed clear that the\r\nCardinal figured out how to use its personnel, that personnel got\r\nbetter, and that Stanford turned a corner on arguably its single\r\nbiggest flaw of 2014.  Add to that the influx of tight end\r\ndepth and talent, and Stanford should be one of the better red\r\nzone teams this season. Tight Ends and Fullbacks are invaluable in\r\nthe red zone, and Stanford should be looking to those players when\r\nthey get inside the twenty.  I'll go ahead and predict that\r\nStanford has put its red zone problems in the rear view.
\r\n
\r\n5.Who's Kicking?  Stanford needs to replace departed\r\nSenior Jordan Williamson in the kicking game as well as Punter Ben Rhyne. Based on the spring game, the need for a kicker persists\r\nand neither Conrad Ukropina nor Alex Robinson particularly\r\nimpressed. Incoming Freshman Jake Bailey is going to have a legit\r\nshot at both positions when he arrives for summer camp. \r\nStanford's special teams fell off dramatically last year.  In\r\n2013, Football Outsiders rated the Cardinal's special teams the\r\nsecond best in the nation,\r\nsecond only to Alabama. Last year the Cardinal's special teams\r\nefforts yielded a ranking of 79th in the nation, even worse than\r\nCal. Where were some of the biggest declines?  The return\r\ngames, for one.  Stanford was the best kickoff return team in\r\nthe nation in 2013, but that plummeted to 70th last season. \r\nThey were the 29th best punt returning team in 2013, but only 65th\r\nbest last year.  Part of that can be attributed to Ty\r\nMontgomery's decreasing involvement (culminating in his\r\nseason-ending injury) but in any event, it was a significant part\r\nof Stanford's special teams decline.
\r\n   
\r\nThe area with more crucial implications this season is the\r\nsignificant dropoff in punt coverage.  Stanford rated 52nd in\r\n2013, but fell all the way to 106 in 2014. This is a decline that\r\nneeds to halt immediately when you factor in the inexperience of\r\nso many of the defensive players this season. We all hope that\r\nStanford's improved offense will reduce the need for punting at\r\nall, but the Cardinal needs to clean this area of its game up if\r\nit's going to threaten in the Pac-12 North this year.  The\r\nkick coverage, interestingly, basically held steady.  They\r\nwere ranked 15th in 2013 and 18th in 2014.  Jordan Williamson\r\ntook some shots in his time at Stanford, but this aspect of his\r\ngame remained fairly efficient throughout his final two seasons at\r\nStanford.
\r\n
\r\n    So back to our initial question.  I\r\nbelieve the answer is yes.  I think Stanford's offense will\r\nimprove significantly this year, and that improvement will lead to\r\na better record than the 2014 mark of 8-5.  The defense will\r\nslip, but Lance Anderson, Randy Hart, Duane Akina, and the rest of\r\nthe defensive staff are too good to let the defense crater the way\r\nStanford's offense did in 2014. The schedule is daunting, but most\r\nof the Cardinal's toughest opponents come to Stanford Stadium,\r\nwhere the Cardinal has been outstanding in recent years.  I\r\nreserve the right to alter this prediction after summer ball, but\r\nright now even with all the questions above, I'm saying Stanford\r\nbounces back, though not all the way to a Pac-12\r\nChampionship.  9-3 is the call here, and as always, I'll be\r\nhappy to be wrong should a 10-13 win season unfold in 2015.
\r\n
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