Spring has sprung, and the 2016 season is already very much a reality for Stanford Football. With memories of the Rose Bowl victory over Iowa now faded into the rearview, Stanford finds itself resuming spring practice with its second and final session culminating in the Cardinal-White game held at Cagan Stadium on April 9. What follows are the burning questions Stanford will need to answer if it is to successfully defend its Pac-12 Championship.
1. How quickly can the rebuilt offensive line gel and be effective? There should be no surprise that Stanford’s signature position group in the Harb-Shaw Era is the top priority heading into spring ball. Offensive Coordinator and Offensive Line Coach Mike Bloomgren stated at the close of the first spring session that he was anxious to identify the seven guys on whom he can rely to get him through the season. It’s interesting to note how he said seven, and not five, the normal amount of offensive linemen on a given play. Given Stanford’s use of Ogres and extras, it’s not totally surprising that Coach Bloomgren would set the number above five. What matters most is that the core five players are identified in time to develop some chemistry as a unit while absorbing Stanford’s robust playbook. Coach Bloomgren confessed that a part of the prolonged struggles of his rebuilt line back in 2014 was the overloading of that group. He doesn’t intend to make that mistake twice, and it is paramount that Stanford’s line is ready to roll from the start of 2016. The first six games are brutal, and they feature a number of tough road trips (including Seattle and South Bend), and given that Stanford will be playing with a first-year starter at QB, the line needs to be play well for the Cardinal to survive the six-game gauntlet. Versatility has been a buzzword around this group, as a number of players (David Bright, Johnny Caspers, Jesse Burkett), have emphasized that they are comfortable at various positions. Best bet is that the line ends up left to right with Casey Tucker, Brandon Fanaika, Burkett, Caspers, and Bright, with Brian Chaffin contending at center and Ogre and the wild card possibility of Devery Hamilton finding some time as a true Freshman. Stanford very rarely sees linemen set foot on campus ready to contribute, but Coach Bloomgren coyly alluded that indeed could be the case this fall. Regardless, this is the number one question about this team, as it ultimately forms the core of the identity that has carried Stanford to three Pac-12 titles in four years.
2. (1A) Burns or Chryst? Many have tabbed Chryst as the presumptive favorite, but this competition seems even as of right now. Both guys are big, both throw a nice ball, and both are receiving quality time with the first team offensive players (minus some running back being held out of contact whose name I forget). Coach Shaw is on record as saying he’s willing to let the competition go as far as ten days before the opening game on September 2. Like with the O-Line retool in ’14, it will be interesting to see how this competition goes. The last time Stanford found itself in need of a starting quarterback, the “right” choice finished third in the competition before winning the job outright during the season. Will the silver medalist here get the “package” treatment Kevin Hogan got? It doesn’t seem like there’s enough of a style difference between the two to justify running both of them out there during games, but we shall see. This is the toughest choice in sports to make, because you really don’t know what you have until a guy goes out there and faces live competition and a hostile environment. Chryst has the pedigree, but as in Stanford’s early challenges in 2015, whoever wins the job is very likely going to be pushed and challenged by opposing defenses to do the heavy lifting, since the QB will be the unproven commodity in 2016. Teams challenged Hogan last season, and he responded. Don’t expect opposing teams to deviate from that game plan this season.
3. Will more be the merrier? Stanford walked a thin, thin line on the defensive line last year, essentially relying on three players (Aziz Shittu, Solomon Thomas, and Brennan Scarlett) to hold it down in the trenches for Stanford. This season, Thomas returns, and Stanford looks to have more depth along the defensive line with the return of “Horrible Harry” Philips and Jordan Watkins. The real intrigue this spring, though, comes from two players who were not available to departed Coach Randy Hart. Luke Kaumatule seems to have finally found a positional home after playing everywhere but placekicker it seems in his time at Stanford. He has gotten reps against Stanford’s best linemen and has more than held his own thus far. A phenomenal athlete, Coach Shaw singled out Kaumatule during the first session of spring ball. The other name to consider is Eric Cotton, who comes over like Kaumatule from time spent on offense at tight end. Cotton, manning the end spot on defense, has shown a good motor and the ability to get into the backfield. If Stanford can establish a five or six-man rotation this year, it should significantly help new Defensive Line Coach Diron Robinson’s return to The Farm.
4. Who replaces the tackling machine? Whether by design or by effort or both, Blake Martinez had a monster season for Stanford. Martinez made 75 solo tackles and nobody else on the team had more than 34 (Dallas Lloyd). Based on playing time last season, expect Kevin Palma and Jordan Perez to get the first cracks at replacing Martinez in the middle. There’s no replacing Martinez’ numbers by one guy, but if Stanford can do it by committee, the Cardinal defense has a chance at improving significantly in 2016.
5. How do you improve on the greatest single-season performance ever? There is no question that Christian McCaffrey will spend every single drive as the focal point of opposing defenses, and rightly so. The only teams to really shut him down after the Northwestern game were Washington State and Notre Dame. Both those teams, in doing so, left themselves vulnerable to other methods of attack. In the case of the Cougars, it was Kevin Hogan running. In the case of the Irish, it was Kevin Hogan passing. The one thing that never got stopped was McCaffrey the receiver, where he was as lethal a weapon in all of college football. This excellent article explains how Stanford brilliantly used McCaffrey. Amongst Stanford’s most targeted receivers, McCaffrey’s 83% catch rate was far and away the most productive, and his 11.3 yards per target were also the best on the team among players who caught 26 or more passes. So how does he improve on a season where he was so good? One area I think he might expand is on punt returns. He fair caught 21 of 35 punt return opportunities and never ran back a punt for a touchdown (until the Rose Bowl). I theorized all year that McCaffrey often viewed the punt return as a gamble not worth it because he knew just how good Stanford was on offense. This year, if the Cardinal struggles in a game, I can’t help but wonder if he’ll be more willing to take a risk on punt returns. Other than that, there’s not much he can do to be better. As noted earlier, he’s being held out of contact this spring. There’s no question he’s going to carry a big load come the fall. The real issue will be how will Shaw-Vita-Gren counter all the attention he’s going to draw from opposing defenses?