On paper, the 2016 Cardinal & White Spring Game ended in a 42-31 victory for the offense. That said, given how meaningless the scoring system is and how little David Shaw and company are willing to show us before the season starts, the Spring Game only gave us a few glimpses at some of the answers to our burning questions. Here’s an update based on what we saw at Cagan Stadium today:
1. How quickly can the rebuilt offensive line gel and be effective?
At the start of the spring session, offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren said that he wanted to pick out his seven guys that would get him through the season, and for now, there seem to be five guys with a leg up: Casey Tucker (LT), Brandon Fanaika (LG), Jesse Burkett (C), Johnny Caspers (RG) and David Bright (RT). They were the offensive line that protected the first-team offense for the Spring Game, and though we saw a few wrinkles (Tucker and Bright switching sides), those five seem like solid bets as the starters, though Bright insisted after the game that every spot is still very much up for grabs. Shaw did say afterwards that he’s comfortable with the uncertainty because he knows Bright has the talent and experience to start at both tackle and guard (on both sides of the line), meaning that he has the luxury of evaluating his tackles and guards a bit longer because he can plug Bright into any hole that might pop up in the end.
Blocking-wise, the interior left a lot to be desired – Solomon Thomas was a man hell-bent on getting to the quarterback, and Fanaika and Burkett especially paid the price in pass protection. When Thomas wasn’t out there, the O-line actually did a pretty good job in pass protection, especially on the outside. Stanford didn’t send too much edge pressure during the game so it’s hard to tell how well the tackles will hold up against some of the better pressure in the Pac-12.
“As a whole, I think today we did some solid stuff,” Bright said. “We still have a lot to work on, I’d say, pass-protection-wise. Just cleaning up small things is the big thing for us right now. Being more consistent.”
Although the pulling was a little messy and the timing and footwork could use more coordination, the run blocking was pretty good as well – though with speed demon Bryce Love running behind you, it’s hard for a line not to look good. Love finished the day with 48 yards on 11 carries and two touchdowns, and while Cam Scarlett only got 14 yards on his 12 carries, the line got fantastic push on short-yardage situations (with Scarlett as the back of choice, channeling Remound Wright’s #22 that he now wears on his back).
In all, the line definitely needs to iron out its kinks and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Brian Chaffin give Jesse Burkett a great competition for the starting center job, but it looks full of potential at this point.
2. Burns or Chryst?
Look at these lines:
Burns: 17-of-23, 153 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 15 rush yds
Chryst: 16-of-25, 156 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 17 rush yds
Stats-wise and eye test-wise, they both looked neck-and-neck. Shaw has said numerous times before that he doesn’t expect to name a starter until a week before the Kansas State game, and after seeing the performances out there today, I’m inclined to believe him. Both of the quarterbacks had one shaky half and one great half, and both made very similar throws – in particular, great touch on the deep corner routes down the sidelines. Chryst looked slightly better throwing on the run and more decisive in tucking the ball and running, while Burns seemed to be more comfortable stepping into pressure and throwing the ball into tight windows. Burns was a little wild at the end and a fair number of Chryst’s throws felt late. But honestly, given how meaningless and choreographed the Spring Game is anyway, we don’t really have the big-picture view of the competition that the coaches have, and though it’s a cop-out, I’m going to give us a hearty dose of “no clue” for now. It really wouldn’t surprise me to see things go either way, and we’ll have to wait until training camp to see for sure whose playbook familiarity and leadership the coaches will choose. Burns is absolutely playing with confidence, though.
“Since spring ball has started, things are just clicking more,” Burns said. “The guys have gotten behind me a little bit, and it helps your confidence and your overall play tremendously. I think that’s my biggest thing right now and I’ve got to keep progressing from here.”
One of the biggest holes in Burns’ game that he mentioned afterwards was that he’s always had a history of issues with working under center (a staple of Stanford’s offense), so he and the new centers are working on better center-quarterback exchanges (in the shotgun as well) heading into camp.
3. Will more be the merrier?
Yes. Solomon Thomas said after the game that a big part of new DL coach Diron Reynolds’ philosophy has been to get ‘all guys on the field’ and to spread the load around as opposed to last year’s essential one-deep on the defensive line, and with Luke Kaumatule’s redshirt burned and Harrison Phillips way ahead of schedule in his rehab, there should be plenty of talent to go around this fall.
“Harry’s been doing great,” Thomas said. “How fast he’s rehabbing -- it’s not normal. Harry’s not a normal dude. When he comes back, people will hear about Harrison Phillips.
Jordan Watkins had a big game and was consistently in the backfield, and Luke Kaumatule teamed up with Thomas on some of the nickel packages up front as a formidable 1-2 punch. Thomas mentioned that Kaumatule had to lose some weight this spring because Reynolds sees him in a different role than what Hart had him doing last season, and he’s had to pick up his new role on the line while having to mold his physique to the demands of his new job.
“Now he’s back to where he should be playing,” Thomas said. “He’s progressed a lot throughout the spring because he’s had to change a lot. He’s been changing his body type throughout the spring. I’m proud of Luke and our whole D-line. I’m very happy with him.”
Eric Cotton, Dylan Jackson and Wesley Annan looked good but not great. They all seem ready to fill in give the starters a breather when the need arises. Given that Stanford figures to play mostly nickel anyway, their progression is all that should stop them from seeing time in the fall.
4. Who replaces the tackling machine?
Blake Martinez is gone, but there are a crop of young new inside linebackers that, according to Shaw, all have their moments but all have various things to work on in order to become a more significant part of the rotation.
One guy that stood out during Spring Game was rising sophomore Sean Barton, who redshirted last season after returning from his mission and finished second among tacklers with 7 at the Spring Game (behind just Frank Buncom’s 8).
“I’m excited to see Sean,” Shaw said. “We have high aspirations for Sean. He’s back from his mission and he redshirted last year and he’s gotten back in the weight room and he’s started to get bigger again, and he’s started to play like we know he can play. He’s an explosive, physical football player.”
Like Shaw said, Barton doesn’t seem quite up to starting size yet, but with Kevin Palma having his “most consistent” spring camp and Jordan Perez, Bobby Okereke, Noor Davis and Mustafa Branch all ready to play as well, there figures to be a very healthy rotation up the middle. Davis especially has improved his pass coverage according to Shaw (he was in a deep-ish zone when he picked off Keller Chryst in the first half) and looks to finally realize his sky-high potential and stay healthy this season.
5. How do you improve on the greatest single-season performance ever?
The short answer here is: You don’t. Seeing how good Bryce Love looked today (and through all of spring camp), he looks like a guy that’s going to be chomping at the bit for borderline starting duties – you can’t keep the ball out of his hands, that’s for sure. He’s going to be taking touches away from McCaffrey for sure next season – and while that’s not great for McCaffrey’s Heisman hopes, it’s going to make Stanford’s offense much more dynamic with the possibilities that McCaffrey-Love formations open up all over the field.
“[Love is] a special, special football player,” Shaw said. “I’m excited for when we have both him and Christian on the football field at the same time. One guy can play receiver, the other guy’s playing running back; both can be in the backfield at the same time; both guys can be flexed out with Cameron Scarlett in the backfield.”
The problem for McCaffrey’s Heisman hopes is also the good news for Stanford’s offense on the whole: With the talented Love rightfully earning touches, it’s going to be hard for him as an individual to match last year’s success. But if that’s the cost of Love’s dynamic playmaking ability factoring into the offense, I’m sure Shaw, the coaching staff and McCaffrey will take that in a heartbeat.
Seeing Love turn the corner on screens and on pitches out wide at the goal line (something we’ll see a lot more of next season, by the way) was a thing of beauty – he rushed for two touchdowns in Spring Game. His acceleration is absolutely unreal and though his “wow” factor will go down as his sample size increases, he’ll be really, really good when Stanford gets him the ball.
6. Safety First
None of the numerous safeties that rotated in looked exceedingly great, but none looked bad either. Justin Reid, Ben Edwards, Brandon Simmons, Zach Hoffpauir, Dallas Lloyd and Denzel Franklin all got their looks in various combinations and packages, and at this point, there’s no way to tell who has a leg up in the competition. That being said, having too many good safeties is never a bad thing, and having a wealth of riches is something Duane Akina and David Shaw certainly won’t complain about. Lloyd made a really nice hit that he was called for targeting on (but appeared clean) and in general, everyone looked good in pass protection. Look for leadership and tackling ability (Zach Hoffpauir, this is you) to factor into the race later on.