Stanford’s offense put together a masterpiece of a 2015 season, and there is no question that despite the well-deserved credit Kevin Hogan and Christian McCaffery earned, the success of the offense was strongly connected to the great work of the program’s signature position group, the offensive line.
In 2014, Stanford averaged 24 points per game vs. the Pac-12. That was the second lowest average in the league. A year later, the Cardinal skyrocketed up to 40.9 PPG, tied for first in the league with Oregon. The Cardinal’s rushing average went from 4.35 to 5.5, and its yards per passing attempt went up from 8 to 9.3 yards per attempt. Those averages in 2014 were actually good for third-best in the league, but as most Cardinal fans recall they weren’t parlayed into points.
The Red Zone was the Dead Zone in 2014 for Stanford. That year, Stanford’s RZ TD% was a frustrating 47%, 11th in the league in conference play. In 2015, that number improved to 70%, 2nd best in the Pac-12. Last season was all about sealing the deal for Stanford, and those numbers prove it.
So why the obsession with 2014? That season Stanford integrated four new starters into the offensive line. Last season Stanford had one new starter (Kyle Murphy). This season the Cardinal returns two starters, Johnny Caspers and Casey Tucker, and will look to integrate three positions on the line this year with more success than in 2014.
Offensive Coordinator and O-Line Coach Mike Bloomgren very candidly admitted during spring practice that he overloaded that 2014 group and that he would definitely factor in that experience when coaching up his three new starters (projected but not guaranteed to be David Bright, Brandon Fanaika, and Jesse Burkett).
Clearly the 2016 group has big cleats to fill, and with Christian McCaffery returning but Kevin Hogan gone, teams are certainly going to to do everything they can to force Stanford’s first year-starter to beat them, much like Notre Dame forced Hogan to beat them in the final regular season game of 2015.
And that brings us to Stanford’s pass blocking. The Cardinal actually rated right in the middle of the Pac-12 last season, tied with USC for sixth based on Pro Football Focus’ pass blocking efficiency rating, which they define as “pressure allowed on a per-snap basis with a weight toward sacks allowed.” This is a crucial area for Stanford to improve upon in 2016.
The Cardinal allowed sacks on 2.8% of passing snaps, fourth lowest in the conference. Cardinal quarterbacks were hit on 4.1% of their drops, third highest in the Pac-12. Now, of course, getting is in part on the QB holding the ball too long at times, but Hogan to the eye test was a pretty good decision maker. That 4.1% was third highest in the conference. Finally, Stanford QB’s were hurried on 17% of passing snaps. That was tied for fifth-lowest in the league.
The need for improvement in pass protection is clearly about the need to support its first-year starting quarterback, be it Chryst or Burns. The Cardinal is not gonna change its identity, but as we saw in 2014, it will need to maintain diversity and threat of the pass if McCaffrey is going to see daylight against defenses who will assuredly be aligned to stop him first and foremost.
We don’t have individual tackle grades, but clearly the onus for improving the pass pro game will be on the presumed starting tackles, Tucker and “Salty” David Bright. Shaw hasn’t committed to a specific side for these two, but it seems pretty clear these guys are going to start. Reports from the Turley Cave are that Tucker has really gotten himself in great shape, which can only help his mobility.
Bloomgren also sounded very optimistic about both Jesse Burkett and Brian Chaffin being an upgrade at the center position, so don’t think it’s only about the tackles. Pressure up the middle is often far more disruptive to trouble coming from the corners. And of course, pass pro is a major emphasis for running backs under Coach Shaw as well.
With all that said, this certainly stands as the “1” or “1A” position group going into 2016. Clearly they need to get the QB call right, but that notwithstanding, so much of Stanford’s ceiling this season is about to how ready and how quickly this unit comes together, and the numbers show that means maintaining its great run blocking and adding some improved pass protection.