Considering their very name, special teams don’t get treated as such by either fans or the media when it comes to preseason concerns. Coaches at every level love to “emphasize” special teams, but there is always a clear dividing line: Coaches willing to put their starters on special teams, and coaches who are unwilling to use their best players on special teams. Christian McCaffrey played on coverage teams as a Freshman, for example. We won’t know until the Cardinal takes the field how willing Coach Shaw is this season, but if history is an indicator, Special Teams Coach Pete Alamar will have access to at least some of the Cardinal’s best players.
The prospects for this unit as a whole improved significantly when Conrad Ukropina decided to return as a fifth-year Senior. Ukropina drilled huge kicks in wins over Notre Dame and USC, and overall had an outstanding season. Ukropina hit on all 67 of his PAT’s and 18-20 FG’s in 2015. Football Outsiders S&P+ had Stanford’s kicking game rated as the third-best in the nation.
Overall, the Cardinal had the fifth-highest rated special teams in the country in 2015, a result not surprisingly overshadowed by their similarly elite offense. When you look at the individual special teams groups, the Cardinal’s S&P+ rating of 1.4 was the sum of two elite units, one better than average, one below average, and one way below average.
In addition to the field goal kicking, Stanford’s kick return unit also elite, which should come as no surprise, with THAT guy doing most of the returns. Football Outsiders evaluates return and coverage teams based on the assigned value of yard lines gained in terms of the likelihood of points being scored from the yard where the ball is caught and the yard line the returner gains.
Now that you have digested that, know that Stanford’s 67.3% success rate on kick returns graded out as sixth-best in the nation. McCaffrey averaged 29 yards per return and took one of his 37 fielded kickoffs to the house. That average was 8th-best in the country, and his 1,070 kick return yards was third-highest. Expect this to be another pillar of the Cardinal’s special teams success in 2016.
Stanford’s coverage teams were the middle-rated groups last season. Kick Coverage rated 67th best with a 69.8% success rate. Punt coverage was better, ranking 46th with a 58% success rate. These are the groups where it really matters how many starters you use. Players like Craig Jones and John Flacco have earned scholarships largely based on their performance on special teams. That being said, there is room for improvement here, though we'll see how committed Stanford is to gaining ground with these two groups.
It’s probably a bit surprising that by far Stanford’s weakest special team in 2015 was punt returning, considering the guy who did the kick returning did the punt returning. The issue wasn’t necessarily that McCaffrey was a poor punt returner, but rather that he was a reluctant one. He fair caught 23 punts and returned only 15, for an 8.7 yards per return average. There are two good explanations for this.
First of all, Stanford’s offense was so good in 2015, there was no need to roll the dice on a punt return very offense. The Cardinal was rarely in “need” of a big punt return the way struggling offenses often are. One of the most compelling storylines on special teams this year is going to be how often will McCaffrey chance a return if the offense struggles?
That brings us to the second reason for McCaffrey’s conservatism on punt returns: It saved his body. For a guy who touched the ball as often as he did (459 times), McCaffrey had to conserve himself somewhere, and wisely he chose to do it more often than not on punt return. Again, if he returns more punts in 2016, Stanford will undoubtedly improve in this category, but at what price?
Alex Robinson handled the bulk of the punting duties for Stanford. 63% of his punts were fair caught and/or downed inside the 20. Jake Bailey saw some time last year as well, and he is currently listed as an “OR” along with Robinson on Stanford’s first depth chart. You know what they say. “When you have two punters, you…...are probably fixating on the wrong details.”
Stanford’s place among the nationally elite offenses and the rise of its defense in 2016 are crucial to its success but they are by no means guarantees. Slippage in either area is gonna leave it to special teams to pick up the slack. Given Stanford’s brutal opening six games, the Cardinal needs to find any advantage it can, and given the presence of McCaffrey, special teams could very well make the difference between a good and a great season.