Let’s establish some ground rules. Spring football is going to produce more questions about the 2017 Stanford Football team than answers. Or, at least, it’s going to leave the fans with more questions than answers. If history is our indicator, the four glimpses fans get to see of the team spread out among the two practice sessions will be as choreographed as a WWE Pay-Per-View event.
Secondly, the most important truth about spring football is that what doesn’t happen is more important than what does happen. Injuries are the worst part of sports, and in football, despite their inevitability, they remain the single-biggest factor in the fate of every team this far out from the playing of the actual games. Ideally, nobody on any team gets hurt, but of course that sadly will never be the case. The point is that the number one priority of spring football is simply surviving spring football.
There is no team who needs that point illustrated less than Stanford, a team who will complete spring football without its presumptive starting quarterback. Every play that goes by without injury is a step towards the best possible end result for the Cardinal this spring.
So, you might think that with all the uncertainty and my conviction that we’re not gonna really learn anything of substance that there is some cynicism or apathy as practice begins. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The truth is we don’t need to know the answers to the key questions facing Stanford Football this spring, only the coaches and players do. And to the extent that they are comfortable with uncertainty, we should be too.
Instead of trying to resolve any enigmas, let’s look at the players with the most to gain and the most crucial roles to fill in 2017, starting with defense.
Dylan Jackson and Harrison Phillips: The line of scrimmage is where this program gets its business done, and there is no side of the ball with a bigger and more immediate hole to be filled than on the defensive line. Solomon Thomas hits the combine on March 3rd, and the Cardinal leaves it to many, but none more so than Phillips and Jackson to hold the line this season. Both played solidly if not spectacularly for most of last season. Stanford’s defense embodied the old cliche’ about bending but not breaking, and on so many occasions (think the final North Carolina conversion attempt in the Sun Bowl) it was Solomon Thomas who simply refused to be blocked and hosted the party in the backfield that made the difference. Jackson, Phillips, and the other four defensive linemen that end up rounding out the two-deep are unlikely to ascend anywhere near Thomas’ level of play, such was his brilliance. However, they have to develop as a group if the impact players behind them are to realize their playmaking potential.
The Firm of Meeks, Holder, and Buncom: Complete corners are only increasing in value in college football, and that value is no higher than in the Pac-12, where up-tempo spread offenses have rapidly evolved from a niche to the norm. As we mentioned previously, injuries are so crucial in college football, and the stretch of games that determined Stanford’s season (Washington, Washington State, and Colorado two weeks later) were undeniably skewed by the absence and/or loss of Meeks and Holder in that stretch. The silver lining was the emergence of Buncom, who flashed signs of brilliance in their absences. Despite Buncom’s rise, eight of the 14 touchdown passes Stanford allowed in Pac-12 play happened in the aforementioned three games. The Cardinal allowed 7.5 yards per attempt overall in Pac-12 play and in those three games allowed 8, but that number grows to 9.1 if you take out the Colorado score. Defensive Coordinator Lance Anderson has said that having Meeks and Holder on the corners enables him to play more man and frees up things for the rest of the defense, so there is certainly a tactical aspect of “outside-in” for the Cardinal’s defense. Expect teams this year to have to prove Meeks and Holder can’t play on an island this season.
Sean Barton and Joey Alfieri-Stanford rolled deep at inside linebacker last season, playing with three different duos during games. With Alfieri potentially moving inside and Barton entering his Junior season, their names in bold don’t indicate any leg up without practice having even started, but it is to say that some combination of the returning players need to establish themselves, and given Alfieri’s strong play on the outside in 2016, the coaches wouldn’t be moving him inside without the intention of using him regularly. These numbers obviously relate to the interior defensive line as well, but Stanford’s interior triangle does have some ground to make up in 2017. The Cardinal was not stout in a number of crucial situations in 2016. Football Outsiders measures Power Success Rate, defined as the percent of times an offense converts 3rd and 4th and two or less yards to go. Stuff rate are run plays in which the offense is held to no gain or a loss. Stanford rated 80th in Power Success rate and 112th in Stuff rate in 2016. For context, their 2015 ratings were 27th and 70th respectively, and in 2014 they were 43rd and 49th, respectively. Clearly, Barton and Alfieri are not the only options, but somebody needs to seize this opportunity, and these two are as likely as any of the other returners to make an impact.
Justin Reid and Ben Edwards: Dallas Lloyd received All-Conference recognition and saved his best for last in the Sun Bowl against North Carolina, but this will be the first time in three seasons that Stanford almost certainly starts two safeties recruited as safeties. They will have a number of responsibilities, one of which will be helping limit big passing plays. In 2016, the Cardinal allowed 31 pass plays of 20+ yards, 12 plays of 30+ yards, and six plays of 40+ yards. That 31 ranked tied for 8th (or 5th most if you prefer), the 12 ranked tied for fourth fewest, and the six ranked tied for third fewest in league play, so while the Cardinal does need some work in that intermediate range, it’s not like they were being torched over the top regularly. In 2015, those numbers were 33 (20+), 13 (30+), and 5 (40+). It might be fair to pass the buck for those 20-yarders to linebackers who didn’t exactly blanket the field in pass coverage, but I’m sure Coaches Akina and Anderson would tell you that 31 is 31 too many regardless. At any rate, this is as talented and seasoned as the Cardinal has been in a long while at safety, and these two could help form one of the all-time secondaries in Stanford history.
We’ll get to the offense next, but in closing let’s establish a few things. First, this is potentially one of the most loaded rosters in the history of the program even with the losses of Solomon Thomas and Christian McCaffrey. The Cardinal continues to knock it out of the park in recruiting, and while there are always going to be things to worry about, this spring offers a chance to glimpse at the next step in this program’s Golden Age. Enjoy the peeks we get behind the waist-high “curtain” this spring. Nothing is going to get resolved, but these sessions will get us four weeks closer to the 2017 season, and let that be the takeaway for now.