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Stanford Spring Football Offensive Preview

Stanford's got a plethora of offensive talent taking the field this spring. Who should be the focus?

62, 2, 50, 30, 71, 2. No, that’s not the back of my last fortune cookie from Panda Express, it’s Stanford’s ranking in offensive points per drive in the last six seasons.  Cardinal fans have witnessed everything from the glorious to the rank during the Shaw Era. Last year Stanford dropped from potent to putrid, it’s defensive pinata-busting tours of Eugene, Berkeley, and Tucson in the second half notwithstanding.

And yet, hope springs eternal starting right now.  As mentioned in our defensive preview, Stanford’s not lacking in talent, and the Cardinal’s 2017 recruiting haul only fortified the prodigious talents coming back.  In staying in step with our “What, Me Worry?” approach, we’re going to focus on the individuals once more with the most to accomplish or gain from the Cardinal’s twin fortnights of spring football.

 

  • Head Coach David Shaw, Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach Mike Bloomgren, Quarterbacks/Receivers Coach Tavita Pritchard.  This group has an awful lot to do over the next six weeks. Having already declared Keller Chryst the starter, they are still charged with developing and identifying Chryst’s backup in the event that he is not ready to go at the start of the season or that he falters once he does return.  They’ve also got to get the offensive line right and ready, a task somewhat complicated by the absence of the full talent pool during these sessions.  Finally, the depth at the skill positions needs some seasoning.  To that end…..

  • K.J. Costello and Ryan Burns:  Rare still is the opportunity to rack up reps with the first team without the ability to win the starting job.  It’s a unique limbo in which both Costello and Burns find themselves, but that doesn’t change what lies in front of both. Costello was one play away from burning his redshirt in the Sun Bowl after Chryst went down and Burns went in to replace him. That didn’t happen, but it’s clear with the pending arrival of Davis Mills this summer and Chryst’s absence, this is the moment for Costello. Reports of Burns’ departure proved to be greatly exaggerated, and though Coach Shaw was clear that Burns understood his return was essentially into a backup role, to dismiss him with so many variables (How good is Costello?  How fast does Chryst recover? How does Chryst handle a defense that can actually cover and tackle?) seems hasty. Under the ideal circumstances, this is essentially a battle for the backup position played out over the best possible circumstances, which is to say both players will have ample time and opportunity to perform.

  • Donald Stewart:  The New Jersey native produced two catches and 17 yards in six targets his freshman year.  This position group appears to have a legit deep threat with J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (9.7 yards per target) and its top target in 2016 in Trenton Irwin, but given Stanford’s proclivity to use multi-receiver sets, there is a significant void to be filled in the passing game and while we may not get much of an indication of the coaches’ final decision, there is competition both within the returning receivers (Isaiah Brandt-Sims is the only other player to receiver a single target last year as a receiver) and between the other two skill position groups for emphasis in Stanford’s passing game. 43% of Stanford’s overall pass targets last year are off the roster and furthermore the three players who made up 40% of the wide receiver pass targets (Michael Rector, Francis Owusu, and Taijuan Thomas) have departed.  Stewart showed enough to earn playing time as a freshman and he has good size (6’4”).  He opens up a lot of possbilities if he can play a substantive role this year.

  • Kaden Smith:  It seemed pretty clear at the start of the season that the coaches were also willing to use Kaden Smith in his first season on the Farm before injuries slid him off the radar for the year.  With Smith in the fold, Dalton Schultz returning, and Colby Parkinson hitting campus later this year, 2017 could be the year that the tight ends reclaim their prominence in the Stanford passing game.  Multiple tight end sets have long  helped give the Cardinal a tactical advantage, and that advantage was limited in 2016. Tight Ends comprised 16% of both the team’s targets and catches. In 2015, tight ends produced 24% of the targets and 23% of the catches. The number one priority for all skill groups at Stanford is of course blocking ability, but that notwithstanding it would appear the pieces are in place for a triumphant tight end return, one in which Smith would figure to play a  significant part.

  • Bryce Love The Receiver:  Nobody needs to be told to watch Bryce Love the Runner because 1) DUH and 2) We’re not likely to learn anything about him this spring that the coaches don’t want us to know. Coach Shaw has been consistent in identifying him as a complete running back during the entirety of his tenure on campus, and that’s going to be fully realized this season as Love takes over as the number one running back for Christian McCaffrey.  However, McCaffrey wasn’t just the Cardinal’s lead rusher.  He was tied with Irwin for the team lead in receptions.  Love demonstrated his facility as a receiver in the Sun Bowl.  However, he was targeted only 13 times in 2016, despite his status as human lightning. Expect that number to go way up in 2017.

  • Jake Bailey…..or whoever wins the place-kicking competition. Conrad Ukropina’s fantastic career is over, and regardless of the strides Stanford makes as an offense, there is no price ceiling on the value of a great kicker. Again, Bailey’s name in bold is no hint or even prediction about who ends up kicking PAT’s and Field Goals, but it’s worth tracking this spring.

It may seem odd that I haven’t mentioned any offensive linemen at this point.  It’s not that I don’t think they are worth watching, or that they don’t have progress to make.  In fact, I am downright giddy about the talent that’s going to make up Stanford’s 2017 version of the TWU.  However, without all the talent on campus yet, any groupings that don’t factor in the incoming freshmen at all are highly dubious at this point.  Stanford’s signature position group will get plenty of scrutiny come summer practice, rest assured.

Stanford’s offense in the Coach Shaw Era has been that Gumpian Box of Chocolates.  Certainly it is no coincidence that the two elite seasons in the past six were Andrew Luck in Year 3 (of Luck's career) and Kevin Hogan in Year 4.  Stanford will not have anywhere near that pedigree at quarterback this year regardless of who ends up starting, but I don’t think anybody inside the locker room or outside considers that enough of an alibi for failing to improve this year.  The talent is there. Over the next six weeks, let’s see how far they can go towards realizing the potential everyone acknowledges they have.  

 


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