2014 Pac-12 Preview: Stanford Cardinal

The Cardinal have ruled the PAC 12 for the last two seasons, winning the conference championship and playing in the Rose Bowl in both. Last season they lost to a tough Michigan State team that boasted the nation’s best defense, but that wasn’t even their most disappointing loss of the season. The loss to USC was tough, but the Trojans are loaded with talent, but Utah beat the Cardinal on mere grit, and essentially ended any national title hopes Stanford may have had. Even so, it’s hard to take away from what firstly Jim Harbaugh, and now David Shaw have done for the program. Can Stanford continue to succeed in 2014?

Offense

After getting cast into the fire as a freshman, and responding by leading the Cardinal to five consecutive wins over ranked opponents — including the title game and Rose Bowl — Kevin Hogan had high expectations entering last season. Did he fulfill them? Well, yes and no. He led the team to another conference title, but he didn’t improve quite as expected. His accuracy on shorter passes was poor (8 of 20 on third and short? Really?), and he threw 10 interceptions, despite just 295 attempts. He did complete 61% of his passes, throwing for 2635 yards and 20 TDs, and added 347 yards and two TDs on the ground. He will need to take a big step now as the team has a questionable running back situation which means more responsibility on his shoulders.

Will running back be a problem this season? In case you haven’t noticed, the Cardinal’s modus operandi has been ramming the ball down opponents’ throats continually, then lighting them up with play action. Stanford has done well at running back recently, with Stepfan Taylor, and then Tyler Gaffney, taking on the lead role. Both were powerful runners who suited the offense well. Now they have a bunch of former four-star recruits, who obviously have talent, but haven’t really been tested. Senior Remound Wright looks to have the edge, thanks to his all-around skills, but he may not get the carries of his predecessors. Barry Sanders Jr is a chip off the old block, but he doesn’t necessarily fit the Cardinal style. Still, his ability to wreak havoc in the open field ensures he will see the football in a variety of ways. Ricky Seale and Kelsey Young should also see time in the backfield.

Ty Montgomery was easily the Cardinal’s top receiver last season, catching 61 passes for 958 yards and 10 TDs, but the team will have to survive some early games without him while he recovers from surgery for an arm injury sustained over the summer. Devon Cajuste will be expected to step up in his absence. The fellow senior provided the big plays, with 28 receptions for 642 yards and five scores (22.9 yards per catch). Michael Rector also showed impressive deep speed, averaging over 30 yards on his 14 receptions, while Kodi Whitfield was a useful third-down receiver, converting all seven of his third-down catches into first downs. This group has some nice potential, with a good mix of young talent and experienced veterans. Tight end was strangely quiet last season, with Davis Dudchock leading the unit with just five catches, but that may change in 2014 with redshirt freshmen Austin Hooper and Eric Cotton on board. Watch for them to take advantage of defenses trying to keep up with the bevy of deep threats.

The offensive line was outstanding last season, with four of the five players making the all-conference team, and the other being a multi-year starter. Four of those five are now gone, with only left tackle Andrus Peat, a second team all-PAC 12 choice as a freshman last year, returning. He’ll be asked to provide leadership for a young, but talented, group. Junior Kyle Murphy has played in 27 games, starting two, in his career, and should lock up the right tackle spot. Big Joshua Garnett played every game in his first two seasons, and will take over at left guard, but sophomore right guard Johnny Caspers has yet to play a snap. Graham Shuler may lack size at center, but he more than makes up for it in athleticism. The unit is long on potential, but short on experience, and may struggle to gel in the early going. It’s hard to believe that Shaw won’t have them fully prepared going into the season though.

Defense

The Cardinal lost some of its top playmakers on this side of the ball, including Josh Mauro and Ben Gardner up front. David Parry will return at the nose; he made 23 tackles last season, with five coming in opponents’ backfields. Aziz Shittu will likely back him up, although he lacks the bulk for the nose. End Henry Anderson was hobbled last season with a knee injury, but still managed to muster three sacks, and looks ready to go for 2014. Opposite him will be Blake Lueders, an experienced reserve who had five tackles for loss, two and a half of them sacks. The four mentioned here have experience, but the rest of the reserves are not as promising.

The linebacker corps looks to be taking the hardest hit, with pass rusher extraordinaire Trent Murphy (23½ TFLs, 15 sacks) and leading tackler Shayne Skov both gone. Back are inside linebacker AJ Tarpley, who made 93 tackles, five for loss, and James Vaughters, who had four sacks from the outside. Kevin Anderson (25 tackles, six for loss), will have the tough task of replacing Murphy, while junior Blake Martinez (11 tackles) will take over inside. Outside of regular reserve Joe Hemschoot, there is little experience.

Free safety Ed Reynolds went to play with the big boys after his junior year, but the rest of the starting secondary, and some useful reserves, return. Wayne Lyons made 69 tackles and a couple of interceptions at one corner, while Alex Carter made 58 tackles, and broke up eight passes at the other. When the Cardinal switches to the nickel, Lyons will likely switch inside, with experienced reserve Ronnie Harris taking his place. Jordan Richards (68 tackles, three interceptions) returns at strong safety, and he’ll be joined by Kyle Olugbode, who played in every game. He will have his hands full trying to replace the talented Reynolds.

Special Teams

Jordan Williamson had his best season kicking last year, hitting 18 of 22 field goals, with a long of 48.  He also put 25 of his 46 kickoffs into opponents’ endzones. Punter Ben Rhyne was similarly useful, averaging 42.9 yards per punt, and dropping 15 inside the opponents 20. The coverage units gave up a couple of decent returns, but was generally rock solid, but the kick coverage was excellent. Montgomery showed his big-play potential on returns too, averaging 30.3 yards and scoring twice, while Sanders averaged 10.1 yards on punt returns.

Predictions

The Cardinal has plenty of talent returning, but also plenty of question marks courtesy of inexperience on the depth chart. More importantly they have a bully-boy persona to maintain, one that can make a 7-point lead look like 70 points. Shaw has had plenty to work with over the last couple of seasons, but he’ll have a sizable job this season getting inexperienced players ready to play. The schedule is nasty, with USC coming to visit in week two, and trips to Washington, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA. Ouch! If Shaw can prepare this team enough to make it through that slate unscathed, then Stanford deserves a playoff shot, and a “Coach of the Year” Award for Shaw.

 

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