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the Gekko Files: Previewing Stanford Football in 2015

The Gekko Files PAC 12 preview series concludes with an-indepth look at the most schizophrenic team in the conference. Don't believe me? Read on.

Steve Dykes/Getty Images

In my last Gekko Files preview, we covered Arizona State - widely considered the best party school in the PAC and the home school of the annual Undie Run.  You remember that, right?  The Undie Run?

undie run 2

Don't expect Stanford to organize their own version of ASU's "Undie Run" in 2015 .. although it wouldn't be a bad thing.

Today we open the file on the Stanford Cardinal and, well, the only way you'll be seeing pictures of co-eds in their undies is for me to make reference to ASU (you are welcome).

The fact that Stanford doesn't do things the way that ASU ... or Oregon ... or UCLA ... or USC ... does things is not news.  Stanford has forged its trail to the top of the college football heirarchy in large part by zagging while the rest of the college football world has been zigging.  Up-tempo, spread attacks?  Nope.  Taking chances on questionable characters in recruiting?  Nah.  Hedging bets with a steady flow of JC transfers?  No.  Eliminating fullbacks and physical play in favor of hybrid players and "speed attacks?  Nuh-uh.  Admitting QB candidates who can't pass remedial math into graduate programs?  Not remotely.

Stanford was a throwback before being a throwback was a thing.  Today they have carved out a niche as a destination school for an elite kind of national athlete that values a traditional approach to the game and a prestigious education.  What we knew as Stanford football in the 1990s and early 2000's has long since been replaced by a new kind of program that is both well-established and destined to remain entrenched as a competitive force.

But change is the tide that touches all shores, and not even the mighty Stanford Cardinal are immune.  As Cardinal fans look ahead to what the 2015 season might bring (at least those who actually follow the football team), they can't help but to worry that the core identity of the team that was crafted in Jim Harbaugh's no bullshit image has finally eroded away to the point where a completely new one has emerged.  Is this concern well-founded or just a red herring conjured by a group of super-geeks and Silicon Valley hanger-ons who like to take in their college football with a fine Napa cabernet (2007 was a helluva vintage, I hear)?  For one more time, let's open the Gekko File and find out.

2014 Recap - What I Said

Predicted Div Finish 3rd
Actual Div Finish 2nd
Predicted P12 Record 5-4
Actual P12 Record 5-4

Here were some of my verbatims:

Without a doubt, this is the most significant transition year that the Cardinal has had to face since Harbaugh took over. ...

The good news is that Stanford has recruited very well and, in the front seven in particular, they have plenty of bodies...

The Cardinal are still a formidable team in the Pac 12 North. Offensively, they have a QB who they can win with, the makings of an elite offensive line which should hit its stride halfway through the season, a still-nasty defensive front seven and a receiving corps that could open up some big plays ...

...However, I can't see them necessarily operating at a higher level than they did in 2013 when they won the Pac 12 but lost in the Rose Bowl...

If we are looking at just W's and L's, I nailed my prediction on Stanford last year.  However, I freely admit that how they got there was a lot different than I imagined how it would go.

The Cardinal, despite a major rebuilding job that included replacing their defensive coordinator (Derek Mason is now the HC at Vanderbilt), put up one of the best defensive seasons that we've seen out of any PAC 12 team in a long time.  They were tough against the pass, stingy against the run and efficient in forcing their opponents off of the field.  They proved that new DC Lance Anderson does know a thing or two about how to manage team defense and that the value of the talent that they had been recruiting for the last several years was elite.

Unfortunately, the offense played even worse than I had imagined.  The breaking in of four new offensive linemen turned out to be a major issue for Stanford as they failed for most of the season to open holes, finish blocks and pass protect on a consistent basis.  In fact, they failed to score 21 points or more in three of their first five games - two losses (USC 13-10, Notre Dame 17-14) and a win (UW 20-17).  By the time they fell to Utah 20-17 in 2OT on November 15, the Cardinal actually were sporting a losing record in conference.

Fortunately, the Cardinal would right the ship down the stretch.  The O-Line would become more of an asset, QB Kevin Hogan would become more efficient, and freshman RB/WR Christian McCaffrey would become more of a focus.  Stanford won their last three games, including an impressive dismantling of UCLA 31-10 and their bowl game against Maryland, to finish the season 8-5 overall.

Previewing 2015: The Stanford Cardinal

The Offense
Offensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Mike Bloomgren Red Zone Offense
Offensive LIne
QB Experience
Running Back Play
Wide Receiver Depth
QB Kevin Hogan
RB Christian McCaffrey
OL Kyle Murphy

TE Dalton Schultz (RS)
WR Trent Irwin

Why do PAC 12 fans hate QB Kevin Hogan?

Mark it down right now.  The Stanford Cardinal will be an offense first team in 2015.

You read that right ... "offense first".

To be clear, I'm not saying that Stanford is going to light up scoreboards or lead the conference in points scored.  This is still, after all, a huddle up, Spider 2 Y Banana, bore-your-grandmother-to-tears style team.  But when you look at the make up of the roster and how the offensive philosophy evolved in 2014, you'd be hard-pressed not to reach the same conclusion that I have:  this Stanford Offense projects as a better unit than its defense.

Things begin and end with the least-talked about QB in the conference in senior Kevin Hogan.  I simply don't get it.  All we ever hear about these days is the two-man race for best in conference between Cody Kessler and Jared Goff, the instant impact potential of Vernon Adams, the upsides of Mike Bercovici and Anu Solomon and the future stardom of Josh Rosen.  Even ESPN's Ted Miller submitted to the madness when he picked UCLA to win the South earlier this week.

How about a little love for Kevin Hogan?

Look, I realize that Hogan's sophomore season - one that he endured as his father was diagnosed cancer (Jerry Hogan passed away last season) - created a lot of doubt among PAC 12 fans.  But the bounce back of Hogan in 2014 where he passed for 65% and 8 YPA demonstrated what he was capable of doing even when the weapons around him - including an offensive line that was breaking in four new starters - were not well established.  Hogan comes into this season as, in my mind, the most efficient and reliable QB in the conference.  He doesn't have the tools of a Goff or the complementary weapons of a Kessler, but he brings a consistency to the position that no others in the league can claim.  He knows his offense, he is very accurate, he has a great arm, and he makes sound decisions.  He's a winning QB who now has a few more weapons to work with.

Count Hogan's tight end situation as one of those enabling advantages.  After a few years retooling, Stanford brings hands-down the best tight end situation in the conference - and maybe the nation - to the table.  Sophomore Austin Hooper is a star in the making and Stanford's top returning receiver in 2014.  The 6'5" 250 lb TE is an athletic specimen to plays fast for his size.  Sophomore Eric Cotton (6'6" 240 lbs) may actually have more upside than Hooper while Greg Taboada (6'5" 245 lbs) is more of a blocker.  The best of the bunch may be RS freshman Dalton Schultz - he is a 6'6" 250 lb athletic beast who is my bet to be the breakout player of the year for Stanford.

When the big TEs can't get it done, Hogan will have some big WRs to work with.  6'4" senior Devon Cajuste, 6'1" junior Michael Rector and 6'3" junior Francis Owusu give Hogan a lot of catch radius to work with in an offense that will emphasize their size advantages in lieu of pure speed.  Of course, if you are looking for speed, pay attention to incoming true frosh Trent Irwin.  Irwin is another tall guy (6'2") who has both the speed and vertical leaping abilities to make an instant impact in the PAC. Imagine being a PAC 12 defensive coordinator having to counter a Stanford 5 receiver set that features Cajuste, Schultz, Hooper, Owusu and Cotton all on the field at the same time.  5'10" CBs aren't going to cut it.

If the receivers are going to reach their full potential, then Stanford will be looking to get the run game going.  Last season, the Cardinal really struggled in that regard with neither of their top two options - Remound Wright or Kelsey Young - making much of an impact.  Stanford finished 8th in the conference in overall rushing and their YPA as a team were 6th in the conference.  Stanford needs to do better in that regard if they are going to get their patented play-action game going and create room for the bigger but slower receivers to make plays down the field.  One of my favorite players in the conference, 6'0" sophomore Christian McCaffrey, is going to have to be the guy to make that happen.  McCaffrey was a revelation as a freshman showing off both receiving and rushing skills as he quickly became the highest impact player on that Cardinal offense.  He is a natural player who seems to do everything - including blocking - very well.  When he needs a blow, Wright and the heretofore disappointing Barry Sanders, Jr. are available.

No discussion about Stanford football is complete without a look at their offensive line.  I'm convinced that the growing pains the line went through a year ago were a major factor in the Cardinal's slow start.  In fact, if you look at the end of the season, they scored 31 or more in four of their last six and six of their last eight as the offensive line got more into a groove.  This year, that O-Line returns all but one starter.  Granted, losing Andrus Peat to the NFL draft is a big deal.  But when you boast studs like Kyle Murphy and Joshua Garnett as your starting tackles and Johnny Caspers as your left guard, you've got some good starting pieces.  While senior Graham Schuler may be a bit of a weak link at C, Stanford boasts a veritable metric ton of rising young talent.  I'll be keeping my eyes on 6'6" sophomore OT Casey Tucker and 6'3" 321 lb RFr OG Brandon Fanaika this year.  With all of this talent and all of this experience, I see Stanford as offering an offensive line that is right there with USC's as overall best in the conference.

The Defense

Defensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Lance Anderson Linebacking Corps
Secondary Run Support
DL Experience
Deep Ball Defense
LB Blake Martinez
LB Kevin Anderson
DL Aziz Shittu
DE Dylan Jackson
DT Wesley Annan

Blake Martinez is a big man in a mean linebacking corps.

I really whiffed on my prediction of Stanford taking a step back on defense in 2014.  Despite losing guys like Ben Gardner, Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy - not to mention their old defensive coordinator - the Cardinal proved that they have the secret formula for engineering a "reload" as opposed to implementing a "rebuild".  The formula?  Recruit awesome talents and let them develop as they sit on the bench for a few years.  As such, Stanford produced - by far - the best defense in the conference a year ago.  They were the only P12 team to surrender less than 300 yards per game and their 4.2 yards per play given up were a full yard less than the #2 team (UCLA) in the PAC.

But can they repeat it?

The Cardinal are once again "reloading" on defense ... but this one feels a bit more like a rebuild.  The reason for this is that for the first time in a long time, Stanford actually has a numbers problem when it comes to experienced bodies in key positions - in particular on the defensive line.  The Cardinal played this past spring with only three scholarship bodies available for duty.  Those numbers are reinforced now by the return of a healthy Aziz Shittu and the transfer or former Cal star Brennan Scarlett, but still remain perilously thin. In fact, not counting Scarlett, Stanford returns only 14 tackles and 4 sacks off of this line.  I'm not going to go into each player here, but let's just say that while there is talent, depth is a critical issue.  Considering that the two best players - Scarlett and Shittu - also have extensive injury problems, this unit could be a critical achilles heel for the Cardinal.  In fact, I don't see how they are going to get through the season without doing what they never do - taking the red shirts off of incoming freshman.  6'6" 250 lbs DE Dylan Jackson and 6'4" 300 lb Wesley Annan are sure to get snaps this year.

Not unlike the DL, the secondary is going through its own overhaul as they work to replace all of their starters and a few key contributors.  Gone are guys like Jordan Richards, Zach Hoffpauir and Wayne Lyons.  However, this one does feel more like a reload than the DL situation due to the availability of a number of players with some game experience or coming off of redshirts.  The starting corners are likely to be senior Ronnie Harris and sophomore Terrence Alexander.  These guys are pretty similar guys - smaller, quicker corners with decent ball skills.  They may struggle against bigger receivers, but should get some help from bigger safeties like junior Kodi Whitfield (6'2") and Dallas Lloyd (6'3").  This isn't a great coverage secondary and one that I can see giving up some big plays.  But it still should hold up pretty well against the run.

Fortunately, the Cardinal still have some of the best linebackers in the conference.  Seniors ILB Blake Martinez and OLB Kevin Anderson form one of the best inside/outside combos in the league.  Both boast speed, experience and a high degree of accomplishment in the PAC.  Sophomore Peter Kalambayi had something of a break out season a year ago and now projects as yet another oustanding Stanford OLB.  Junior Noor Davis looks like a player who will finally get his shot and would be a new name that might explode on the scene this year.  Unlike the DL, depth is not a problem here.  Stanford has four guys coming off of red shirts and a couple of highly rated sophomores who were primarily special teamers a year ago.  This is a solid unit.

Predicting 2015: The Cardinal

For the first time in a long time, I feel like the Cardinal are coming into a season not garnering the respect they deserve.

Trust me, it pains me to say this given all of the "no respect" railing that we have had to endure coming out of the mouth of David Shaw over the past few seasons.  But facts are facts.  This is a really good Stanford team that looks like it might have a few tricks up its sleeve in 2015.

It all starts with that offense.  The Cardinal struggles in 2013 and 2014 can be reasonably traced back to some circumstances that don't seem present this year.  I like their QB to have one of the two or three most efficient seasons among P12 QBs this year and I absolutely love the potential that this team has to lead the league in Red Zone efficiency given all of the size that they boast in their skill positions.  I also think that this offensive line will build on the momentum that they started building at the end of last year.  They'll be one of the best in the league and they will create opportunities for young Christian McCaffrey to mount an P12 OPOY type of campaign.

The defense, for once, will be the area that holds Stanford back.  While they still have the size and skills that you expect to see out of a Stanford defense, they simply don't hav e upperclassmen holding down positions like we are used to.  This is a should be viewed as a "work in progress" situation thanks to the underlying talent that is available to Stanford.  But young talent needs time to develop and will surely make critical mistakes along the way.  As I also noted, this is a D that cannot tolerate much attrition, in particular along that defensive line.

Also working against Stanford is their schedule.  This is a four home game season for the Cardinal and one in which their only BYE is a short one in early October that comes as a result of a Thursday night game.  They do catch a bit of a break in not having to play ASU and Utah this year - two teams that are tough matchups for them - and they will also benefit from playing their last three games at home - including a key late-season matchup with Oregon.  The fact that the two road games preceding that stretch are WSU and Colorado seems to set Stanford up for a pretty decent stretch run.

In the end, I think that Stanford is the best team that isn't being talked enough about.  I think they finally have the offense in place that  will really challenge opposing defenses and I think that they still have enough juice on defense to challenge the better teams in PAC.  I'd put money on six - maybe seven - conference wins for Stanford in 2015.  And while I don't see them necessarily beating out Oregon in the standings, a win over the Ducks late in the season could open the door just a crack for another PAC 12 North title.