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the Gekko Files: Previewing Stanford Football in 2016

Expectations for Heismans and Championships weigh on David Shaw as he rebuilds his Cardinal for another PAC-12 title run.

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

I'm claiming bragging rights.

I know that I do that quite often. But, this time I mean it.

And I think I deserve it. Take a look at some of things that I wrote about Stanford in last year's Gekko Files preview on the Cardinal:

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

That's right. I called it. "Offense first," I said.

I also wrote this:

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.

And, for good measure, check out what I had to say about Christian McCaffrey before Christian McCaffrey was even yet a thing (pulled from my conference preview):

I also LOVE Christian McCaffrey as the breakout player of the PAC-12 this year.

Yup. Nailed it.

There are any variety of stats that you can use to validate my boastful claim, but I like to lean on our buddy Billly C and his advanced stats. Stanford's offensive S&P+ rating - a measurement of overall efficiency and quality - was 5th in the nation. Its defensive S&P+ rating? 42nd.

Add it up and you have a PAC-12 championship season that saw Stanford survive a tough PAC schedule and an absolutely dominating Rose Bowl victory over Iowa.

But it wasn't the perfect season that many were hoping for. McCaffrey came in second to Alabama's Derrick Henry in the Heisman race (a travesty). Northwestern spoiled a perfect out-of-conference schedule. Oregon spoiled a perfect in-conference schedule. The playoffs were missed. Again.

2016 presents a new challenge for David Shaw and a Cardinal team that desperately feel that they have unfinished business. With one more season of Christian McCaffrey available to them, is this the Cardinal's year to take the penultimate step?

You don't know? Don't worry. The Gekko is here for you.

Stanford's Offense:

Offensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Michael Bloomgren
(Andrew Luck Director of Offense)
Explosive Play Potential
TE Play
QB Play
OL Experience
RB Christian McCaffrey
WR Michael Rector
TE Dalton Schultz
TE Kaden Smith (TFr)
RB Trevor Speights (TFr)

Heisman hopeful RB Christian McCaffrey will have to carry a bigger burden in 2016.

The question that everybody wants to talk about is the quarterback situation. We'll get to that soon enough, but we must first address the invisible elephant in the room: the Stanford offensive line is a total rebuild job.

I can hear you shifting in your seat right now.

"Big deal, Landon," you are probably saying. "Stanford does't rebuild the offensive line, they reload it."

Yes. Normally that is true. But look at the situation that David Shaw finds himself with. Stanford is replacing three starters, all of whom were two-year starters. Two of those three were first-team All-PAC-12 players. One was an Outland Trophy winner and All-American. Count 'em down: Joshua Garnett, Kyle Murphy, and Graham Schuler are all gone.

The last time Stanford had a re-tooling of this magnitude was in 2014. You remember how that went? 8-5 with an appearance in the Foster Farms Bowl.

I'm not saying that this line is destined for 2014 mediocrity. We are still talking about reloading with juniors and seniors which, in my mind, is better than the situation that teams like Oregon and Arizona State find themselves in. Still, I'm not sure that I'm all that optimistic. OG Johnny Caspers and LT Casey Tucker are the returners and, let's face it, neither were all that impressive a year ago. The projected replacements are junior C Jesse Burkett, OT David Bright, and OG Brandon Fanaika. I'm not saying that these aren't quality players, but none of these guys are the kinds of four- or five-star offensive linemen that Stanford is used to putting into place. Until I see otherwise, I'm counting this as a very questionable unit.

This is unfortunate given how good the offensive weapons in the skill positions look. You all know about McCaffrey. He's the ultimate weapon. He is a slippery runner, an able blocker, and an absolute weapon as a receiver. When he's not killing you on offense, he's destroying you in special teams. He is still the best all-around player in the conference, even if he cedes the title of best RB to Oregon's Royce Freeman.

Depth behind McCaffrey is a big question. Spunky sophomore Bryce Love will for sure take some of McCaffrey's explosive plays as he gets worked into the offense. However, there really aren't any established big backs ready to fill the role played a year ago by Remound Wright who was, for all intents and purposes, Stanford's goal-line back.

WR Michael Rector actually led the team in targets a year ago and is back to stabilize the receiving corps. He, along with senior Francis Owusu, will be leaned on heavily to be the "move-the-sticks" guys now that both big Devon Cajuste and star TE Austin Hooper have moved on. Don't worry too much, though. Stanford still boasts the best and deepest TE stable in the conference (rivaled now by both Oregon and Washington), with sophomore Dalton Schultz ready to break out and true freshman Kaden Smith looking like a star in the making. Depth at WR is a legitimate concern, but do keep an eye on the blazing fast Isaiah Brandt-Sims to become a factor in 2016.

Who delivers the ball to these weapons is an open question. I would have bet you dollars to donuts a year ago that talented sophomore Keller Chryst was the heir apparent. But he's been challenged by junior Ryan Burns in what looks like a legitimate competition. Both passers are similar in stature and style: tall, big-armed, relatively immobile pro-style QBs. Burns looks like he has an accuracy advantage right now, but I'd still be shocked if Chryst lost the competition. He's more of an electric player who seems to possess the "playmaker" intangible. The fact that this is still a competition, however, might be viewed as a red flag if you are a Stanford fan.

Stanford's Defense:

Defensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Lance Anderson
(Willie Shaw Director of Defense)
Edge Pressure
LB Depth
DL Depth
LB Experience
DL Solomon Thomas
LB Peter Kalambayi
DL Dylan Jackson (RFr)
DL Harrison Phillips (Inj)

Is Peter Kalambayi the next great Stanford OLB? Yes, I believe so.

If Stanford is going to repeat as PAC-12 champion, its defense is really going to have to carry the day. The question is whether or not they are manned to do so. I'm not so sure.

The first major watch-out area is the Stanford defensive line. This is a unit that has been fading in accomplishment for three straight seasons and now looks like it is nearing "dumpster fire" status.

Well, that might be a bit harsh. But, seriously, this is not a unit that looks like it is ready to be the old, dominating defensive line that you are used to seeing from Randy Hart (now retired) and his Cardinal.

Only two players (!) who return to this defensive line saw any real time in a game last year. Those would be star DE Solomon Thomas, a very well-rounded big DE, and undersized DT Jordan Watkins. A third DE/DT flex player, junior Luke Kaumatule, is back after missing 2015. Beyond those three, the remainder of the Stanford rotation will be made up of players who have never played more than a handful of defensive snaps in college football.

Former TE Eric Cotton will be a key contributor. Ditto for former DE turned DT Harrison Phillips, who blew out an ACL in the first game last year and comes back as a smallish interior player (but, in fairness, was viewed as a starter last year). Beyond those guys, redshirt and true freshmen like Dylan Jackson and Michael Williams are going to have to step up. This is a unit that lacks both depth and size. This is a toxic mix for a team that wants to define its game plan by controlling the line of scrimmage.

That's a lot of verbiage about the defensive line, but it's not my only source of concern.  Replacing big-time linebackers Blake Martinez and Kevin Anderson is no small challenge. The good news is that there is far more depth and talent to work with here. Peter Kalambayi, a name UW fans should know all too well, is back to terrorize passers. His partner in crime, sophomore Joey Alfieri, was a breakout player a year ago and shows similar instincts as a pass rusher. The inside positions are manned by capable players, even if their names are not as well known. Junior Kevin Palma is the next great Stanford MIKE and definitely a name to watch.

Stanford has done a nice job developing depth at LB. Though much of the rotation will be young, it will almost all be experienced. So much so that it is hard for me as an outsider to really get a handle on who are the real breakout candidates.

The Cardinal secondary is the strength of the defense. Tall and lanky CB Quenton Meeks exploded as a freshman with 3 INTs and 4 PBUs in 2015. Safety Dallas Lloyd (a former QB) and CB Alameen Murphy are reliable players who are both a little better against the run then the pass. There really are a lot of steady if not flashy players spread across this unit. I do worry that there may not be enough depth at CB, which might expose Stanford to a bit of a challenge against pass-happy teams, but that is a minor concern. This is a good unit and one that the Cardinal really need to have shine.

One Breakout Star

WR/RB Bryce Love

The truth is that Stanford needs to get breakout performance from a few young players in 2016. True freshmen Curtis Robinson (LB) and Kaden Smith (TE) are perfect examples. So are redshirt freshmen Cameron Scarlett (RB), Frank Buncom (CB), and Dylan Jackson (DE).

The pick for me, however, is Bryce Love.

You've already seen a little of what Love can do. He was a relatively busy player a year ago when he caught 15 balls and rushed for 229 yards. His productivity was tantalizing. He averaged over 15 yards per passing target and nearly 8 yards per carry. Can you spell "homerun hitter?"

He'll be on the field much more frequently in 2016. He has to be. With a less-than-stellar O-Line and a lack of RB depth to take the physical punishment off McCaffrey, Love is going to have to get more touches. That probably is really good news for Stanford.

Love looks very much like Chico McClatcher, except with a fifth gear that we haven't yet seen from Chico. He's a true threat to score from anywhere on the field in much the same mold as a De'Anthony Thomas or John Ross have shown to be. He'll be used equally in the run and pass games and should be counted on to score ten TDs combined for an offense that can use all the help it can get.

Predicting 2016

I started the research for this preview thinking that I wanted to pick Stanford to win the PAC-12 North. In fact, I thought it was an inevitable conclusion.

After having gone through this in detail, I'm not so sure. In fact, I'm having trouble assembling a coherent argument that Stanford should be ranked more highly than either Washington or Oregon as a pre-season pick in the North.

For starters, long-time readers know that I have a severe aversion to being optimistic about any team that is struggling to put together an experienced and accomplished unit on either side of the line of scrimmage, much less both sides. Stanford's D-Line situation is among the worst in the conference (hello, Oregon) and its O-Line is not much better.

Even if I were to give Stanford credit for doing a good job of developing offensive linemen - which is not a major stretch - we can't ignore the fact that the RB depth is questionable and the QB situation is unsettled. As talented as Christian McCaffrey is, I can't help but think that he's going to take a pounding this year. In fact, I wouldn't expect a Heisman run in 2016, though he will most certainly be a fabulous star in the PAC.

This is all a relative assessment, mind you. The pieces that Stanford does have - its receiving corps, its TE depth, its linebacking potential, and its steady secondary - are all strengths that can compensate for what it doesn't have. But in the context of the rest of the PAC-12, I'm not sure that it is enough.

The schedule will certainly be a test. The good news is that they miss Utah - a team that would surely test them along the line of scrimmage - and ASU. Otherwise, it is a difficult lineup. Five of their conference games are on the road and all of them are loseable (Oregon, Washington, UCLA, Arizona, Cal). In addition, their first conference game comes in week 2 against a USC team that could certainly represent an upset threat. Their out-of-conference schedule is tough with a home date against Kansas State and a road contest at Notre Dame.

I don't see Stanford repeating as PAC-12 champions. They are good enough to be in the mix for the North title, which I think we all agree will be a slugfest between imperfect Washington, Oregon, and Stanford teams. However, the Cardinal, among the three, seem to hold the highest risk of losing both contests to the other two teams in that triumvirate. I make that assessment based on their depth issues and the fact that both those games are on the road.

If that happens, look for Stanford to finish somewhere around seven wins on the season (full schedule) and competing for a mid-tier bowl.