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NCAA Football: Stanford at Arizona
The eminently unlikable David Shaw is a master at the stare down.
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

the Gekko Files: previewing Stanford Football in 2017

Dey aw’right.

There will be no cute opening lede in today’s Gekko File preview.

David Shaw is not a cute coach. His program is not a cute program. His mascot is a not a cute furball. His band is not a cute college tradition.

It is all very un-cute down in Palo Alto. As such, they deserve as un-cute a preview as I can provide.

This is all fine and good for Stanford fans. Since the arrival of Jim Harbaugh several years ago, Stanford has prided itself as a program in its ability to shun aesthetics in favor of grit and to build a brand centered on the concepts of toughness and endurance. In several seasons, that brand has translated into grand accomplishment. In others, the achievements have not been quite as epic.

2016 was one of the latter kinds of seasons. The Cardinal struggled with injury at the QB and RB positions and inconsistent play on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Their scoring output went way down. Their sack totals went way up. Their win total was the second lowest it has been since 2009.

And, yet, they still won 10 games on the season.

This is what Stanford is. They are not cute. They are not flashy. They are not built exclusively around “stars” and celebrities. They are a conservative, balanced, fundamentally sound team that grinds out wins on a predictable basis.

But do they have enough juice on the roster to compete in a PAC 12 north division that seems to be rising? Last year’s stomping at the boot of the Washington Huskies was a flashpoint in the division and a clear statement to Shaw that tides are turning in conference.

Was that game an aberration or a sign of a greater shift of power? Has Stanford finally conceded the position of “perennial favorite” just as Oregon has before them? For one last time in our 2017 PAC 12 preview series, let’s open the Gekko Files and find out.

Stanford Offense

Stanford Offensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
offensive line play outside speed RB Bryce Love WR Osiris St Brown (RFr)
RB explosiveness qb reliability OL Walker Little QB Tanner McKee (TFr)
receiver size WR JJ Arcega-Whiteside

In this space last year, we talked about the vulnerability that Stanford had at offensive line and how that was going to be a hamper on their offense. This prediction certainly came to pass as the Stanford o-line struggled in their mediocrity. Stanford was 11th in the PAC in sacks allowed in 2016 with 34 ... 14 more than they gave up a year prior.

Fun fact of the day: Those 34 sacks are nine more than they surrendered in total across a three year stretch between 2009 and 2011 when the Cardinal gave up just 25 total sacks.

NCAA Football: Colorado at Stanford Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Alternatively, the Stanford line was better than I expected in the rushing attack. Per Football Outsiders, Stanford boasted a 106.1 opponent adjusted “line yard” index - a measurement of the o-line’s contribution to the rushing game. That was 48th in the nation - not great, but not horrible. What was impressive was the stuff rate metric. Stanford ranked 9th in the nation in preventing opponents from stopping a running back at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Those rush game stats are what give Stanford fans hope for the offensive line. They return six players with starting experience led by senior LT Casey Tucker. Tucker has been an underachiever much of his Stanford career but seems to have turned a corner midway through last year. Tucker’s upswing seems to correlate with the insertion of Nate Herbig into the starting lineup at OG. The two of them plus center Jesse Burkett comprise the nucleus of a line that will work itself out this fall with some veterans (OT AT Hall, OG Brandon Faniaika, OG Nick Wilson) and some freshmen (OT Foster Sarrell, OT Devery Hamilton). There is obviously quality depth here more so than a year ago. Enough to consider this unit a possible strength.

For the sake of Stanford QBs, we’ll hope that those linemen figure out pass protection. Neither senior Ryan Burns, who started a year ago and got a lot of reps in the spring, or junior Keller Chryst, who ended last season as the starter, are particularly adept at avoiding pressure. If given a chance, both are capable pocket passers who are fluent in the offense. Chryst is the likely starter and shows both a better arm and, importantly, more decisiveness as a passer.

But Chryst is recovering from a serious ACL injury which has opened the door for both Burns and highly-rated K.J. Costello. While I think that Chryst is the best of the three - and we’ll soon see if he is ready to go in fall camp - there isn’t enough of a margin here to definitively say that Shaw will not once again choose the veteran Burns to open the season for him. QB is definitely a position to watch for the Cardinal.

Who the QB throws the ball to seems a little more settled. The Cardinal, as always, boast a high potential set of tight ends led by junior Dalton Schultz. Schultz is a multi-tool guy who has been building up his pass catching slowly in the Cardinal offense. Now that he is clearly the man, I expect him to build on his 24-catch season from a year ago. Along with two redshirt freshmen Kaden Smith and Scooter Harrington, I think the Cardinal are loaded here. Smith is a particular breakout candidate and a player to watch.

Their receiver situation is also as good as it has been in a while. While star Michael Rector has moved on, the Cardinal return a couple of big outside guys in sophomore JJ Arcega-Whiteside (24 recs, 5 TDs) and junior Trenton Irwin (37 catches, 441 yds). Isaiah Brand-Sims, who along with John Ross and Adoree Jackson, was in the discussion as “the fastest man in the PAC” last year, will finally get his chance as an inside/outside big play threat. Depth is a concern as there aren’t a ton of experienced players to draw upon past those top three. True freshman and former UW target Osiris St. Brown seems almost a certainty to play.

Regardless, Stanford is going to run the ball first and often. All everything back Christian McCaffrey has taken his talents to the Carolina Panthers in the NFL. That leaves the mighty Bryce Love as the primary (only?) option at tailback.

Love proved last season that he can carry the load when he filled in for an injured McCaffrey. The 175 lb sophomore is lightning quick and has good vision. He can flat out get on the second level in an instant and is adept at breaking off big plays. In fact, he was third in the PAC behind Tony Brooks-James and Lavon Coleman with a 7.05 ypc average on 111 rushes for the season. He will be the primary focus of the Stanford offense.

It’s a full-on royal rumble to be his backup. The good news is that there are enough quality bodies competing to expect a decent RB rotation. Redshirt freshman Trevor Speights is the best bet, though sophomore Cameron Scarlett will certainly be called upon when a big back is required. Keep an eye on former UW commit Connor Wedington. It looks like Stanford is seeing him in a hybrid H-back kind of role. He may well see in the field in 2017.

In sum total, Stanford should see an uptick in its overall offensive production. The biggest question mark really is at QB and, in the grand scheme of things, we are talking about two experienced upperclassmen and a very talented freshman. I have a sense that they’ll figure it out and put points on the board, even if it is still an average offense by PAC 12 standards. Health will be a primary factor for them as there aren’t a lot of experienced talents in any position group to carry the load.

Stanford Defense

Stanford Defensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
inside linebacking interior d-line S Frank Buncom DL Dalyn Wade-Perry (RFr)
overall experience pass rush LB Bobby Okerke CB Kendall Williamson (TFr)
safety depth DE Dylan Jackson DE Ryan Johnson (RFr)

We have to start this analysis with a look at a defensive secondary that has quietly emerged as one of the best in the PAC. Their strength is really at cornerback where 6’2” junior Quenton Meeks and 6’2” junior Alijah Holder form one of the most imposing tandems in the league. Meeks is a particular menace in that he has the length to be effective in man coverage and the girth (he’s a solid 210 lbs) to be effective as a run defender.

The safety situation is a little bit more up in the air. Zach Hoffpauir and Dallas Lloyd have both moved on. Battling to replace them are a couple of juniors (Brandon Simmons, Justin Reid) and a gaggle of freshmen. Reid is the “sure thing” of the group, but he has not yet really shown that he’s reached his potential. Right now, he’s a productive player whose greatest strength is being a sound tackler. The real question is whether or not he can be a turnover-producing playmaker.

Fortunately, the Cardinal are absolutely loaded at linebacker. Everybody - and I mean EVERYBODY - is back from one of the more productive units from a year ago. The outside guys - junior Joey Alfieri and senior Peter Kalambayi - are particularly disruptive. The two of them combined for 8.5 sacks and 16.5 TFLs last year. They might do even more damage this year if they can get a little more help from their d-line. A pair of sophomores - stud Curtis Robinson and Casey Toohill will both get a lot of rotation opportunity as DC Lance Anderson continues to develop his outside backers.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Oregon State Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Inside, the Cardinal are in good shape. Senior Kevin Palma and junior Sean Barton are like mini-clones of Azeem Victor and Kieshawn Bierria. They are just as disruptive if not quite as productive tacklers. Waiting his turn is the breakout star of the spring in junior Bobby Okereke - a fireballer who plays with a huge motor and who is particularly adept at creating pocket pressure from the inside. This is a very good unit from a pass rush perspective and one that is big enough to hold their own in rush defense.

The defensive line continues to be an area of concern, though there are able bodies present. Everyone needs to pick up the slack with Solomon Thomas now gone to the NFL. DT Harrison Phillips is the “star” of the show, though I continue to have my doubts that he can be a guy the line is built around. Phillips is a smaller tackle whose game is all about quickness. He has shown an ability to get to the quarterback, but he’s just as likely to get blown out of a play by bigger guard.

Along with Phillips, Stanford is waiting for sophomore end Dylan Jackson to breakout. He was wildly inconsistent a year ago but, granted, was just a freshman. The 6’6” 270 lb DE has all the same kind of ceiling that Thomas had before him. I expect that this will be a big year for Jackson as the tools all seem to be there. He’ll start opposite fellow defensive end Eric Cotton - a converted tight end whose best attribute is eating up blockers.

The rest of the d-line will be made of a rotation of very young but talented players. Michael Williams (NT, RFr), Wesley Annan (DE, Soph), and Thomas Schaffer (DE, RFr) are all going to have to generate significant production. I’d also not be surprised to see 330 lb true freshman DT Dalyn Wade-Perry in the rotation from day one. In fact, I think it is a near certainty as unusual as that might be for a David Shaw coached team.

One Breakout Player

LB Bobby Okereke

Picking breakout players from Stanford is always hard because, like Chris Petersen, David Shaw prefers slowly breaking in players over a long period of time.

While I considered both Dalton Schultz and Justin Reid here, I feel compelled to throw some props to Okereke at linebacker. Selecting Okerke here is a bit like selecting Ben Burr-Kirvin as a breakout player from UW ... it is technically ok, but it feels like cheating.

Still, Okereke generated enormous buzz all around campus with his showing this spring. He is the emotional spark plug for the Stanford D and, given the challenges that Stanford might have up front, is sure to get plenty of opportunities to make plays. This applies even if he is not technically a starter.

I’m not expecting an all-conference kind of season, but I could see Okereke putting up 35 to 40 tackles on the year with a half-dozen TFLs and a couple of sacks. If he does that, we’ll all be talking about him as an preseason all-conference candidate going into 2018.

Projecting Stanford

The Cardinal are clearly a contender for the PAC 12 title. They have all the thing you like to see - a veteran roster with lots of experience, talent in the trenches, big receivers, a strong secondary, and a solid running game. There are more than enough pieces here for David Shaw to roll out the kind of game plan that he favors and to win football games with it.

There are some regulators that limit the upside potential of the Cardinal. QB health is a big question mark, especially given that the Stanford offensive line might still be prone to surrendering sacks. Depth at running back, wide receiver and defensive line are also going to be challenges to contend with. But no team is perfect and, in the end, Stanford has a lot going for it.

Outside of the fact that Stanford doesn’t play at home until September 23 and that they have to play at USC in week 2, the Cardinal probably like the way that their schedule lays out. While they do have to hit the road for five conference games, their toughest opponents are all well spaced out and their BYE week falls roughly in the middle of the PAC 12 schedule. The matchup against Washington - which figures to have major divisional implications - comes towards the end of the season and is in Palo Alto.

Stanford should be good for six conference wins in 2017 with upside for another if some of their young talent (at tight end, safety and d-end) delivers. This should make Stanford a clear cut contender for the PAC 12 north and a legitimate threat to UW’s goals of repeating as conference champs.

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