Remember when Jim Harbaugh had taken the Cardinal to their zenith? The whole world was adopting high-flying, spread-‘em-out, tell-your-defense-to-hold-on-for-dear-life kinds of offenses that were revolutionizing football. Chip Kelly had built his nest in Eugene and was “revolutionizing” west coast football while RichRod was doing the same for east coast football out of West Virginia. But not Khaki Jim.
Love him or hate him, Harbaugh imprinted on Stanford the simple notion of being tougher in the trenches and never, ever getting outphysicaled by an opponent. The formula worked. God, did it work.
For the most part, David Shaw continued to cultivate that identity and experienced wild success of his own. Despite that success, it was hard to miss the fraying at the edges that has happened at Stanford over the last few years. The evaporation of the pass rush. The thinning of depth on the defensive line. The lack of realized potential on the offensive line. No collapses; just a slow creep toward mediocrity.
That was until last season. The alarm bells reached Defcon 5 as the very identity of the program was turned on its ear. The defense plunged into mediocre ranks at every level. The offensive line all but disappeared. Stanford’s ability to run the ball—and, consequently, Shaw’s commitment to it—vanished. Stanford became...gasp...a one-dimensional passing team.
When teams that in the past have had wild success suddenly have to abandon their identities in order to “play to their strengths,” one of two things is typically happening. The first option is that the program is in the midst of a reload and the season in question is nothing more than a way station on their collective journey. Option two is that the coaching staff has lost its effectiveness in either attracting talent or developing it in such a way as to maintain their previous success.
There is no doubt that the Stanford football program has hit a point of stagnation. From 12-2 and a Rose Bowl in 2015 to 9-4 and a third-place PAC 12 North finish in 2018 is a sign of that. It’s not a collapse, mind you. But it’s gotten stale.
So, where does Stanford go from here? Does the sudden change in playing style in 2018 portend doom for David Shaw and his Cardinal? Or has Stanford simply lured unsuspecting fans into a sense of overconfidence as they wait to unleash a new wave of talented football players on an unsuspecting conference.
Let’s jump into the Gekko Files and find out.
Perhaps the greatest oddity—and the greatest red flag—that occurred with Stanford in 2018 was the disappearance of the rushing attack. While issues along the offensive line had been rearing their heads for a few years, the inability of Stanford to backfill for an injured superstar in the rushing attack (in this case. Bryce Love) was kind of a new thing. As a result, the 2018 Cardinal offense was a one-trick pony. And that one trick relied solely on the arm of K.J. Costello.
I have mixed feelings about Costello as a quarterback. On one hand, he did have a terrific season last year. He led the PAC in yards per attempt (8.6) and he was second in the PAC in overall yardage (3,540, just behind Gardner Minshew). You have to go back to the perennially underrated Kevin Hogan to find a Stanford QB that efficient, and all the way back to Andrew Luck to find the last Stanford QB to throw for 3500 yards. That’s some good stuff. But...there is a but.
Costello goes into 2019 without the same kind of receiving corps that he had in 2018. And that is where my concerns start to percolate. Costello is a bit of a riverboat gambler at QB and though he has put up Hogan/Luck kinds of numbers, he has in no way had the same kind of judgment (Hogan) or arm talent (Luck) of his predecessors. He can certainly make plays, and he has balls of steel, but he makes mistakes. It’s not just the 11 INTs he threw last year (no Stanford QB has had that many in a decade prior) but it is broken plays, the bad reads and the “on a prayer” kinds of throws that he makes. I’ve got my reservations.
All of that worked for Costello last year because of a pretty remarkable receiving corps. The unquestioned leader of that group was J.J. Arcega-Whiteside who, if I had to peg it, I consider the creator of the most remarkable bailout receptions that the PAC 12 had seen since Jermaine Kearse. JJAW has gone on to greener pastures as have Stanford’s other top two receivers in WR Trenton Irwin and TE Kaden Smith. Are you sensing my concern here? The Cardinal are going to be breaking in a new receiving corps for a QB who benefited unusually from his rapport with a few key receivers a year ago.
The good news here is that the cupboards are hardly bare. Colby Parkinson is a 6’7” matchup nightmare who is probably going to emerge as the best pass-catching TE in the league now that UCLA’s Caleb Wilson has taken his talents to the Arizona Cardinals. He’s the ultimate sticks mover and will be central to Stanford’s efficiency in 2019.
The rest of the receiving corps is made up of blue-chip receivers who’ve yet to really make a mark. Connor Wedington is probably the most ready of the Stanford receivers to step up. He’s a very capable receiver who struggles a bit with his ball skills but makes up for it with his strength as a runner. Michael Wilson has “breakout” written all over him as an outside receiver. Sophomore Simi Fehoko is a name Husky fans know well and is a guy that David Shaw is clearly counting on. Osiris St. Brown is another high-level recruit with oodles of physical talent. In an ideal scenario, Wilson and Fehoko could man the X and Z roles with Wedington doing his damage out of the slot. And, hey, if that doesn’t work out, there are some exceptional freshmen talents waiting in the wings. I have particularly high hopes for 6’3” true frosh Elijah Wiggins.
But the reality is that even if you believe in the young Stanford receiving corps, Tavita Pritchard’s offense is not supposed to rely on the passing game. This is friggin’ Stanford. It is supposed to be about “our guys being tougher than your guys” on the LOS. So let’s talk about that Stanford offensive line.
First, let’s acknowledge the stud that Walker Little is. He may not be the most athletic of offensive tackles in the league, but he is long, strong, and disciplined. I really can’t think of a better guy that the PAC 12 has to offer among players who can protect a QB’s blind side. If he’s healthy, he’s as unbeatable as any player can be.
But Walker is going to be joined this year by four new starters. Let me repeat that: four new starters on an offensive line that, let’s be frank, was average a year ago. I hate to call out the elephant in the room, but I feel like I must. The very identity of the Stanford program—its ridiculously good offensive line with all of its five-star recruits—was barely serviceable in pass protection and flat-out sucked in run blocking one year ago. And now they are going to replace four starters.
There is obviously talent there. Many people are whispering the word “bust” when it comes to Foster Sarell, but it is clearly too early to say that. He’s still a young player who hasn’t had the benefit of full health when on the field. When he is healthy, he’s shown flashes of brilliance and is almost certain to start at RT. Devery Hamilton, another OT, is one of the more athletic OLs on the roster and is a rising star. He will attempt to move inside this fall as Stanford looks to get its best linemen on the field. The rest of the interior depth is thin with only Drew Dalman and Dylan Powell having any actual game experience. There are a few high-level recruits on board who I think are going to have to push those two players if Stanford is going to return to excellence in run blocking.
Even if the offensive line finds its sea legs, and that is a big “if,” someone is going to need to tote the rock. Gone are stars like Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love, who can overcome poor offensive line play based on video game talent alone. What is left is a collection of players who should be considered good players but not necessarily game-changers.
PAC 12 fans are by now very familiar with Cameron Scarlett. He’s the main man in the Cardinal rush offense now. But forgive me if I find his 330 yards and 4.1 YPC a year ago less than inspiring. Scarlett is a bruiser who has the physical strength to go along with his tremendous heart, but he has zero breakaway speed and hasn’t yet shown any kind of proclivity for setting up blocks and picking holes.
Behind Scarlett there is definitely some talent. It’s probably too early to write off Trevor Speights (although, I have to admit, I have) as he clearly has the physical strength to grow into an every-down kind of role. The name to watch is true freshman Austin Jones. He’s another one of those high-level recruits that has “star” written all over him. Whether or not he gets a chance out of the gate will be one of the great questions this fall.
I’d be remiss here if I didn’t acknowledge the Cardinal special teams game given the style of play that David Shaw prefers. Jet Toner is one of the better placekickers in the conference and should be considered as sure a thing from 40 yards in as there exists in the PAC. But the Cardinal are going to have some growing pains in their field position game as they break in both a new punter and a punt returner.
If you go back and look at my Gekko File reviews of the past three seasons, you’ll see that I’ve been pretty critical of the decline of Stanford’s defensive play. While they’ve continued to produce stars in the back half of the defense, they’ve softened substantially along the front lines since the days when the likes of Shayne Skov, Ben Gardner, Henry Anderson, Trent Murphy, and Blake Martinez were stuffing ball carriers and pressuring QBs. This transformation of identity has crept up on the program.
Last year’s defense may have been the bottoming out of that transformation. Per Bill Connelly, the Cardinal were 43rd in Defensive S&P+, 7th in the PAC in run defense, and 9th overall in total defense. To put that in perspective, Cal put up the best defense in Northern California last year. By a lot.
If the Cardinal are going to reverse their fortunes on defense—and I truly believe that it is possible given the talent on hand—the defensive line must take a step forward. For the first time in years, I’m cautiously optimistic about this unit. The key is junior Michael Williams. The surprisingly athletic tackle has mostly been an occupier of blockers, but eyeballs tell us he might be the strongest interior guy the Cardinal have put on the field in the last two or three DT recruiting classes. It feels like he is ready to do more as a havoc creator given the quickness in his game. He will rotate with another talented but young big man in sophomore Dalyn Wade-Perry to lock down the middle of Stanford’s 3-4.
The outside guys, Jovan Swann and Thomas Booker, are better suited to run defense and occupying blockers than rushing the passer. The good news is that both are big (about 280 lbs each) and play those roles pretty well. I don’t see either emerging as serious pass rushing threats (though the 8 sacks between them a year ago didn’t suck), but I see them as experienced and reliable defenders who would be plus contributors on any team.
If the pass rush is going to come at all, it is going to have to come from the linebackers. Truth be told, this is pretty standard for the #partyinthebackfield defense that David Shaw prefers. This is where the questions arise.
The Cardinal are replacing just about all of their main linebacking contributors from last year including studs Bobby Okereke and Joey Alfieri. The name to watch is rising star Ricky Miezan. He had a great spring and is sure to lock down one of the ILB spots. Reports have surfaced of the emergence of Curtis Robinson, another former high-level recruit who has been flirting with the label of “bust,” as a player the coaches are developing confidence in. If all goes well, he could become a factor in the other ILB spot.
Junior Jordan Fox and sophomore Gabe Reid look like the incumbents on the outside. Both are more of the longer/leaner mold for OLBs; however, neither really project as huge pure pass-rushing threats. Fox, in particular, is a reliable tackler and plays sound technical football. Senior Casey Toohill is a reliable veteran who excels on the weak side and who will provide depth if he doesn’t emerge as the starter opposite Fox.
If the Cardinal are going to generate a pass rush out of the base sets, either someone like Jovan Swann is going to have to do something we don’t expect, or a young player will have to emerge. Fortunately, the Cardinal have a few very high-level recruits and redshirts who will be ready to take snaps this fall. A breakout from one or two of those players could change everything on this defense. I’m particularly interested to see how true freshmen Joshua Pakola and Stephen Herron fit into the mix as I expect both will get plenty of opportunity.
The secondary is probably a strength. I say that with some hesitation because despite the lack of a few very high-level players, the overall pass defense was a conservative, uninspiring, bend-don’t-break affair last year that seemed to belie the underlying talent.
The star of the show, and perhaps one of the best players in the PAC that people have yet to really tune into, is CB Paulson Adebo. The 6’1” sophomore had a breakout freshman year with 4 INTs and 19(!) PBUs playing a lot of man-to-man last season. He should only get better this year and could very well become a PAC 12 DPOY candidate given his talents.
At the other CB spot, 6’3” Obi Eboh projects as a starter. The junior was a part of the DB rotation a year ago and takes over with a lot of experience. He graded out very well last spring and presents a significant physical challenge for the average PAC receiver.
The biggest area of concern with the secondary, and what may hold them back, is the safety position. Junior Malik Antoine is a good player who won’t make a lot of mistakes but who also won’t wow you with his playmaking. He’s the only sure thing among the safeties. 6’4” Stuart Head is an interesting prospect who played in 12 games a year ago. Beyond those two, the Cardinal are probably going to have to look at a true freshman or a converted corner for safety depth.
Despite my concerns about the DB depth, I have to admit that I’m optimistic about the Stanford defense. There were several young players who earned on-the-field experience last season. Those players, all of whom have the physical talent to excel, are now stepping into key contributor roles. Similarly, there is quality depth on the D-line that we’ve not seen in several years and a plethora of young, high-level freshmen are waiting in the wings. While I’m still not exactly sure where base defense pocket pressure will come from, I think that the Cardinal have the opportunity to greatly enhance their defensive efficiency and build on their strength from last season in the red zone. Discount these guys at your own risk.
One Breakout Player
LB Ricky Miezan
My optimism about the Stanford D bouncing back in 2019 stems in large part from my assumption that Ricky Miezan is not only going to start at ILB but emerge as that Skov-style havoc creator that Cardinal defense has traditionally relied upon. In that way, my projection of Miezan as the breakout player could be wishful thinking.
But the reality is that this player brings a full toolbox to the worksite. At 6’2” and 250 lbs, he has both the size and speed required to flex between covering a zone and rushing a gap. He was also Stanford’s best showing defender in spring camp. All he lacks is experience.
I’m projecting Miezan to put up big numbers. Let’s call it 90 tackles, 5 sacks, and a couple of picks. Should he do that, he will not only be a breakout player but he’ll show up on some all-conference watch lists.
Projecting the Cardinal
How you feel about the Cardinal going into 2019 likely depends on how you perceive their 2018 season. On one hand, you could look at all of the young talent that earned playing time and see the dramatic change in playing style as an aberration. On the other hand, you could see 2018 as the classic red-flag kind of year that signals a long-tenured coach might be losing his ability to implement his vision for the program.
My attitude is that you should doubt Stanford at your own peril. I’m particularly impressed with the talent that Stanford brings to the table at the WR, LB, and CB positions going into 2019. I also think that there are some really good players (Costello, Little, Sarell, Adebo) who are ready to put the program back into the conference championship mix.
With both Northwestern and Notre Dame on the schedule, their OOC is a bit difficult. However, the Cardinal will have five home conference games this year. In fact, they will spend the entire month of October in Palo Alto. Not only that, but they get both of their key northern rivals, Oregon and Washington, home at the Farm. If they can leverage home-field advantage to win just one of those two, look out. The rest of the schedule unfolds fairly nicely with some of their highest win probabilities coming in the last month of the season.
Yeah, they might not be quite the rushing team that they were before. And, yeah, they might be prone to a few more turnovers and a few more mistakes than we are accustomed to seeing. But I think it is Stanford even more than Oregon that presents the biggest threat to Washington in the North. They are a team that has the upside potential to take the division and win a conference championship. That is, assuming they can get back to Stanford Football.