Spring Update: Stanford

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Things look different in Palo Alto.

The Stanford football team said goodbye to prized defensive coordinator Derek Mason, who takes over the Vanderbilt football program. The Cardinal also lose some of the team leaders that turned Stanford into one of the elites in college football and the toast of the Pac-12. Yet David Shaw‘s squad is once again expected to be among the best in college football.

That says a great deal about the program Shaw has built, taking over for Jim Harbaugh and continuing the climb up the mountain. Stanford has now won at least 11 games the last four seasons, doing so while playing one of the most competitive schedules in college football.

But there are plenty of changes at The Farm. The Cardinal need to replace 11 starters. They also have rebuilt their coaching staff. While Kevin Hogan remains at quarterback, his meager progress last season put his job on shakier ground than many expected.

To give us a status update on the Cardinal, Stanford Daily Football Editor Joseph Beyda took the time to answer some of my questions. In between majoring in electrical engineering, co-authoring the book “Rags to Roses,” and covering the Cardinal’s women’s soccer national title for the New York Times, Joey managed to give us a great look at how Stanford looks exiting spring practice.

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After continuing the program’s upward trajectory, David Shaw looks to be at a crossroad. He’s said goodbye to Derek Mason, now the head coach at Vanderbilt. He also needs to replace key contributors on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

It’s only been 15 practices, but how does Shaw seem to be adjusting with a reshaped coaching staff and roster?

As far as the roster adjustments go, it’s hard to tell this early on. Before last season, Stanford analysts learned the lesson not to buy in too much to the adjustments we saw from Shaw in the Spring Game and early scrimmages; he called 62 passes to just 36 rushes in that 2013 game, and we all know that’s not the Cardinal’s M.O.

When it comes to coaches, though, it’s hard not to be encouraged by what Shaw has done with the cards he was dealt this offseason. Mason was replaced at defensive coordinator by outside linebackers coach Lance Anderson, one of the founding fathers of the program — he came to Stanford with Shaw and Jim Harbaugh in 2007, and Harbaugh has since called Anderson (the recruiting coordinator in the early years) the single biggest factor in the Cardinal’s resurgence. To replace Mason’s secondary expertise, moreover, Shaw brought in arguably the most respected defensive backs coach in the country in Duane Akina, who has developed 28 NFL DBs at Texas and elsewhere.

If there’s a potential weakness on the coaching side, it’s the youth of Stanford’s offensive staff. Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren are the only offensive coaches older than 35, and that room lost one of its best recruiters, Mike Sanford, to Boise State this offseason. But there’s continuity at the top, so there’s no real cause for concern as long as the results are there.

 

Offensively, the strength of the team looks to be its skill players on the perimeter, not quite the norm for a Cardinal team that built its reputation in the trenches. How talented are quarterback Kevin Hogan’s weapons?

Oh, they’re talented. This is the best skill and depth Stanford has had at wide receiver and tight end since 2010, when the Cardinal fielded six future NFL pass-catchers — Doug Baldwin, Ryan Whalen, Coby Fleener, Chris Owusu, Griff Whalen and Zach Ertz — and, as you’ll remember, flummoxed the Irish 37-14 in South Bend.

To start off, you’re looking at a potential first-round pick in Ty Montgomery, who will return as the Cardinal’s top receiver and won the Jet Award in January as college football’s top returner after taking back two kickoffs for touchdowns in 2013. Just as speedy is Michael Rector, a downfield threat who only caught 14 passes last year — but averaged 30.8 yards per reception. And the 6-foot-4 Devon Cajuste was consistently a mismatch in the slot last season, reeling in catches of 48 and 72 yards in the Pac-12 Championship Game at ASU.

But Stanford’s tight end corps is even more encouraging entering 2014, since that the position group was the Cardinal’s most disappointing last year, making just 10 receptions. Stanford’s offense was hamstrung by the lack of an intermediate passing game in 2013, and the Cardinal certainly prefer the problem they will face at tight end this fall: three talented sophomores and the top tight end recruit in the country all jostling for playing time.

 

The offensive line will be rebuilt. The good news is that Stanford has recruited incredibly well up front. The bad news is that there are a lot of starting minutes to replace. How did the offensive line look this spring and how do you project it to look this fall?

The offensive line is currently Stanford’s biggest question mark — not because the talent isn’t there, but because how quickly the group matures could determine whether Cardinal go 7-5 or whether they contend for a national title.

All five projected starters at the moment are rising juniors and members of Stanford’s 2012 recruiting class, considered by some the best O-line haul in college football history. Yet only one of those players, left tackle Andrus Peat, started on the line last season. The rest of the class has made an impact in the Cardinal’s bevy of jumbo packages; how well will that translate on a down-by-down basis?

The good news for Cardinal fans is that the team has successfully managed the annual turnover on the line in the past. But Stanford lives and dies by the so-called Tunnel Workers Union, and after the offensive line lost the battle at the line of scrimmage in the Spring Game, there’s still some work to be done. So I’d say that’s a question that won’t be answered until the season is underway, but it’s a defining question for the Cardinal as well.

 

The front seven should also look radically different for the Cardinal. Are their structural changes in place with Lance Anderson taking over, or will we see new faces taking over for stalwarts Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov and Ben Gardner.

Believe it or not, faith in the front seven hasn’t wavered around here, even with those huge losses.

The defensive line was limited by injuries throughout 2013 so it might even take a step forward this season, with Henry Anderson (another potential first-rounder) fully healthy, David Parry returning at nose tackle and a handful of experienced candidates ready to take over for Gardner at the other end spot. Stanford’s new anchor at inside linebacker will be A.J. Tarpley, who has started much of the last three seasons and has quietly been a stalwart alongside Skov over that stretch. And on the outside, rising seniors James Vaughters and Kevin Anderson have both put in solid time on Saturdays and seem primed for a breakout year.

Don’t forget, linebacker is another position that Stanford has recruited very well at in recent years. Peter Kalambayi couldn’t be stopped in his first Spring Game on the Farm, and rising junior Noor Davis made huge strides in the spring. There are holes to be plugged this offseason, for sure, but the Cardinal should continue to benefit from considerable depth in the front seven.

 

Early preseason looks have Stanford appearing like a Top 10 program again. Yet there is quite a bit of change happening on The Farm. Are those expectations in line, or merely an example of the respect Shaw has built up.

I’d say that the potential is definitely there for another special run, but a few major things have to fall in place for Stanford to get to 10 wins for a fifth consecutive season. One of them is the offensive line, which we talked about earlier. The Cardinal also have to navigate another brutal schedule, which includes USC in the second game, road trips to Washington and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks and the late-season contests at Oregon and UCLA. None of those games will be easy, and that’s not even considering the rest of Stanford’s Pac-12 schedule — keep in mind, the Cardinal have lost three conference games in which they were favored over the last two seasons.

But the one factor that nobody is talking about is quarterback Kevin Hogan. Though Hogan made strides in 2013, especially with the deep ball, he didn’t develop as quickly as some of us expected and he was forgettable in all three of Stanford’s losses. After Hogan’s honeymoon at the tail end of Stanford’s 2012 Rose Bowl run, a lot of fans envisioned him as a bigger game changer than he has turned out to be so far. There will be little competition for Hogan this season, as highly touted recruit Keller Chryst will almost certainly be redshirted and rising sophomore Ryan Burns was suspended for much of the spring before struggling in the Spring Game, in which he fumbled three consecutive snaps. So will Hogan become complacent, or will he rise to the occasion? For Stanford to be a top program once again, it will need him to do the latter.

 

Even amidst schedule changes and conference realignment, Notre Dame and Stanford are committed to an annual game. From your perspective, has this rivalry grown in significant for the Cardinal and its fans?

That’s a really interesting question, and it actually came up at The Daily’s office a few nights ago when we were watching a replay of last year’s Alabama-Auburn game (which overlapped with the Cardinal-Irish showdown). A couple of our editors said they wish they had skipped the first half of the Notre Dame-Stanford game so they could have seen that memorable ending, and according to our game-day reporters, the entire press box was watching the broadcast of the Iron Bowl despite the first-half action that was unfolding below at Stanford Stadium.

Given the Cardinal’s traditional rivalries with Cal and USC and its multi-year war with Oregon at the top of the Pac-12, students don’t really get the sense that Notre Dame is a rival at all. Most of the longtime fans still consider the game a rivalry and know about its history, but at the same time, they aren’t generally as excited during Notre Dame week as they are during the leadup to those other three games. My opinion is that the tough nonconference showdown still benefits both teams from a strength-of-schedule perspective, even if the rivalry isn’t as heated for the fans.

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You can read more from Joey at the Stanford Daily. You can purchase “Rags to Roses: The Rise of  Stanford Football here.

Friday at 4: Bowl games are fun, but little else, even for Notre Dame vs. LSU

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Bowl games are [insert positive adjective here]. Make no mistake about that. They provide players and fans an excuse to head south in December, even if that destination is El Paso, Texas, or Birmingham, Ala. Warmer temperatures are always preferable. That’s science.

For those not making a trek to Shreveport, La., or Orlando, Fla., the 39 games sprinkled throughout 17 days provide a break from primetime reruns or, in the best of times, from mid-day office minutiae. Football is preferable to “Young Sheldon” or remembering to include the new cover sheet on the TPS report. Again, empirical evidence establishes this as a fact.

And for the grinding gambler, bowl games represent one last chance to exit the college football season with a net gain, furthering the dreams of continuing similar growth annually for two decades in order to secure retirement based off a hobby. On a smaller scale, bowl pools establish a chance for bragging rights, and little is better than holiday season bragging rights. That’s a bit shy of sound logic, but it is a reality, nonetheless.

All that acknowledged, bowl games should still not be factored much into long-term views, forward-looking or retrospective. They are the most uncertain of sporting events, having little attachment to either the season prior or the season eight months away.

When else does a team not play for a month on either side of a competition? There is a reason an answer is lacking. It’s an absurd practice. (Albeit, again, a delightful one. There are five games Saturday and only one of those 10 teams is from a Power Five conference, yet this scribe intends to watch each and every one of the five.) (Is that the first sign of a problem? Maybe, maybe not.)

Notre Dame finished 2017 with a 9-3 record and two losses in its final three games. Beating No. 17 LSU in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 in the aforementioned Disney-based metropolis should not change the taste of that November letdown. At most, it can support an argument of the Irish simply being worn down by season’s end, but that would not change the fact of them indeed being worn down when it mattered.

When Notre Dame beat LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl, it did not change the tenor of the season, and it did not lead to 2015’s success. Rather, the following year’s breakthroughs came from surprises shown only after injuries. (Getty Images)

Losing to the Tigers is not a greater sign of a program stuck spinning its wheels in the winter’s snow. It is not an indication of failing to win a game when it matters. Notre Dame already went 2-3 in those big games this year. In retrospect, perhaps the victory at Michigan State should raise that record to 3-3, but a big game feels like one as it occurs, and that Saturday evening in September did not hold such weight.

A big game does not come five weeks following the last consequential contest. A big game has some tangible effect on games to come. Outside of the College Football Playoff, no bowl game claims either factor. They are simply enjoyable exhibitions.

Hence, the common practice for coaches with new jobs is to move on, apparently abandoning their team before the season is technically over. It is becomingly increasingly-normal for NFL Draft prospects to sit out bowl games, be it out of precaution or preemptive recovery. They have nothing to gain, no ring, no record, yet much to lose in an injury a la former Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith in the 2015 Fiesta Bowl.

To pull from a comment shortly after Notre Dame fell to Miami, dashing any Playoff hopes, “I truly don’t get how you think wins over Navy and a pedestrian Stanford team carry more weight than a win over an Ohio St or TCU or Clemson in a major bowl game. Agree to disagree, I guess.”

A win at Stanford would have sent the Irish to a bowl game of greater note (likely the Fiesta Bowl, in the end), but that would not have been the reason it held consequence. Winning in-season, week-after-week, day-after-day becomes ingrained. A win Saturday creates momentum for a good practice on Tuesday, begetting a consistent showing Wednesday, which leads to attention to detail on Thursday. Before you know it, another weekend victory is in hand.

Concluding the season by knocking off the Cardinal would have set a standard of the revamped Irish being better than their most-similar foes.

Beating LSU will do little except provide fodder for both sides of the “Brian Kelly must go/stay” argument, an inane debate which will undoubtedly proceed unabated for an entire offseason when it should be recognized as utterly pointless absolutely no later than Jan. 9.

This memory should stick with the Irish throughout 2018’s first eight months, not whatever happens in Orlando. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Losing to LSU will not “fester over the winter,” to use another commenter’s worry. Losing to Stanford should. Getting embarrassed at Miami will.

If (when) Central Florida falls for the first time this year, how vocal will the sideways glances toward Scott Frost be, as the head coach splits his time between his new gig at Nebraska and his loyal charges in Orlando? They won’t be vocal at all. Frost delivered a 13-0 season. That is what will be remembered.

When Oregon blows past Boise State this weekend, will the Ducks take solace in thinking they could have challenged Stanford for the Pac-12 North Division if only their quarterback had stayed healthy? No, they will still look at the 7-5 season as the disappointment it was, not to mention they’ll be led by their newest head coach with Willie Taggart gone already in less than one calendar year.

When Arizona and Purdue combine for more than 65 points, will that be a sign their defenses need vast improvements in the offseason? No, the Wildcats giving up 34.1 yards per game already makes that pretty clear. The Boilermakers, contrarily, shouldn’t panic no matter the Foster Farms Bowl result. Head coach Jeff Brohm clearly has them trending in the right direction on both sides of the ball. In addition to a dynamic offense, Purdue gave up only 19.3 points per game this season.

Notre Dame very well may beat LSU. It certainly wants to. But that result will not reflect the 2017 season, and it will not be a catalyst into 2018. Let’s skip the argument of bowl victories set a foundation for success the following season. The data overwhelmingly says there is no distinct correlation to such thinking.

Rather, the Citrus Bowl will simply be a physical and entertaining game. On a day inevitably spent on the couch, likely horizontally, what more can genuinely be asked for?

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

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Notre Dame’s secondary presents one position of such strength it is continually pondered if raiding that depth could salvage the near-vacuum in the other half of the Irish defensive backfield. That was true before the season, and it remains the case now.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
A bounty of cornerbacks, led by sophomore Julian Love, provided some sense of comfort in the Irish defense’s back line. A finally-healthy junior Shaun Crawford could finally contribute as a nickelback, and senior Nick Watkins, largely thanks to his length, established himself as a starter during spring practice.

That marked three bona fide starters before even acknowledging the depth provided by sophomores Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride.

Then there were the safeties. Such confidence in the depth chart did not exist in the spring or at any point of the preseason. Junior Nick Coleman secured one safety spot in the spring, while sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill failed to separate from each other in the competition to line up alongside Coleman. To be clear, that was not a credit to both showing such great abilities.

When the NCAA denied sophomore Alohi Gilman’s waiver for immediate eligibility following his transfer from Navy, Elliott became the de facto starter.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
On paper, Love’s season was essentially unparalleled. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns and nearly managed a third. Rare can a coaching staff genuinely and reasonably discuss moving a position’s best player, but Love very well may be the best Irish safety, as well. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has admitted as much as a distinct possibility.

Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford did quite a bit of everything for Notre Dame in his first healthy season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

For now, though, Love remains at cornerback. Crawford complemented him excellently in a playmaking sense, forcing his impact upon the game even more than could have been anticipated, though it is logical to think finally seeing a season’s worth of action tired his legs by the end.

Watkins, meanwhile, put together a strong season until knee tendonitis limited him — and created an opportunity for Pride to prematurely insert himself into 2018’s conversations — in November. In the moment, Watkins seemed a weakness against Miami (OH) when RedHawks junior receiver James Gardner caught two touchdowns over Watkins. With time diminishing overreactions, Gardner’s success seems a credit to him (and his 6-foot-4 frame) more than a knock on Watkins.

For that matter, it may not have been a knock on Watkins at all. Let’s pull from the respective “Things We Learned”As much as one may want to see Watkins break each of those passes up, it could also be wondered why there was not a safety helping on the occasion. That latter position remains the biggest Irish concern, offensive or defensive.

That concern remains pressing. Coleman played alright, but did not necessarily excel. Any continuing debate between Elliott and Studstill persists yet out of lack of a strong impression. The rest of the Irish defense’s surge limited the dramatic effect of the positional need, but it cannot be denied, nonetheless.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Opponents passed more often against Notre Dame this season than they did a year ago. It makes sense; the Irish led more often and for much of the year, led by large margins. Thus, the averages offer a better comparison between the autumns as a rough estimate of passing efficiency.

2016: 2,357 yards allowed on 193-of-313 passing; 61.66 percent completion rate; 7.53 yards per attempt; 12.21 yards per completion.
2017: 2,562 yards allowed on 233-of-412 passing; 56.55 percent completion rate; 6.22 yards per attempt; 11.00 yards per completion.

So. Julian Love — 62 tackles; three interceptions; 17 pass breakups.
Jr. Nick Coleman — 42 tackles; three pass breakups.
So. Jalen Elliott — 38 tackles; one pass breakup.
Jr. Shaun Crawford — 32 tackles; two interceptions, five pass breakups; two fumbles recovered; one fumble forced.
Sr. Nick Watkins — 27 tackles; one interception; eight pass breakups.
So. Troy Pride — 22 tackles; one interception; two pass breakups.
So. Devin Studstill — 16 tackles.
Fr. Isaiah Robertson — Eight tackles.
So. Donte Vaughn — Six tackles.

COMING QUESTIONS
Earning a nod as defensive scout team player of the year should speak to Gilman’s potential impact in 2018. By all indications, he was the best safety on the roster in 2017 with the arguable exception of Love. Will Gilman live up to this billing?

As it pertains to Love, the coaching staff should move him to safety only if the gap between him and the otherwise starter there is greater than the gap between Love and the next man up at cornerback, presumably Pride. (In this respect, compare it to senior Alex Bars lining up at right guard this season rather than right tackle, his previous position. He was the best option at right tackle, but the drop from Bars to sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey was minimal. The talent discrepancy between Bars and any other right guard option would have been much more drastic.) Is it in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s best interests to keep Love at cornerback or move the excellent defender to safety?

If it is not Love who provides a minimum of depth at safety, it could be a recruit. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith comes to mind not only due to his commitment this week, but also because he fits right into Notre Dame’s needs.

A similar thought applies to current freshman Isaiah Robertson. He saw special teams action this season. A full year readying in a college system could have him poised to contribute, be it in support of Coleman or in place of him.

OUTSIDE READING
ND Insider’s Eric Hansen put together a worthwhile read on Gilman following last week’s program awards: Full speed ahead? There’s no happy medium for Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

“There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

“I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.