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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.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.

Irish A-to-Z: Hunter Bivin

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One of many heralded offensive line recruits to follow Harry Hiestand to South Bend, Hunter Bivin has bounced inside and out on Notre Dame’s offensive line, looking for a home. After serving as a back-up to talents like Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey at tackle, Bivin might have the inside track to earn his first starting experience at right guard.

After three years of hard work—and Steve Elmer deciding to cut short his college career after three seasons—Bivin looks like a true contender for a starting role. Now he needs to continue the work he put in this spring over the summer months, holding off a group of young talent to finalize the fifth starting job on a rebuilt offensive line.

 

HUNTER BIVIN
6’5.5″, 308 lbs.
Senior, No. 70, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bivin was an elite prospect. 247 ranked him as one of the top offensive linemen—and overall prospects—in the country. He was an All-State performer in Kentucky, an Under Armour All-American, and played for the USA Team.

Bivin chose Notre Dame over offers from Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Michigan. He was a starter on a Kentucky state championship basketball team and also the state’s best shot putter.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Made his Irish debut in the second half of a lopsided victory over Rice. Played in five games, including on special teams against Florida State.

Junior Season (2015): Played in five games, serving as a backup at left tackle for Ronnie Stanley. Notched a season-high 25 snaps against UMass. Played 14 snaps in a convincing season-opening win over Texas.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

The crystal ball appeared to be working last year when it came to Bivin’s playing time.

Bivin’s got everything you’d want—on paper—when it comes to an offensive line recruit. That said, it’s time for those qualities to translate to the field, something we haven’t seen yet.

It’s not necessarily fair to call Bivin an underachiever, especially when you want to have the type of depth Notre Dame has developed up front. It’s also worth noting that the two positions the Irish have worked Bivin have required some difficult playing time battles: Matt Hegarty just moved to Oregon and was inserted as the team’s starting center after he couldn’t beat out Nick Martin. And Ronnie Stanley will follow Zack Martin into the first round of the NFL Draft.

So let’s hold our breath a little bit longer.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

It’s clear that Bivin has some ability, with the staff entrusting a second-string tackle job to the Kentucky native the past two seasons. But it’s also clear that he’s not the caliber of tackle prospect that Alex Bars is, with Bivin making the slide inside, hopefully solidifying the starting lineup with the team’s five best offensive linemen.

Right now—especially after Colin McGovern struggled through injuries this spring—Bivin has a grasp on that job. But after another summer competing with Tristen Hoge and incoming freshman Tommy Kraemer, that might not be as clear.

Hiestand and Brian Kelly both prefer playing veterans—especially along the offensive line. We’ve seen guys like Mike Golic, Christian Lombard and Matt Hegarty keep talented young players on the sideline as trusted veterans. Bivin likely can do the same as a senior with a fifth-year available, though he’ll need to be the best player for the job.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I have Bivin penciled in at right guard for the start against Texas. Whether he stays in the lineup will likely be dictated by how quickly this offensive line gels. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that Kelly and Hiestand reshuffled their starting lineup, 2014’s offensive line swapped out mid-season after a disappointing start to the year. That’s a real scenario that could take place if this line doesn’t come together.

Being the fifth-best starter on an offensive line that features guys like Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson is no shame, especially when we’ve seen and heard such good things about first-time projected starters like Bars and Sam Mustipher. Bivin is a big body—he’s got prototype tackle size—and that’ll make the transition inside easier.

But I’m still waiting to see how he does as a mauler. There’s not much room for finesse at right guard, especially with the Irish wanting to establish a ground game early and often in 2016.

If Bivin brings that type of aggressiveness to the job and takes to guard over the summer, he’s a potential two-year starter. If not, he goes back to being a sixth man, capable of backing up essentially every spot on the offensive line.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal