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.