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Wednesday roundtable: Examining early-season surprises

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On Saturday, Stanford football closed out the first chunk of its 2014 schedule — a three-game homestand — with a 35-0 victory over West Point. With a quarter of the season now complete, we asked football writers Michael Peterson, Winston Shi and Jordan Wallach: Which player or position group has been the most impressive overall for the Card, and the performance of which player or position group has been the biggest surprise (either good or bad)?

Michael: Although the homestand only provided one true test against USC, we’ve certainly learned a lot about the 2014 version of the Card because of it, especially just how dominant this secondary can be.

Heading into the season, we knew the secondary boasted NFL-caliber talent in preseason All-American Jordan Richards and 2013 All-Pac-12 honorable mention Alex Carter, but the play of the rest of the secondary has made the unit as a whole one of the nation’s best (statistically speaking, the best with only 66 passing yards allowed per game). Wayne Lyons recorded two pass breakups and a forced fumble against UC Davis, Zach Hoffpauir’s physical play has earned him a starting spot alongside Richards at safety and Ronnie Harris has emerged not only as a leader but also as a solid contributor at both nickelback and cornerback. USC, which averaged 371 passing yards in its other two games so far this season, managed only 135 against the stout secondary. With top passing teams like Oregon, Arizona State and UCLA looming on the schedule, the secondary has given Cardinal fans more confidence that Stanford can compete with the rest of the best in the Pac-12.

The biggest surprise so far this season, other than maybe the previously discussed struggles of the offensive line, has been the breakout performance of freshman Christian McCaffrey. After Shaw and the coaching staff raved about him in the preseason, it was clear that he would make an impact someday, it just wasn’t clear that that day was right now. Through three games, McCaffrey has three tackles on special teams, ranks sixth on the team with 64 receiving yards, has become one of the Card’s two consistent punt returners along with Ty Montgomery and is averaging 7.8 yards on five carries in a crowded backfield. With Kelsey Young now at running back, McCaffrey fills the old Young role — a potential slot receiver that provides the threat of a jet sweep every time he’s on the field. He’s explosive, and his impact on the offense should only grow as he grows stronger and learns more of the playbook.

Winston: I’m going to talk about the sexiest subject in football: special teams defense.

The first question is a bit hard to answer. Without question, the most impressive part of Stanford has been its defense — say whatever you want about Stanford’s win-loss record, but when you lead the nation in scoring defense with 4.3 points per game, you’re doing your job right. But I’m reluctant to say this early in the season what has been the best part of that fantastic defense. The old mantra of defense is that you are only as strong as your weakest link, but regardless of competition, what can you say when Stanford has shut out two out of three opponents? Foreshadowing the deep offensive diversity of the Pac-12, Stanford played an option running team a week after containing a bruising, up-tempo pro-style offense, and both times the defense proved itself to be playoff-caliber.

One special bright spot that I’ll mention is Stanford’s utter dominance in the field position game. Stanford’s wonderful return units are already notoriously excellent, but the special teams defense has been even better. Excluding times when Stanford’s offense coughs up the ball, the average opposing drive begins at the offense’s 18. Moreover, that field position has been remarkably consistent in its dominance. Only one kickoff or punt this year has let the opposing defense begin beyond their own 25 – and that was a flubbed kickoff against Army, with the game well in hand.

Stanford’s special teams were the difference time and time again last season, and this season looks to be no exception. I feel completely secure in saying that Jordan Williamson and Ben Rhyne’s kickoff and punt defense teams are the best unit in the country.

As for surprises — you can argue for a while about whether a redshirt freshman ought to be called a “freshman” (Stanford calls them sophomores; everybody else except Notre Dame calls them freshmen), but freshman or not, it’s still impressive how Austin Hooper has firmly entrenched himself as the top tight end in Stanford’s offense. Hooper’s 12 receptions are good for second on the team. He’s already one of Kevin Hogan’s favorite targets in the passing game, and his emergence promises to add some much-needed reliability to Stanford’s intermediate passing game. Roster management is always a controversial issue, and the season is still young, but I can see why David Shaw refused to burn Hooper’s redshirt.

Jordan: Speaking of Austin Hooper, the integration of Stanford’s tight ends back into the team’s offensive scheme early this season has not necessarily been a surprise, but it’s a welcomed change for the school once known as Tight End U. Since the likes of Jimmy Dray, Coby Fleener, Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz all departed for the NFL, the Cardinal have struggled to regain their dominance in the intermediate passing game.

Stanford Tight Ends: Receiving, Year-by-Year

Receptions Yards Touchdowns
2011 86 1,356 20
2012 94 1,300 10
2013 10 69 0
2014 (through three games) 16 226 1

Yet this season, the trio of redshirt freshmen Austin Hooper, Eric Cotton and Greg Taboada has already surpassed Stanford’s reception total by tight ends in 2013, and have more than tripled last season’s total yardage.

And at least by the eye test, Hogan has looked much more comfortable in the pocket through the team’s first three games in 2014. He has been able to target his tight ends early, as eight of Hooper’s 12 receptions so far have been on first downs, gaining important chunks of yardage to set up further plays. Come time for the Cardinal’s big road tests, even starting next week in Seattle against Washington, look for the connections between the tight end corps and Hogan to get even stronger, as familiar targets in medium range are easy to fall back on in tough situations.

Michael Peterson and Jordan Wallach aren’t the only ones that are surprised that the normally critical Winston Shi went with a positive surprise for this roundtable. Ask them what they think softened Winston’s heart at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu and jwallach ‘at’ stanford.edu or ask Winston himself at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Michael Peterson is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily. He has served as a beat reporter for football, baseball and men’s soccer and also does play-by-play broadcasting of football and baseball for KZSU. Michael is a senior from Rancho Santa Margarita, California majoring in computer science. To contact him, please email him at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu.