By George Chen
There’s one question that should preoccupy all Stanford football fans for the next eight months.
It’s not which bowl the Cardinal will end up in (although the players certainly have a strong preference), or whether the offensive line will find its bearings in the offseason or even which five-star recruits Stanford will ink.
If you’re focused on next season, there is only one aching question that should be festering in your mind through spring ball and the dog days of summer: If Kevin Hogan returns for his fifth year, should he be the starting quarterback for Stanford?
In reality, two parts to this question exist because there’s a difference between whether he should be the starting quarterback and whether he will be the starting quarterback. I believe that Hogan should be benched but I also think he will be the starter at the beginning of the 2015 season, and my answers to both questions remain unchanged after seeing his epic performance against UCLA.
I’ve defended Hogan’s play as much as anybody else besides David Shaw has, but after seeing him struggle so much this season, I can’t bring myself to believe that Hogan will ever be a good fit for the type of offense the Cardinal are accustomed to running. I don’t think Hogan can ever become the quarterback that Stanford needs him to be. In Stanford’s West Coast offense, the quarterback needs to have pocket-passing abilities. That doesn’t mean the quarterback has to stay in the pocket all the time, but when it’s the best play available and there’s a receiver open, he needs to be able to stay in there, recognize the coverage and make the throw. Three-time Super Bowl champion Steve Young is the perfect example of a quarterback who made crazy scrambles but was just as deadly staying in the pocket in Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense.
After two full seasons, Hogan hasn’t shown that he’s capable of consistently going through his progressions and making accurate throws in the pocket. His throwing mechanics haven’t improved much, his footwork is still sloppy and he still struggles with deciphering blitzes before the snap. Much criticism has been directed at Shaw for not dialing up play-calls that take advantage of Hogan’s running abilities, and while those points are valid to a certain extent, an offense shouldn’t sacrifice the integrity of its scheme or entirely change its play-calling because of the deficiencies of one player. In a West Coast offense that relies on the power running game setting up the play-action pass over the middle, the quarterback can’t just roll out on a bootleg on every single passing play — that requires throwing most of the playbook away.
There’s no doubt that Hogan looked terrific against UCLA this past Friday. He was unbelievable. Hogan went 16-of-19 passing for 234 yards and 2 touchdowns and really should’ve been 19-of-19 without the three drops. More impressively, he made NFL throws — the back-shoulder throw to Austin Hooper was a thing of beauty and even the short throw to Jordan Pratt on the curl route was one of the most well-timed passes he’s ever made. It was the best performance by a Stanford quarterback since Andrew Luck in the Fiesta Bowl (I know that’s not saying all that much, but it’s been almost three years).
But my question for you is, do you think that Luck-esque performance is sustainable? Do you think he can be that good consistently? After looking at his whole body of work in the 31 games that he’s started, I don’t think so. Fans wonder why Hogan seemed to be at his best in his first year when he took over for Josh Nunes, but the truth is that one of the nation’s best offensive lines and running backs bailed out his quarterbacking deficiencies the past two seasons. In 2012, Hogan not going through his reads wasn’t much of an issue because Zach Ertz always got open. When you have an offensive line that gives you all day to throw and Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney, who fall forward for five yards on every play, life as the quarterback is easy — Hogan just needed to make a couple big plays here and there, and the rest of the team would take care of the game. And it’s not like the 2012 and 2013 teams were blowing out opponents. The Cardinal no longer have a workhorse running back or a dominant possession receiver — the two pillars that Hogan has clung to in the past — and Stanford probably isn’t going to have either of those two elements next year.
Yes, part of Hogan’s regression can be attributed to opposing defenses finally figuring him out — not very different from how NFL teams have found a way to make Colin Kaepernick look awful — but the fundamental problem is that he’s never been able to go through his reads or be a comfortable pocket-passer. What makes you think that he’ll be able to after two unsuccessful offseasons?
Is Keller Chryst the one? I don’t know. No one outside of the Stanford coaches and players knows for sure. His high school tape sure looks impressive, but we all know that at the college level, most quarterbacks don’t trample defensive ends and that not every receiver is open by 20 yards . But considering that Chryst operated out of a pro-style offense in high school, there’s a very good chance that he’s already better equipped to run Stanford’s offense than Hogan. Stanford’s massive playbook is daunting, but Chryst is a Stanford student — he’s smart, and he’s going to be able to learn the playbook if he hasn’t already. I have a lot more confidence in Chryst mastering the playbook than Hogan becoming a reliable pocket-passer. We’ve seen Hogan’s ceiling, and it’s time for Chryst to get a chance.
But I also don’t think that Chryst will be the starter, at least at the beginning of the 2015 season. It all boils down to Shaw’s decision-making. Chryst can’t just be better than Hogan for Shaw to make the switch in the offseason. The younger player needs to be significantly better. Jim Harbaugh chose to redshirt Luck in 2008 despite the fact that Luck was clearly better than the three other senior quarterbacks competing for the starting job, so what do you think it’s going to take from Chryst to convince a much more conservative Shaw that he should be the starter?
Shaw is always protective of his players, and no one more so than Hogan. I doubt Shaw is giving up on Hogan right now, and it’s easy to understand why. Luck, Taylor, Gaffney and Toby Gerhart were all credited to Harbaugh’s magic. But Hogan is Shaw’s product and Shaw’s product only. Shaw has lived and died by his dual-threat quarterback for the majority of his Stanford coaching career, so I can’t imagine him benching Hogan in favor of Chryst without being almost 100 percent confident in making that decision.
I think Hogan keeps his job to start the 2015 season. If he somehow transforms into the quarterback that some people thought he would be, then this argument becomes a moot point. But if he doesn’t — and it’s likely that he won’t — then Shaw has a huge decision to make. Does he stick with his old horse or does he give Chryst a chance? My guess is that he would make the switch in the middle of the season if Hogan’s deficiencies compromise the offense’s identity. Shaw wants to keep Hogan, but not at the expense of handicapping his pro-style offensive scheme.
But then again, that’s just my opinion. What’s definitive is that if and when that day arrives, Shaw will have to make one of the biggest decisions in his coaching career.
Kevin Hogan is going to win the Heisman Trophy next year, get picked No. 1 overall in the 2016 NFL Draft and, most importantly, make George Chen eat his words. You heard it here first. Make George hear it from all angles by sending him emails at gchen15 ‘at’ stanford.edu.