Hours after receiving a No. 21 ranking in the preseason Coaches’ Poll and as Pac-12 teams gathered in Hollywood for Media Day, the Cardinal expressed optimism about their explosive offense, up-and-coming defense and the goals they aim to accomplish in 2015.
Represented by head coach David Shaw, senior offensive tackle Kyle Murphy and senior linebacker Blake Martinez, the Cardinal discussed their desire to build upon the momentum they gathered in their final three games of the 2014 season — victories over Cal, then-No. 9 UCLA and Maryland.
“You look at the way we finished the end of the year, we played as well as any team in college football,” Shaw said. “Kevin [Hogan] played as well as any quarterback in college football at the end of the year; he was outstanding. He still didn’t throw the ball 30 times in any of those games, but what he was was efficient. He made great plays with his arms and his legs, he controlled the game, he operated in the pocket unbelievably.”
Shaw seemed noticeably excited about the offense, which returns eight starters, and about Hogan in particular.
“Since he’s come back, he’s calmer, relaxed, confident,” Shaw said. “You feel that fifth-year senior, fourth-year starter presence in the huddle. He doesn’t let little things get to him. He’s been a positive force for all of our young guys. it’s been awesome to have him back.”
The Cardinal enter 2015 with a more established identity on offense, in large part due to electric sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey’s presence will allow Stanford to return to having balance in both the running and passing games while also being versatile and explosive.
Shaw also quickly put to rest notions of another running back-by-committee approach and declared McCaffrey as Stanford’s lead back.
“He’s put on weight, he’s stronger now, he’s more physical now, he can pass protect, he can run the ball between the tackles, we feel more comfortable about him being a complete back,” Shaw said about McCaffrey.
“I’m not going to talk about being a ‘by-committee’ group because I do think that Christian McCaffrey has some stuff that he does that other guys in college football can’t do,” Shaw added. “You can work all you want, but he’s just got it. Whatever it is, he’s got it.”
Though McCaffrey exploded on the scene as a freshman with 9.3 yards per touch, by all accounts, he has significantly improved over the offseason.
“Just sitting down and talking to him and watching him this offseason in particular, there’s no one on this team who works harder than him and there’s no one who cares about being great like he does,” Murphy said. “With all that combined, there’s no doubt that he’s going to have a great year this year and a great career.”
Additionally, senior wide receiver Devon Cajuste is expected to return to full health from a high-ankle injury during fall camp, giving the offense its No. 1 receiver back. Joining him on the field may be freshman wide receiver Trent Irwin, who Shaw said is currently the most ready of the true freshmen to play this season.
Adding to the Cardinal’s playmakers, Stanford has four tight ends “who are all going to be playing this game for money down the road,” according to Shaw.
In addition, Shaw shared his excitement over the improving offensive line as well as the development of senior running back Barry Sanders, who was “the best pass protector [Stanford] had” at the running back position in the spring.
Shaw named execution and efficiency as the keys for the Cardinal offense to avoid repeating the subpar performances they faced at the beginning of last season.
Of course, the major questions for the Cardinal entering 2015 revolve around the departure of nine starters from last season’s defense. The outlook became even more bleak when Shaw announced that senior linebacker Noor Davis, one of the more experienced returners, would be out until midseason with a lower leg injury. However, Shaw is not worried about this version of the defense any more than in previous seasons.
“For me, college football is a progression, but it’s a progression that happens every single year,” he said. “I remind guys I’ve answered so many times about replacing Toby Gerhart and Andrew Luck and Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy but what we do on the front end is we recruit like crazy, we recruit depth. We put a lot of pressure on these guys to play on a high level, which we believe they have the ability to do.”
A large part of Shaw’s confidence comes from having Martinez at the heart of the defense. Martinez, Stanford’s leading tackler in 2014 and an All-Pac-12 honorable mention, might be poised for an even-bigger breakout season.
“By midseason, everyone’s going to know about Blake Martinez,” Shaw said. “By midseason, you’re going to see that Blake Martinez is as good as anybody playing college football. He’s as good as any linebacker.”
While the rest of the defense has considerable talent to replace, Martinez is confident that his teammates can step into bigger roles.
“These guys coming in are going to shock the world,” he said. “After a couple games, people are going to be like ‘Wow, where did these guys come from?’ We have D-linemen that no one’s seen before: Solomon Thomas, Brennan Scarlett, Harrison Phillips — he’s gained over 20 pounds this offseason. We have secondary guys that are young and haven’t played yet but seeing them out there against our No. 1 offense and making plays has been incredible.”
The defense will be boosted by the return of senior Aziz Shittu, who is now “completely healthy” according to Shaw, and the addition of Cal graduate transfer Scarlett, who, after tearing his ACL last season, should return to full health sometime during fall camp.
With a young secondary that lost both starting corners, both starting safeties and the starting nickelback, Martinez expressed the importance of having fifth-year senior cornerback Ronnie Harris help the young unit out.
“[Harris] is going to step in and hype us up when we need it,” Martinez said. “I know all the young secondary guys look at him for film work or for extra things on the field…They look at him and say, ‘What can I do next to get better?’”
Stanford’s defense won’t have much time to come together before it needs to be playing at its best. Just three weeks into the season, the Cardinal face possibly their stiffest test — a road date with No. 10 USC, the media’s selection to win the Pac-12.
While Stanford still finished with eight first-place votes in the Pac-12 North and one vote to win the conference, the emphasis at the Pac-12 Media Day was clearly on the conference’s improved depth and the crowd of teams now contending for the conference title.
“Everyone will be better,” Shaw stated. “If you play your ‘B’ game against anyone in our conference, there’s a good chance you’re going to lose.”
Four years ago in 2011, the Pac-12 placed just two teams, Oregon and Stanford, in the preseason Coaches’ Poll. In 2015, six Pac-12 teams made the poll, with Arizona State, Arizona, UCLA and USC joining Oregon and Stanford.
Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott believes the nation is beginning to respect the conference and see it as the best in the country.
“When you look at Marcus [Mariota] being the Heisman Trophy winner, when you look at our 15 AP All-Americans, more than any other conference,” Scott said, “many are seeing us as the best. Many are seeing the Pac-12 South as the best division in all of college football.
“I definitely see us making a lot of progress and there being a greater respect shown nationally to the Pac-12.”
Part of that respect comes from the grueling schedules Pac-12 teams face. Not only do the schools play nine conference games each, as opposed to the eight played by the SEC, ACC and Big Ten, but the Pac-12’s nonconference schedules are some of the most difficult in the nation. Michigan State, Michigan, Texas and Texas A&M are just a few of the Power 5 opponents lined up for the Pac-12 this year.
To top it off, after nine conference games, the Pac-12 division winners must play in the conference championship game, unlike the Big 12, which does play nine conference games but does not have a conference championship game.
“This is why I have confidence standing up in the front of the room like this saying no one has a tougher schedule and the Pac-12 champion has the toughest road,” Scott added.
During the course of last season, eight different Pac-12 teams were ranked in the top 25 of the AP Poll at some point. While the conference has always seemed to have an elite program at the top — USC in the early-to-mid 2000s, Oregon since the late 2000s and Stanford since 2010 — the increased depth is relatively new.
“Five years ago, we didn’t have the same depth but we weren’t even close to getting the recognition or respect,” Scott said. “[Now] I’m really proud of the depth that we’ve got. To me that’s been the defining characteristic of our conference the last few years and it’s the mark of an elite conference.”
Despite the conference’s improvement, Shaw remains confident in Stanford’s chances at competing for the title.
“When we’re efficient in the red zone, when we’re efficient on third down and our quarterback’s efficient and we run the ball efficiently, we can beat anybody in the nation,” he said.
Fall camp begins on August 10 for the Cardinal, with the season opener looming not far off in the distance on September 5 in Evanston, Illinois against Northwestern.