Stanford Daily football writers Vihan Lakshman and Michael Peterson breakdown Saturday’s Spring Game, which saw the Cardinal offense beat the defense 42-31.
How did the quarterbacks look? Did either Burns or Chryst gain any separation on Saturday?
Vihan Lakshman: The final stat lines for Burns and Chryst looked eerily similar at the close of business on Saturday, with the rising senior from Leesburg, Va. going 17-23 for 153 yards and 2 touchdowns while the rising junior from Palo Alto went 16-25 for 156 yards with a pair of TDs himself. That’s about as neck-and-neck as it gets. Moreover, both QBs threw early interceptions on each of their opening drives before settling in and running the show with confidence. Burns especially shined in the first half with two picture-perfect touchdown strikes to Dalton Schultz and Michael Rector while Chryst bounced back with the better second half, delivering two immaculate touchdown passes of his own to Greg Taboada and Trent Irwin.
As expected, Saturday’s three-hour glorified practice did not shut the door on a close quarterback competition that will continue into the summer. What we did learn, though, is that both quarterbacks have made marked strides in their accuracy and knowledge of the playbook from this time last year and each showed the ability to go through progressions and take command of the huddle. No matter who emerges victorious in this tight competition, Stanford should be in good hands. There’s no question that Burns and Chryst have a tough act to follow in replacing the winningest quarterback in program history. But on Saturday, the two tag-teamed to lead the offense to a feat never accomplished in the Kevin Hogan era: a Spring Game victory.
Michael Peterson: Unlike the 2015 spring game, when Burns and Chryst were battling for the backup spot and were largely unimpressive in limited action, both quarterbacks played exceedingly well — if not perfect — in the 2016 Spring Game. I thought Burns played better early on as he led the first two scoring drives, but Chryst rebounded with an excellent performance later in the game. As Vihan mentioned, the stat lines were about as equal as could be, and both quarterbacks elicited oohs and aahs from the fans on various deep throws and touchdown passes. One thing is for sure: both quarterbacks throw a beautiful ball. When Burns and Chryst hit their throws, they do so in style. The Spring Game showed that Stanford should be in good hands come September regardless of who’s under center.
It’s near impossible to determine any separation between the two at this point. Even regardless of their equal performances on Saturday, the only separation between the two in their times at Stanford has been Chryst’s unofficial status as Kevin Hogan’s backup in 2015, and Burns has more than made up for whatever difference there was with crisp play in the spring. As much as we want to know who the starter will be right now, we might just have to wait until late August when Shaw makes the announcement.
Which offensive player impressed the most? Which defensive player impressed the most?
VL: On offense, I’m going to go with a player who manages to impress me more and more every time I see him: Bryce Love. With Christian McCaffrey held out of all contact during the spring (we’ll touch on that more momentarily), Love slid into the number-one running back roll and dominated with 11 carries for 48 yards and two touchdowns. We all knew about Love’s otherworldly straight-line speed, but on Saturday he showed off all of the other skills that make him such a special talent: breaking tackles, changing direction and patiently waiting for his blockers like his mentor, No. 5. Afterwards, Shaw gushed about the possibility of putting Love and McCaffrey on the field together to the point that his mouth was almost watering. Love has officially earned a spot in the running back conversation alongside the best player in college football. That’s an impressive feat in its own right and a major boost for the Cardinal in boasting two studs in the backfield.
On the other side of the ball, I don’t know how you answer this question without saying the words “Solomon” and “Thomas” in immediate succession. Last year, we all raved that about Thomas’ progression under Shannon Turley’s strength program, and–somehow–he managed to defend his title as most-improved player following offseason conditioning (despite the fact that it looked humanly impossible for him to add more muscle). As Shaw noted after the game, Thomas was simply unblockable for the first five plays and forced the offensive line to make immediate adjustments. As the lone returning starter on the defensive line with the departures of Aziz Shittu and Brennan Scarlett, Thomas is the unquestioned leader of the group and showed that he has all the tools to become a recognizable name across the nation.
MP: In addition to Bryce Love, I thought Ryan Burns was very impressive on Saturday. It wasn’t necessarily that Burns played better than Chryst, but Burns didn’t throw a pass during the 2015 season, so the last real time Burns played for the public was the 2015 Spring Game. Burns showed major improvement from that game, particularly in his decision-making and pocket presence. On a throw to Francis Owusu down the left sideline in particular, Burns stood up in the pocket despite it collapsing around him and delivered a perfect strike to Owusu. We’ve always known that Burns could throw a tight spiral and had great mechanics, but now we’re seeing a much more complete quarterback.
Just to emphasize how dominant Solomon Thomas was, I’ll stick with him as the most impressive defensive player as well. Thomas is currently listed at 275 pounds and almost all of that is pure muscle. That muscle showed in the spring game — both in his ridiculously ripped appearance and in his overpowering the offensive line. The scary part is that he still has summer conditioning ahead to get even stronger before next season. If the rest of the defensive line can provide enough pressure to not allow opposing offensive lines to double-team Thomas all the time, double-digit sacks should be a given for Thomas in 2016.
How would you assess the play of the re-tooled offensive line?
VL: Last year’s offensive line was one of the top three units in the country, and growing pains are to be expected after losing the nation’s best guard (Josh Garnett), another All-Pac 12 performer (Kyle Murphy) and a top-flight center (Graham Shuler). Casey Tucker and Brandon Fanaika replaced the Bash Bros on the left side in the Spring Game and had all sorts of trouble with Solomon Thomas up front. In fairness, there might not be any offensive line that has an answer for Solly, but Saturday showed that there is certainly room for Stanford’s young Tunnel Workers to improve and coalesce before September 2nd against Kansas State. I wouldn’t bet against Stanford in doing just that. Tucker and Fanaika both have an abundant amount of playing experience to leverage, as do Johnny Caspers and Dave Bright, who anchored the right side of the line. The other major area of concern that emerged on Saturday was the number of high shotgun snaps from both Jesse Burkett and Brian Chaffin, but Shuler went through the same type of learning curve two years ago. Ultimately, Coach Shaw and Coach Bloomgren’s experience in rebuilding the O-line in 2014 should become a major asset this time around, and the Cardinal’s top-notch recruiting has blessed them with plenty of talented pieces to work with. Now, it’s a matter of ironing out the kinks before September.
MP: The line showed off some early growing pains, which are to be expected from a unit that loses three starters, and three All-Pac-12 caliber players at that. It’s always tough to judge performance based off the Spring Game since we also don’t truly know how good the defensive line is. But as Vihan mentioned, Solomon Thomas was completely unblockable and Jordan Watkins and Luke Kaumatule each had moments of dominance as well. We know fifth-year senior Johnny Caspers will be superb at right guard, and Shaw has lots of faith in David Bright to be a starter at some position on the line, but the rest of the line is still in flux. The line definitely has a ways to go to be ready for the season, but there’s also plenty of time before the season begins. Overall, the offensive line’s performance wasn’t very reassuring, but at the same time, it certainly shouldn’t cause alarm.
Who stood out amongst the players who redshirted last season?
VL: Heading into the game, I was really interested in watching Jay Tyler on the field. At 5-foot-8, 169 pounds, Tyler isn’t your prototypical “big, physical Stanford receiver” in the mold of Devon Cajuste or Ty Montgomery, and I was curious to see how the Cardinal would incorporate him into the offense. Overall, I was impressed by his ability to make tough catches in traffic, finishing the day the four catches for 22 yards and almost adding another huge grab downfield. The rising sophomore also replaced the departing Barry J. Sanders as the No. 2 punt returner behind McCaffrey. It’s hard to typecast Tyler into a single mold, but maybe such an endeavor is missing the point. He’s a special athlete whom the coaching staff clearly values, and it will be fun to see what kind of role he can play next season.
On the defensive side, I thought inside linebacker Sean Barton stood out with his presence all over the field, resulting in seven tackles to finish second on the team unofficially. Barton, who originally signed with Stanford’s 2013 class before serving on a Mormon mission for two years and redshirting last season, wasn’t necessarily a player on my radar heading into the day, but he certainly made a name for himself when it was all said and done. With the loss of triple-digit tackling machine Blake Martinez, Stanford will have to get more production from a number of its young inside linebackers and Barton, with more performances like he had on Saturday, could factor into that rotation.
MP: Luke Kaumatule is an interesting case here, since he technically has three years of playing experience but redshirted as a true senior last season in order to gain a year of experience at defensive end. Kaumatule looks much bigger and showed better explosiveness off the line on Saturday. Shaw seemed very excited about his potential for next season after the game, and based off of his Spring Game performance, fans should be as well. He’s always been a physical specimen with the tools to be an elite defensive end. He might be putting it all together just in time for his fifth year on the Farm.
Among the freshman who redshirted, it was absolutely Frank Buncom who stood out. Buncom saw plenty of time with the starters on defense and was all over the field, unofficially leading the game with eight tackles. In a crowded Stanford secondary, it’s unclear how much playing time is up for grabs, but he very well could be in the conversation with Alijah Holder, Quenton Meeks, Alameen Murphy and Terrence Alexander for playing time at corner.
What do you make of Shaw’s decision to hold Christian McCaffrey out of contact for the spring?
VL: This is absolutely the correct call, and I don’t think it was all too hard of a decision for Shaw. In 2015, McCaffrey touched the ball 437 times (337 rushing attempts, 45 receptions, 52 kick and punt returns and 3 pass attempts). As Shaw noted after the game, it takes time to recover from that kind of wear-and-tear on the body, and McCaffrey has nothing to gain from getting hit in the spring. When Michael and I talked to the reigning AP Player of the Year, you could sense a bit of frustration in not being able to participate, but he has channeled those emotions into attacking the weight room and already looks significantly bigger. After just putting together the greatest individual season in college football history, McCaffrey has earned some time to let his body recover, and he’s not exactly staying idle during this time either. He could very well return to action in training camp bigger, faster and hungrier than before.
MP: Without a doubt, Shaw made the right decision in keeping McCaffrey out of contact drills and practices this spring. It’s the same approach Stanford used for Toby Gerhart and Stepfan Taylor, and it certainly worked for them and for when McCaffrey rested between the Pac-12 Championship and the Rose Bowl. There’s little Stanford could have gained by having McCaffrey participate in contact drills five months before the season, and there’s a whole lot Stanford could have lost. As much as McCaffrey hates it and as much as Stanford football fans want to see No. 5 ripping defenses apart, I back Shaw’s decision all the way.
Entering offseason conditioning, what appears to be the team’s biggest strength and biggest weakness?
VL: For a school that doesn’t have its pick over every high school player in America, Stanford has recruited extraordinary well over the last few cycles, and those efforts are beginning to bear fruit in the form of envious talent at the offensive skills positions and in the secondary, the two areas I would consider the team’s biggest on-field strengths at this point. Another underrated aspect of the program right now is the positive culture exuding from the locker room and from the coaching staff. While Stanford certainly has many stressful decisions awaiting on the horizon, Shaw seemed completely relaxed and engaged with this team while the players, in turn, have bought into the program’s winning culture. It’s hard to overstate how important positive culture around a football program can be, especially when it looked like there was a chance things might turn toxic after a slight downturn in 2014. It’s fun to be around this Stanford football team, and the players look like they’re having a lot of fun themselves. Winning obviously helps, but it really does seem like everyone involved in this program genuinely enjoys being around each other, and that’s an invaluable asset.
As for the team’s biggest weaknesses, I think you have to look at quarterback and the offensive line at this point, purely as a result of the major uncertainties at those positions. Both Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst looked good on Saturday, but they’re still replacing one of the greatest quarterbacks in program history who handled the pressure-cooker of conference championships, Rose Bowls and countless other big games for four seasons. Likewise, the Tunnel Workers Union must replace some enormous shoes, both literally and figuratively. I feel confident that both positions groups will respond to these challenges by the start of the season, but there’s no doubt that these are the areas of biggest uncertainty for the team right now.
MP: Excluding just the presence of Christian McCaffrey, Stanford’s depth particularly stood out to me as a major strength during the spring game. It seems like Stanford goes two-deep or three-deep at just about every position on the field. At running back alone, Stanford is blessed with two of the most explosive players in the game, in addition to a big, bruising 220-pound back in Cameron Scarlett. The spring sessions confirmed that both quarterbacks are very capable and either could guide this team in the fall. Both Dalton Schultz and Greg Taboada appear ready to be major contributors at tight end in 2016. Shaw raved about Francis Owusu at wide receiver, who joins Michael Rector and Trent Irwin as established receivers and will be boosted by sophomore J.J. Arcega-Whiteside.
In the secondary, Stanford has two fifth-year seniors in Dallas Lloyd and Zach Hoffpauir to guide a whole host of talented sophomores like Justin Reid, Quenton Meeks, Ben Edwards and Frank Buncom and juniors Alijah Holder, Alameen Murphy, Brandon Simmons, Terrence Alexander and Denzel Franklin. That’s just ridiculous. Stanford arguably goes seven-deep or eight-deep at inside linebacker and returns three outside linebackers with three-plus sacks. With the improving play of Luke Kaumatule, Jordan Watkins and Eric Cotton in addition to Solomon Thomas and Harrison Phillips, Stanford might have five defensive lineman in its rotation before the talented crop of freshmen arrive in the fall. The depth all over the field should be enough for Stanford to absorb some inevitable injuries come 2016.
It’s hard to call the offensive line a weakness because I fully believe the unit will be good in the fall, but given that so much of Stanford’s success in 2015 came due to arguably the best offensive line in the nation and the Cardinal will be starting a new quarterback as well in 2016, it’s at least a little concerning to see the growing pains of a new unit. Don’t get me wrong — the talent is there for Stanford to reload the Tunnel Workers Union. Whether the 2016 unit can emulate the utterly dominant performance of the 2015 group and how quickly it can jell with a front-loaded schedule, though, remains to be seen.
How did Cagan Stadium fare as a venue for the other kind of football?
VL: I was prepared to disdain Cagan Stadium as a spot for football from the start. Like one of those crossover TV episodes where characters from one show inexplicably find themselves on another series, this change of venue struck me as completely unnecessary.
After taking in three hours of the other kind of football at Cagan, however, I can say that I was completely wrong. This was incredibly fun. From being much closer to the action than one would be at Stanford Stadium, to watching David Shaw sign autographs and hold babies while the game was still going on, to Conrad Ukropina booting kicks to the top of the video tower, there was a lot to like about seeing the football team take over a different field for the day–a move that will be further complemented by women’s lacrosse playing in Stanford Stadium on Monday. The seats were filled to the brim for a change and the players also seemed to enjoy it. Props to Stanford Athletics and the football program for having the ingenuity and flexibility to change things up and proving at least one jaded senior wrong. I’m looking forward to seeing more spring games at Cagan in the future.
MP: The smaller stadium provided a really nice environment for the Spring Game and made it more fun for both the team — as David Shaw said after the game — and the fans. The tailgate viewing party from the outside added to the laid-back atmosphere, and pretty much every seat inside the stadium was filled. It’s probably the closest that most fans in the Stadium will ever sit at a college football game. At least for the spring game, the packed-in Cagan Stadium was much better than a scattered Stanford Stadium. While it would be even better if the Cardinal could fill up Stanford Stadium instead, the reality is that doing that isn’t feasible. Stanford made a great decision in choosing Cagan Stadium.
Contact Michael Peterson at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu and Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.