Launching into their full-on game week routine, on Sunday the Stanford Cardinal released their depth chart for the season-opening tilt against the visiting Kansas State Wildcats, providing further clarity as to the state of a number of fierce position battles during training camp.
Unlike last season when the Cardinal made liberal use of the “OR” designation ahead of their Week 1 opener to indicate a position battle remained unresolved (nine, to be exact), there was only one such “OR” this year — at starting punter. Junior Alex Robinson and sophomore Jake Bailey will once again split duties this season with the former likely to handle traditional punting responsibilities while the latter will be counted on as the “sky punter” to pin opponents inside the 20-yard line.
There were no surprises at the quarterback position after head coach David Shaw announced that senior Ryan Burns would start the opener five days before the release of the full depth chart. Junior Keller Chryst, who will play against the Wildcats on Friday, was listed as the No. 2 signal caller and freshman K.J. Costello, in line with Shaw’s comments from training camp, earned the nod as the third-string emergency quarterback.
On the offensive line, A.T. Hall grabbed the final spot in the starting lineup over fellow junior Brandon Fanaika. Hall will take over at right tackle, meaning that senior David Bright, who can play both the inside and outside line positions, will start at left guard. Fanaika, as one of the six offensive linemen who have separated themselves from the pack according to offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren, will see playing time as an extra lineman and fullback in Stanford’s jumbo packages.
Perhaps the stiffest battle for playing time throughout training camp came at the inside linebacker position. Junior Bobby Okereke has managed to separate himself during the fierce competition, earning a starting spot alongside senior Kevin Palma, the most experienced member of the inside linebacking crew, who also had to fight to retain his job.
“Bobby’s really had the best camp of any of our inside linebackers,” Shaw said at Monday’s media luncheon. “That’s really saying a lot.”
The youth movement at inside linebacker this offseason also saw two members of the 2015 two-deep, Jordan Perez and Craig Jones, not listed on the 2016 depth chart. However, both are still expected to contribute on special teams along with many of the other inside linebackers. Perez and Jones, along with wide receiver Isaiah Brandt-Sims, were the only returning members from last season’s Rose Bowl depth chart to fall out of the rotation in favor of younger players.
No true freshmen earned a starting spot against Kansas State with Costello and long snapper Richard McNitzky the only two newcomers listed on the depth chart. McNitzky will back up C.J. Keller, who won the starting job at the end of training camp. With that being said, Shaw has stated that he has not made final decisions on which freshmen might play in the season opener, and last season, two freshmen offensive weapons for Stanford — Bryce Love and Trenton Irwin — received considerable playing time despite not being listed on the Week 1 depth chart.
Ryan Burns (Sr.) / Keller Chryst (Jr.) / K.J. Costello (Fr.)
As mentioned, Shaw took the mystery out of the quarterback depth chart after announcing that Burns will start against the Wildcats last Wednesday. There will be no spoon-feeding for Burns on Friday in his first collegiate start, but Shaw has said he will avoid putting too much on the senior’s plate right away.
“My expectation is for him to run the offense,” Shaw told reporters. “To be efficient and protect the football. One of the biggest things about being a quarterback is helping other people do their jobs. So I don’t expect to put the whole game on his shoulders, I expect him to play his role.”
Christian McCaffrey (Jr.) / Bryce Love (So.) / Cameron Scarlett (So.)
No surprises here either. McCaffrey returns as the starting running back and is looking to build on his historic 2015 season when he became Stanford’s first single-season 2000-yard rusher and set the national record for single-season all-purpose yards. McCaffrey will also be taking over as the short-yardage back with the departure of Remound Wright.
Shaw, for his part, has made no secret of who is going to carry the load for the Cardinal offense: “We’re going to give [McCaffrey] the ball…because the bottom line is, they still have to tackle him, which has proven to be a hard thing to do.”
The truckload of offseason hype does not seem to have altered McCaffrey’s approach to the game as he remains focused on a single objective: “Get as many yards as possible. Last year I went in with the same mindset and it seemed to work out.”
Sophomore Bryce Love will share the backfield with McCaffrey, giving the Cardinal another weapon with the potential to do something spectacular anytime he touches the ball. Due to a leg injury, Love appears unlikely to play against Kansas State, but the upcoming bye week should provide the perfect opportunity for the sophomore to get fully healthy and return to action against USC. In Love’s absence, sophomore Cameron Scarlett, who has drawn rave reviews from McCaffrey and the coaching staff, will likely see more action.
Daniel Marx (Jr.) / Reagan Williams (So.)
Stanford loves its fullbacks and there might not be a better one anywhere in the country than junior Daniel Marx, who returns fully healthy after his 2015 season was cut short with a leg injury. Backing up Marx is sophomore Reagan Williams, who redshirted last season and represents the future of the position in a post-Marx world on The Farm.
Michael Rector (5Sr.) / JJ Arcega-Whiteside (So.)
Trenton Irwin (So.) / Taijuan Thomas (Sr.)
Francis Owusu (Sr.) / Jay Tyler (So.)
The experienced Rector headlines this group of receivers that also features the sure-handed Trenton Irwin, who just put together an outstanding training camp, and savvy veteran Francis Owusu.
Backing up the three starters is a trio of newcomers to the receiver corps. The 6-foot-3 Arcega-Whiteside, who redshirted last year, could be the successor to Devon Cajuste in filling the large receiver role while the 5-foot-8 Tyler, another redshirt, is a slippery slot receiver whom Stanford’s defensive backs have described as their least favorite player to cover.
Thomas is a dynamic athlete who moves over from the secondary after the Cardinal coaching staff fought over who would get him this season. Ultimately, the offense won out, a victory influenced in no small part by Shaw’s role as the play caller, telling the media: “The head coach won out.”
Dalton Schultz (Jr.) / Greg Taboada (Sr.)
In an uncharacteristic move for Tight End U, the Cardinal only listed one tight end position on their depth chart, opting to go with three wide receivers instead. Schultz and Taboada will both play in abundance and will certainly see their fair share of time on the field together. Look for Schultz to see an increase in his receiving responsibilities with Austin Hooper off to the NFL and for Taboada to continue being the red zone threat he displayed in the latter half of 2015 and in spring practice. True freshman Kaden Smith could also be in the mix for playing time as he continues to recover from a knee injury, but Shaw has said that the Cardinal would like to redshirt the prized recruit if possible
LT: Casey Tucker (Jr.) / David Bright (Sr.)
LG: David Bright (Sr.) / Brandon Fanaika (Jr.)
C: Jesse Burkett (Jr.) / Brian Chaffin (So.)
RG: Johnny Caspers (5Sr.) / Nick Wilson (So.) / Austin Maihen (So.)
RT: A.T. Hall (Jr.) / Jack Dreyer (So.)
After starting at left tackle during spring ball almost out of necessity with the absence of Kyle Murphy, Casey Tucker adjusted well to the wildly different footwork on the other side of the line to cement his status as the blind side protector. “Salty” Dave Bright saw plenty of action last season as the “ogre” lineman and as Murphy’s backup and will now start on the interior. Burkett seized the center job early in camp after competing with Chaffin and has impressed throughout the offseason. Johnny Caspers, whom Shaw sees as a potential NFL player, returns to anchor the Tunnel Workers Union. Rounding out the starting unit is Hall, who started on Stanford’s field goal unit last season and has made rapid progress in the past few months.
The spots at the extra lineman positions in heavy formations have not been announced, but look for Fanaika and sophomore Nick Wilson to be strong candidates to join those units.
DE: Solomon Thomas (Jr.) / Eric Cotton (Sr.)
DT: Harrison Phillips (Jr.) / Jordan Watkins (5Sr.)
DE: Dylan Jackson (So.) / Luke Kaumatule (5Sr.)
Sophomore Dylan Jackson has received high praise from the coaching staff this training camp and was rewarded for his impressive play with a spot on the starting defensive line, alongside firmly entrenched returners Solomon Thomas and Harrison Phillips. Despite being the smallest D-lineman in terms of weight, the 6-foot-6, 261-pound Jackson has played bigger than his size with excellent technique and sound knowledge of the scheme.
“Dylan Jackson came in and worked extremely hard,” Shaw said. “Dylan has matured so much He’s learned a lot with technique, how to use his hands, what to do within the defense.”
This year’s defensive line boasts considerably more depth than the Cardinal have had at the position in recent years with all six members of the two-deep expected to play. Fifth-year senior Jordan Watkins, who has worked at defensive end for most of his career, moves inside to rotate at defensive tackle with Phillips.
OLB: Joey Alfieri (Jr.) / Mike Tyler (Sr.)
ILB: Kevin Palma (Sr.) / Noor Davis (5Sr.) / Mustafa Branch (So.)
ILB: Bobby Okereke (Jr.) / Sean Barton (So.)
OLB: Peter Kalambayi (Sr.) / Casey Toohill (So.)
Okereke and Palma will be the first two on the field, but expect to see plenty of rotation at inside linebacker. Barton is a fluid athlete who turned plenty of heads in the spring game and Davis, at 243 pounds, will be a major asset against physical, power-running teams.
On the outside, Kalambayi, Alfieri and Tyler are all proven commodities capable causing trouble in the backfield, and look for the redshirt freshman Toohill to see plenty of action as well.
CB: Quenton Meeks (So.) / Alameen Murphy (Jr.)
S: Justin Reid (So.) / Brandon Simmons (Jr.) / Ben Edwards (So.)
S: Dallas Lloyd (5Sr.) / Zach Hoffpauir (5Sr.) / Denzel Franklin (Jr.)
CB: Alijah Holder (Jr.) / Terrence Alexander (Jr.) / Frank Buncom (So.)
Meeks wins the open starting cornerback spot following the departure of Ronnie Harris, but expect a lot of moving pieces in the secondary. As Shaw noted, Alameen Murphy and Terrence Alexander are both battle-tested at corner, and their presence will allow Stanford to deploy Meeks as a nickel back once again in certain situations. Zach Hoffpauir, whom Shaw praised for his ability to read the game, will also see time as nickel in addition to safety.
The biggest storyline from the secondary, though, is probably the emergence of sophomore Justin Reid, who has seized hold of the other safety spot opposite Dallas Lloyd. Reid, who appeared in 12 games last season, came on strong at the end of 2015 and maintained that momentum throughout the offseason.
“He’s quick, explosive, decisive,” Shaw said of Reid. “He sees the game very well — his anticipation for reading routes, reading route combinations, reading quarterbacks, and filling in the run game. He’s been very good.”
PK: Conrad Ukropina (5Sr.) / Jake Bailey (So.) / Charlie Beall (So.)
P: Jake Bailey (So.) OR Alex Robinson (Sr.)
LS: C.J. Keller (Jr.) / Richard McNitzky (Fr.)
HLD: Dallas Lloyd (5Sr.)
KR: Christian McCaffrey (Jr.) / Michael Rector (5Sr.) / Bryce Love (So.) / Francis Owusu (Sr.)
PR: Christian McCaffrey (Jr.) / Trenton Irwin (So.) / Jay Tyler (So.)
After plenty of new faces a year ago, the special teams experienced very little turnover heading into 2016. Ukropina, Robinson, Bailey, Lloyd and McCaffrey all return to reprise their respective roles. C.J. Keller takes over as the new long snapper following the graduation of Reid Miller.
With the departure of Barry Sanders to Oklahoma State, Trenton Irwin takes over as the new No. 2 punt returner behind McCaffrey. Look for Rector and Love to accompany McCaffrey back deep on kickoffs and add their electric brand of speed to the equation.
Stanford has not announced who will handle kickoffs between Ukropina and Bailey after the two shared that responsibility last season. In all likelihood, that decision will not be revealed until one of the two marches on the field on Friday when the Cardinal officially return to action.
Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihanl ‘at’ stanford.edu.