By Jose Saldana
The Daily’s Vihan Lakshman and Jose Saldana preview the upcoming season by discussing the quarterback situation, potential breakout players, the Cardinal’s schedule, the replacements for Solomon Thomas and the defense.
Last season, senior quarterback Keller Chryst effectively led the offense in his six starts, going undefeated in those games. However, some attributed this to playing much softer defenses than early-season starter Ryan Burns. Can Chryst take commanding control of the offense and succeed against defenses like USC and Washington or will the Cardinal be looking at other options by the middle of the season like last year?
Vihan Lakshman (VL): There’s no question Chryst benefited tremendously from grabbing the reins of the Stanford offense at the same time the Cardinal finished off the year with a gluttonous diet of teams who viewed defense as more of a suggestion and less of a requirement. With that said, it’s equally unfair to hold any of these fortuitous circumstances against Chryst. He stepped in when his number was called and won football games.
While No. 10 looked shaky in this two starts against Arizona and Oregon State, he grew more into the role with each passing week and looked confident and in control at a position where those traits are essential. Based on this performance to close out 2016, there’s no question that Stanford made the right call in naming Chryst the unquestioned starter once he was medically cleared to return. He hasn’t proven himself against the better defenses in the conference, but he has earned the right to try. And with his arm strength, mobility and increasing command of the offense, I like his chances of succeeding and taking another step forward in his development.
If it doesn’t work out, Stanford still has an established, battle-tested backup in Burns who has guided the Cardinal to victories in high-stakes games against talented defenses. There’s no question Burns got a raw deal last season with the timing of the quarterback change, and he is no doubt eager to get another chance at proving himself on the field. Currently, the QB job is rightfully Chryst’s to lose and I like his chances of thriving with a full season as the starter, but Burns’ return provides Stanford with another capable option if things go south.
Jose Saldana (JS): Like Vihan said, Chryst did have the benefit of playing against teams with worse defenses than what Burns faced. But even after tearing his ACL, Chryst still has head coach David Shaw’s confidence in being the starting quarterback. Chryst may have more upside than Burns but if any of the quarterbacks are going to find success it really comes down to the offensive line.
Against Washington last year, the offensive line allowed eight sacks, and for the season, the line ranked 100th in the nation for sacks allowed. No matter how great your quarterback is, Chryst and Burns are solid if unspectacular passers, having pressure on every dropback is a recipe for disaster for any offense. Chryst helps mitigate some of the problems with the offensive line as he doesn’t hold on to the ball as long or stare down receivers as much as Burns does. Chryst’s athleticism allows him to escape the pocket and gain positive yards.
He should be expected to start every game unless a similar situation like last season occurs where Shaw put in a new quarterback to just to try something different to get the offense going.
If the offensive line cannot protect the quarterback and that causes Chryst to struggle, then Shaw might look to Burns or even sophomore K.J. Costello to see if one of them can be effective under a bad line.
In 2015, Christian McCaffrey established himself as one of the best players in the nation as a sophomore. Last year, JJ Arcega-Whiteside emerged as one of Stanford’s top receivers in his sophomore season. Who could have a breakout season in 2017 for the Cardinal?
VL: There are a lot of good options here. The Cardinal are young and have obviously recruited with an unprecedented level of success in the last couple of years. Since it’s so tough to identify just one player who could make the leap in 2017, I’m going to cop out and award the title to Stanford’s bumper crop of young tight ends: Kaden Smith, Scooter Harrington and Colby Parkinson.
When looking at the Cardinal’s opening week depth chart, it’s hard not to have your eyes go down the tight end column without laughing hysterically at how ridiculous this is. Smith, Harrington and Parkinson all check in and 6-foot-5 or taller with an average weight of 242 pounds. Moreover, they will be free of the burden of leading one of the most important position groups in the Stanford offense as senior Dalton Schultz returns. This combination of depth and mind-boggling athleticism for such large targets spells, in my mind, a huge increase in production at the tight end position. It may not be one single newcomer racking up all of the stats, but, in the aggregate, the damage will be devastating. We haven’t seen the Cardinal boast this many options since the Ertz-Fleener-Toilolo days, which provide a reminder of the dormant dimensions within this Stanford offense that can be unlocked with the presence of multiple matchup nightmares at the tight end position.
JS: Not exactly a sexy pick but how about sophomore offensive tackle Devery Hamilton? He didn’t play last year but in the depth chart against Rice, he’s the starting right tackle. This is surprising given his lack of experience and the strong competition for offensive tackle.
Although he may only be starting because senior A.T. Hall was injured and couldn’t make the trip to Sydney, Hamilton still got the nod over senior Casey Tucker, who was the starter at right tackle in 2015 and for a few games in 2016. Shaw has been emphasizing pass protection so it seems the coaching staff believe Hamilton is the best pass protector at right tackle.If Hamilton can show clean technique and good footwork during dropbacks against Rice, then A.T. Hall might find himself out of a starting job when he returns from injury.
Hamilton won’t be able to have the box score stats some of the other emerging players could have, but if he keeps Chryst upright and stays at right tackle, then Hamilton could be the biggest breakout player of 2017.
Last year, the Cardinal played a brutal stretch in the middle of the season in which they played three of the best teams in the Pac-12—Washington, Washington State, and Colorado—in four weeks, losing those three games. What looks to be the toughest stretch this season for Stanford and is there any chance the Cardinal run the table?
VL: Unlike last season when Stanford immediately stepped into a murderer’s row of a schedule before things lightened up in the second half of the season, the 2017 campaign looks evenly peppered with serious tests, tricky trap games, and tough road trips throughout. No three week stretch looks worthy of a sigh of relief. In particular, I’m circling the Cardinal’s first three games of September–against USC in the Coliseum, a tricky San Diego State squad on the road and UCLA–as both a fun slate of matchups that will effectively decide the King of California crown early this season and a seriously tough stretch that will define how we view Stanford’s season.
In addition, the Cardinal begin November by traveling to Pullman to take on a Washington State team that ripped them apart last season before entering a short week to face the defending Pac-12 champions in Washington the following Friday. If the caliber of the competition and the short week in between weren’t enough, Stanford will also be feeling the heat as those two games could very well decide the Pac-12 North.
With the number of landmines packed into yet another tough Pac-12 slate, I don’t see Stanford making it to December unscathed. It’s certainly possible, but I’d put the odds at the Cardinal missing a bowl game much higher than those of an undefeated 2017 run.
JS: Vihan’s right that this season has a more balanced schedule than last season. The first six games of the season feature one preseason AP-ranked team (#4 USC) and three other teams that received votes (San Diego State, UCLA, Utah). The second half slate of games isn’t any less forgiving as the Cardinal will have to face two preseason AP-ranked teams (#8 Washington, #24 Washington State) and two other teams that received votes (Oregon, Notre Dame).
The Cardinal will probably not end up running the table. Asking Stanford to win against USC at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Washington State in Pullman is too much to ask for. Stanford is perfectly capable of winning the Pac-12 but it would have likely have a one or a two in the loss column.
Solomon Thomas terrorized opposing offenses last year, bringing down the quarterback eight times and recording 15 tackles for loss. Who can make up for those type of numbers and will the Cardinal front look the same at all without him?
VL: Thomas, the highest non-quarterback from the Farm ever selected in the NFL draft was obviously a very special talent who, in just two years of playing at Stanford, set the standard as possibly the best player in school history at his position. By definition, you don’t expect to replace a once in a generation talent right away. Harrison Phillips will be a clear candidate to pick up some of Thomas’ production, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see bigger sack and pressure totals from fifth-year senior outside linebacker Peter Kalambayi, another key leader of the defense. Overall, though, I think the most crucial asset to Stanford keeping the #PartyInTheBackfield going will the fact that the Cardinal will field one of the best secondaries in the nation opening the door for coverage sacks and other opportunities to feast up front.
JS: Harrison Phillips is an obvious choice to replace Thomas’ production. Phillips had 46 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. These numbers should go up with another year of experience under his belt. Like Vihan, I am going to pick a linebacker to help Phillips replace Thomas – senior inside linebacker Joey Alfieri. The former four star recruit really came on last year with 51 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and two interceptions. The defense, as a whole, will just be better this year with many returning players and players like Phillips and Alfieri who can take their game to the next level.
The Stanford defense allowed just 20.2 points a game in 2016, good for 17th in the nation. Do you think the Cardinal will improve upon this number in 2017?
VL: It feels a little crazy to expect a defense to improve upon a season in which they finished among the top 20 units in the country, but that’s the amount of respect that Lance Anderson has come to demand since taking over as coordinator in 2014. Stanford returns serious star power in the secondary with Quenton Meeks, Justin Reid and Alijah Holder set to reprise their roles in the starting lineup and draw national attention. The Cardinal also look poised to keep their hydra of rotating bodies at linebacker alive and well. While the loss of a player as dominant as Solomon Thomas will obviously leave its mark, Stanford has overcome depth issues on the defensive line before and still have Harrison Phillips, who returns healthy and ready to fill the shoes of Thomas. But, again, it all starts with the brain trust. Anderson has done as good of a job as any defensive coordinator in the country since taking over, and he has many talented pieces to set up his chess board. It’s hard to improve when you just finished 17th in the nation, but I’m not going to bet against the Cardinal in getting it done. Even if the leap doesn’t show quantitatively, the quality of the product on the defensive side of the ball will be something to get excited about.
JS: The Stanford defense should be better but I’m not sure if it can match the ranking from last season. USC and Notre Dame will most likely score more than 10 points against the Cardinal, but the Washington teams will probably not drop more than 40 either. Something that could help the Stanford defense replicate last year’s ranking is dominating time of possession. In the games against the Huskies and Wazzou, the Stanford offense couldn’t string drives together which put the defense in a bad spot. The running game wasn’t very effective in these games which meant quick three-and-outs which gassed the defense. Controlling the time of possession means a less tired defense which could mean a dominate 2017 Stanford defense.
Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu and Jose Saldana at jsaldana ‘at’ stanford.edu.