The offseason has been full of noise for the Stanford football program, from the frenzy of stars declaring for the NFL Draft to a rash of injuries to key players. But on Saturday, the team will be exposed to a different kind of noise that they haven’t experienced in nearly four months: a cheering crowd. The annual Cardinal and White Game marking the end of spring practice has finally arrived, giving fans their first glimpse at the 2018 version of Stanford’s football team. The game is set for 1 p.m. in Cagan Stadium, the usual home of the Cardinal men’s and women’s soccer teams.
There will be a lot of new faces and young talent on display for the first time on Saturday thanks to the natural roster turnover and the very unnatural amount of injuries the team is currently dealing with. The position hit hardest by the injury bug is arguably the most important on the field: quarterback. Next year’s presumptive starter under center, junior KJ Costello, has been sidelined with a hip injury for the entirety of spring practice. Making matters even worse is the continued absence of sophomore backup Davis Mills, who also missed all of spring practice with a knee injury.
Though those injuries have hampered Stanford’s preparation for next season, they also opened the door for one of those new faces to prove himself with an opportunity few would have thought possible. Last fall, junior quarterback Jack Richardson was toiling away on scout team, buried underneath four names on a crowded QB depth chart. But then Ryan Burns ran out of eligibility, Keller Chryst transferred to Tennessee, and both Mills and Costello suffered injuries, so suddenly Richardson found himself as Stanford’s starting quarterback for the whole spring session. He has proven himself up to the task according to the coaching staff.
“I can’t mention anybody without mentioning Jack Richardson,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said last week. “To watch him prepare and really grow was outstanding.”
“Simply put, Jack is really seizing this opportunity,” added offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard after Tuesday’s practice. “He’s done a phenomenal job of learning from the reps.”
Richardson, who grew up in a Stanford family and has been a lifelong Cardinal football fan, expressed gratitude when asked about the opportunity he’s had to lead the offense over the last few weeks, saying simply, “It’s an honor.”
Thanks to Richardson stepping in to fill the massive void under center, Stanford has been able to continue preparations for next year’s offense, which has the potential to be one of the most explosive in the country. With Costello back at quarterback, after a season in which he threw for over 1500 yards and 14 touchdowns in limited action, alongside his top two wide receivers from last year, seniors JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Trenton Irwin, who combined for over 1200 yards and 11 touchdowns, the passing game looks like it could be Stanford’s best since the days of Andrew Luck.
But the real reason why Stanford’s offense will receive considerable hype next fall is the return of senior running back Bryce Love, the current Heisman Trophy favorite. Love rushed for 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns last year, averaging a stunning 8.1 yards per carry. All this despite dealing with a nagging ankle injury that has continued to limit him through spring practice. If he is able to get fully healthy before next year, he could be the nation’s best player at any position.
Though Stanford’s offensive personnel on Saturday will likely look very different than the group that will trot out to start the season against San Diego State next August, the offensive scheme will be very familiar to Stanford fans despite the fact that the unit is under new leadership. Last year’s offensive coordinator, Mike Bloomgren, has since moved on to take the head coaching job at Rice University. Into his role steps Pritchard, a former Stanford quarterback who has been on the Cardinal coaching staff for the last eight years. He vows not to change much but instead to focus on reinforcing Stanford’s long-term identity under Coach Shaw.
“We’ve had a winning formula around here, and so we’re largely going to stay in our lane,” Pritchard said. “The identity of Stanford football to me is that we’re tough, smart and physical. Learning the foundations of what we do and reiterating those driving principles has really been our focus this spring.”
He asserts that his offensive unit has been able to achieve those learning goals despite the injuries, citing the fact that those players who can’t practice are able to take “mental reps” through watching film and using Stanford’s virtual reality technology.
Though the new leadership and injuries on the offensive side of the ball have been the focus this offseason, the defense has quite a bit of turnover to deal with as well. When Harrison Phillips, Quenton Meeks and Justin Reid all declared for the NFL Draft this past January, they left massive shoes to fill at every level of the defense. Fifth year linebacker Bobby Okereke should step in as the emotional leader of the defense, but the development and progress of the defensive line and backfield will be a key element to watch out for in Saturday’s scrimmage.
Despite all the injuries and offseason change, Stanford’s players sound ready to get back to competing, especially given the chance to show off for the Cardinal fanbase.
“As a team we’re just focused on going out and playing ball, having a good time,” Richardson said Tuesday. “Everyone’s looking forward to finally playing in front of people. It’s a fun, competitive atmosphere we got going on here.”
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu