By Eric Epstein
The Stanford football team comes into its summer practices off of another winning season under coach David Shaw. Last season the Cardinal finished 9-5, but had an underwhelming finish with losses to USC in the Pac-12 Championship and Texas Christian University in the Alamo Bowl in the final two games of the year.
Shaw, who has led the Cardinal to a dominant 73-22 record during his tenure, will be at the helm for his eighth year.
A number of key names are returning to the Farm, including quarterback K.J. Costello ’20, tight end Kaden Smith ’20, offensive lineman Nate Herbig ’20 and tailback Bryce Love ’19, who was ranked the number-two player in the nation by Sports Illustrated.
The receiving corps has ample experience under its belt, as the four leaders in receptions and receiving yards from last year are all on the roster for the upcoming season. The backfield also remains intact as 99.4 percent — all but sixteen yards — of Stanford’s rushing yards last year were racked up by players that will be coming back for the 2018 season.
However, there are some significant holes left by departing players, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
Since 2013, Stanford has had at least one defensive lineman make All-Pac-12 Defensive First Team, meaning Stanford has had one of the four best defensive lineman in the conference every year for the last five years.
This year, the Cardinal secondary will be without standout safety Justin Reid ’19 and cornerback Quenton Meeks ’19, who were both All-Pac-12 selections last year and were scooped up by NFL franchises in April’s draft. Nose tackle Harrison Phillips’s ’18 massive impact on the run game will be also sorely missed by the defensive line.
Despite this, the Cardinal have enlisted the help of the thirty-ninth best recruiting class in the nation, according to 24/7 Sports. The recruiting class is led by quarterbacks Tanner McKee ’22 and Jack West ’22, who 24/7 Sports ranked as the third-best and tenth-best recruits at their position, respectively.
However, both quarterbacks are expected to redshirt this year because there are already three game-ready quarterbacks on the roster: expected starter K.J. Costello ’20, former five-star recruit Davis Mills ’21 and walk-on turned scholarship athlete Jack Richardson ’20.
Stanford’s edge rush is also set to improve with three new defensive end and two outside linebacker recruits. Defensive ends Andres Fox ’22 and Thomas Booker ’22 might be pressed into action as true freshmen — freshmen who are also playing their first year on the team — due to the lack of depth at their position.
There are quite a few returning players on the roster that are posed to have breakout seasons this year. Speedy redshirt Osiris St. Brown ’21, along with Connor Wedington ’21, will bolster the deep ball threat for the Cardinal offense. Both receivers will use their versatility and athleticism to complement the other big-bodied and physical receivers that Stanford is known for.
For example, 6-foot-7-inch offensive tackle Walker Little ’21 will undoubtedly be looking to build off of his solid freshman year and establish himself as one of the nation’s premier offensive linemen. Last season, he was named the Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Co-Player of the Year and was given an All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention.
2017 Pac-12 All-Academic Second Team member and junior defensive end Jovan Swann ’20 should also step up this year and use his deceptively quick 274-pound frame to stuff up the opponent’s run game and wreak havoc on the aerial attack.
Overall, the Cardinal defense has the potential to be a question mark this season, with the line and secondary both being relatively inexperienced. The linebacker unit is the most experienced on the defense, and they will have to carry a very heavy load in order for the defense to be successful. Fifth-year cornerbacks Alameen Murphy ’18 and Alijah Holder ’18, who have both proved to be shutdown defensive backs, will have to play more consistently and stay healthy to keep a strong defense against the the opposing receivers.
Stanford’s extremely well-rounded offense will surely be the team’s forte this season. With super-dynamic tailback Love and powerful runners Trevor Speights ’20 and Cameron Scarlett ’19, Stanford will be able to stick to its identity of smash-mouth offense with unrelenting attacks directly at the line of scrimmage.
However, Shaw also has quite a bit of leeway to get creative with runs outside the tackles and running back pitches, as his athletic line will be able to pull guards and seal the edge just enough for Love to scamper around it and make some big plays.
The offense also has plenty of flexibility with the pass game, as tight ends Smith and Colby Parkinson ’21 will offer large targets for Costello on short dump-offs, sure-handed receivers Trenton Irwin ’19 and JJ Arcega-Whiteside ’19 will be reliable on mid-range passes and Wedington and Brown will do their best to zip through the secondary and catch deep balls. The offense just has to stay healthy and avoid careless turnovers — the Cardinal will only go as far as their offense takes them this season.
Contact Eric Epstein at ericrepstein ‘at’ gmail.com.