By King Jemison
The 2019 campaign for the 25th-ranked Stanford football team could go a million different directions. The Cardinal are coming off a fairly disappointing 9-4 season in 2018. Stanford lost to the four best teams it played, three of whom are on the schedule again this season. Head coach David Shaw’s squad beat the teams it should have beaten, including hapless Pitt in the Sun Bowl, and lost to the teams it should have lost to. Cardinal fans are hoping for a little more surprise in 2019, ideally in the upward direction.
The good news is, Stanford can win every game on the schedule this season. No. 9 Notre Dame, No. 11 Oregon and No. 13 Washington are all big-time opponents, but they all come to Stanford Stadium, where the Cardinal tend to be pretty tough to beat despite the sleepy crowds. If Stanford defends its home turf successfully in 2019, they could be well on their way to a special season with double-digit wins.
The bad news is, the Cardinal could lose pretty much every game on the schedule as well. It’s nice to face Notre Dame, Oregon and Washington at home, but those are three really good teams who will likely all be favored against Stanford anyway. The Cardinal also have three terrifying road games against USC, No. 17 UCF and No. 23 Washington State. Stanford could very easily drop all six of those games. If they do, they would have to hold serve against tricky opponents like Northwestern, UCLA and Arizona just to get back to a bowl game. And that’s not including Stanford’s massive matchup against archrival Cal in the Big Game. The Bears are a program on the rise, and they would love nothing more than to snap their nine-game losing streak to Stanford and hand the Cardinal their first losing season since 2008.
Everything from 11-1 to 4-8 is on the table for Stanford in 2019. What will determine how far the Cardinal can go this season? Besides the obvious (and all-important) answer of staying reasonably healthy, here are the three keys to a successful 2019 season for Stanford.
1) Remember how to run the ball
Not that long ago, Stanford was known for its physical rushing attack. Located in the land of innovation, the Cardinal went the other way, spurning the pass-happy spread offense that was taking over college football and opting instead for an old-school ground-and-pound approach that made them unique in the modern game. It also made Stanford quite successful, including three Pac-12 Championships and two Rose Bowl wins. The Cardinal had an identity of “Intellectual Brutality.” Now, all that remains of that identity is a worn-out catch phrase.
Stanford’s coaching staff might continue to say they pride themselves on “Intellectual Brutality,” but after a year in which the Cardinal finished 123rd out of 130 FBS teams in rushing yards per game, that moniker seems disingenuous. Stanford had a good offense in 2018, but it had nothing to do with the physical run game and everything to do with junior quarterback KJ Costello and the explosive passing game.
The Cardinal will once again be a pass-happy team this season. Costello is back along with a number of talented pass-catchers, including 6-foot-7 tight end junior Colby Parkinson and speedy wide receivers like sophomore Michael Wilson and juniors Connor Wedington and Osiris St. Brown. In order for the offense to operate efficiently, however, Costello will need some help from the running game.
Fifth-year Cam Scarlett has played behind Heisman Trophy contenders in Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love ’19 for the past four seasons. After patiently awaiting his turn, it appears that he will be the guy at running back in 2019. Scarlett is a solid back with 17 career touchdowns to his name, but he lacks the explosiveness and dynamic playmaking ability that made Love and McCaffrey so special. So if the running game is to improve in 2019, it will be because of the offensive line.
The offensive line can not get much worse than it was last season, and it seems impossible that they would suffer more injuries than they did in their disastrous 2018 campaign, when Stanford’s five projected starters on the line missed a combined 19 games. If former five-star recruits, juniors Walker Little and Foster Sarell, can stay healthy, Stanford will have two anchors to build its offensive line around. Little is projected by many to be picked in the top 10 of next year’s NFL Draft, but he has missed time each of the last two seasons with shoulder and knee injuries. Sarell played in only three games last year due to a severe knee injury. Both have shown tremendous potential in their first two seasons on the Farm, and their best is likely still to come.
Those two future NFL tackles alone are enough to raise the bar for this Stanford offensive line, but the other projected starters are solid players in their own right. Junior Drew Dalman, senior Dylan Powell and senior Devery Hamilton all received significant experience last year, especially thanks to Stanford’s severe injury bug up front. If those five take most of the snaps over the course of the season, the Cardinal can’t help but improve.
Stanford does not need to have an elite rushing attack to be successful this season. David Shaw’s team just needs to have a reliable ground game that averages over four yards per carry and takes some of the pressure off Costello and the passing game. Whether or not the Cardinal can achieve balance with a capable rushing offense will go a long way towards determining whether they get back to double-digit wins in 2019 or spend November fighting for bowl eligibility.
2) Make life tough for opposing quarterbacks
It felt like every quarterback that Stanford faced in 2018 had the game of their life against the Cardinal defense. Unfortunately, that was no coincidence. Amazingly enough, Stanford’s pass defense was nearly as poor as its rushing offense last season, ranking 122nd nationally in yards per game allowed. The Cardinal secondary was not great outside of budding superstar cornerback Paulson Adebo, but the defensive backs were not really the problem. The reason why every QB put up 7-on-7 numbers against Stanford was because they basically were playing 7-on-7. The Cardinal front seven created absolutely zero pressure on the quarterback last season. With all day to throw, opposing QBs tore up the overburdened Stanford secondary.
Interestingly enough, Stanford actually ranked 23rd nationally in sacks per game, but the defensive line could not get to the quarterback without help. Defensive coordinator Lance Anderson was forced to draw up creative blitzes to have any effect on opposing QBs, which left the secondary even more vulnerable if those blitzers could not get home. Anderson might have to make more of his patented halftime adjustments — Stanford ranked 13th in third quarter points allowed last year despite ranking 41st in overall scoring defense — and turn up the heat in order to truly have an effective pass rush in 2019, but the defensive line should be more formidable on its own as well.
Senior defensive tackle Michael Williams was a solid run-stopper last season, leading all Cardinal defensive linemen with 42 tackles, and he should continue to improve in his role anchoring the Cardinal defensive line this year. Senior Jovan Swann was the most productive pass-rusher among Stanford’s defensive linemen in 2018, racking up 4.5 sacks. With a little more discipline, Swann could be a monster off the edge this season. On the other end of the line, sophomore Thomas Booker is poised for stardom after a promising true freshman season last year. Booker, who had 28 tackles and 3.5 sacks last season despite coming off the bench, might be the best Cardinal defensive lineman by the end of the year. Just like offensive line, Stanford does not have much depth up front defensively. But if those three can play the majority of snaps in 2019, the Cardinal should have a much improved pass rush.
Of course, it’s not fair to put all the blame for Stanford’s putrid pass defense last season on the defensive line. The secondary will have to hold up its end of the bargain as well with a lot of new faces playing meaningful snaps. Last year, Stanford got solid play out of its cornerbacks — particularly junior Paulson Adebo, who co-led the country in passes defended — but safety was a real weak spot on the Cardinal defense. Senior Malik Antoine returns as the starter at free safety. He showed promise and should take a big step forward after getting comfortable in the position last year. Sophomore Kendall Williamson seems like a capable starter at strong safety while accumulating 16 tackles and two pass break-ups in limited action last year, but his experience level is just that: limited. Stanford defensive backs coach Duane Akina has his work cut out for him in order to find competitive depth in the secondary so that one or two injuries do not utterly doom the Cardinal defense.
But if the pass rush improves as it should, the job will get much easier for Stanford’s talented but young defensive backs. If Stanford’s pass defense can go from bad to okay, the Cardinal will be capable of 8-9 wins. If, however, the once-vaunted Stanford secondary can take the leap from bad to stellar, Stanford should find itself in the Pac-12 title race.
3) Find new playmakers
Most conversations about the future of Stanford football this offseason have revolved around who will not be on the field for the Cardinal in 2019. 2017 Heisman runner-up Bryce Love ‘19 is now a member of the Washington Redskins. JJ Arcega-Whiteside ‘19 and his 28 career touchdown catches are now on the Philadelphia Eagles. “Mr. Reliable” Trenton Irwin ‘19 and his 152 career receptions are on the Miami Dolphins roster bubble. All-Pac-12 tight end Kaden Smith ‘20 is staying closer to home as a member of the San Francisco 49ers, but he certainly won’t be suiting up for Stanford this season.
Stanford lost a considerable amount of its offensive production this offseason: Gone are the team’s top three receivers from last year and a generational talent at running back in Love. For years, Stanford’s offense has relied on a few dynamic playmakers to carry the load, from Toby Gerhatt ‘09 to Stepfan Taylor ‘12 to Ty Montgomery ‘14 to Christian McCaffrey to Love to Arcega-Whiteside. This year, there is no clear cut offensive superstar for the Cardinal to rely upon. Stanford has the quarterback in 2019. Can it find the skill position talent to complement KJ Costello and create an offensive juggernaut?
Stanford is not likely to find its next Heisman runner-up in 2019, at least outside of Costello, and that is just fine. The Cardinal do not need another McCaffrey — although it would sure be nice. They just need a handful of reliable playmakers, particularly at the receiver position, that offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard can turn to in key moments.
Good news is, there are plenty of potential breakout candidates in that locker room. Out of the bunched wide receiver group including Connor Wedington, Michael Wilson, Osiris St. Brown and sophomore Simi Fehoko, Stanford needs at least one go-to receiver to emerge. Fehoko has drawn some Arcega-Whiteside comparisons thanks to his 6’4” frame and sticky hands. Outside of tight end Colby Parkinson, Fehoko should see the most red zone targets. Younger brother to Green Bay Packers wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, Osiris is a burner who could make a ton of big plays down the field. Wilson looks like the next Mr. Reliable with crisp route-running and consistent hands.
Wedington is perhaps the most intriguing candidate. He had a promising freshman campaign but missed almost the entire season last year after suffering an injury in the opener against San Diego State. Wedington has some of McCaffrey’s all-purpose wizardry in his arsenal; he can catch passes, take handoffs, return punts and perhaps even run some wildcat QB. Whether it ends up being Wedington or anyone else, it seems likely that Stanford will find at least one All-Pac-12 caliber receiver in 2019.
Although a dominant wide receiver seems more likely given Stanford’s current roster and offensive scheme, perhaps one of the unheralded running backs will become the centerpiece of the Cardinal offense. Scarlett, the presumptive starter, certainly has that potential, as do his backups, Dorian Maddox and Trevor Speights. All three of those backs run with a physical, between-the-tackles style that should fit David Shaw’s offense well. Two highly-touted freshman running backs, Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat, could turn into stars as well. Given Stanford’s rich recent running back history, it seems more likely than not that at least one of those players will have a productive season.
Regardless of who takes over the go-to wide receiver role and who gets most of the carries at running back, the 2019 Stanford offense will be all about Costello. The Cardinal will go as far as Costello and his future NFL arm can take them. But he can’t do it alone. Stanford must improve on the offensive and defensive lines. The Cardinal must find the playmakers to replace Love and Arcega-Whiteside. They must rekindle their once-great rushing offense and passing defense. If they do, Stanford can get back to the startling success it enjoyed earlier this decade, when David Shaw’s team accumulated double-digit wins in six out of seven seasons. But if it is more of the same, Stanford will take a step back in 2019. The schedule leaves no margin for error.
On the fence of Stanford’s practice field, there is a banner that reads, “You are getting better or you are getting worse; you never stay the same.” That quote certainly applies to the 2019 Stanford football team. This is a boom-or-bust season for the Cardinal in the land of the Gold Rush and Tech Boom. They can win every game. They can lose every game. There may not be a more fascinating team to watch in all of college football.
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.