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Football round table: Taming the Wildcats

Running back Cameron Scarlett (above) is expected to be a key contributor in Saturday's season opener against Northwestern. (BOB DREBIN/isiphotos.com)

Coming off a 9-4 season capped by a sloppy Sun Bowl victory, expectations are all over the place for No. 25 Stanford in 2019. Senior quarterback K.J. Costello returns to lead the offense, but without the receiving weapons he had a year ago. Junior cornerback and All-American Paulson Adebo headlines the defense, but run-stopping ability is still in question. A well-coached, disciplined Northwestern team heads into Stanford Stadium on Saturday to kickoff the season. The Daily’s King Jemison, Daniel Martinez-Krams and Gregory Block discuss expectations, breakout candidates and the trenches.

Any player who gets interviewed in the offseason gets asked a question somewhere along these lines: “What are you most excited for, and what gives you the most pause?” Instead of us asking that question, let’s turn it on ourselves and ask what about the Cardinal we are most confident in, and where we are worried.

King Jemison (KJ): I am most confident in K.J. Costello, by far. The senior quarterback had a huge season in 2018, throwing for 3,540 yards and 29 touchdowns. The advanced stats like Costello even more than his celebrity counterpart at Oregon, Justin Herbert. Costello could be the top quarterback in the conference and perhaps one of the top five in the nation, and he has a talented group of pass catchers around him. Michael Wilson, Osiris St. Brown, Connor Wedington and Simi Fehoko are relative unknowns, but I predict that by the end of the season, we will consider Stanford’s wide receiving corps among the best in the Pac-12 as well. Stanford’s passing game should be really explosive in 2019. 

The thing that has me most worried about Stanford is depth. I like the starters at pretty much every position for the Cardinal. But in many cases, there is a huge drop-off from the starters to the back-ups. If Stanford suffers a few injuries in the wrong areas, particularly the offensive line or secondary, the season could unravel quickly. The Cardinal simply can not recruit at the same level as programs like Alabama and Clemson, and depth is where that deficit really rears it ugly head. 

Daniel Martinez-Krams (DMK): Of course KJ chooses K.J., but for me it has to be Paulson Adebo. The junior is so cool, whether in a game, at practice or in an interview. He co-led the entire nation in passes defended, was named an AP All-American and when I tried to interview him I had to wait more than 30 minutes because he was working on his hands off of a ball machine. He is dedicated, he asks his coaches to push him because no one has higher standards for his play than he does. Everyone in the program is certain that he is a better player than he was last year, and smarter too. The only worry, if it qualifies as one, is that Adebo Island does not receive any visitors so his stats decline. Even if that happens, if he so chooses, Adebo will be a first round draft pick.

I am most worried about the inside linebackers. This is not to say that the group cannot be great, but there are a lot of questions due to their inexperience. After redshirting last year, senior Curtis Robinson transitioned from outside linebacker to become a starter this year. Senior Andrew Pryts has never started and will line up next to Robinson. If Stanford wants to be competitive at the position, redshirt freshmen Ricky Miezan and Jacob Mangum-Farrar will need to see snaps as the season progresses. Both are athletic, and senior captain Malik Antoine just called Mangum-Farrar the hardest hitter on the team. In Stanford’s 3-4, inside linebackers are crucial, and this team will need to step up. 

Gregory Block (GB): I’m most confident in the Cardinal receiving corps, which feels a little weird to write considering that they lost three stalwarts in JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Kaden Smith and Trenton Irwin. This year’s group is young, talented and explosive. Junior tight end Colby Parkinson is the next promising star at the position, while junior receivers Conor Wedington and Osiris St. Brown provide versatile deep-ball threats. Costello has a number of options at his disposal, so even without Arcega-Whiteside as a jump-ball guarantee, I’m confident the passing attack won’t miss a beat. 

However, Costello and Co. may not have a chance to succeed if the offensive line doesn’t step up after a disappointing 2018 performance. The Cardinal need an improved rushing attack to keep their offense balanced and keep Costello protected. Junior tackle Walker Little is a force on the left side and Foster Sarell has tremendous potential, but the entire line still needs to prove itself as a unit, especially after losing center Jesse Burkett. 

Senior quarterback K.J. Costello (above) recorded 3,540 passing yards last year, the second-most for a single season in school history. (DON FERIA/isiphotos.com)

Stanford’s 9-4 record last year came as a letdown, especially after a perfect 4-0 start. This year’s schedule, the toughest in the nation, would make reaching that pinnacle a somewhat difficult feat. What one or two players would have to have breakout campaigns in order for the Cardinal to surpass expectations and potentially vie for a conference championship?

KJ: Cameron Scarlett has been waiting behind Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love, two Heisman runner-ups, for the last four seasons. Now he finally gets his chance to start, and Stanford needs a big season from him. Scarlett is a physical bruiser who can rack up yards between the tackles. If Stanford’s offensive line gets better, and it should, then Scarlett’s running style will be perfect for David Shaw’s pro-style offense. Love was one of the best running backs in school history, but I actually predict that Scarlett will be more efficient than Love was last season. Scarlett should go for well over 1,000 yards this season, allowing the offense to maintain balance.

Defensively, Stanford needs a big year from Curtis Robinson. The former four-star recruit made the switch to inside linebacker this offseason because, frankly, Stanford needed more help inside. Robinson is extremely talented, and he is one of the only Cardinal linebackers with any experience. Stanford’s defense could be solid in 2019, perhaps Pac-12 Championship solid, but they are counting on unproven players like Robinson to take the next step. 

DMK: I am going to double down with cornerbacks and pick Obi Eboh. He is going to be targeted — a lot — and the coaches have been raving about him. He does things right, he looked good in his appearances last year and that might be enough to come out on top due to the volume of plays coming his way. 

Stanford feels confident in all of its backs, but if I had to pick one to emerge I am going with Austin Jones. The local product is quick, with the athleticism to make some crazy cuts between the hashes, and with the speed to break away in the open. His motor is similarly crazy and he has the ability to push through a pile. Jones only fumbled twice in his high school career so ball security is not an issue. He will get the snaps, and something tells me he will take advantage.

GB: Cameron Scarlett is definitely a great pick, as the Cardinal need an improved rushing game to have any chance at a conference championship. On the defensive side, I’m looking at safety Malik Antoine as a player who needs to have a tremendous season. Antoine had a solid season last year with 53 tackles, but the Cardinal lack any sort of safety help around him. A lot of attention is rightfully devoted to star corner Paulson Adebo, but Stanford will need the rest of the pass defense to improve around him. As a senior leader, Antoine may be the key to an overall defensive improvement. 

Senior free safety Milk Antoine (above) Finished with 53 tackles (37 solo), one sack, two interceptions and two pass breakups last season. (AL CHANG/isiphotos.com)

Unexpectedly, and uncharacteristically, Stanford struggled in the trenches last year. The Cardinal could never get the run game going, a fact largely attributed to a subpar offensive line riddled with injuries. Stanford was also ripped up for huge games by opponent’s backs. The improvement on the lines will be put to the test by a physical Northwestern team that is known for selling out to stop the run on defense and establishing the run on offense, even more so with the quarterback spot in flux and running back Isaiah Bowser in the backfield. What do you expect out of the lines on Saturday?

KJ: The fate of the offensive and defensive lines will determine how far Stanford can go this season. The Cardinal are much healthier along the offensive line than they were last season, which gives the line far more chemistry and continuity than they ever had in 2018. I want to see Foster Sarell and Walker Little establish themselves as one of the best tackle combos in the country. This game, however, will probably be a slugfest where neither team does much in the running game. The Northwestern front seven is elite, led by All-Big Ten linebacker Paddy Fisher and defensive end Joe Gaziano. Stanford’s offensive line will be better in 2019, but that probably will not show up on Saturday. 

Meanwhile, the Cardinal defensive line should have a dominant day. Northwestern’s offensive line was shaky last year, and it returns only two starters from that porous unit. I expect that sophomore defensive end Thomas Booker will start his breakout sophomore campaign in style with multiple sacks, and massive defensive tackles Michael Williams and Dalyn Wade-Perry will swallow up the Wildcats’ running game. Stanford’s defensive line still has a long way to go, but Northwestern is probably the perfect opening opponent for that unit. 

DMK: I expect the lines to play with a chip on their shoulder. We spent an entire year agonizing over the fall of Stanford football. The program that lost its character. And now, a Northwestern team that is known to be physical comes in to Stanford Stadium? This is an “our house” moment, and Stanford will respond. I actually expect the Cardinal offensive line to make some holes in this game. Not only will Costello be protected, but Cam Scarlett, Dorian Maddox, Nathanial Peat and Austin Jones will all have chunk plays. Costello will have the time to look through his progressions and then dink a checkdown to one of his backs, who scampers for seven yards and a first down. And on the other side, facing a team with an unknown quarterback, a John Doe, Stanford has been sidestepping the film room and focusing on its own game. It is as if Northwestern put a dummy under center and let Stanford’s pass rushers go to work. The group will have its hands full with Isaiah Bowser, whose physical style is daunting, but getting after the quarterback is bread and butter.

GB: I expect both lines to improve from last season, but I’m not sure how much of it will show in the first game of the year. I think Scarlett has the experience and the power to have a solid season, but Northwestern is a physical, well-coached team that will arrive in Palo Alto with some motivation from coach Pat Fitzgerald. I don’t think the Cardinal rushing attack will do a whole lot on Saturday. 

Defensively, I expect the Cardinal front seven to play well, especially with some uncertainty at the Northwestern quarterback position. The Wildcats have some offensive weapons, but I expect Jovann Swann and Michael Williams to stifle Isaiah Bowser and for Adebo to shut down star receiver Bennett Skowronek. The Cardinal defense will ball out on Saturday. 

Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu, Daniel Marintez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu and Gregory Block at gblock ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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