Junior left tackle Walker Little, a top draft prospect, announced he will be returning for his senior season on Monday. A freshman All-American in 2017, first-team All-Pac-12 in 2018 and preseason All-American in 2019, Little saw his season end in the opener against Northwestern.
The news that Little is returning is one nugget of positivity for an otherwise dreary early offseason for the Cardinal. Stanford did not lead the Pac-12 in much this season, but has had a conference-high 12 players entered into the transfer portal.
While that number may be artificially inflated by the fact that, for the first time in 11 years Stanford’s season ended prematurely without a bowl game (other teams are still awaiting their season finales), it cannot be overlooked that a quarter of the starting lineup from the 2019 season opener have entered their names.
The way the portal functions, players who enter are not guaranteed to leave. It simply opens the opportunity for other schools to contact the athlete, while the athlete can withdraw their name at any time. The free agency-esque system also allows schools to withdraw scholarships from players who enter the portal.
“I have been one of the biggest proponents of graduate transfers in all of college football,” Stanford head coach David Shaw told the Mercury News. “A student-athlete who graduates in four years or less, and has a year of eligibility remaining, should be able to explore the options in a limited time frame.”
For Stanford, guard Dylan Powell has already committed to Indiana, but the future of the other 11 remains to be seen. All of the players who would be leaving are seniors who would be immediately eligible as graduate transfers.
In terms of impact for Stanford, guards Devery Hamilton and Henry Hattis would be the most significant losses on offense. Both were starters before succumbing to injury and being replaced by freshmen.
The defensive line would be depleted by the potential loss of end Jovan Swann or tackle Michael Williams. The duo were fourth and fifth, respectively, in tackles for loss on the team. Williams was one of just seven Cardinal to start in all 12 games and his 24 career starts, all made consecutively, trailed by one to two-year captain and quarterback K.J. Costello’s total.
Although cornerback Obi Eboh was in the starting lineup at the outset of the season and regained that position with a late-season injury to junior first team All-Pac-12 Paulson Adebo, for much of the season freshman Kyu Blu Kelly was listed above him on the depth chart.
Moreover, fifth-year seniors have been crucial to the prior success of the Cardinal. Even in the 4-8 season, it was fifth-year running back Cameron Scarlett receiving the Irving S. Zeimer Award as the team’s most valuable player and fifth-year outside linebacker Casey Toohill — a finalist for the 2019 William V. Campbell Trophy — earning the Al Masters Award for leadership and respect at the team awards banquet.
“Some will leave, but some will stay and be important pieces of an exciting 2020 Stanford football team,’’ Shaw added. “Our time frame is wider because we don’t have a bowl game to prepare for.”
The other potential transfers on offense are quarterback Jack Richardson, who appeared in five career games but earned a scholarship; receiver Donald Stewart, who caught his first pass since 2017 for a touchdown against Cal; and tight end Scooter Harrington, who has made seven career starts including one in 2019. On defense, tackle Bo Peek and linebacker Anthony Trinh have entered their names, while on special teams kicker Collin Riccitelli, who was passed over by freshman Ryan Sanborn, has announced his intention to transfer.
Among the turmoil, Shaw has been linked to NFL head coaching jobs, most notably the Washington Redskins. The bloated number of potential transfers may be due to these rumors, but also may be athletes exploring options. In the past, Shaw has brushed away NFL interest and in a postseason interview with Cardinal Sports Report and The Bootleg, anticipated that his staff would return. Shaw declined to comment on rumors of a seven-year extension.
Stanford can look forward to signing day on Wednesday. Currently, 17 players are verbally committed according to Rivals, though that number may rise. Few players will be left from the 25-deep 2016 class, leaving the relatively small 13- and 15-person classes of 2017 and 2018, respectively, with a more robust 23-player class of 2019.
The offensive line depth will be remedied somewhat by a class with three offensive linemen in its top seven recruits, but that could mean another season of youth along the front. The lone five-star, Myles Hinton, and two of the six four-star recruits, Drake Metcalf and Connor McLaughlin are offensive linemen (all star ratings according to Rivals).
On the other hand, the other position potentially losing three transfers — the defensive line — does not expect the same reinforcements. Tobin Phillips and Lance Keneley, both three-star recruits, are the only two defensive lineman currently verbally committed.