Stanford football is back! It’s time for an in-depth look at the Cardinal’s upcoming season, Pac-12 power rankings, predictions and our take on the state of the Stanford program. Buckle up!
But first, a reflection on last year. The Cardinal went 4-2, but there’s a lot more to the story than just the record. After Santa Clara County prohibited contact sports in late November, Stanford was unable to practice or host games on campus. The team scrambled to find sites to practice while on the road. Junior offensive tackle Walter Rouse remembers one such instance on the team’s Oregon State trip.
“We’re lifting literally on the side of the road … and I’m just really thinking, like, ‘How did we even get to this point?’ and, ‘What are we even doing here?’” Rouse said. “But we took what came at us, and we dealt with it.”
Dealt with it they did, rattling off four-straight road wins after an 0-2 start to the season. There is more to that 0-2 start as well. Four Cardinal players were ruled out of the opener due to what ended up being a false-positive COVID-19 test — one of the players was starting quarterback Davis Mills ’21. None of the four players was cleared to play until the Friday before Week 2, meaning they got only one day of practice before hosting Colorado.
All offseason, people have attempted to undercut Oregon’s second-straight Pac-12 title by pointing to Washington’s COVID debacle that forced them to be replaced in the conference championship game. But Stanford’s false-positive is scarcely mentioned.
Anyone who watched Stanford fall to Colorado saw an offense that struggled mightily early on but got more in sync as the game progressed. We’d be remiss not to mention that the defense was atrocious in that 35-32 loss, but we’re quite confident that Stanford would have won that game if Davis Mills practiced all week. And don’t forget about that first half against Oregon in Week 1 — the Cardinal kept it close early, and could have easily been up at the half if not for a few miscommunications and missed throws. We will never know what would have happened, but one can make a compelling argument that Stanford would have won the Pac-12 North if not for the false-positive test.
But past is past, and the focus now shifts to how the Cardinal can use last year’s experience to succeed in the future. The team often talks about resilience. As sixth-year outside linebacker Jordan Fox put it, “Having that last year, going 4-2 from that, being kicked out of our own state and going to practice on the road, we know what it’s gonna take, and we’re ready for any challenge that comes at us this year.”
“When we face a challenge, if we have a setback, we’ll be resilient. We know what it takes to do it because we did it before. We have that maturity,” Fox added.
With the growth from last year’s experience combined with the prospect of playing a full season of football with fans in the stands, you already have an excited group of guys. The media’s doubt of the Cardinal this season and tendency to dismiss last year’s 4-2 record as lucky adds to that motivation.
Another key factor to this upcoming season is a “return to normalcy” — fans are expected to be in full attendance at games, and the players are expected to get back to their normal-season routines. The sentiment around the squad is one of excitement, according to Rouse.
“Excitement is at an all-time high,” he said. “We have some semblance of a regular camp heading into the new season. I cannot wait to play — if you ask anyone else on this team, they’re going to say the same thing. A lot of that excitement also stems from the fact that people doubt us. We cannot wait to prove them wrong, and we cannot wait to just do what Stanford football does.”
Position Group Breakdown
Now it’s time to preview the 2021 season. We’ll go in-depth on each position group and give our projected starters. We’ll also assign two ratings on a scale from 1 to 10: the first is a Pac-12 rating, measuring how a position group stacks up against the rest of the conference (10 being the top of the conference); the second is a confidence level, representing the confidence in our Pac-12 rating (10 being the most confident).
We begin with the most important position in the game. The departure of Houston Texans draftee Mills leaves a void to be filled. There is a battle for starting quarterback between senior Jack West and sophomore Tanner McKee.
The two are similar types of quarterbacks — West stands at 6’4” and 215 pounds, while McKee is 6’6” and 225 pounds. Both guys saw the field in last year’s season opener against Oregon after Mills was ruled out; West went 13-for-19 for 154 yards and McKee went 3-for-7 for 62 yards.
Take McKee’s sophomore status with a grain of salt, however, as he spent two years on his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission in Brazil before enrolling at Stanford. The former top-50 recruit has a high ceiling and all the physical tools to be successful.
Stanford’s quarterback commit of the 2021 recruiting class, freshman Ari Patu, will likely redshirt this season. This offseason, Patu and freshman safety Jaden Slocum made up the program’s first-ever early enrollees.
Finally, Cardinal fans should expect to see sixth-year Isaiah Sanders mostly in goal-line and other short-yardage situations. The former transfer from Air Force rushed for two touchdowns last season during his first year on the Farm.
Shaw has stated that he plans to play both McKee and West in the opener against Kansas State — the quarterback competition is set to continue into the season. Stanford fans have expected McKee to eventually become a star for a few years now, and we see him as the favorite to win the starting job.
It’s tough predicting the performance under center this year, but with the talent McKee possesses and the amount of time he has had in the program to prepare for this moment, fans should not be surprised if he is one of the better quarterbacks in the conference. Of course, it could all go horribly wrong with a brand-new starter, so we can’t be that confident.
Projected Starter: Tanner McKee
Pac-12 Rating: 6
Confidence Level: 4
Establishing the running game has been the trademark of the David Shaw era, and this year’s running back room has all the talent it needs to get it done.
The group is headlined by junior Austin Jones, an All-Pac-12 honorable mention last season after racking up 550 yards in six games. Junior Nathaniel Peat, who averaged 7.0 yards per carry last year, is back as well; he will complete what should be a formidable duo in the backfield.
Those two are set to receive the lion’s share of action, but guys like sophomores E.J. Smith and Casey Filkins, as well as senior Justus Woods, could all make a push to pick up the remaining touches or step in if someone goes down with an injury.
The Pac-12 is filled with excellent running backs like senior Max Borghi of Washington State, senior CJ Verdell of Oregon and sophomore Jarek Broussard of Colorado. But the Cardinal’s backfield was great in 2020 — there’s no reason to believe it won’t be great again in 2021.
Projected Starter: Austin Jones
Pac-12 Rating: 8
Confidence Level: 9
The tight end position is another staple of the Stanford offense. The Cardinal have produced many pros over the past decade as Coach Morgan Turner has overseen the group. The question now: who will be the next great tight end to come out of the Farm?
Scooter Harrington ’21 and fifth-year Tucker Fisk split time at the position last season, but with Harrington trying to latch onto an NFL roster spot and Fisk now pulling double duty at both defensive end and tight end, there is an opportunity for one of the younger players to be the top guy.
Sophomore Benjamin Yurosek — the tallest of the Cardinal TE’s at 6’5” — was the most impressive during spring ball, and hopes to play a bigger role in his second season. Junior Bradley Archer will also get his chance to stake a claim to more playing time. Sophomore Lukas Ungar is a potential option as well.
Fisk is the best blocker of the four, but he’s not as effective in the passing game. Pairing of Fisk and Yurosek could be very effective, with one specializing as the blocking TE and the other as the passing one.
Projected Starter: Tucker Fisk
Pac-12 Rating: 6
Confidence Level: 7
Last season’s wide receiver group was one of the most talented in the Pac-12. Despite the departures of Simi Fehoko, Connor Wedington ’21 and Osiris St. Brown ’21, this year’s unit has the chance to put up some legitimate numbers.
Senior Michael Wilson will lead the way, looking to follow up on a junior campaign in which he recorded 19 receptions for 261 yards and a touchdown before missing the final two games with a foot injury. Wilson has been placed on the Biletnikoff Award’s watchlist — an award given to the nation’s top receiver — signaling his high regard around the country. Recently named one of the team’s four captains, he will unfortunately sit out the first few games with an injury, but his return will be anxiously awaited by the Stanford offense and Cardinal fans alike.
At 6’3” and 235 pounds, junior Elijah Higgins is a matchup nightmare for opposing defensive backs, and figures to start alongside Wilson. Higgins showed flashes of what he can do in the shortened 2020 season, making 14 receptions in the final three games.
Coach Shaw will also have two other big-bodied receivers to call on: senior Brycen Tremayne and sophomore John Humphreys. Tremayne was ever-present last year for Stanford, reeling in 14 catches for 265 yards. Humphreys did not play as much in his debut season for the Cardinal, only making three grabs — but one of those was an acrobatic, Sportscenter Top 10–worthy reception against Oregon State.
Fans have not seen much yet of juniors Colby Bowman and Marcus Graham, as well as sophomore Bryce Farrell — but all three are speedsters that could add something different to the Cardinal passing attack. 6’3” sophomore Silas Starr and 6’4” freshman Jayson Raines also provide further depth at the position.
Projected Starters: Michael Wilson, Elijah Higgins, Brycen Tremayne
Pac-12 Rating: 7
Confidence Level: 9
The Cardinal offensive line has had some moving pieces this offseason, but may arguably be the deepest position group on the team heading into the season. After last season, Coach Kevin Carberry was hired by the Los Angeles Rams; his replacement, Terry Heffernan from the Buffalo Bills, has hit the ground running.
The unit’s leaders of last season — right tackle Foster Sarell ’21 and center Drew Dalman ’21 — are gone, but the junior class has a remarkable amount of experience, with a combined 44 starts among them all. Junior Walter Rouse is back for the third-straight year as the starting left tackle protecting the quarterback’s blindside. Sophomore Myles Hinton figures to start at the opposite tackle spot after only playing in jumbo situations during the 2020 season. Hinton won the team’s Outstanding Freshman Award last year.
Juniors Barrett Miller and Branson Bragg remain entrenched at the guard slots, with Jake Hornibrook pushing for playing time behind them. Junior Drake Nugent is currently winning the battle to replace Dalman at center, competing against sophomore Drake Metcalf.
When asked who is stepping up to fill those leadership roles vacated by Sarell and Dalman, Rouse said, “Branson Bragg has done a wonderful job, really stepping up in a leadership position. But I really think everyone in the 2023 class has done a good job. We all came in together, were thrown into the fire our freshman year when we weren’t supposed to, but Branson especially has done a great job bringing the [offensive] line together.”
Behind the starters, sophomores James Pogorelc, Connor McLaughlin, Levi Rogers and freshman Austin Uke are all capable of seeing playing time.
Projected Starters: Walter Rouse (LT), Barrett Miller (LG), Drake Nugent (C), Branson Bragg (RG), Myles Hinton (RT)
Pac-12 Rating: 8
Confidence Level: 9
The offensive performance in 2021 lies on the shoulders of the starting quarterback. The pieces are there for whoever it is to lead one of the top offensive units in the Pac-12. Barring any health setbacks, the Cardinal offensive line, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends should be, at worst, slightly above average in the conference. And don’t forget about the impact fifth-year fullback Houston Heimuli can have on the offense. The only missing piece is the quarterback.