For the second consecutive year, the spotlight will be on quarterback competition in Palo Alto, but once again, Stanford’s fate hinges on its development up front.
Last season, after returning two starters to their offensive line, the Cardinal failed to coalesce up front and stumbled out of the gates. The line failed to adequately protect Ryan Burns and open holes up front, leading to offensive short-circuits in the most crucial stretch of the regular season. Stanford scored just five points against Colorado and was blown out by Washington and Washington State, effectively eliminating them from Pac-12 title contention.
But once Burns gave way to Keller Chryst under center, the line and accordingly, the offense seemed to come together, ripping off six straight wins while scoring nearly 40 points per game, albeit against weak defensive competition.
Now, using spring practice to improve upon pass protection, which ranked amongst the worst in the country, to protect Stanford’s quarterback—whether it be Chryst, Burns, or redshirt freshman K.J. Costello—is a major focus for a team with national title aspirations heading into 2017.
“[It’s] good. But not there yet,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said. “We still had two really good pressures on the quarterback that weren't scheme-related, guys just playing the proper technique. At the same time, Peter Kalambayi, he’s a fifth-year senior…. he’s going to put pressure on the quarterback. Mike Tyler…. he’s made great plays on the quarterback...and was tough on our guys. But the improvement is there.”
In order to avoid stunting their growth and the offense, whoever is under center for the Cardinal will need the line’s pass blocking to improve drastically from last season. Stanford ranked 103rd in the nation in sacks allowed, and gave up nearly five per game in its losses last season.
The advanced metrics back up this trend—controlled for Stanford’s infrequent passing attack on a per-down basis, Stanford had the fourth-worst adjusted sack rate in the nation, and second to last in sacks on pass attempts, according to Football Outsiders.
Stanford was passable in run blocking, ranking 48th in the nation, but especially with the loss of star running back Christian McCaffrey to the NFL Draft, will need to improve quickly upon last season’s fiasco protecting the quarterback.
Stanford has the tools and depth to succeed—it will lose just starting right guard Johnny Caspers from its starting front last season.
But something will need to change—while Stanford’s pass protection did improve as the season progressed, the quality of their opponents regressed. In the first half of the season while the offense sputtered, their opponents ranked nearly 30 spots higher nationally in sacks on average.
For Stanford, the hope is that another offseason will be what Shaw’s offensive line will need to to coalesce. With the potential to return four starters, continuity this spring and summer could be a boon for a talented unit that lacked in experience last season.
Nate Herbig will anchor the line in place of Caspers at one of the guard spots, but the rest, outside of Jesse Burkett at center, is still up in the air.
Casey Tucker should start at tackle somewhere, with A.T. Hall and David Bright as credible options for the other spot. Devery Hamilton, Brandon Fanaika, Nick Wilson, and others will all compete for the guard spot.
But the Cardinal will need to stay healthy in order to see the sorts of improvements it hopes for. Another factor that limited the line’s cohesion was missed time—several regulars missed action due to injury.
Tucker has missed time this spring, being forced to sit out Sunday’s spring practice after getting “banged up” Saturday. The injury doesn’t appear to be serious—Shaw said if it was a game, his staff would have considered playing Tucker.
An infusion of youth could also come to benefit the Cardinal come summer—two five-star recruits will arrive on The Farm.
No. 1 prospect Foster Sarell and fellow blue-chipper Walker Little could make a push to play immediately, which could be a big plus for Shaw’s team.
Coupled with the strong play of fellow youngsters in camp already, including Costello and freshman running back Trevor Speights, Shaw is optimistic about his young players.
“I'm excited about our young guys,” Shaw said. “They're not acting like freshmen. Our freshman quarterback isn't acting like a freshman quarterback, our freshman running backs aren't acting like freshman running backs, our young defensive backs that redshirted, they’re coming out and competing like crazy. There's a lot of our maturity in our young players, which is going to be vital for us because we had some guys that left, so we have some guys that will need to step up into big roles for us.”