Even with last year’s relative slip from their recent standards, Stanford has been one of the most consistent teams both in record and in adhering to their identity in the David Shaw/Jim Harbaugh era. The Cardinal win with defense and a strong ground game, even when they had a generational star at quarterback in Andrew Luck. Last season, the running game slipped, and the offense suffered accordingly, but the defense was very good as usual. However, this season the defense has plenty to replace, but the running game should improve with a 600-yard rusher and four offensive line starters returning.
Joshua Garnett and Kyle Murphy headline what should be one of the top offensive lines in the conference per usual. Murphy will slide over to the left tackle spot to replace first round pick Andrus Peat, and Garnett will continue to anchor the left guard spot where he started every game last season. Junior Graham Shuler should be a fixture at center. As for the right side of the line, there are plenty of potential guys that could end up starting there and all have potential. Brendon Austin and Casey Tucker have been taking first team snaps at right guard and right tackle respectively, but that’s also partially due to the fact that their primary competition David Bright and Nick Davidson, Bright at guard and Davidson at tackle, has been out with injury. Both Bright and Davidson are expected to be healthy before the season starts. Johnny Caspers is another potential right guard candidate, as well as a suitable center backup for Graham Shuler.
Kevin Hogan’s decision to return for his senior season is a big plus for this Stanford team. Hogan got off to a bit of a slow start last season, but his final numbers were pretty solid. He completed over 65% of his passes and threw for 19 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. As a matter of fact, I actually think it’s a safe bet that Stanford might open up the offense and rely on him a little bit more this season.
Hogan might suffer some from the loss of do-it-all receiver Ty Montgomery, but every other major contributor in the receiving game returns. Montgomery is the only departed skill player on the offense to top 100 receiving yards last season. Tight end Austin Hooper should be a top option after catching 40 passes for just shy of 500 yards last season. Devon Cajuste, Francis Owusu and Michael Rector also make up a capable receiving trio, and Christian McCaffrey ought to be a playmaker in the receiving, running and return game.
McCaffrey will certainly be the top receiving back on this team, and most likely lead the team in all-purpose yards, but he should have plenty of competition for tops on the team in rushing. Remoud Wright held that honor last season after rushing for 601 yards and 11 touchdowns, although his ypc numbers were worse than both McCaffrey’s and Barry Sanders’. Yes, that is the Barry Sanders, Jr. for those of you who were wondering. The younger Sanders should have made his daddy proud last season on the attempts he did get rushing for 315 yards on 59 carries, although it was probably a little disappointing that none of those runs resulted in a touchdown.
With every starter in both the secondary and the defensive line gone, it will be up to the linebacking corps to lead by experience. Fortunately, there are a few experienced and productive players there who should be up to the task. Inside linebacker Blake Martinez led the team in tackles with 77 last season, and also chipped in seven tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and three interceptions. The other inside linebacker spot vacated by A.J. Tarpley will be filled by a younger guy, either sophomore Kevin Palma or redshirt freshman Jordan Perez. Peter Kalambayi and Kevin Anderson should be a solid pairing at outside linebacker where they combined for 20.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks last season.
Aziz Shittu and Cal transfer Brennan Scarlett should step in and start at defensive end this season, although neither topped ten tackles last season. Both were highly recruited coming out of high school though, so a breakout season wouldn’t be entirely surprising. Nose tackle will likely be played predominantly by a younger player, like the other inside linebacker spot. Harrison Phillips is a probably starter as a sophomore, and had two sacks in limited playing time as a freshman. His primary competition and a likely rotation player with him is redshirt freshman Solomon Thomas.
Cornerback Terrence Alexander is the only member of this secondary to record an interception last seasons, and no returning player broke up a pass or recorded more than 23 tackles. Kodi Whitfield and Dallas Lloyd are most likely going to be your starters at safety, considering that they are the only safeties on the roster with game experience. Both are upperclassmen and former offensive players, so they shouldn’t be lacking in the “ball skills” department. Ronnie Harris, the leading returning tackler in the secondary, will start at one cornerback spot, while Alexander or redshirt freshman Alijah Holder will likely be the other corner. Expect both to play however, and one will likely be used as a nickelback in appropriate situations.
Stanford came on strong at the end of last season, and by the end of the year were better than their record indicated. Even with so many replacements on defense, the offense should be stronger or at least more consistent, and if David Shaw and staff’s track record with defenses counts for anything the defense will be fine. The opening schedule is tough though with three of their first four coming on the road and none of them being “easy wins”. They ought to be able to beat Northwestern and Oregon State though, and I expect them to be fine against UCF at home. The early trip to USC will be tough though, and if the Cardinal win that then the rest of the conference will be on notice. It will help this year that Stanford gets UCLA, Oregon and Notre Dame at home. I expect the Cardinal to win at least one of those three, and my money would be on Stanford besting Notre Dame to end their season.