At this past Saturday’s Cardinal & White Spring Game, the defense looked much more prepared than the offense despite large turnover at the positions, coaching changes and missing contributors on the defense and significant experience at the skill positions on the offense. With that in mind, we asked football writers Michael Peterson, Vihan Lakshman and David Cohn: What position grouping’s continued development will be the most critical in order for the Cardinal to be successful this season?
Michael: Although the offensive line is still young and relatively inexperienced, the level of domination exhibited by the defensive front seven in the trenches during the Spring Game surprised me. Senior Henry Anderson, freshman Peter Kalambayi and others continually pushed the offensive line backwards and forced negative yardage plays—something very uncommon to see from Stanford’s offensive line. Stanford’s ground-and-pound attack has been built upon big, strong offensive lines in past years and the play of the offensive line will be crucial to Stanford’s success this season.
With four departed starters, the offensive line could face issues of inexperience. That being said, the group taking over on the line is as talented as they come. Anchored by returning sophomore starter and future first-round NFL draft pick Andrus Peat on the left side, the offensive line will be maintained by Peat and sophomores Josh Garnett, Graham Shuler, Johnny Caspers and Kyle Murphy. Garnett, Murphy and Caspers all saw the field as “ogres” in Stanford’s jumbo formation last season and each lineman was a highly-touted recruit in the 2012 class. There’s a reason why few observers of Stanford football are worried about the offensive line.
However, offensive line success is mandatory for the style of football Stanford plays. If the offensive line cannot dominate up front, Stanford will struggle mightily to move the ball—it’s as simple as that. This was clearly evident on Saturday as the young line allowed 14 tackles for loss—including eight sacks (although the quarterback was never physically brought down due to Spring Game rules)—and the offense stuttered all game long. While there is little doubt that the offensive line will eventually be at least as successful as previous units, it certainly has a long way to go to be ready for the season. This continued development could ultimately determine how far Stanford goes next season.
Vihan: First of all, I’d just like to say that I don’t think Stanford’s offensive struggles should raise any calls for concern. The defense has reloaded and looks absolutely dominant up front while the Card’s young offensive line is still taking time to come together. Now, with that being said, I think the continued development of the secondary will be the most important piece for Stanford’s success. As mentioned, Stanford’s front seven looks absolutely terrifying with at least 10 or 11 players who can make serious contributions; however, for Henry Anderson and company to be able to pin their ears back and start the #partyinthebackfield, Stanford’s corners and safeties need to hold down the fort in coverage.
With senior safeties Ed Reynolds and Devon Carrington moving on and sophomore corner Alex Carter out with an injury, Stanford’s secondary looked thin heading into the Spring Game, but the unit put on quite a show under new secondary coach Duane Akina, who has previously developed 28 NFL defensive backs while at Texas. Reynolds’ apparent replacement, senior Kyle Olugbode, looked very comfortable in the starting spot while a pair of converted offensive players—sophomore quarterback Dallas Lloyd and sophomore wide receiver Kodi Whitfield—showed natural safety instincts and made some great reads and big hits. Senior safety John Flacco also impressed in the Spring Game, picking off quarterback Kevin Hogan and stopping the first-team offense. Meanwhile, junior strong safety Jordan Richards—arguably the best player at his position in the country—is still Jordan Richards and looks to be the anchor and the undisputed leader of the unit.
As for the corners, Wayne Lyons looked very impressive as he recorded a team-high three pass breakups while Ronnie Harris did an excellent job on the other side of the field, aside from giving up a 45 yard catch to Rollins Stallworth. Freshman Chandler Dorrell made the biggest play for the unit—and for the entire defense—with a pick-six off freshman quarterback Ryan Burns in the first quarter. With up-and-coming players in Dorrell and freshman Taijuan Thomas and a host of incoming freshmen—not to mention Carter returning for the season—the corners look to be in good shape. Under Akina’s guidance, the secondary appears to be making significant strides in just the few short weeks of spring practice. If the unit continues to develop and gives the Cardinal front seven a chance to get to the quarterback on a regular basis, Stanford’s defense could make the leap from dangerous to downright lethal.
David: While I believe that Kevin Hogan’s continued development will be most critical for the Cardinal during this upcoming 2014 season, I feel that, as a position grouping, the running backs will have the most to prove. More specifically, the loss of Tyler Gaffney, who did so much for the Cardinal in posting one of the finest seasons from the halfback position in recent memory, leaves a huge void that will have to be filled.
Furthermore, the four returning running backs who will compete for the starting role—Kelsey Young, Barry J. Sanders, Ricky Seale and Remound Wright—had a combined total of 288 rushing yards in 2013. This combined total is less than either Anthony Wilkerson’s (353 yards) or Kevin Hogan’s rushing yards (355 yards) from last season. Finally, Kelsey Young’s arm injury in the Spring Game on Saturday will cast further doubt on a position group that will have to execute the Stanford offensive staples of running back pass-protection and the power running game in the fall.
However, in spite of the uncertainty at running back, there were some positives from the Spring Game in the performance of Sanders. The Oklahoma City native shined against a formidable White defense on Saturday, notching 68 rushing yards on a mere 12 carries for a solid 5.7 yards per carry average. In addition, he continued to show a tremendous ability to make defenders miss in the open field with moves reminiscent of his Hall-of-Fame father.
Thus, if Sanders can continue his development during summer camp, then he may be poised for a breakout season in 2014.
Michael Peterson, Vihan Lakshman and David Cohn were squeezed in the KZSU press box at the Spring Game, fighting each other for the sole headset. Let them know which one should have won the right to commentate at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu, vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu and dmcohn ‘at’ stanford.edu.