2015 looks good for Stanford football

April 14, 2015, 10:51 p.m.

After the Spring Game, it seemed appropriate to take a look at the upcoming season and where Stanford stood in each phase of the game. Here’s a look at what the offense, defense and special teams might look like for 2015. I’ll also be taking a peek at the schedule for next year as well. So here is your way-too-early look at Stanford football for 2015…

Elite Defense

If the Spring Game was any indication of how good Stanford’s 2015 defense will be, then that should be reason enough to believe in next season’s team. One of the supposed weaknesses of the Cardinal defense was the defensive line. They sure did not look like a weak link last Saturday. Going up against some very talented offensive linemen, the defensive front looked like it could wreak havoc on any team in the country. There is always the question of depth, which is certainly lacking this spring and may require some freshmen to step in.

However, if healthy, this perceived weakness may turn into one of the better fronts in the conference. Solomon Thomas looks as though he is the real deal. The talented Jordan Watkins may be primed for a big season as well. Torsten Rotto, Nate Lohn and Harrison Phillips have already proven themselves. And Aziz Shittu, returning from injury, has the chance to be the centerpiece of it all, literally and figuratively.

The secondary is deep and gifted. Talking to Duane Akina, one of (if not the) best defensive backs coaches in the country, and judging by the performance at the Cardinal and White Game, the corners and safeties for next year might be the most well rounded group that has played here in a long time. Even with the loss of Jordan Richards (one of the best safeties in college football), Alex Carter and Wayne Lyons, this group can more than make up for their departure if they can mature quickly enough. It should go without mention that the linebackers should be one of the greatest strengths of this team. They are young and extraordinarily talented, and if I were a coach, I would be comfortable starting anyone on the roster. The defense should, again, be one of the best units in the nation.

Improved Offense

We saw Kevin Hogan make the jump at the end of last year. He picked up where he left off on Saturday. The offensive line occasionally struggled against their counterpart. Next year’s season will likely rest on their shoulders. There is no doubting their talent, but we all saw what a difference the offensive line coming together at the end of last season made for the running game and for Hogan. The lynchpin of 2015 will again be the offensive line. They’ll have some help from the best tight end corps in the nation led by Austin Hooper. That is not an exaggeration either.

On top of that, the stable of running backs behind them should be very capable. Christian McCaffrey is a star in the making. Barry Sanders Jr. had an excellent spring game and could also be poised for a big year. Remound Wright had an excellent second half of the season last year and looks like he can be the guy that Stanford can turn to when it needs to churn out the tough yards. It should also give Coach Shaw the option to use McCaffrey as a receiving option while keeping a running back in the backfield. And let’s not forget the fullbacks, another perennial strength of the Cardinal. I would not be surprised to see a much broader role for the likes of Daniel Marx and Patrick Skov, especially with respect to the passing game.

The biggest question right now is at wideout. Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector return to lead the wide receivers, but someone is going to have to make up for the prolific production of Ty Montgomery. The receivers behind Rector and Cajuste are unproven and will have to grow into their roles quickly if Stanford wants to be able to get a slot receiver on the field. Francis Owusu has a chance to make a name for himself, but he looks more like a true wideout than a slot receiver. Trent Irwin should make an immediate impact; expect to see him on the field from the get-go.

Questions on Special Teams

The under-appreciated special teams unit of the Cardinal will see a lot of turnover in 2015. Jordan Williamson had an up and down year in 2014, but was forced to take a lot of long attempts as the Cardinal offense struggled to move the ball in their opponents’ half of the field. In case you have forgotten, Williamson will leave as the all-time leading scorer in Stanford football history and with the 29th most points scored in all of college football since 2000.

It will now be Conrad Ukropina’s chance to step up, though his showing in the spring game was not an auspicious beginning. Given Stanford’s historical reliance on field goals, their style of play and the fact that the offense struggled mightily in the red-zone last year, Ukropina will be a key part of Stanford’s ability to score.

Gone too is arguably the best returner in Stanford history, Ty Montgomery. McCaffrey looked like a capable heir but Stanford uses a two-returner set, so someone new will be returning kicks full time. My money would be on Sanders Jr. right now, but I would also not be surprised to see Coach Shaw use a number of his athletes in the return game. The coverage unit was superb last year and I don’t expect 2015 to be any different. Stanford’s coaching staff does an outstanding job of teaching players how to tackle in space and to get off of blocks, and that has translated seamlessly to special teams.

The Schedule

Stanford was at the mercy of a brutal schedule last season. They faced four ranked teams on the road and three in the top ten. The Pac-12 was a very deep conference this past year and should be so again. However, nothing is more telling than quarterback turnover. Two of the best teams face questions at QB: UCLA and Oregon. There will be no Marcus Mariota or Brett Hundley. Oregon’s replacement signal-caller, Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams, might just be a name you should get accustomed to hearing, but as of yet, he is an unproven entity. Highly rated recruit and true freshman Josh Rosen is vying for the job at UCLA, but he may not be the answer just yet.

Other teams lost stars as well. USC lost defensive end Leonard Williams, Utah lost defensive end Nate Orchard and ASU lost wideout Jalen Strong. That being said, Notre Dame, USC, Oregon and ASU return dangerous teams, and Utah has been a thorn in Stanford’s side for the past few years now. In addition, Stanford will face an explosive Arizona team (in lieu of ASU) after not playing them last year. The good news is that Stanford will not face ASU or Utah in the regular season next year. They will instead face Arizona and Colorado.

As an added bonus, they will face the tougher of the two, Arizona, at home. Stanford’s away games are as follows: Northwestern, USC, Oregon State, Washington State and Colorado. With the exception of USC, I think that these are all games that Stanford should expect to win.

Northwestern has been one of the unluckiest teams in college football over the last few years, but Stanford undoubtedly has more talent than the Wildcats. Oregon State has huge question marks after the departure of the great Mike Riley to Nebraska. Washington St. may be a trap game, but Stanford has no business losing to a struggling Colorado. The home games are all tough. Stanford will get UCF, Arizona, UCLA, Washington, Oregon, Cal and finish with Notre Dame. Those are all tough teams, especially given Cal’s improvement over the last two years.

Look for Washington to play much better in coach Chris Peterson’s second season. The University of Central Florida is one of the more intriguing matchups of the year and Stanford fans should probably be thankful that it is a home game. Ultimately, there are no easy games this year. From top to bottom, every game will be against a dangerous team. There is no UC Davis this year and the Cardinal must find their identity quickly. But, man, is it going to be a fun season to watch.

If you’d also (finally) like to know where you’ll be in five years, contact Nic Radoff at nradoff ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Nic Radoff '15 is now officially from Oakland and is a proud to be a history major and a Latin-American studies minor. Nic was a staff writer for women's soccer and follows football extensively, whether his editors let him write about it or not. He is a proud member of the men's club lacrosse team and invites you all to come watch most Saturdays, even though you might not see him on the field much. He enjoys spending time with his family, hiking with his husky Artoo, lamenting his A's and maintaining that things get better with age.

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