With the football season less than three weeks away, Daily football writers Do-Hyoung Park, Vihan Lakshman and Michael Peterson offered their opinions on several questions regarding the 2015 Stanford special teams in the third part of the roundtable preview series for the Cardinal’s upcoming campaign.
How difficult will it be for Stanford’s new kicker to follow up Jordan Williamson, the most prolific scorer in school history and a name synonymous with the highs and lows of Stanford football over the last half decade?
Vihan Lakshman (VL): Williamson’s three potential replacements: senior Conrad Ukropina and true freshmen Charlie Beall and Jake Bailey have the unenviable task of replacing a four-year starter who handled the pressure-cooker environment of college football kicking better than just about anyone. After memorably failing to convert in the Fiesta Bowl during his first year as a starter, Williamson almost always delivered in critical moments for Stanford: from booting the Cardinal past Oregon in 2013 to knocking in a 51-yard field goal in double overtime during an eventual loss to Utah last season. Sure, Williamson was inconsistent at times, especially within attempts under 30 yards, but his unparalleled experience kicking in big games and ability to control field position on kickoffs will leave a hard act to follow for the three younger kickers competing for the job.
Michael Peterson (MP): The kicking game is never an area where you want to have inexperience, and with the Cardinal boasting two true freshmen and a senior who’s gone a career 2-for-4 on field goals, that’s exactly what the Cardinal have. Yes, Jordan Williamson struggled at times, most notably over the first half of last season. Given the talent of Stanford’s freshman kickers, they could easily prove to be Williamson’s superior. But the thought of a freshman, or a senior who played extremely poorly in the spring game and with limited experience, kicking a crucial field goal for a team that has Pac-12 and College Football Playoff aspirations is downright scary. Just ask Williamson what the weight of a big kick can do to a freshman, and Williamson was even a redshirt freshman in the Fiesta Bowl. The bottom line is that while the talent in place may be greater than Williamson, the experience is far inferior, and like Vihan mentioned, Williamson’s proven ability to make big kicks — which he developed in time at The Farm — will be sorely missed.
Do-Hyoung Park (DHP): Jordan Williamson was one of the nicest, most likeable guys that I’ve ever had the chance to work with at Stanford. That being said, though, Williamson was, objectively, not a very good kicker. He leaves the Farm as the program’s all-time leading scorer, but that’s probably more because he started at kicker for four years and Stanford is more conservative than Rick Santorum on fourth downs. In his four seasons, he broke 68.4 percent just once (2013) in an injury-shortened campaign. And it would be a lie to say that every time Williamson stepped onto the field, Stanford fans’ hearts didn’t start beating a little more quickly. He had an incredible leg, but just couldn’t find consistency. And that’s the most important element of being a kicker. In the end, I don’t think Williamson left the bar set very high, and whoever starts at kicker against Northwestern should at least be able to maintain the status quo.
After Alex Robinson’s very shaky performance in the spring game, where he averaged 37 yards per punt on five attempts, and all of the unknowns surrounding true freshman Jake Bailey, how confident do you feel in the punting game?
VL: I’m cautiously optimistic; Robinson did get off to a rough start in the spring game when he shanked his first punt for 20 yards, but he rebounded from those initial jitters to close out the day with punts of 52, 42 and 37 yards, respectively. Moreover, Bailey is a stud recruit coming out of high school and the coaching staff loved his leg and athleticism enough to offer him a scholarship. If Bailey can deliver even partially on those lofty expectations and create a healthy competition with Robinson, the Cardinal will be in a comfortable position when the season rolls around. Since the Stanford winning formula of the past few years has relied heavily on milking the clock with the running game and dominating the field position battle, it’s hard to understate the importance of having a good punter in executing this game plan. For now, there’re plenty of reasons to feel optimistic, but Stanford could be in trouble if the punting game declines precipitously post-Rhyne.
MP: Like both Vihan and Do, I’m actually extremely optimistic about the punting game. All signs point to Bailey having a strong leg from what we’ve heard out of camp, and Stanford is willing to remove Bailey from the starting kicking competition (as sure seems the case) in order to keep his leg fresh for punting and kickoffs. Ben Rhyne was always reliable for Stanford, but was never an All-American caliber punter. Bailey would do just fine stepping into his shoes, and if Robinson is able to beat Bailey out in camp, then I’m confident he could do a solid job as well.
DHP: Despite the lack of experience at the position, I’m actually feeling pretty confident. Keep in mind that Bailey was offered a scholarship immediately as a freshman, which doesn’t happen all that often for specialists. And even though kicker is arguably the position of greater need for Stanford, the Cardinal coaching staff chose to move Bailey, their hyped-up, dynamite recruit, to punter instead. I take this to mean that Bailey has what it takes to be a tremendous punter right out of the gate and that he can immediately help the team win. And honestly, Ben Rhyne was consistent, but he wasn’t really a world-beater either. I think Bailey can be “the guy” for Stanford for years to come.
Can Christian McCaffrey replicate the success of Ty Montgomery in the return game?
VL: When it comes to punt returns, I think McCaffrey could be even better. Months before the start of last season, the foundations of my McCaffrey man-crush were laid when I watched him do this during the Army All-American Game. While Ty arguably has a better burst and raw power, McCaffrey’s shiftiness and almost inhuman ability to change direction might make him one of the nation’s best punt returners when it’s all said and done. We caught a glimpse of how dangerous McCaffrey can be on returns during Montgomery’s absence from the last three games of the season, and I expect that to continue. Based on what we saw last season, I have no doubt that McCaffrey will also be a formidable threat on kickoffs, but I would be wary of putting too much on his shoulders, considering the load that he is expected to carry on offense. Nevertheless, the job appears to be McCaffrey’s all the way, and I expect him to shine with these extra touches.
MP: While I agree with Vihan and Do that McCaffrey will be very good, I’m very cautious about expecting the kind of performance Stanford received from Montgomery. Make no mistake about it, Ty Montgomery was arguably the best return man in the nation and Stanford’s best since Glyn Milburn in the 1990s. As a first-year pro, Montgomery will likely be the kick and punt returner on a Super Bowl contender. Yes, McCaffrey has an otherworldly ability to change direction, but Ty had uncanny vision and a knack to know when to turn on the jets and when to wait patiently for the return to unfold. Those attributes must be developed, and given McCaffrey’s limited time as a returner last year because of Montgomery, I don’t expect McCaffrey to possess those traits on the same level as Montgomery yet. All that being said, McCaffrey has shown that he can be a dynamite weapon in his own right on returns and should be one of the best in the Pac-12. Eventually, he may prove Montgomery’s equal or superior. Placing Montgomery-like expectations on McCaffrey in the return game this season, however, would be a disservice to his own set of skills and possibly a setup for disappointment.
DHP: If I could just edit Michael’s Packer-loving response out of this roundtable, I’d do so without second thought. But I unfortunately don’t have that authority anymore, so I have to let it stand. With a team like Stanford that utilizes just one cut in the return game, I feel that the return man often gets all of the credit for fantastic returns even though that credit should rightfully be shared by the whole unit — after all, without otherworldly blocking, Ty doesn’t look half as good as he did in 2013 returning kicks. If your blockers are opening up a freaking interstate highway in front of you, it doesn’t exactly take a world-beater to take the ball to the house. With that in mind, I’m going to take the cop-out answer and say that I honestly won’t be able to tell until I see the blockers in action during the first few games of the season. If they click, there’s absolutely no reason why, as mentioned above, McCaffrey can’t be as good as Montgomery.
With the load McCaffrey is expected to carry on offense, does it make sense to use him as the primary return man as well?
VL: I touched on this briefly in my previous response. On one hand, of course it “makes sense” to give Christian McCaffrey, the most versatile and dynamic playmaker on this team, the ball as much as possible, but the concern of overusing the Cardinal’s biggest weapon is a legitimate one. There were a few occasions in the last two seasons when Montgomery had to sit out at least a couple of plays on crucial drives after enduring a hard hit during a return. By all accounts, Stanford’s offense will run through McCaffrey in 2015, but this approach could suffer if McCaffrey has to sit out critical plays as a byproduct of the tremendous load he is expected to carry. If anybody can handle these responsibilities, it’s McCaffrey, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the coaching staff is wary of overusing the sophomore and turn to one of the many other speedsters populating the roster in select situations. I personally would be very intrigued to see someone like Michael Rector, Isaiah Brandt-Sims or freshman Jay Tyler get a chance to show off their skills in the return game.
MP: This might be one of the tougher decisions Stanford has to make in determining starting roles. But since Vihan and Do went with the in-between responses, I’ll take the hardline approach: absolutely. What Stanford wants to do with McCaffrey this season is what it wanted to do with Montgomery last season, which is to get his hands on the ball in space. Can you think of an easier way to get McCaffrey in space with blockers ahead of him? McCaffrey averaged 17 yards per punt return last season. An average punt returner might put up 10 yards per return. Extrapolated over the course of, say, four punt returns per game, that’s 28 extra yards for the Cardinal. Would removing McCaffrey from the field for the first play of each of those four drives cost the Cardinal 28 total yards? Most likely not, and he probably won’t even need to be removed from the field on most occasions. Heck, just leave him out there as a decoy and it’ll still positively benefit the Cardinal.
Though I was down on expecting Montgomery-like performances out of McCaffrey in the return game earlier, I do wholeheartedly expect him to be elite in the punt return game and he is a step above any of Stanford’s other options. Why stop your No. 1 playmaker from having a chance to touch the ball with the most space he’ll find all game? I’m of the opinion that Stanford is putting too much weight on McCaffrey’s shoulders, but it doesn’t make sense to me to try and ease that burden by removing him from arguably the area in which he has the chance to excel the most. Give an extra two or three carries a game to Remound Wright or Barry Sanders if you have to, just don’t let McCaffrey sit on the sidelines during returns.
DHP: Yes and no. Yes because he’s the most dynamic guy on the team and you obviously want him to get as many touches as possible, and every kickoff or punt taken by somebody that’s not McCaffrey, in my eyes, is a loss. But at the same time, special teams is a pretty big injury risk, with guys running at each other at full speed in opposite directions, and there’s certainly the possibility that something might happen. But it’s always a calculated risk to put a guy out there, and ultimately, I think what Stanford gains from having McCaffrey as a threat out there on returns outweighs the injury risk assumed by doing so, meaning that in my mind, it makes sense.
It’s Sept. 5 in Evanston, and Stanford trails Northwestern 30-28 with three seconds on the clock and a 45-yard field goal attempt coming. Which kicker — senior Conrad Ukropina, freshman Jake Bailey or freshman Charlie Beall — should take it?
VL: You mean punting isn’t an option?! In all seriousness, there’s a reason why coach Alamar gets paid to make these decisions and I’m sitting behind a computer screen pretending I know something about football. At this point, we can’t really make an informed decision; Bailey and Beall have never attempted so much as a warm-up kick at the college level and Ukropina’s sample size (four field goal attempts, all in 2013) is still pretty small. If you put a gun to my head, I would say Bailey since he was the only one of the trio to receive a scholarship offer out of high school, which suggests that the coaching staff is pretty high on him. However, the overarching sentiment in camp is that Bailey will be reserved for punting duties and possibly kickoffs. If that’s the case, then I’ll give the slight edge to Ukropina, who appears to have the inside track in winning the job.
MP: I completely agree with Vihan in that only coach Alamar and the Stanford coaching staff will know the answer to this question — and even then, they might be uncertain. But even just pondering this scenario gives me the shivers. Doesn’t this have to be the nightmare scenario for Stanford fans? Substitute Northwestern for USC and it’s even worse — an early-season game, when no kicker is likely to have a whole lot of experience, with very real postseason implications. The fate of Stanford’s season and the legacy of a program seeking to prove it still belongs at the top hang in the balance. Miss, and the shell-shocked Cardinal crumble post-USC as they did in 2014. Make, and Stanford reels off 10 more straight wins on its way to the College Football Playoff. Yes, I am absolutely overdramatizing the importance of one situation and one game, but anytime you’re competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff and against Oregon in the Pac-12 North, every game counts. Especially when said opponent is USC. Give me Ukropina, if only because he’s mentally dealt with tough collegiate kicks in the past (against USC in 2013).
DHP: I’m not exactly sure what this question is trying to accomplish, but I guess I’ll say Ukropina, if only because there’s nobody else. You can’t exactly pick and choose kickers according to situations, and it looks like Ukropina is going to be the guy for Stanford this year, at least in the early goings. I don’t exactly have confidence that Ukropina can kick the ball more than 40 yards at a time, but again, Stanford has to work with what it’s got. I’ll tell you what would be great, though: David Shaw pulls a page out of Mark Dantonio’s book and fakes it, with holder (and former quarterback) Dallas Lloyd rolling right and hitting Austin Hooper in stride to catch everybody in the stadium off guard and win the game. I think that has about as a good of a chance as working as a 45-yard game-winning field goal.
Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu, Michael Peterson at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu and Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.