Stanford football column: What we learned in 2021

Dec. 18, 2021, 10:09 a.m.

What started as an up-and-down year for Stanford football quickly turned into a poor season. Issues on defense along with the lack of a run game played large roles in the sharp decline and the seven-game losing streak that followed the Cardinal’s (3-9, 2-7 Pac-12) win over then-No. 3 Oregon on Oct. 2. 

In this article, we take a look at the positives (yes, there were positives) and the negatives that emerged for the Cardinal this season as the team looks to rebound in the off-season for 2022. 


Sophomore studs

Promising sophomore stars emerged on the offensive side of the ball this season. The most impactful contribution was at the quarterback position. Tanner McKee won the quarterback battle entering the USC game week two and put up a masterful performance to cement his place as the starter. The All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention had a 15-to-7 touchdown to interception ratio and registered a 65% completion percentage over the course of the season. Injuries to himself and the wide receiver corps, along with a struggling offensive line, contributed to some regression in the second half of the season, but we remain very confident in McKee.

Another key emergence was that of tight end Benjamin Yurosek. The Pro Football Focus First-Team All-Pac-12 player led Stanford in receiving yards with 658 and was named an All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention. Yurosek is an elite talent, and we believe that next year could very well be his last on the Farm if he keeps this momentum going.

Additionally, running back EJ Smith stepped up in a crowded running back room. His versatility and raw talent were on full display this season, and we would not be surprised if he takes over the starting role in 2022. 

And finally, wide receiver John Humphreys finished third on the team in receiving yards (behind Yurosek and junior wide receiver Elijah Higgins) and is poised to take another step up next season.

Kyu Blu Kelly becomes a star

One of the few defensive bright spots from the 2021 season was junior cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly, who went from a reliable corner to an all-conference caliber player — and even a draft prospect. When it was all said and done, Kelly was named to the All-Pac-12 Second Team after recording 58 tackles, two interceptions and 10 pass breakups. His 12 passes defended led the entire conference. 

The rest of the secondary also showed some promise. Freshman corner Jimmy Wyrick was a revelation, making six starts and collecting 25 tackles to go with an interception and six pass breakups. Junior Salim Turner-Muhammad will hopefully be back in the rotation next year after missing the vast majority of this season due to injury. At the safety spots, junior Jonathan McGill will return (he only played in two games to close the season due to injury). And if senior Kendall Williamson comes back next fall, the secondary could be one of the top units on the Cardinal team. 

The ‘22 recruiting class 

Despite Stanford’s 3-9 record, head coach David Shaw and his staff have mostly been able to hold on to their star-studded recruiting class, even adding the crown jewel — outside linebacker David Bailey, the No. 71 overall recruit in the country. This is one of Shaw’s best ever recruiting classes, currently ranked No. 16 in the country and No. 1 in the Pac-12. Shaw’s best recruiting finish was No. 13 overall in 2014, with that class of course being highlighted by Christian McCaffrey and Solomon Thomas. 

Besides Bailey, other highly ranked Stanford 2022 recruits include four star offensive tackle Fisher Anderson, four star outside linebacker Ernest Cooper and four star tight end Sam Roush. A clear effort was made by the coaching staff to replenish the numbers on the offensive line and in the defensive front seven. 


Defensive line depth

Stanford’s defensive woes were well-documented throughout the season and it all started up front with the defensive line. We knew depth would be an issue with Diron Reynolds’s unit, and an issue it was

The Cardinal came into the season with just three scholarship players on the line who had previously played a snap: senior defensive end Thomas Booker, fifth-year defensive end Ryan Johnson and fifth-year defensive tackle Dalyn Wade-Perry. Johnson has already entered the transfer portal, while Booker and Wade-Perry are not expected to return next year, according to week 12 press conferences. The trio only combined for four and a half sacks this past season, another sign of just how much of a weak point the position group was. In addition to the lack of production, the group as a whole oftentimes struggled to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, allowing them time to find the open receivers. 

Next year, sophomore Tobin Phillips is expected to slide into the defensive tackle spot with a trio of unproven freshmen — Aaron Armitage, Anthony Franklin and Zach Buckey — competing for the end spots on either side of him. Armitage, who played in three games during this past season, was the centerpiece of the 2021 recruiting class. 

With the Cardinal unlikely to add any help through the transfer portal due to its high admissions standards, the immediate future of the defensive line is looking bleak. 

Offensive line regression

After a strong end to the 2020 season, the offensive line fell off a cliff this season. With the loss of Drew Dalman and Foster Sarrell to the 2021 NFL Draft, Stanford was unable to establish any sort of running game; the Cardinal averaged 87.6 yards per game, placing them dead last in the Pac-12. Pass protection went from average to poor in the second half of the season, and losing All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention junior guard Branson Bragg down the stretch due to injury certainly did not help either.

We had high hopes for this position group heading into the season, and we could not have been more wrong. On the bright side, the entire group is set to return, and they will be a year older. We would not be surprised if the offensive line works its way up to average in the conference next season.

Post-Oregon collapse

Following Stanford’s stunning upset over then-No. 3 Oregon, many of us started thinking that, with this tiebreaker over the Ducks, Stanford could make a run at the division title. Saying we were wrong is an understatement.

Instead, the Cardinal lost their following seven games to end the season and finished in last place in the Pac-12 North. The games got uglier and uglier down the stretch, as Stanford lost their last four games by at least 21 points and failed to score more than 14 points in six of those seven losses.

Injuries to McKee, much of the wide receiver core and secondary certainly played a factor in the collapse, but the product on the field was far more atrocious than one could have reasonably expected. The irony of it all is that two position groups that remained quite healthy throughout the year — the offensive and defensive lines — were the biggest culprits for Stanford’s catastrophic season.

Bye-bye Stanford Axe

Stanford was 3-7 and eliminated from bowl contention by the time the Big Game rolled around, so The Axe was pretty much all that was left to play for at that point. It could not have gone much worse for the Cardinal.

In the rivalry game, Stanford failed to cash in on a few early opportunities and proceeded to be routed in front of their home fans. The embarrassing display ended 41-11 in favor of Cal, and their fans stormed the field. The Golden Bears took home The Axe for the second time in three years.

Lincoln Riley

Think back to Monday, Sept. 13. The Cardinal had demolished USC two days prior, McKee had his coming out party and Stanford fans everywhere thought they had found the next Andrew Luck. The Trojans fired head coach Clay Helton, sending the coaching carousel into a premature overdrive. 

Fast-forward to December, and USC ended up poaching Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma — a move that should strike fear into the rest of the Pac-12. Riley is a legitimate recruiter and instantly makes the Trojans the favorite for all of the top talent in the state of California. Shaw’s path back to the top of the conference just got a whole lot tougher. Maybe in retrospect we should have shown Helton some mercy? 

Bottom Line

The 2021 season was nothing short of a disaster for Stanford football. We ridiculed the over/under of 3.5 wins in the preseason and appeared to be spot on when the team started 3-2, but then the Cardinal fell off the face of the Earth and didn’t win again.

It’s important to note that Stanford did have a tough schedule this year, but it ended up being easier than it looked in the preseason. Six teams on the Cardinal schedule were ranked in the preseason AP Poll, while only three teams were in the final College Football Playoff rankings. Regardless, a 3-9 record was not acceptable given the talent that was on this roster — 25th in the nation, according to the 247Sports talent composite. Injuries undoubtedly played a role, but the embarrassing fashion of so many of the losses speak to an exceptional lack of depth in the program. 

That lack of depth can be attributed to two things: recruiting and player development. Despite the overall talent on the roster, recruiting and development of key positions has floundered — look at this year’s defensive line, as well as what the quarterback room looked like when McKee went down. The Cardinal only have four scholarship D-linemen set to return next season, and only one of them, Phillips, will be an upperclassman. Next year, if McKee were to go down with an injury again (heaven forbid), Shaw would only have freshman Ari Patu and incoming freshman Ashton Daniels to turn to, with the likely departure of seniors Dylan Plautz and Jack West. Both Patu and Daniels are unproven. 

The superb ’22 recruiting class, however, should inspire some hope for the future. Stanford’s success points to Shaw figuring something out on the recruiting trail, especially given the fact that these recruits are committing while the Cardinal are struggling mightily on the field.

That being said, what happened this year is the result of years of mistakes. Stanford demolished Iowa in the Rose Bowl and finished the year at No. 3 in the AP Poll only six years ago. The program has fallen off of a cliff. 

Has Shaw earned the right to fix it? We think so. While the recent struggles of the program absolutely fall on the head coach, he is a four-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year and has three Rose Bowl appearances. He was at the helm during the height of the program.

One can certainly be skeptical of whether Shaw will be able to fix it. Staff changes would be welcomed by us, as we believe it is very troublesome and revealing that Stanford assistants are not getting poached by other programs or the NFL at nearly the same rate that they used to. We can envision a couple staff changes being made but would be surprised if something more drastic occurs, such as Shaw turning over play-calling duties to a new offensive coordinator. 

Stanford needs another stellar recruiting class in ’23, and the fruits of the ’22 class are years away. If the offensive line gels over the offseason, next year’s offense could be quite good. The secondary could also be very good. But the front seven, especially the defensive line, remains a dire situation that could derail the entire team. Given the current roster and yet another tough schedule next season, a 3.5-win Stanford football season in 2022 doesn’t seem that outlandish.

Jibriel Taha is a senior staff writer for the sports section. He is from Los Angeles and studies economics. Contact him at jtaha ‘at’ Boone is the former managing editor for the sports section, serving for Volumes 262 and 263. He is a senior from Virginia Beach, Virginia, studying communication. You can usually find him chasing after rebounds in Maples Pavilion or recording a podcast with Jibriel Taha. Contact him at eboone24 'at'

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