Stanford football has a chip on its shoulder this year — and for good reason. Outside expectations could hardly be lower for the Cardinal, who are coming off of a 3-9 record and a disaster second half to the season that saw Stanford fall to the bottom of the Pac-12. Meanwhile, the Cardinal have been left behind in a conference realignment piloted by state rivals UCLA and USC.
Still, the next generation of Stanford football might not be as grim as it seems. Stanford freshmen have reportedly exceeded expectations in pre-season practices, and the core upperclassmen, led by one of the Nation’s top quarterbacks, will return for another year as the Cardinal as the team looks for a resurgence.
In its most recent “2023 NFL Draft: Preseason Top 50 Big Board,” Pro Football Focus ranked redshirt sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee as the third best quarterback in the draft, directly behind two quarterbacks with top-five pick hype — reigning Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young of Alabama, and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud.
Offensively, Stanford should be revitalized by September. McKee is heading into his second season with a full year’s experience of collegiate football under his belt, and he will get back his star senior wide receiver Elijah Higgins and fifth-year tight end Brycen Tremayne, who suffered a season-ending leg injury in Stanford’s upset against Oregon. Additionally, Stanford fans will see a lot more of junior running back E.J. Smith, son of Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith. It’s a fresh start for the Cardinal rushing attack after losing Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat to the transfer portal at the end of last season. Despite high expectations for the pair of backs, the two underperformed on the ground last season on the way to an uninspiring rushing offense.
While the Cardinal have set the bar high for their top-notch offense and dangerous passing attack, a glaring uncertainty this year will be the strength of the offensive line and its ability to keep McKee on his feet. Last season, the Cardinal offensive line allowed 31 sacks, contributing to high volume and limited rest for Stanford’s defense. If the offensive line can regroup, recalibrate and forget last season’s blocking blunders, the Cardinal offense could have nuclear capability this season.
Defensively, Stanford is making an unprecedented adjustment: Defensive Coordinator Lance Anderson will be running a 4-3 offense, a simple but meaningful change from the 3-4 defense that the Cardinal have run since 2010. The adjustment, which will send an additional defensive player to the defensive line, is designed to help bolster Stanford’s run defense, which ranked last in the Pac-12 and allowed over 230 rush yards per game in 2021-22. Stanford coaching hopes that the new formation will better fit the team’s defensive personnel.
“It’s not the biggest group physically,” Anderson said in March. “We just want those guys to play fast. We want to get off the ball. We want to get in the backfield. We want to be disruptive.”
Seniors like Levani Damuni, who led the Cardinal with 86 tackles last season, and star safety Patrick Fields, a transfer from Oklahoma, will pair very well with talented freshman linebacker David Bailey and freshman defensive end Ernest Cooper IV. If Stanford’s defensive line can contain the run, success as a unit will follow as defensive backs will be able to pin their ears back, sitting on routes and hunting for interceptions to put the lethal Stanford offense back on the field.
Despite the potential upside, the Cardinal were not dealt a great hand from a scheduling standpoint. According to CBS Sports, Stanford has the #1 strength of schedule in the Pac-12 this season and will face teams like Notre Dame, Utah, Oregon, UCLA and Cal on the road.
Aside from their Week 1 matchup against Colgate, Stanford will find themselves in a dogfight every game this year. The Cardinal caught no breaks in their schedule, missing out on games against Colorado and Arizona, who are widely regarded as the two worst teams in the Pac-12.
To help with their difficult schedule, Stanford will welcome some new faces to the Farm as a part of their freshman class, including linebacker David Bailey, offensive tackle Fisher Anderson, defensive lineman Ernest Cooper IV and tight end Sam Roush, all of whom are four-star recruits. Below is an introduction and evaluation of these incoming freshmen standouts.
23 David Bailey (Edge, 6-foot-3)
David Bailey, an athletic and exceptionally elusive edge rusher, has impressed Stanford coaches both with his physical and mental ability as he has reportedly shown a deep understanding of the playbook and has had no issues adjusting to the highly competitive collegiate level. In fact, in high school with the CIF state champion Mater Dei Monarchs, Bailey led one of the best teams in the country in both tackles and sacks. Flying off the edge, Bailey will play a key role in the Cardinal’s overall pass rush this upcoming season.
When asked in a recent interview with Pac-12 Networks if he models his game after any other pass rushers, the 6-foot-3, 230 lb. Bailey said, “Yeah, a little bit of Von Miller and then also I’ve been watching Kayvon Thibodeaux. I was watching his [Thibodeaux’s] highlights and I mean, I feel like he’s built like me [and] plays a little bit like me so I’ve been kind of trying to model my game after those two.”
Hopefully, Bailey has been taking notes from Von Miller’s film because if he can even be 75% of what Von Miller used to be, Stanford’s defense will be a force to be reckoned with this season.
67 Fisher Anderson (Offensive Tackle, 6-foot-7)
Listed at 6-foot-7 and 288 lbs., Fisher Anderson’s overwhelming presence at left tackle will most definitely be felt by anyone who lines up across from him. Anderson embodies the idea of a “pancake block” as his high school clips consist of plays where he contains such leverage that he moves defensive linemen down the line of scrimmage, occasionally onto the sideline, and often 20 yards into the secondary.
Anderson was a man amongst boys in high school and he will only continue to get better at the Division-I level. In an interview with Stanford Athletics, Anderson mentioned how he simply could not say no to Stanford during his commitment process: “The upside of not only the university but the football team is so high, so there is so much opportunity to learn.” For Anderson, one of the driving forces in choosing Stanford was not only the academic rigor in the classroom, but the level of intelligence he would be surrounded with on the football field.
44 Ernest Cooper IV (Defensive Line, 6-foot-5)
On top of his ability to blow-up the ground game and run sideline-to-sideline, Ernest Cooper IV has a knack for rushing the passer and is one of Stanford’s best defensive additions this year. Cooper received offers from powerhouse schools like Alabama and Ohio State, but the 6-foot-5, 235 lb. defensive lineman was wise in choosing Cardinal red over crimson and scarlet.
Cooper’s standout plays from his high school career epitomize his versatility, as he is an expert when it comes to deflecting screen passes and tackling in the open field. Cooper has a level of craftiness as well when recovering lost fumbles and is subtly quick when doing so. Finally, when he sees the opportunity, he does not restrain from laying down the hammer. Do not leave Cooper unblocked, for he will make your quarterback pay.
86 Sam Roush (Tight End, 6-foot-5)
Sam Roush is someone Stanford fans should be excited about, as his build is nearly identical to that of T.J. Hockenson, Pro-Bowl tight end for the Detroit Lions. Roush stands at 6’5” and 241 lbs. in comparison to Hockenson, who is 6-foot-5 and 248 lbs. Rated four stars out of high school, Roush was one of the best tight ends in the country and will make an immediate impact on Stanford’s offense.
Ironically, Roush compares well to Stanford alumni Zach Ertz as well, who stands at 6-foot-5, 241 lbs. Roush will wear #86 this season, just as Ertz did during his time at Stanford, and if he resembles the Super Bowl winning tight end in any way, he will fit in just fine.