Welcome Troy Taylor: Three questions facing Stanford’s new coach

Dec. 13, 2022, 7:25 p.m.

After 12 years under David Shaw, Stanford football officially began a new era Saturday morning, announcing Troy Taylor as the program’s 35th head coach.

Taylor brings a breath of fresh air to the Farm. An offensive-minded head coach, he represents a radical departure from Shaw’s old-school, run-heavy offense that went stale in recent years. In Taylor’s mind, “offensive football is all about finding space, creating space” and being aggressive. We’ll see ideas atypical for Stanford, such as more spread formations, heavy use of pre-snap motion, RPOs (the non-slow mesh variety) and air raid concepts. The aggressiveness carries over to decision-making, too: unlike Shaw, Taylor will be aggressive on fourth down and even successfully dialed a surprise onside kick in his last game at Sac State.

Now, getting players comfortable with new principles represents a challenge, but Taylor carries a reputation as a savant when it comes to designing plays. True to his offensive roots, Taylor announced in his introductory press conference that he will call offensive plays.

That is to say: Troy Taylor is a very exciting hire. Stanford made a savvy choice in bringing him to the Farm.

Of course, taking a chance on a coach from the FCS represents a gamble. However, Stanford sits mired at the bottom of the Pac-12, coming off of back-to-back nine loss seasons for the first time in school history. Stanford made the same gamble among similar struggles in 2006, bringing in a little-known coach from FCS San Diego named Jim Harbaugh. The Taylor hire follows that archetype: there is a wide fan of outcomes, but betting on an up-and-comer provides a ton of upside.

Looking past the FCS scarlet letter, Taylor’s track record shines. Sacramento State plays in the Big Sky, which for those uninitiated in the lower tiers of college football is arguably the toughest at that level. Before Taylor’s arrival in 2019, the Hornets had never reached the FCS playoffs, managed just two wins in three of the previous four seasons and came off of a winless conference record in 2018. However, upon his appointment, Sac State turned its fortunes around immediately, winning the conference in 2019, 2021 and 2022.

Before his tenure in California’s capital, Taylor served as Utah’s offensive coordinator in 2017 and 2018, with the Utes scoring over 30 points in 15 games across those two seasons. He also spent time at Eastern Washington and as the coach for Folsom High School in the Central Valley –– alma mater of sophomore quarterback Ari Patu. As a player, Taylor starred as the quarterback for Cal in the 1980s, where he set the school passing record (a mark eclipsed only recently by Jared Goff) and was drafted into the NFL by the New York Jets.

That Northern California background no doubt appealed to Bernard Muir, and through Taylor’s tenures in Folsom and Sacramento he has developed valuable connections to Central Valley high school coaches. And, though in a limited sample size, Taylor has successfully developed elite players: Jake Browning, who would win Pac-12 offensive player of the year in 2016 with Washington, matured under Taylor at Folsom, while NFL all-pro receiver Cooper Kupp played in Taylor’s offense at Eastern Washington in 2016.

There may have been flashier names thrown around, but Taylor looks to be a good choice for the job. Indeed, if Monday’s introductory press conference is anything to go by, the Cardinal are back: the new hire articulately hit all the right notes as he outlined his vision for a “program built on love” that is back on the road to “being champion.” Stanford fans can afford to get a little excited.

Nevertheless, one hire does not turn around a program, and Stanford faces a painful rebuild heading into 2023. The Card’s new coach faces a tough road ahead. Here are some questions Stanford fans should be asking regarding the new coach:

1. Who will suit up next year?

A simple question, yes, but right now tremendous uncertainty clouds Stanford’s 2023 roster. Junior quarterback Tanner McKee declared for the NFL draft last week; receivers Michael Wilson and Elijah Higgins and cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly will join him in aspiring for the next level. At least 17 Cardinal have entered the transfer portal since the end of the season, representing a wide swath of players — many of whom contributed heavily in 2021, and some of whom are underclassmen, like junior offensive tackle Myles Hinton.

Roster building clearly sits at the top of Troy Taylor’s agenda as he steps into the job this week. Upon assuming the position, Taylor’s first priority was to invite every player back next season and to meet with each player individually. Such is the reality of college football in 2022: effectively, programs must re-recruit many players, lest they utilize the transfer portal. Given Stanford’s limitations with the portal, Taylor’s success in convincing players to stay matters even more. Time will tell how many names return — linebacker Levani Damuni and safety Jonathan McGill, two leaders and stalwarts on the 2022 defense, have already committed to Utah and SMU, respectively — but at the very least Taylor’s proactive approach bodes well, as does leaving the door open for seniors to return as fifth years, which has been an area Stanford has struggled in a post-pandemic landscape where opponent rosters are full of fifth or sixth year players. 

Even when the roster is set, though, serious questions remain. Current offensive players have to adjust to a radical new scheme, different to what they were recruited to play. Said Taylor:  “the system is flexible enough to utilize all different skills,” but spring football will be vital to begin learning the new philosophy. With McKee gone, quarterback is a question mark: Taylor employed an unorthodox two quarterback system at Sacramento State this year, which we could see next year with Ashton Daniels as more of a runner and Ari Patu as a passer. On the defensive side, projecting the starting linebackers or secondary is pure guesswork with both units senior-heavy in 2022.

2. What will Taylor’s staff look like?

If reaching out to the roster was at the top of Troy Taylor’s agenda, constructing a coaching staff sits just below as the next line item. It is hard to overstate how important a quality staff is: after all, assistant coaches are the ones working day in, day out with the players and thereby the most impactful on player development. As an example, Jim Harbaugh’s 2010 staff featured a future NFL head coach in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, two future NFL coordinators in Pep Hamilton and Greg Roman and, well, one David Shaw. Such quality of coaches paid huge dividends, winning the Orange Bowl with recruiting classes ranked outside the top 50.

To kick off this process, Taylor interviewed David Shaw’s assistants, and though Taylor was highly complimentary of the current staff in his introductory press conference, one should not expect more than a small handful of carryovers from the ancien régime. Indeed, several assistants announced their departures Monday on Twitter, including offensive line coach Terry Heffernan, receivers coach Bobby Kennedy and strength coach Cullen Carroll.

Among the staff, paramount is the defensive coordinator position to provide steel on that side of the ball. For his qualities as a coach and (especially) as a recruiter, Lance Anderson struggled mightily to build a sturdy unit the last few years, with Stanford chronically inept against the run, dual-threat quarterbacks and pre-snap motion. Taylor’s stated goal: “hire a great defensive coordinator and let him do his thing.” As an offensive mind, Taylor will depend on this hire to work independently and handle the defense: a big name, splashy hire would be a smart investment to balance the head coach. Get the defensive coordinator wrong and, well, Taylor’s last game in Sacramento ended in defeat despite the Hornet offense posting 63 points.

3. What institutional support can Taylor expect? 

Of course, the million dollar question: Troy Taylor needs help from above if he is to resuscitate Stanford football.

Stanford’s challenges with the transfer portal have been discussed ad nauseam, but the reality is Stanford must evolve its approach to stay competitive. Yes, Stanford’s academic requirements create unique challenges with bringing in players from other schools, but that challenge creates a unique opportunity: there exist players with strong academic backgrounds who would jump at the chance to transfer to Stanford if given the opportunity.

We’ve seen this in other sports already — look at Stanford’s historically great 2019 women’s soccer and volleyball teams: each featured a transfer as a key starter, respectively in Sam Hiatt and Madeleine Gates. However, Stanford football has been uniquely slow to adapt to these realities, and whenever these subjects arise, discussion invariably takes on a defeatist tone.

In that context, then, Troy Taylor’s optimism that he can find such athletes that fit the University’s mission, both in the classroom and on the field, is a welcome change. But, beyond just the portal, Stanford has chronically been slow to respond to a rapidly-evolving college football landscape, whether it be the portal, NIL, pandemic-brought extra eligibility or conference realignment.

Even this coaching search was a drawn out process: two weeks was a long time to reach a decision, and the uncertainty hurt Stanford personnel-wise. Over that period, Tanner McKee declared for the draft, Levani Damuni and Jonathan McGill committed to other programs and two four star recruits, edge Hunter Clegg and tight end Walker Lyons, decommitted from the Cardinal.

We’ll never know if an earlier Taylor appointment would have reversed those outcomes, but the point remains: even if Athletic Director Bernard Muir did not know of David Shaw’s imminent departure (which I find highly unlikely), he should have had a shortlist of candidates already prepared.

Nonetheless, despite Stanford’s slow and bureaucratic approach, the Cardinal made a smart hire. Hopefully, that bodes well for Stanford to address the barriers towards future competitiveness … eventually.

Pablo is a columnist for the sports section. You can also find him in the booth calling Stanford football all season long on KZSU 90.1 FM. You can contact Pablo at sports 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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