The Cardinal lost 4 offensive players to the NFL Draft this spring and have to replace the majority of their starters from a very potent offense. Can a Heisman favorite still keep this training running at full speed?
Starters Returning: 5/11
Key Losses: QB Kevin Hogan, RB Remound Wright, RB Barry Sanders, WR Devon Cajuste, TE Austin Hooper, LT Kyle Murphy, LG Josh Garnett, C Graham Shuler
Key Returnees: RB Christian McCaffrey, RB Bryce Love, FB Daniel Marx, WR Michael Rector, TE Dalton Schultz, RG Johnny Caspers, RT Casey Tucker
FEI Offense Rank: 4
S&P Offense Rank: 5
S&P Rush Rank: 21
S&P Pass Rank: 7
Turnovers: 13 (8 INT)
A lot of attention will be paid to the return of Heisman finalist Christian McCaffrey and rightfully so. However, a huge part of Stanford's success on offense last year was Kevin Hogan emerging as an elite college quarterback.
As we saw when the Irish played in Palo Alto, when McCaffrey was contained it was Hogan stepping up to make plays. He finished with 2,867 passing yards and 27 touchdowns to just 8 interceptions. Hogan's 67.8% completion percentage was tied for 5th best in the nation--and more importantly for Stanford's offense--his 9.4 yards per attempt finished tied for 2nd in the country.
Just think about it, McCaffrey finished second nationally in rushing yet the advanced stats liked Stanford's passing game better, in some cases a lot better.
The vast majority of the Harbaugh/Shaw era has been under the direction of two quarterbacks: Andrew Luck and Kevin Hogan. These two have combined to throw 2,167 out of Stanford's 2,518 passes since 2009, or 86% overall. The transition to a new and unproven quarterback is going to be an important change in Palo Alto and the last time they went through it in 2012 it was a bit rocky.
After spring practices redshirt sophomore Keller Chryst and redshirt junior Ryan Burns are nominally tied for the starting gig, although almost everyone expects the much more highly touted and bigger/faster/stronger Chryst to win the job before the season starts. On the other hand, the older Burns has been praised for making it a tough decision. Head coach David Shaw says they'll name the starter in the middle of fall camp.
Christian's Gas Tank
The long history of football has a handful of near certainties and one of those is that it's really hard to come back with a great season after you've carried the ball a ton the prior year. Most guys eventually break down, get hurt, or are generally far less effective.
By now you know Christian McCaffrey's exploits. He rushed for 2,019 yards and finished 2016 with an outlandish 3,864 all-purpose yards, leading the entire country in this category by a farcical 1,227 yards. To put that into perspective, that's just 323 yards short of Rocket Ismail's 3-year career at Notre Dame.
The downside to this is that McCaffrey touched the ball 437 times last season. Stanford was smart enough to sit him out of the spring game which is also an admission that he was so much of a workhorse last year and they need to be very careful with him leading up to 2016.
Odds are that McCaffrey won't match his output from last year and the Cardinal also have to replace their short-yardage running in Remound Wright and his 13 touchdowns. Stanford is hoping that lightning bolt rising sophomore Bryce Love can take some heat off their Heisman candidate and blossom into a legit second option. Love exploded last year with only 226 rushing yards but was dynamic with nearly 8 yards per carry and is one of the fastest players in the country.
Re-tooling the Offensive Line
That great stretch of recruiting by Stanford on the offensive line has now fully cycled out of the program. With the loss of Murphy and Garnett the Cardinal now feature a much more modest collection of talent up front.
Junior Casey Tucker (.961) was a major recruit as are incoming freshmen Clark Yarbrough (.921) and Devery Hamilton (.908). However, the other 13 offensive linemen on the roster are all recruits with Composite scores under .900, a much different collection than a depth chart that was littered with 5-star and nationally recruited 4-stars in the recent past.
The three players stepping up into starting roles this spring were redshirt sophomore Brandon Fanaika at left guard, redshirt sophomore Jesse Burkett at center, and redshirt junior David Bright at right tackle--Tucker was moved to the left edge for spring and may stay there this fall.
Just how much pressure can (likely starter) Chryst take off McCaffrey and the running game? Can McCaffrey come anywhere near the workload he shouldered last year?
These are the key questions that should determine the fate of this offense.
There are enough pieces for a good offense. Even with the loss of the savvy veteran Cajuste I can see the trio of Rector, Owusu, and Irwin all a year older being an overall upgrade at receiver. Dalton Schultz is a very good young tight end and Stanford has 4 other options to groom at this position, including incoming top freshman Kaden Smith.
Still, odds are Stanford is taking a step back at quarterback and on the offensive line, which likely means that even with perhaps the most dynamic player in the country they won't come anywhere close to matching last year's impressive Top 5 offense. Overall, their depth on offense is okay but one key injury could really have a major impact. The average college football fan may think the Cardinal are going to be great on offense with McCaffrey coming back but there could be more struggles than expected.