Stanford has claimed at least a share of the Pac-12 North title in four out of coach David Shaw’s five seasons. But the Cardinal face a significant rebuilding effort in order to earn their fifth in six years. Running back Christian McCaffrey is one of the nation’s best players, and he will anchor an offense that features a new quarterback (likely Keller Chryst) and a rebuilt line. The defense suffered key losses at each level, but a line that’s thin on depth and proven options is coordinator Lance Anderson’s biggest concern. In addition to the personnel issues, Stanford has to deal with an improved Washington in the North and a challenging schedule, featuring road trips to UCLA, Notre Dame and Oregon.
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Previewing Stanford’s Offense
The quarterback competition between Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns will be one of the most closely watched in the country. Chryst had minimal experience last year, completing 5-of-9 passes for 59 yards and one touchdown. Burns has attempted just one pass since his arrival to Stanford. No doubt they are green, but they were both four-star recruits coming out of high school.
The new quarterback will have the luxury of playing with one of the most dynamic playmakers in college football. Running back Christian McCaffrey set the NCAA single-season all-purpose record last season with 3,864 total yards, including a school-record 2,109 on the ground.
McCaffrey will get plenty of touches — he also caught a team-high 45 passes — but there are other weapons to keep an eye on, including wide receivers Michael Rector and Francis Owusu. Plus, Stanford has fancied itself Tight End U during its recent run of success. Look for that trend to continue with Dalton Schultz emerging as a go-to target.
Aside from replacing quarterback Kevin Hogan, the Cardinal have to fill three spots on the offensive line — including plugging the void left by the departed Outland Trophy winner in Josh Garnett. The only regular returners are Casey Tucker and Johnny Caspers. History suggests that Stanford will be able to cobble together a quality line. And McCaffrey is good enough that he can make plays on his own while the new unit comes together.
Previewing Stanford’s Defense
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The Cardinal will lean heavily on defensive lineman Solomon Thomas (10.5 TFLs last season) to anchor the front seven. He’s versatile enough to play either end or tackle; the coaching staff would prefer to use his athleticism outside rushing the passer. That would mean Harrison Phillips, coming off a torn ACL, has locked up the nose spot.
Gone is linebacker Blake Martinez, who led the Pac-12 with 141 tackles last season. Look for Kevin Palma and Bobby Okereke to fill the void from the inside backer spots. Peter Kalambayi, Mike Tyler and Joey Alfieri will form a productive three-man rotation at outside linebacker.
The Cardinal have a nice mix of youth and experience in the secondary, with key returners like Alijah Holder and Terrence Alexander at corner and Dallas Lloyd at safety. They also get a boost with the return of former starting safety Zach Hoffpauir, who took a season off to play minor league baseball. Quenton Meeks, who had a team-high three interceptions last season, will see the field plenty as the starting nickel back.
Previewing Stanford’s Specialists
McCaffrey was one of the most dangerous return men in the country last season, averaging a league-best 28.9 yards on kickoff returns and 8.7 on punt returns with a combined two scores. Conrad Ukropina set a school single-season record by converting 90 percent (18-of-20) of his field goal attempts. He was also a perfect 67-of-67 on extra points. Jake Bailey, who handled kickoffs last year, will replace Alex Robinson as the Cardinal’s punter. Stanford again should be rock solid on special teams.
There’s a reason the Cardinal have won the Pac-12 three of the last four years — they have been able to overcome attrition and reload. Granted, they have to fill some pretty big spots in the 2016 — starting with quarterback and on the offensive line. But by this point Stanford should receive the benefit of the doubt that any step backward won’t be significant.
The division is getting more difficult each year — Washington will join Oregon as a serious contender this fall — but Stanford will no doubt remain in the hunt. The Cardinal’s trip to Seattle on Sept. 30 could decide the North Division title.