The Cardinal rank No. 34 in Athlon's Top 130 for 2019
Stanford is undergoing an identity crisis. The Cardinal used a throwback physical style to win three conference titles (2012, '13, '15) in the first six seasons after the conference expanded to 12 schools. It overwhelmed opponents with a big offensive line, strong running game and aggressive defense to control tempo and the clock as it wore down foes. Suddenly last season, Stanford's power running game disappeared, and so did its invincibility. The Cardinal wound up in third place in the Pac-12 North in 2018, and for just the second time since 2009, Stanford finished the season unranked.
Stanford could not run the ball effectively for the first time in David Shaw's tenure — it finished 11th in the conference in rushing offense. At midseason, the Cardinal made a dramatic change, switching to an offense that relied on the passing of quarterback K.J. Costello. It paid off with four wins to end the season. Still, the 9–4 overall record and a 6–3 conference mark in 2018 are no longer reasons for pride at Stanford.
Previewing Stanford's Offense for 2019
Shaw has a tricky mission: Restore the Cardinal's ability to run the ball and control the clock while still allowing Costello to win games. Costello paced the Pac-12 in passing efficiency and led the Cardinal to four straight wins to end the season when Shaw essentially gave up on the run game. With Bryce Love now gone following an injury-plagued season, will Shaw discard the ball-control game?
"I would love for our persona to be physical and efficient," Shaw says. "My goal has always been to be balanced. We want to play to our strength."
Costello is the team's strength, and Stanford should have adequate wide receivers in Osiris St. Brown, Connor Wedington and Michael Wilson despite the departures of JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Trenton Irwin. A prime target will be tight end Colby Parkinson, an NFL-caliber player who had seven touchdown receptions in 2018 despite being the No. 2 tight end behind Kaden Smith.
With Love gone after rushing for just 739 yards in 2018, the Cardinal probably will go with Cameron Scarlett as their No. 1 tailback after he rushed for 330 yards last season. Though not as fast or as elusive as Love, Scarlett is a more consistent between-the-tackles runner.
The issue is the offensive line, which did well in pass blocking in 2018 but did an unexpectedly poor job of run blocking during an injury-plagued season. Four of the five presumed offensive line starters for 2019 started at least three games in 2018, with tackle Walker Little being the standout. Much of the onus is on offensive line coach Kevin Carberry, who enters his second season with Stanford after mixed results in his first campaign.
Previewing Stanford's Defense for 2019
When Stanford was a dominant force in the Pac-12, it had a punishing defense. The Cardinal's 2013 conference championship team ranked third in the nation against the run, first in sacks and 16th in total defense. Last season, Stanford slipped to 45th against the run, 23rd in sacks and 78th in total defense.
The loss of its top two tacklers will make it difficult for Stanford to regain its physical defensive presence. Inside linebackers Bobby Okereke and Sean Barton accounted for 96 and 92 tackles, respectively, last season, and no one else on the team had more than 64. Neither will be back, and Barton's decision to retire from football with a season of eligibility remaining was a major blow. Ricky Miezan played in just four games as a freshman last season, but an impressive spring is likely to land him one of the inside linebacker spots. The other inside linebacker position remains open.
The front three in Stanford's 3-4 alignment should be adequate, with defensive end Jovan Swann (4.5 sacks in 2018) a potential big-play contributor. Jordan Fox will hold down an outside linebacker spot after collecting 4.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for a loss last season, but Stanford is still looking for a standout pass rusher.
The star of the defense is Paulson Adebo, a first-team All-Pac-12 cornerback as a redshirt freshman who had four interceptions and a conference-leading 20 passes broken up. Opposing offenses will attack the other side, which might be manned by Obi Eboh, although freshman Salim Turner-Muhammad may be asked to step in. Safety is another position of concern after free safety Frank Buncom opted to end his career rather than return for a fifth season.
Previewing Stanford's Specialists for 2019
Placekicking will be a strength with the return of Jet Toner, who made 14-of-15 field goal attempts last season, but the departure of punter Jake Bailey, a second-team all-conference pick each of the past two seasons, is a blow. Wilson and Scarlett should give the Cardinal adequate — but not outstanding — results as a punt returner and kickoff returner, respectively.
The Cardinal's challenging early-season schedule could knock the spirit out of the team, as its first four games are against Northwestern (home), USC (road), UCF (road), and Oregon (home).
With Costello throwing the ball, the Cardinal should score points, but the concerns at inside linebacker will make it difficult to control opposing offenses. Shaw won’t let the Cardinal sink lower than fourth in the Pac-12 North, but a division title is a long shot.