The football season is getting closer, and while our Bruins are getting ready for the 2015 season, so is the rest of the Pac-12. So we're taking a quick look around the conference to see how the other 11 teams are stacking up. We posed the same 4 questions to each of our Pac-12 conference mates so we can get to know their team and expectations a bit better, and added a 5th question geared for each school individually. We add some notes on the teams key losses and returns after the Q&A, as well.
Today's Pac-12 preseason Q&A visits a school that has become our huge nemesis, the Stanford Cardinal. We got two of the folks from Stanford's great SBN site Rule Of Tree to answer our questions. Writer Ben Leonard and site co-Manager Jack Blanchat were kind enough to share their Stanford intellect with us at BN, so you know we're getting high quality stuff. Check out their thoughts in the Q&A below, and for the best inside look at the Cardinal, head over to Rule Of Tree and join in the conversation there.
BN: Who are the players on offense we don't know about, but should?
Ben: Kevin Hogan. Yes, I know you already know about him, but you haven't seen the real Hogan. Without star receiver Ty Montgomery last season, he was actually better. Now that Montgomery is gone, Hogan appears poised to make major strides. Why is this, you might ask?
I am not saying this to knock Montgomery in any way. Talent-wise, he was one of the best receivers in Stanford history, but he didn't quite mesh with Hogan. For this reason, his aptitude actually hurt the offense last season.
All of the hype surrounding the receiver clearly got in Kevin Hogan's head, who forced a lot of throws to him, especially under duress. He was Hogan's go-to target when he was under pressure, because he believed he could just throw up a prayer and Montgomery's athleticism would do the rest. Yes, he was a great receiver, but was human.
So when Hogan looked down field for Montgomery, kind of like your average Madden pick-up player, Hogan had trouble scanning the whole field because he wants to get the ball in the hands of his stud receiver, not necessarily the open receiver. He forced a lot of bad throws to Montgomery, and wasn't able to go through his progressions properly as a result.
There's endless proof for this: without Montgomery in the lineup, Stanford's offense surged. In eight games against non-cupcakes (Sorry UC Davis and Army) with Montgomery, Stanford averaged 19.9 points per game. In three games without him: an even 38. Granted, Cal and Maryland's defenses are about as airtight as swiss cheese, but Hogan and the offense did put up 31 points on UCLA. Furthermore, Hogan had a quarterback rating of 177.2 without Montgomery, and a 127.5 mark with him.
Without his star receiver, look for Hogan to take it to the next level. Watch out, Pac-12.
Jack: I'll go ahead and assume everybody knows about Kevin Hogan, Christian McCaffrey and Devon Cajuste - all of whom were superb against UCLA last fall - and highlight Austin Hooper, a tight end, and Trent Irwin, a true freshman wideout. Hooper was all-Pac-12 second team a year ago, and he's a pure physical mismatch down the middle of the field. He only had two touchdown catches last season - he had to share with some other talented tight ends - but he's a guy I think could have a fantastic year on all levels of the field. Meanwhile, Trent Irwin was racking up 1,974 yards and 22 touchdowns in high school last season. He's one of the only true freshman likely to play for Stanford this fall, and I think he could be fully integrated into the offense by the middle of season.
BN: Who are the players on defense we don't know about, but should?
Ben: Take note of corner Ronnie Harris and defensive end Solomon Thomas. A fifth-year senior, Harris has emerged as a big time leader for a young secondary, and has the potential to become a shutdown corner. He forced David Shaw's hand at the end of last season, taking Wayne Lyons' spot at corner. It's not like Lyons was really struggling, part of a secondary that was second in the nation in yards per attempt allowed. Look for Harris to become the next Alex Carter for Stanford.
Solomon Thomas is an absolute beast. After following his recruiting process, I've been excited for the former five-star recruit to suit up for Stanford for years now. He redshirted last season, and appears poised to give Pac-12 offensive lines headaches. He's a matchup nightmare, sitting at 6'3" and 271 pounds, with a ton of speed. He dominated in the Spring Game despite being at less than full strength, and will make opposing quarterbacks pretty scared to drop back in the pocket.
Jack: I'll pick two for this spot: one is linebacker Peter Kalambayi, who shined as a redshirt freshman last season, and the other is Solomon Thomas, who will be a redshirt freshman this year. Kalambayi was a fantastic edge rusher, accruing 32 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and an interception in just his first year of game action. He's lean and fast - but surprisingly powerful against tackles - so I wouldn't be surprised to see him get double-digit sacks this season. The other player of note is Solomon Thomas, who was ranked as the 3rd-best defensive end in the 2014 recruiting class. He redshirted last year, but looked like the Hulk in the spring game, so I'm looking for him to be a force along Stanford's d-line.
BN: What game has the biggest circle on the calendar and why?
Ben: Of all of the big games games, it's got to be Week 3 at USC. Sorry, Bruins fans. It's the only big road test game the Cardinal will have, unless you think Washington State is going to have a breakout year. Not saying they will, otherwise I'd probably be getting a "random" drug test, but it's just an excuse to use this .gif:
Anyways, the USC game will make or break this team emotionally. If they win, especially in grand fashion, they will have immense confidence and poise in big moments going forward. If not, their confidence could crumble and they could drop games that they shouldn't lose like the next week at Oregon State, which has trap game written all over it. All of the pomp that the Trojans carry with them makes the win ever bigger psychologically. It will a big test for true freshman kicker Jake Bailey, who will probably win the kicker job, and could make or break his confidence. Imagine being a freshman kicker in your third game, and you have a 40-yarder to beat the Trojans. That's a very big deal. Kickers can make or break teams— we saw it haunt Jordan Williamson after his struggles in the Fiesta Bowl.
Jack: For me, the biggest game circled on the calendar is week 3 against USC at the Coliseum. A disappointing loss to the Trojans early in the schedule last year kind of set the tone for a frustrating season, and I'm curious to see how Stanford looks in its first Pac-12 test. Who knows how that game will affect the team for the rest of the season, but this team is full of veterans on offense and youngsters on defense, so I want to see how both sides perform when thrown right into the fire against a talented team that's being seen as conference favorite.
BN: What is your prediction for your season record?
Ben: I see Stanford settling in around 11-2, not including the bowl season. I can see them dropping a game to Notre Dame, and probably will lose to either Oregon or USC. The defense appears to be underrated, with a lot of talent that could help make up for an inexperienced D-line and secondary. The offense is loaded
Jack: I think Stanford is probably a 9 win team this year. The offense will be better, but the defense should be worse than last year's sensational unit, so that makes me think that the Cardinal are in for a pretty good season. I think Stanford will compete for a spot in the conference title game, but it's hard to see exactly how good Oregon will be at this point. They'd still be my pick to win the North, but I think the Ducks' trip to the Farm will decide the division crown.
BN: 2014 was a relative down year for Stanford as the offense had some struggles behind a young O Line (though that didn't keep them from abusing UCLA for the 7th year in a row). That O Line should be much better this year, but now the Cardinal has to replace the entire D line. For a team that has relied on playing solid football by dominating in the trenches, will Stanford have enough on both sides of the line of scrimmage to contend for the Pac-12 North this season?
Ben: Without question, Stanford has the talent on the defensive line to continue to dominate the Pac-12's trenches. Aziz Shittu, Solomon Thomas, and Harrison Phillips are all extremely talented, blue chip recruit lineman with at least one year under their belt. Stanford's defensive system is excellent, and I have complete faith in their ability to reload succesfully.
I'm a little less optimistic about how the offensive line will do without Andrus Peat, but they should continue to improve with four out of five starters returning. They struggled to carve out lanes up the middle for Stanford's smaller running back corps, which could be an issue again. However, they did better when Shaw adjusted the offense to put the skill players out wide in space, a trend that should recur again this season. They won't be great, but good enough to get the offense humming along just fine.
Jack: I think Stanford's o-line will be competent - certainly better than it was at the beginning of last season - and grow into a very good unit. I don't think some of these o-linemen are as individually talented as linemen we've had in the past, but they're not a unit I'm particularly concerned about at this point. The way these 4 starters gelled as the season went along gives me confidence that they can be a good enough unit to allow the big-time playmakers on this offense to succeed. The defensive line I'm more concerned about. As I mentioned earlier, I think Solomon Thomas will be a superb player, but the rest of the unit is a little thin. The lack of depth was a bit of a concern for Stanford last year - injuries forced Stanford to burn one redshirt it didn't plan on using - and the best case scenario is that doesn't have to happen again. I have my doubts though, as Aziz Shittu and Brennan Scarlett (a graduate transfer from Cal, of all places) both have had issues staying healthy in the past.
Head Coach: David Shaw, 5th year
2014 Record: 8-5, 5-4 (conf) 2nd in Pac-12 North
2014 Bowl: Beat Maryland 45-21 in the Foster Farms Bowl (Santa Clara CA)
Key Returnees: QB Kevin Hogan (rSr), TE Austin Hooper (Jr), RB Christian McCaffrey (So), RT Kyle Murphy (Sr), WR Devon Cajuste (rSr), LB Blake Martinez (Sr), CB Ronnie Harris (rSr)
Key losses: WR Michael Rector (suspension), LT Andrus Peat, WR Ty Montgomery, DE Henry Anderson, NT David Parry, LB AJ Tarpley, OLB James Vaughters, SS Jordan Richards
AP Preseason Rank: 21
Matchup with UCLA: @Stanford, Thursday Oct 15, kickoff 7:30 PT
Thanks again to both Ben and Jack for giving us a look inside Stanford Football as we get set to begin the 2014 season. Go check out their great site Rule Of Tree and you can follow the site on Twitter at @RuleofTree.