Stanford lost Solomon Thomas and Christian McCaffrey, two of the best players at their positions in the entire country, yet head coach David Shaw thinks the 10-win Cardinal can be a lot better in 2017 as they chase a playoff berth.
"I think we can play better," Shaw said early in fall camp. "We have a chance to be a better team than we were a year ago, a complete team, even though losing two of the better players in the nation last year."
David Shaw has had so much success at Stanford that 10 total wins and a six-win Pac-12 season is suddenly underwhelming.
"We won ten games last year and it felt like a disappointment," Shaw said this summer.
Stanford all but knocked themselves out of Pac-12 title and College Football Playoff consideration with back-to-back midseason losses to Washington and Washington State. But following a win at Notre Dame on Oct. 15 and home loss to Colorado on Oct. 22, they finished the season on a six-game winning streak.
They did not have a balanced offensive attack, ranking 35th nationally in rushing but 115th in passing.
Head Coach: David Shaw (7th year, 64-17 overall)
A decade after little-known San Diego receivers coach David Shaw returned his alma mater Stanford as Jim Harbaugh's offensive coordinator, he now sits alongside Pop Warner and John Ralston as one of the most successful head coaches in program history.
He has four times as many seasons with 11-plus wins (four) than ones with fewer than 10 (one), three Pac-12 titles and three Pac-12 Coach of the Year awards. But he continues to chase Stanford's first national championship since 1940.
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Keller Chryst, RB Bryce Love, WR Trenton Irwin, WR J.J. Arceda-Whiteside, TE Dalton Schultz, OT David Bright, OT A.T. Hall, G Nate Herbig, C Jesse Burkett
When quarterback Keller Chryst suffered a torn ACL in their Sun Bowl win on Dec. 30, it appeared certain that the Cardinal would have an unsettled quarterback situation during fall camp. That's won't be the case; Chryst recovered quickly and is ready to go.
“He’s been able to drive off it since Day 1,” David Shaw said on Aug. 8 “There have been no issues, no setbacks. He’s been doing really, really well. We’re excited about where he is.”
Chryst had a 5:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 12 appearances, including six starts (6-0 record) but completed less than 57 percent of passes and struggled beyond 15 yards. He gets back his top two receivers in Trenton Irwin and J.J. Arceda-Whiteside and an All-American candidate in tight end Dalton Schultz.
Running back Bryce Love had a higher yards-per-carry average than Christian McCaffrey each of the last two years. While sample size disparity is significant (590 vs. 140), it's still wild that Love was equally dynamic and dangerous carrying the football as one of the best players of all time.
"You've already seen glimpses of it," quarterback Keller Chryst said of Love's game-breaking ability. "He got maybe five carries a game, if that, and he went 60 yards to the house on a regular basis. With more carries, more touches, that will only increase his productivity."
Sophomore guard Nate Herbig is a rising star on an offenisve line that returns four starters. He didn't start until the eighth game but played extremely well in November.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Harrison Phillips, LB Joey Alfieri, LB Peter Kalambayi, LB Bobby Okereke, LB Kevin Palma, CB Quenton Meeks, CB Alijah Holder, S Justin Reid
Stanford was good in almost every defensive area — top 40 in the FBS in third-down conversions, first downs allowed, sacks red-zone defense and more — but not elite in any one area. They generated a modest 20 total turnovers, allowed 86 total points in blowout losses to Washington and Washington State and now lost All-American defensive end Solomon Thomas to the NFL.
They'll rely on veterans at linebacker and in the secondary to take a step forward in 2016. All eight starters on the back end will be upperclassmen and they have nearly 10 defensive backs capable of playing at a high level.
"These guys have a chance to be one of the better units in America," Shaw said of their secondary.
That starts with corners Quenton Meeks (below) and Alijah Holder. Meeks, a junior, already has 23 games, five interceptions and 10 passes defended under his belt.
All four linebackers return for a unit that allowed 368 yards per game (38th in the FBS) and 20.4 points (18th). And the quartet knows the disruptive Thomas won't be there to command attention.
"The onus kind of falls on the linebackers a little bit more, the DBs a little bit more," senior outside linebacker Kalambayi said. "We know that Solomon is not there so we all have to step it up a little bit."
Senior defensive tackle Harrison Phillips — their most experienced defensive lineman — is back after a breakout junior season. He entered the year with only five career appearances but exploded for 46 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and seven sacks in 12 games.
"We have a lot of great guys in our (defensive line) room, but you can’t replace the guy who I believe was the best player in college football last year,” said Phillips, whose leadership has been praised this offseason. “There is going to be a drop-off. If there is some push on that side, there aren’t going to be cutbacks where I used to make some plays.
Notable Player Losses
RB Christian McCaffrey, DE Solomon Thomas, S Dallas Lloyd
Stanford had two top-10 draft picks for the first time since 1992 in Thomas (No. 3) and McCaffrey (No. 8). Thomas had 24.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks during his two-year career, while McCaffrey racked up most of his 5,128 total yards and 31 touchdowns the last two years.
They also lost ball-hawking safety Dallas Lloyd (five interceptions in 2016).
Notable Player Additions
QB K.J. Costello, QB Davis Mills, TE Kaden Smith, TE Colby Parkinson, DE Michael Williams, DE Jovan Swann
David Shaw runs his program almost like a pseudo-service academy, almost never relying on freshmen or transfers to make a huge impact. That being said, some freshman have played big roles recently and a couple are competing for time this year.
Two redshirt freshmen defensive ends, Jovan Swann and Michael Williams, have reportedly made big strides since last year, and tight ends Kaden Smith and Colby Parkinson are backing up Dalton Schultz.
If all goes well with the offense, redshirt freshman quarterback K.J. Costello — a former four-star recruit from outside Los Angeles — will not take any meaningful snaps this year. Keep a close eye on his practice reports as he and Davis Mills — a five-star recruit and the top quarterback in the 2017 class — begin competing for the starting job in 2018.
Stanford's 2017 schedule is filled with intrigue. After opening against Rice in Australia on Aug. 26, they have back-to-back road games — a rarity for Power Five teams in September — with USC and San Diego State on Sept. 9 and 16, respectively.
They had midseason road games against Utah and Washington State before finishing the year with three-straight home games: Washington, Cal and Notre Dame.
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