Our opponent Q-and-A this week comes from Elliott Almond, who helps cover Stanford and several other teams for the San Jose Mercury News. Elliott was kind enough to answer five questions for us. Here they are.
1. Could you tell us about how Stanford has replaced the four offensive line starters it lost from 2013?
Almond: “Every time it seems the O-line is decimated because of graduation losses, the next generation of behemoths surface. Just before the season started, coaches privately raved about the current group, hinting it might be the most talented to date. Left tackle Andrus Peat (6-foot-7, 316 pounds) obviously is the leftover from last year’s starting unit. His presence is huge in helping anchor the newcomers: left guard Joshua Garnett, center Graham Shuler, right guard Johnny Caspers and right tackle Kyle Murphy. Individually, they are fantastic. But Stanford coaches say they are growing as a unit, and their individual skills are secondary to collective strength. The Cardinal power running game has not been as impressive as previous seasons. Observers wonder if that is a byproduct of an inexperienced line. Coach David Shaw seems to agree, telling reporters this week, ‘This is the next step’ for the offensive line. ‘This is a very loud environment. This is going to be a tough test. The defense will try to confuse them. We have to have really good rules so the guys can play hard and play fast. They all have to be on the same page every single play. That is what growing together does. Every game is a little bit better than before.’”
2. How has Kevin Hogan improved as a quarterback since he became Stanford's starter in 2012?
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Almond: “Kevin is not close to being the same signal caller as two years ago. Firstly, he has started almost every game for two years now. He has the seasoning that can make the difference in tight games. Kevin has supreme command of the playbook and understands what defenses try to do to camouflage their schemes. He has had one pass intercepted so far, a testament to his improvement. He will never enjoy the throwing prowess of Andrew Luck. But Hogan more often than not is finding receivers even in coverage. Then again, he has more options than the past two years when it comes to quality receivers. “
3. The Cardinal has allowed only 13 points through three games, so obviously the loss of Shayne Skov, Ben Gardner and Trent Murphy hasn't impacted them all that negatively yet. Do you get the sense Stanford has reloaded at positions of loss?
Almond: “Many Stanford watchers are not completely surprised by the defense’s start. You mention three big guns up front. Stanford isn’t nearly as strong without Gardner, Murphy and Skov. But its secondary has greatly improved. Also, A.J. Tarpley has anchored the linebacking corps as expected. But fellow linebackers Kevin Anderson and Blake Martinez have provided ample help. However, when Stanford looks vulnerable it often is in the space where Skov once roamed. They miss him, which could become evident at Husky Stadium.”
4. Through three games, what has been Stanford's biggest weakness?
Almond: “The Cardinal is a work in progress. We expect to have a better feel for the team after it plays Washington. Here is a summary of the team’s issues:
--Inexperienced offensive line, leading to questions about the ground game.
--The rotation of five tailbacks who don’t have the bulk of previous stars. It remains to be seen if any of these guys -- Kelsey Young, Barry Sanders, Remound Wright, Ricky Seale and Christian McCaffrey -- can uphold the Stanford standard of playing smash mouth football.
--The kicking game. Senior Jordan Williamson is struggling to find his form after converting only two of five field goal attempts.
--The defensive front. The Cardinal has real talent in defensive end Henry Anderson but just doesn’t have the depth. Aziz Shittu is the main backup for defensive tackle David Perry and defensive end Blake Lueders. The team is one injury from having real question marks with its rush.”
5. Aside from Hogan and Ty Montgomery, who is the most important person in Stanford's offense?
Almond: “This answer needs some context. No question that receiver Devon Cajuste has become a big target for Hogan. Tight ends Austin Hooper and Greg Taboada also have added a complexity to the passing game that was missing last year. But everything starts up front for Stanford. As a result, it comes down to how well center Graham Shuler develops as a sophomore. The 6-4, 287-pound lineman is in his third year with the program. The line should gel around Shuler. He won’t score touchdowns, or catch big passes. But Stanford won’t click without cohesion on the line. The unity starts with the guy snapping the ball.”