David LombardiESPN Staff Writer
STANFORD, Calif. — The NCAA single season all-purpose yardage record holder returns for Stanford at running back, and the Cardinal will also be breaking in a new quarterback in 2016.
Given those two pieces of information, the framework is clearly there for the attack to be a ground-heavy one.
But as excited as he is about a deep backfield that includes speedsters Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love, Stanford coach David Shaw realizes that his team’s ticket to contending for another Pac-12 championship will come through the air.
“We know people are going to load the box against us since we have a new starting quarterback,” he said.
That theme will stretch beyond the Cardinal. Up to seven Pac-12 teams will be breaking in new starting quarterbacks in 2016, which will likely encourage defenses to clamp down on opposing rushing attacks and dare inexperienced signal callers to beat them over the top.
The ability to make defenses pay through the air, then, is expected to be a critical determinant of success within the Pac-12 next season — and Shaw thinks that the league’s new quarterbacks will rise to the challenge.
“I know this conference well enough to know that ball is going to be in the air this year,” Shaw said. “I don’t see this conference drastically changing.”
The Stanford version of the new quarterback challenge manifests itself in the battle to replace Kevin Hogan. Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns are the two candidates. The eventual starter — Shaw isn’t expected to make a decision on the front until August — will have huge shoes to fill: Hogan finished top five nationally in both passing efficiency and yards per attempt last season. He made defenses that gambled too aggressively on stopping McCaffrey pay a hefty price, and that was the ultimate key to Stanford’s massive offensive output — the Cardinal averaged over 40 points per game in league play.
Stanford will need Chryst or Burns to provide a similar counter threat in 2016. But while optimistic about the Pac-12’s quarterbacks, Shaw is also realistic in his appraisal of his own team’s passing situation. He realizes that a transition to a new quarterback rarely goes completely smoothly. So the Cardinal are also placing heavy emphasis on further improvement from their backfield — an ambitious proposal considering last year’s record-breaking campaign on the ground.
“Can Christian McCaffrey be better this year?” Shaw said. “That’s what we’re pushing to see.”
The staff also harbors high hope for the speedy Love in his second year and for 216-pound sophomore Cameron Scarlett, whose big frame puts him in contention to replace the graduated Remound Wright as the Cardinal’s short yardage specialist. Shaw says that McCaffrey’s versatility means nothing is guaranteed for Stanford’s other backs, though.
“Ol’ No. 5, he doesn’t want to give anything anyway,” Shaw said. “It’s going to be a battle.”
That battle resumes Saturday, when Stanford plays its spring game, the next step in crafting an offense that’s a mix of old and new pieces entering 2016.