BACK TO BASICS
The Cardinal had just eight wins last season after averaging 11.5 the previous four, and the reason for the decline was clear: the lack of a dominant tailback. Stanford coaches expect sophomore Christian McCaffrey to be the bell cow this fall, rekindling memories of grinders Tyler Gaffney and Stepfan Taylor. The 6-foot McCaffrey, son of former NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey, bulked up to 205 pounds to become effective in pass protection and between the tackles. He can handle Stanford's go-to inside power play, split out to the slot (14.8 yards per catch) and return kicks and punts. "The biggest thing is his versatility," says coach David Shaw. "He's a special cat."
Kevin Hogan (24--8 as a starter) is returning at quarterback, for a fourth season. He has four starters back on the offensive line and top NFL prospect Austin Hooper at tight end. On defense just three starters remain from the Pac-12's top-ranked unit in points allowed (16.4 per game), including senior inside linebacker Blake Martinez, who led Stanford in total tackles (102). The Cardinal are scrambling to replace four secondary starters, an ominous gap in the pass-centric Pac-12. All the more reason to hand the ball to McCaffrey and return to Stanford's smashmouth roots.
Their reputation for having docile home crowds could change if they host November games with College Football Playoff implications. Sound far-fetched? Consider that Stanford's only challenging road game is in Week 3, at USC. Beat the Trojans, and the Cardinal will be favored in six straight heading into a tantalizing homestand: Oregon (Nov. 14), California (Nov. 21) and Notre Dame (Nov. 28).
Redshirt freshman Alijah Holder could be Stanford's No. 1 cornerback on his first college snap. The 6'2", 202-pound Holder, who blew away his coaches this spring after adding 18 pounds to his wiry frame, can guard the slot or cover out wide. "No one makes him uncomfortable," says Cardinal OC Mike Bloomgren. "He's cool and collected."
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
Their strength will be at linebacker; expect senior Blake Martinez to blast through the A and B gaps in their 4--3 scheme to disrupt things.... They have to be nervous about losing their whole secondary. There's talent back there—the defense looked ahead of the offense in the spring game—but not experience. They'll lack little things, like the ability to tell routes based on the wideouts' splits.... In past years they had a running back who could fall forward and gain four or five yards on first down. They were always ahead of the game, with second-and-five and then third-and-two. Without that last year, Kevin Hogan couldn't compensate in second-or third-and-long. He just doesn't have the arm to get them out of those situations.
SHIRLEY PEFLEY/ISI PHOTOS (HOLDER)
ZACH BOLINGER/ICON SPORTSWIRE (MARTINEZ)