The more things change, the more things stay the same. At least, that's the way it appears for the Stanford defense.
The Cardinal lost 8 starters from last year's dominant unit, but the new faces in the lineup for the Cardinal D at the 2015 spring game didn't miss a beat, leading the defense to an easy 23-7 victory.
The MVP of the proceedings was Blake Martinez, one of the few starters returning to the unit, who played like a man that was on fire. Other players appeared not to want to touch him at all for fear of torching themselves. Martinez ended the day with 11 tackles, a tackle for loss, and a tipped pass that led to an interception.
Young defenders Solomon Thomas (who added 23 pounds this past season) Joey Alfieri and Mike Tyler and all impressed as well.
Thomas, the defensive jewel of last year's recruiting class, looked like Ndamukong Suh. He was explosive, powerful and angry to the football. He's poised to ruin any guard or center who underestimates him this season. He had seven tackles and a sack and appeared to be the overall best player on the Cardinal defense. Be prepared for the reign on Solomon.
Alfieri, the top prospects from the state of Oregon in 2014, did a nice job setting the edge as an outside linebacker while Tyler flashed some serious explosiveness to get into the backfield for a tackle for loss. The future of the outside linebacker position looks to be in good hands.
On the other side of the ball, Christian McCaffrey was - unsurprisingly - the star for the offense. McCaffrey looks a little bigger and stronger than last year, but he was just as explosive and agile in open space. He accumulated 93 total yards in the game and looks to be the centerpiece of the offense this season. Part of that means that there will probably be a little less jumbo-ogre-elephant power sets than in the past, as there were more 3-wide sets on Saturday, but that appears to just be David Shaw tailoring the offense to his personnel.
Kevin Hogan has a pretty effective day through the air, completing 13 of 19 passes for 187 yards. And while one of his longer passes probably should have been called a sack (it's a little difficult to know what exactly would have happened at real speed), he was mostly effective on Saturday. He's never going to be Andrew Luck - it's far too late in his career for any kind of sea change - but he's without question the guy who gives Stanford the best chance to win games this fall.
Part of that equation is due to the fact that the backup quarterbacks were not very good on Saturday. Ryan Burns completed 9 of his 18 passes and Keller Chryst completed just one of his eight attempts, but neither looked ready to step up and be a starter in the Pac-12 yet. That's okay - they're still another fall camp away from possibly being asked to play in a game - but it was a little bit of a bummer to see neither play great ball. I thought Burns was more ready to play, but Chryst showed more tools to be developed. Burns was more capable running the offense and went through reads faster, while Chryst flashed superior athleticism and advanced arm skills. Both should not be part of a quarterback controversy this fall - unless the Cardinal lose 4 games, in which case it might be time to start looking toward the future of the position.
Part of the struggles for the backup quarterbacks were related to the offensive line. While the 1st-team offensive line looked much more comfortable together than the o-line did at this point last year, the 2nd-team offensive line was overwhelmed by Lance Anderson's defense. The defense did challenge to backups to pick up difficult blitz schemes, but the second unit has a long way to go before this can be considered a deep unit.
The wide receivers were not used much on Saturday - Devon Cajuste didn't play due to some leg trouble - so the tight ends got the bulk of the looks down the field. Overall, they didn't benefit from the sloppy quarterback play, but they looked to be a unit that will give opposing defenses mismatch problems all season long. Austin Hooper broke out in a big way last year, and Dalton Schultz - who redshirted last season - fit in the starting lineup during this game. With Hooper, Schultz, Eric Cotton and Greg Taboada, look for a four tight end set this fall that will have opposing linebackers and defensive backs scratching their heads.
Finally, the special teams for Stanford are merely a blueprint, not even a work in progress. Conrad Ukropina missed three field goals by huge margins, and Alex Robinson managed just one good punt on the day. Incoming freshman Jake Bailey may make a push for a starting job if those issues continue.