There's a lot of reasons to be pessimistic about Stanford heading into the 2015 season, but the Cardinal's offense should not be one of them. The cupboard on defense has been ravaged, and full of question marks, but on the other side of the ball, Kevin Hogan's offense could challenge Andrew Luck's 2010 and 2011 teams for high water marks in production for many reasons. And I'm not even including Christian McCaffrey, who speaks for himself.
Ty Montgomery's Departure
I am not saying this to knock Montgomery in any way. Talent-wise, he was one of the best receivers in Stanford history, but he didn't quite mesh with Hogan. For this reason, his aptitude actually hurt the offense last season. Montgomery will be missed, but Stanford fans should take his departure as a reason for optimism, not despair.
All of the hype surrounding the receiver clearly got in Kevin Hogan's head, who forced a lot of throws to him, especially under duress. He was Hogan's go-to target when he was under pressure, because he believed he could just throw up a prayer and Montgomery's athleticism would do the rest. Yes, he was a great receiver, but was human.
Even though it is from all the way back in 2013, take this play, for example.
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Hogan tries to go through his progressions, but instead gets a swarming Carl Bradford right in his face. Instead of taking the sack or throwing it away, he gets jumpy and forces a throw to Montgomery and gets intercepted. Kind of like your average Madden pick-up player, Hogan had trouble scanning the whole field because he wants to get the ball in the hands of his stud receiver.
There's endless proof for this: without Montgomery in the lineup, Stanford's offense surged. In eight games against non-cupcakes (Sorry UC Davis and Army) with Montgomery, Stanford averaged 19.9 points per game. In three games without him: an even 38. Granted, Cal and Maryland's defenses are about as airtight as swiss cheese, but Hogan and the offense did put up 31 points on UCLA.
If you look at the numbers at those splits, it just strengthens the case. Hogan had a quarterback rating of 177.2 without Montgomery, and a 127.5 mark with him. The run game also benefitted from Montgomery's absence. Before the Big Game, Stanford had not rushed for 200 yards in a game. After, when Montgomery was out, they ran for 200 three times in three games.
For those that argue that Devon Cajuste will fill into Montgomery's role as the focal point for opposing defenses and the media heading into 2015, but he will not command quite the same attention as Montgomery did. He was the number one guy in those last three games, but Hogan actually looked somewhat collected in the pocket.
With Montgomery gone, Hogan will longer be the wide-eyed kid that crashes the sparkling new Ferrari that he somehow got the keys to. He will be a leader on the field, and rely on his own skills more than Montgomery's. The benefits will be far-reaching, as we saw in the last three games.
Same Old, Same Old
If there is one thing Stanford won't be short of on offense this season, it's experience. The Cardinal returns nine starters this season, including its quarterback and the entire line, except of course for Andrus Peat. His likely replacement, Casey Tucker, was just a five-star recruit out of high school. No big deal.
Another year for this relatively young but talented line to develop and become a cohesive unit should do wonders for the offense. Last year, Hogan was sacked twenty-three times. Expect that number to drop and give Stanford better field position and more manageable third downs.
Another year also means more time for Hogan to mesh with his receiving corps that, most importantly, doesn't include Ty Montgomery. The ultra-speedy tandem of Cajuste and Michael Rector will be Pac-12 defensive backs' worst nightmares, and make it easy on Hogan. We can only hope.
Okay, I'm going to have to cheat a little bit. All of this familiarity will only benefit Christian McCaffrey, who I know I said that I wouldn't mention and knows the whole playbook now. Maybe it will give David Shaw reason to actually put his best back in the game. What a concept!
McCaffrey should be able to step into the feature back role, but even if Shaw doesn't think he's ready to be an every-down guy, using him in tandem with Reymound Wright would not be terrible. He fills in the void for short yardage situations that McCaffrey might not be suited to handle, and having another year under his belt will only make him more lethal.
"Tight End U's" Return to Prominence
In the past five or so years, there is no debating that Stanford has earned the title of Tight End U. Zach Ertz, Coby Fleener, and even Levine Toilolo are off tearing up NFL defenses, but even after a rocky 2013 season at the position (ten total receptions), that moniker still holds true. The 2015 team potentially has a new three-headed monster at tight end: Dalton Schultz, Austin Hooper, and Eric Cotton. Or four-headed, if you count Cajuste. We all know he doesn't think of himself as one though.
How can you even try to defend Cajuste and Rector while adding in the 6'4", 239 pound Schultz, and the 6'6" Hooper? Most NFL teams would kill to have those four guys running routes.
Hooper had 40 catches for 499 yards last season, good enough to make Second-Team All Pac-12. When you throw in Schultz and even Cotton, there's nothing getting in the way of Stanford dominating in the red zone. Schultz was absolutely dominant in high school, and looks like a great blocker, too. Especially after having him redshirt last season, there is no excuse for Shaw to stick him on the bench.
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There will be less nightmares like the USC game, and Hogan will have a much easier time staying calm in this crucial area of the field. Short yardage plays will be no problem with the emerging tight ends, that will only build upon last season's breakout. Defenses will be forced to focus on these tight ends, opening it up for the rest of the offense.
The multitude of returning and not-returning starters, coupled with the potentially lethal tight end unit, gives Stanford a legitimate chance to dethrone that team in Eugene as the top offensive squad in the Pac-12. If only the defense can do its part. Welp.