Christian McCaffrey is a once-in-a-generation type of talent, humble yet confident enough to handle any sort of situation, and both delicate enough and explosive enough to make defenders fall over, untouched. He has a unique way of making players look like they've never played football before and voters look like they've never watched it before.
However, lost in the preseason hype build up for McCaffrey's 2016 Heisman campaign is that someone needs to block for him -- something that has become a huge question mark for the Cardinal coming into 2016.
The last time there was this much uncertainty on the offensive line was heading into the 2014 season, when Stanford had to replace three starters on the offensive front. Even though David Shaw called the unit the "most talented offensive line" he had ever had at Stanford, it was the stumbling block of the team. Despite having arguably the best defense in program history, Stanford crashed and burned while finishing 8-5.
The running game suffered, and going down with it was Stanford's offense. Sure, they settled in and worked out the kinks at the end of the season, rolling through the latter half of their schedule, but it came far too late. Instead of heading to Pasadena, they found themselves close to home at the Foster Farms Bowl.
Now, heading into 2016, Stanford will return just two starters on the line, Casey Tucker and Johnny Caspers. The expected departures of Kyle Murphy and Joshua Garnett and the unexpected departure of Graham Shuler has left a void to be filled on the offensive line and in leadership, something Stanford will need to replace if they want to repeat their 2015 success.
In the Spring Game, the first team line put Tucker at left tackle, Brandon Fanaika at left guard, Jesse Burkett at center, Caspers at right guard, and David Bright at right tackle. It did move around a little bit, but some mix of that crew should figure to start against Kansas State on September 2nd, barring injury or other unexpected developments. But can we really have unwavering faith in this group?
Let's start with what we know: Tucker should be very good, but certainly showed that he still has some room to grow in transitioning to left tackle. In the Spring Game, the first action we've seen him in since he played right tackle in the Rose Bowl, Solomon Thomas blew him up.
Sure, Thomas is a transcendent talent, and some of that goes on Fanaika, the guard and former four-star recruit, but there still needs to be better chemistry from these two.
A former five-star recruit, Tucker is a very talented lineman, but there's still some obvious questions about cohesion there -- both probably have gone up against Thomas time and time again in practice. For Stanford fans, hopefully it says more about how dominant Thomas is than exposing some sort of issues on the left side. Shaw also indicated that he might need to shuffle the line to get the "right combination of guys," so perhaps we could see some changes on this side.
Perhaps moving him around will make this offensive line stronger as a group, and could leave more time for either Keller Chryst or Ryan Burns to make decisions.
Caspers played in all 14 games last season, and should be a leader from the right side along with Bright, if the line stays that way. On the other hand, Burkett, the presumptive center, is a former four-star recruit, but has played just five career games, and hasn't had much experience.
It's undeniable that this is a talented bunch. However, talent alone will not remake this offensive line into what it was last year -- 2014's offensive line had three five stars, a four star, and a three star, yet it took them ten games to start working together effectively. Just like this year's line, all had some game experience, with a couple of stalwarts, but most had played only one year or sparingly.
How this line fits together will determine whether Stanford will sink or swim this season. The Cardinal has the offensive weapons to succeed -- it just needs give them opportunities to make plays, not something I can confidently say it will. If it doesn't, it could squander what could be Stanford's last year with arguably the most dynamic college football player in history.
From what we've learned over the years, never question Stanford's ability to quickly recuperate from losses, unless it's on the offensive line. Stars like Shayne Skov, Andrew Luck, and even Jim Harbaugh have left with few hiccups, except for maybe Josh Nunes, but offensive line departures really have hamstrung the Cardinal. Even in last year's Rose Bowl season, it took until the second half of the UCF game to get the line going.
I guess it all really does start with the offensive line, after all.