For the better part of two seasons, the Stanford Cardinal entered every contest led by the weakest link on their offensive arsenal: Quarterback.
The glimmer of hope that broke through at the end of last season being redshirt junior quarterback K.J. Costello and his four-game stretch to finish the regular season. During this final stanza, he passed for 764 yards, seven scores and completed 58.8 percent of his passes.
Obviously, the Stanford staples of a world-class running attack and beefy offensive line have consistently eased the job of many former Cardinal signal callers. This four-game run was no exception.
So what was the difference between these for games and Costello’s first starts? Or Ryan Burns? Or Keller Chryst? The answer lies in the reliable production from Costello following his discovery of how to truly maximize surrounding talent.
The two games that highlighted this particularly well were wins against the Washington Huskies and Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Against the Huskies, Costello threw for 211 yards while completing 59 percent of his passes. Against the Irish, he was good for four scores, 176 yards and completed 63 percent of his passes. Both defenses were no slouches against areal attacks, the Huskies allowing 185.1 yards per game (18th in the country) and the Irish letting up 213.5 (51st in the country). Costello diced up both of these teams with a few simple measures the Cardinal threw at the defenses again and again and again to close 2017.
Using Big Receivers
Sometimes the best answer is the obvious one. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside is 6-feet-3 and 222 pounds. Trenton Irwin is 6-feet-2 and 205 pounds. Donald Stewart is 6-feet-4 and 190 pounds. That is plenty of height and some weight as well in the wide receiving core, without even dipping into your tight end talent. A few things that highlighted, not only the performances verse the Irish and Huskies but throughout the four-game stretch, were inside slants and in-cuts.
Plenty of times, any easy completion came down to a fast throw from Costello to a receiver running a 10-yard in or slant, any easy pitch-and-catch for receivers boxing out corners time and again. Utilizing receiver size, especially when teams are loading the box against Bryce Love (leaving corners on an island), placed Stanford in a host of comfortable 3rd-in-short situations.
Through the final four weeks of the season, the pistol formation was good to Costello, consistently going to it for passing situations. Out of this formation, Costello has found a rhythm that put teeth into the Stanford aerial attack.
The Run - A simple draw that has Love runs between takes place between the kick out block of the tackle and the guard. The beauty of this is that with no pulling guards or any extra backs, the play is a simple check if the safeties are playing out of the box or the linebackers are shifted over to one side, giving the back a gap. It also adds multiple layers to what would otherwise be an easy tell in the Stanford offense, warning defenders of an incurring pass.
The Pass - Every quarterback (especially in college) have a comfort formation to lean on when things hit the fan. This pistol set is clearly the go-to when Costello and the Cardinal need a successful drive.
Even more fascinating is the routes that Stanford leans on when they go to it. As referenced earlier, big receivers and the way they play to that size definitely take a role here, but so do deep routes and really going after opposing free safeties.
Here is where you can see why David Shaw is salivating at tight end Kaden Smith’s potential this season. Out of the pistol, Stanford gets creative by tightening a receiver to the tight end, then having them cross routes early to free the tight end down the hash mark. They also run in and ups, dragging a big receiver or tight end across the formation and up the opposite hash. Finally, the post route is perfect for this, particularly when using a little draw to Love which brings the safety a few steps down before stepping up and delivering a fatal, deep strike.
All of these deeper routes really toy with the safety, forcing him to make the right decision and make plays on bulky tight ends. The integral part is giving Costello enough time, thanks to the running back staying home and picking up defenders. The wrinkle that keeps it working is how well Stanford runs out of this look, keeping defenders honest.
This comes down to Costello simply getting more game reps. You see him make the offense his own at the end of the season, becoming the commander of the attack. From making checks and reads at the line pre-snap, to consistently getting through his progressions, to staying away from the forced throws and finding where he is supposed to go with the ball; Costello has grown.
You should be excited about Costello and the pre-season buzz because of the growth into Stanford’s quarterback mantle, instead of a fan base thrusting it on the next man up. Stanford can be the best offense in the PAC-12 and potentially a top 30 scoring machine. Now it is up to them to reach out and grab it.