While the Cardinal-White Spring Game was fun, it’s hard to guess what Stanford will look like starting this season from the play of Jack Richardson and company.
To get a better idea of what to expect, I rewatched the last time we saw KJ Costello in action—the 2017 Alamo Bowl against TCU. This game was actually fun to rewatch despite the outcome. Stanford dominated the first half, and desperately tried to hold onto the lead while appearing exhausted in the second half. As I rewatched, a few players stood out to me that I didn’t necessarily notice the first time around, and I think they will be critically important for the Cardinal this season.
I remember turning off this game with an overall “grumbling” attitude towards Costello. After all, his last drive was a two-minute drill with Stanford only needing a FG for the win, and in that drive Costello oversaw a delay of game penalty, false start, and game-ending interception in a span of 5 plays. But rewatching this game I thought he only had one bad throw the entire game (his final interception).
Time and again he made accurate short throws to the middle of the field, and he had great rapport with JJ Arcega-Whiteside in the end zone. He was pressured quite a bit as he worked through his progressions but he was only sacked once. Instead he opted for safe throwaway passes rather than being sacked for a loss or trying to force a pass into coverage. His other interception in the game was a bomb deep in the end zone that the receiver gave up on, allowing the TCU DB to make an uncontested pick as he stepped out the back of the end zone. Unlucky, but not a bad decision or a bad throw in my opinion.
Costello’s final interception came on slinging throw to Kaden Smith up the middle of the field. Smith was covered well, but by a single TCU defender about 7 inches shorter than Smith. It was probably a 50/50 ball, and one that Cardinal receivers had been making pretty regularly all season. The throw was not his greatest choice given the stakes of the drive, but even his worst throw of the game was not unreasonable. I finished this game impressed with Costello and I anticipate really good things from him this year—he had good pocket presence, the ability to make some pinpoint throws, and rarely if ever made a bad decision with the ball. Beginning the season as the unquestioned starter, with plenty of experience returning around him, Costello should be even better this year.
Okereke is expected to lead the ILB unit this year, which is in turn expected to be the strongest unit on the defense. His play last year showed flashes of brilliance mixed with inconsistency and irrelevancy, and I found that to be the case in the bowl game as well. He started off with a bang—stuffing the run with a solo tackle at the line of scrimmage on TCU’s first drive and with a few minutes later tracking down a screen pass with electric closing speed to make an open-field tackle for a loss.
That open-field play in particular really caught my attention—I made sure to watch number 20 every defensive play, hoping to see an elevated game that would raise my hopes for this year’s defense. I did not see that. The next time #20 popped off the screen it was when he dropped a sure thing interception in the Cardinal end-zone. An uncontested soft ball from Kenny Hill that went straight to his chest ended up slipping between his fingers and falling to the turf. That drop cost the Cardinal three points. With 6 minutes left in the second, TCU RB Hicks took the ball outside for a 27-yard rush while Okereke was stuffed from getting close to his assignment. On the last drive of the 1st half, Okereke was tricked by a QB option, picking up the run far too late and allowing a 1st down that set up a Hail Mary attempt.
Overall there was little presence felt from Okereke after the first quarter. I want leading ILBs to put themselves where the ball is on every play, and Okereke time and again only made a play for the ball if it was already heading his direction.
Scarlett had two A+ first down catches in this game. Coming into the game with only 4 catches on the season, Costello hit him first for a perfectly in stride “McCaffrey route” with 4 minutes left in the 3rd. Scarlett had a great stutter step to get open and immediately turned up field with speed that surprised me. He blazed past a safety and only came down to the turf when two TCU DBs jumped on his back after a 50-yard gain. With ten minutes left in the fourth, Scarlett did it again—this time with the enigmatic wheel route. He made a great step to come back to a short ball from Costello, then turned inside, making two TCU defenders miss and came down for a 35-yard gain only after five tacklers got ahold of him.
These plays definitely showed athleticism from Scarlett, but more importantly it revealed a willingness to throw to the RB, something we hadn’t previously seen in the Bryce Love era. This offseason, Shaw discussed how he wants to get the ball to Love in more creative ways, and I would not be surprised if these Scarlett plays foreshadow an uptick in breakaway Love passes this year.
I hoped to glean some fresh insights into the 2018 Cardinal by watching this game, but came away having only reconfirmed my suspicions- that the offense this year will have a ceiling approaching historic levels, and the defense could be a major liability. SDSU Friday night will tell us how to what degree Stanford has grown since its close loss to TCU late last year.