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Stanford football’s winning formula starts with the big guys

Stanford needs to return to power football

Pac 12 Championship - Stanford v Arizona State

The one word that defines Stanford football’s success over the past decade would be power.

Not too long ago, Stanford’s winning formula started with dominating the line on both sides of the ball. On defense, the front seven got to the quarterback often and shut down the opposing run game. On offense, a fearsome line was essential for the team’s game plan, and in particular, the “mammoth” package defined Stanford’s offensive line group and set them apart from any other group in the nation.

Former Stanford center Brian Chaffin, who will play at Rice next year, described the formation for me in a recent interview.

Stanford v Oregon Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

“We try to get as many offensive linemen on the field as possible into tight splits to try to eliminate gaps for defenders to shoot through,” Chaffin said. “We can scheme up ways to take advantage of our tight splits and either force the ball one way, go over the top, or go through the defense.”

Historically, Stanford utilizes this formation on short yardage plays, typically on third or fourth down. Furthermore, David Shaw has shown in the past that he’s not afraid to bring out extra linemen even on long-distance situations.

A tweet from 2013 perfectly illustrates how defenses saw Stanford’s signature formation.

Though Stanford fans saw less of the mammoth package in 2018, it’s still alive and well in the Stanford football program.

Every Wednesday at the beginning and the end of practice, according to Chaffin, Stanford would practice the formation, which is quite a lot of dedicated practice time considering that the team only ran the formation once or twice a game.

Still, only running the formation once or twice a game in 2018 seemed like a drop of usage for David Shaw. Over the past two years, it appeared like David Shaw was hesitant to go for it on 4th and 1, not showing confidence in his lineman. On the other hand, maybe David Shaw opted against the formation not because he lacked confidence in his linemen, but rather because he lacked the offensive linemen to run the formation consistently.

“We had injuries this year, which made it hard to get a lot of lineman on the field because we just simply didn’t have enough guys, but we still tried to get it in as much as possible,” Chaffin recalled.

In particular, the senior leader Jesse Burkett, the young phenom Walker Little, the reliable Nate Herbig, and the highly-touted Foster Sarell all battled injuries throughout the year. The Cardinal never truly fielded a healthy line, and without depth up front, Stanford could not possibly run the mammoth package as often as they usually would.

Another possible factor for not calling the formation regularly could be the departure of Mike Bloomgren, who became the head coach for Rice last year. Bloomgren also brought multiple Stanford assistants with him, which was a major factor for Chaffin’s decision to transfer there. He noticed a difference between Bloomgren and the new offensive line coach Kevin Carberry.

“I think they are definitely different coaches in terms of how they operate,” he said. “They’re both really good coaches in their own aspect, but I think the biggest thing is how they go about practice. Coach Bloomgren focused a little bit more on schematics, and then Coach Carberry focused a little bit more on the details of the pass protection.”

Certainly, the team did need more pass protection compared to past years. With K.J. Costello behind center, the team threw 413 times, double the amount Kevin Hogan threw as a senior.

Chaffin believes that the change in the offense had to do with personnel, believing Costello will be a high draft pick one day and pointing towards Stanford’s talented receivers. Now, with the departure of JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Trenton Irwin, and Kaden Smith, Stanford has an identity crisis on their hands.

Tavita Pritchard will no longer be a rookie offensive coordinator, and Bryce Love leaves with the receiving core. KJ Costello does return next year as does the talented offensive line duo of Walker Little and Foster Sarell. The role of starting running back remains open.

My recommendation: return to power football.

Last season, I was an advocate of throwing the ball more and running less, but Chaffin made me realize Stanford will return to being subpar if they continue that trend. Power football gives Stanford an identity, setting them apart from the majority of college football teams.

For Stanford, that identity starts with the mammoth package. For one, it makes Stanford’s football program unique: Chaffin could not think of another program that runs a similar formation.

That formation is also essential for Stanford’s development of linemen. Why? Because it gives playing opportunities to younger guys, who would typically not see the field.

Chaffin pointed out, “The package allows guys who sometimes aren’t starters to get on the field. It gives people in-game experience that they might not otherwise see, and these guys take it very seriously, so I think it’s a very valuable package for developing linemen.”

What the mammoth package teaches young linemen is what NFL scouts crave to see in linemen out of college. It forces players to learn the four-point stance, a rarity in college football. It also teaches player patience and discipline. The package makes Stanford linemen better-rounded and more prepared as they transition to the pros.

For example, Chaffin was watching the recent Pro Bowl and recognized the terminology that the professional linemen used. The Pro Bowl also had two former Stanford linemen playing.

Power football is what got those Stanford linemen to the pros. It’s also what got Stanford to multiple Rose Bowls and Pac-12 Championships.

Chaffin recognized that the most successful team he played for was the 2016 team, which won the Rose Bowl after Christian McCaffrey set the game’s all-purpose yard record behind Joshua Garnett and Kyle Murphy.

The 102nd Rose Bowl Game - Iowa v Stanford Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

If Stanford hopes to return to Pasadena in January, they should look to reincorporate their signature mammoth package.