Football Notebook: Looking Forward
A YEAR AGO, Stanford football was a month from spring practice with no idea of the pandemic to come.
In that relative bliss, the biggest questions concerned new starting quarterback Davis Mills and a return to run-game prowess. The abbreviated season revealed positive outcomes in both areas, with Mills brilliant as a senior in his first full season as a starter and the running game vital to a season-closing four-game winning streak.
The big question this year is spring practice itself, pushed back until May when Stanford anticipates a subsiding pandemic will allow a full spring session. In 2020, Stanford completed the first of two seven practice sessions, before a campus-wide shutdown forced the cancelation of the rest.
This year, the quarterback position again will be key. While the graduating Mills is preparing for the NFL Draft, rising senior Jack West and rising sophomore Tanner McKee are expected to compete for the vacated spot.
"We need a guy who can come in now and run the show, get the ball down the field with deep and intermediate passes, get us out of the bad plays and into the good plays," said David Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. "The competition is not going to be decided in the spring. It'll most likely go through training camp.
"I feel good about where we are schematically offensively with relation to who we have on the team. We've got a lot of upperclassmen who are counting on having a great year individually and collectively, and the quarterback's a big part of that. I'm excited for the competition."
Jack West. Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/ISIphotos.com.
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FOR THE FIRST time, spring practice will include early enrollees. Ari Patu, a quarterback from Folsom (Calif.) High and Jaden Slocum, a cornerback from Alpharetta (Ga.) High, met the criteria set by the admissions department with oversight from president Marc Tessier-Lavigne and provost Persis Drell, as well as Jaquish & Kenninger Director of Athletics Bernard Muir.
Stanford had been alone among Power Five schools in not allowing early enrollees.
"We've talked about this for years, Can we do it? Should we do it?" Shaw said. "We're not followers here at Stanford. If we're going to do something, it's going to be done the Stanford way and not anybody else's way."
Shaw hopes to see the process continue.
"All kinds of people are really taking a look at this and hopefully we can get to the point where this is productive for everybody involved and something we can repeat in the future," Shaw said. "I don't ever envision the entire class coming in early, but we're feeling comfortable about the two young men coming in and in building a process that makes sense for them and for Stanford."
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SHAW WAS A redshirt sophomore receiver in 1992 when Stanford opened the second phase of the Bill Walsh era with a 10-7 loss to Texas A&M at the Pigskin Classic in Anaheim Stadium, home of the Los Angeles Rams. It remains the only time Stanford has played a season opener at a neutral site in an NFL stadium.
That will change when the Cardinal opens the 2021 season on Sept. 4 against Kansas State at the Allstate Kickoff Classic at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, home of the Dallas Cowboys.
The game was supposed to be the back end of a home-and-home against the Wildcats, who lost to the Christian McCaffrey-led Cardinal, 26-13, in the 2016 opener at Stanford Stadium. But this was too good to pass up for both teams.
"We've had opportunities in the past to participate in one of these," Shaw said, but adding to an annual schedule that already includes Notre Dame and nine Pac-12 games was too difficult to work through, though the Cardinal did open 2017 with a 62-7 rout of Rice in Sydney, Australia.
The Cowboys' stadium has an 80,000-seat capacity, a retractable roof, and one of the largest high-definition video screens in the world. Shaw calls it "one of the athletic wonders of the world," and a special treat for the 10 Texas players on the roster.
"I'm excited and looking forward to the opportunity to play early in the season on such a great stage," Shaw said.
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STANFORD'S PRO DAY will take on added importance without the annual NFL Combine in Indianapolis, canceled because of COVID-19.
A lack of an NFL Combine is "good and bad," Shaw said. "The bad being, our guys have typically performed well at the Combine. We train them extremely well and we knock it out of the park in the interview process, which showcases the maturity that this place helps them with.
"But the good also is, we've got a great facility and have had really good pro days here. The NFL scouts trust our process, they know that our field is regulation and our timing is real, and they know our guys will show up and perform."
Mills, now training in Georgia, is among those expected to take part.
No date has been set. Stanford is waiting for when pro scouts would be allowed to attend. If that can't happen, Pro Day will take place virtually, with film sent to scouts and organizations. The NFL Draft is April 29-May 1.
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Austin Jones. Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/ISIphotos.com.
STANFORD HIT A perfect run-pass balance as the 2020 season drew to a close, particularly in the 48-47 overtime finale over UCLA that concluded a 4-2 campaign.
Through six games, the Cardinal was on pace to have a 1,000-yard rusher (Austin Jones, 559 yards), 1,000-yard receiver (Simi Fehoko, 574 yards), and 3,000-yard passer (Mills, 1,508 yards). The figures seem even more attainable assuming Stanford would have played in a bowl, driving the number of games to 13. Also consider that Mills' 1,500 figure was achieved in only five games.
The only time Stanford reached the 1,000-1,000-3,000 plateau in the same season was 1978. Darrin Nelson rushed for 1,161 yards, Ken Margerum had 1,029 in receptions, and Steve Dils passed for 3,153. That team, coached by Walsh, went 8-4 and rallied to a stunning 25-22 victory over Georgia in the Blubonnet Bowl in Houston's Astrodome.
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DESPITE THE ADVERSITY of COVID-related training limitations that included only one home game and three weeks living out of suitcases, Shaw felt the 2020 season was "one of the more remarkable experiences in the history of Stanford football," he said.
"To perform at such a high level with all that was going on, it's a memory they'll cherish forever," Shaw said. "In times of difficulty, you want to perform as a person, as a player, as a student in such a way when you look back and you say, 'I'm glad I handled things that way.'
"I'm really proud of what they did individually and what we did collectively. In the last few weeks, they had every reason in the world to pack it in, and our guys handled it. We have so much to be proud of and so much to be grateful for – for the opportunity, for our administration, our doctors, trainers, operations, operations staff … just allowing guys to have the opportunity to play the sport that they love."