Finding the Right Balance
STANFORD, Calif. – There were times during the 2020 football season when the Stanford offense seemed in complete control – sustaining long drives to protect a lead, building a rally with a timely pass or run, mixing spectacular downfield plays with move-the-sticks short gains.
Over the final four games – all victories – in a 4-2 season, Stanford's offense returned to a balance that harkened to its most productive seasons. By the end, 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 (Davis Mills, 1,508 yards) projected over a 12-game schedule. Stanford reached the 1,000-1,000-3,000 plateau only once before, in 1978.
Even with Mills and Fehoko among seven offensive players who moved on to the NFL, Andrew Luck Director of Offense and Kevin M. Hogan Quarterbacks Coach Tavita Pritchard is hoping Stanford can build upon that balance this spring.
"There were stretches where we played really well," Pritchard said. "Now, it's about taking the next step as a unit, to do it consistently. That comes down to limiting mistakes by improving on techniques, on execution. It's making sure guys know their job, know the technique that's being asked of them, and going out and doing it."
Nine Stanford offensive linemen have been drafted since 2012, the most in the Pac-12. This year, left tackle Walker Little was selected by Jacksonville in the second round, center Drew Dalman was a fourth-round pick by Atlanta, and right tackle Foster Sarell was signed by Baltimore.
However, the Stanford offensive line appears more stable than it has in years, with three rising juniors who started every game last year – Branson Bragg at right guard, Walter Rouse at left tackle, and Barrett Miller at left guard. Sophomore Myles Hinton was 2020's Most Outstanding Freshman and a fixture in jumbo packages last year, junior Jake Hornibrook was an effective utility man in 2020 who started six games at right guard in 2019, and junior Drake Nugent is looking to make an impact, perhaps at center. There is enough experience and talent to make the line a foundation for everything else.
Branson Bragg. Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/ISIphotos.com.
With some linemen hobbled this spring, Pritchard has not been able to work with a full unit and many who are available are moving between guard and tackle and the left and right sides.
"It's a little bit of the silver lining about how things are working out right now," Pritchard said. "Some people are having to pull some double duty, with some crossover work and cross-training, which can be tougher on the front end, but ultimately could help those guys by learning and multiple positions and different footwork.
With these guys cross-training, we're not going to have as much hesitation about moving a guy from guard to the outside, because we've seen him do it. It really helps down the road that guys aren't locked in to one place."
Another important aspect of the spring is allowing new offensive line coach Terry Heffernan to jell with his players and bring his ideas and style to the offense. Heffernan is the only addition to one of the most stable staffs in the country. He brings 12 years of college coaching and five years of NFL experience, including the past two seasons with the Buffalo Bills as an assistant offensive line coach.
"The experience that exists in that room eases the transition of a new coach more than anything," Pritchard said. "I can sleep a little better knowing that transition is going to be led by five guys who are in their third year who have been here. They know what to expect, they know what's going to be asked of them, they know what gameday feels like. If it was all new, if there was a lot of youth and it's a new coach, that makes it really tough. But I think it eases that transition."
An extension of the line is the tight end position, where Stanford sent yet another graduate into the NFL. Six Stanford tight end alums played in the NFL season last season (Zach Ertz, Austin Hooper, Colby Parkinson, Dalton Schultz, Kaden Smith, and Levine Toilolo) and Scooter Harrington joins them as an undrafted free agent, signing with Chicago.
Tucker Fisk, who shared time with Harrington, returns and will be joined by sophomore Benjamin Yurosek, of whom Pritchard said, "He's got a chance to be one of the best ones we've had, all-around. He's going to really help us in the passing game, but he's no slouch in the running game, in blocking people. We're not going to hesitate putting him in on anything."
Benjamin Yurosek. Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/ISIphotos.com.
One might assume that the combination of a veteran line, a proven running back, and inexperience at quarterback, where Jack West and Tanner McKee are the frontrunners to assume Mills' spot, would dictate that Stanford will be run-heavy.
While the running game has defined the offense to some degree over the past decade-plus, Pritchard said that perception could help Stanford, because if teams load the box, Stanford would be happy to take advantage.
"You want to be able to attack the defense a myriad of ways," Pritchard said. "You want to be able to attack defenses where they're vulnerable, opposite of how they're trying to defend you. Even in the years where our personnel and scheme would say we need to be more run heavy, or vice versa, you still have to have that element on the other side.
"Balance is not necessarily like just numeric, saying we want to be 50-50 run to pass. Balance to me is the potential to attack on either side, the potential to run the football between the tackles, run the ball on the edge, run play-action, and then be able to drop back and pass it.
"This offense is really rooted in our ability to change plays at the line of scrimmage and get to a play based on what the best look is, with how a defense lines up. When you have a plan of attack like that, you're not just hoping for a good look on defense, you're actually training your guys to be able to go out there and attack a defense where it's most vulnerable."
And the Cardinal intends on doing just that.