Bruins looking to close with Clark
UCLA and Michigan are in a neck-and-neck battle for ESPN 300 tight end Chris Clark. And after visiting the Wolverines two weekends ago, Clark was in Los Angeles this weekend.
The future ??? pic.twitter.com/T0uVlzglpU— Chris Clark (@Clark8Chris) January 24, 2015
The Bruins also received some help from former UCLA and current Jacksonville Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis.
Clark would be a significant addition for either program, and the Bruins are hoping they can sway him into becoming the lone true tight end on the roster and a potential immediate-impact player.
UCLA also hosted LSU offensive line commit Maea Teuhema. The nation's No. 71 overall prospect has been committed to the Tigers since February, but the Bruins are looking to make the nation's No. 2 offensive guard part of their strong finish in the state of Texas.
Throw them 4's up!=;=; pic.twitter.com/pI9WdLM0br— TRISTAN. (@MaeaTeuhema) January 23, 2015
And although not from Texas -- but close enough -- ESPN 300 offensive guard Josh Wariboko could also be part of a massive closing stretch for UCLA. The No. 105 overall prospect was in Los Angeles for the B2G West Coast Bowl over the weekend and had an opportunity to spend time with UCLA commits Colin Samuel and Bolu Olorunfunmi.
Arizona State hosted ESPN 300 defenders Rasheem Green and Porter Gustin this weekend, and the Sun Devils look to be in competition with USC for both prospects.
While Arizona State hasn't been discussed much in terms of top classes during this recruiting cycle, Todd Graham's program has an opportunity to close in a big way with some impact prospects still on the board. And speaking of impact, Green had an opportunity during his visit to meet an NFL superstar who can make an impact with any recruit (regardless of the typo in his last name).
Oregon State's big weekend
Rasheem Green and JJ Wyatt just chillin in Arizona State. SFG. pic.twitter.com/BZs0uyU1bJ— Serrahighfootball (@Serrahighsfg) January 25, 2015
The new Oregon State coaches hit the ground running when they took over the program after Mike Riley took much of his staff with him to Nebraska. Gary Andersen's staff has reshaped much of the recruiting class and added a big one recently when they were able to flip defensive end Keivonnis Davis from his Syracuse commitment. Davis was on his official visit this weekend and took some time to get to know the Oregon State mascot.
Me&Benny pic.twitter.com/fEgD8SnEBF— 1Double_Stick1 (@keivonnis) January 24, 2015
Oregon State is also in on fellow defensive end Simi Moala, who holds offers from Miami, Utah and Washington State. At 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds, Moala is an intriguing prospect along the defensive line.
The Golden Bears have done well at the wide receiver spot in this class, but head coach Sonny Dykes obviously feels there can't be enough talent at that position on his roster. High three-star Texas receiver A.D. Miller took an official visit to Cal over the weekend and had a simple question for Golden Bears fans.
Utes host commit
Do I look good in gold & blue? =›=™=; pic.twitter.com/fSoNc9i5IF— A.D. Miller (@Admiller_9) January 25, 2015
Part of Oregon State's recent run on the recruiting trail has come at the expense of Utah, as former Ute assistant coaches made their way to Corvallis and were able to flip two commitments in the process. But Utah still holds a strong class, especially with the recent flip of former Cal commit Johnny Capra. The offensive tackle makes four nice additions at that position for the Utes, including three-star Arizona prospect Nick Carman, who took his official visit to Utah over the weekend.
California Golden Bears
The attack hasn't attained perfection yet -- it gave up 27 sacks, after all -- but there's no question that it's the strong link of this Cal program, and that it's on the right track. Grade: A-
Defense: After an absolutely horrendous injury-plagued 2013, Cal's defense had nowhere to go but up. They improved, but likely not as much as Dykes would have hoped after replacing defensive coordinator Andy Buh with Art Kaufman. The Golden Bears allowed a conference-worst 46 points per game in 2013, and they remained in the cellar this past season, but they did improve that figure to 39.8 points per game. The run defense showed significant improvement, yielding under four yards per carry for the first time since 2011. At the end of the day, though, poor tackling was still a massive issue for the Bears, and it was ultimately the primary culprit responsible for keeping Cal out of the postseason. Grade: D-
Special Teams: Cal managed to get a special teams coordinator fired, so that counts as something. That happened after Trevor Davis housed two kickoffs in one quarter at Washington State. Aside from above-average kick-return numbers, Cal's special teams efficiency hovered around the national average. The Bears' punt coverage improved in 2014. Grade: B-
Overall: Cal made the jump from 1-11 to 5-7 in 2014. The failure to attain bowl eligibility at season's end generated some disappointment, but it certainly didn't extinguish the overall vibe of improvement. The Bears can now take comfort in the fact that they have a very good offense that will likely continue to improve in Goff's third season. The defense is still holding things back, though. Matters must improve on that side of the ball for Cal to become a bowl team again. Next season is big. Goff is a special talent, and it would be a pity if his entire college career was overshadowed by a porous defense. Grade: B-
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To the notes!
Andrew from Phoenix writes: Can this post-season please put to bed this obsession with "ranking" conferences? Here we are, a week after the season is ended, and we're debating whether the Pac-12 or SEC is the best conference in college football. For what it's worth they are 1 and 2, yet, the representatives of those conferences went 1-5 in the big games. So, then what is it really worth? The Big XII took an absolute nosedive as a whole, yet TCU had the second best postseason of all teams, and will be ranked in the Top 5 to start the season. Florida St got ragged all season for being in the "weak" ACC, whose #2 and #3 teams put an absolute shellacking on comparable teams from "stronger" conferences. The Big 10 is allegedly "back" after going 5-5 in the bowl season, but they only have 3 teams in the whole conference (Ohio St, Michigan St, and Wisconsin) with a prayer of finishing above 5th in the Pac South. Didn't seem to hurt Ohio St much against Oregon, did it? So, please try to convince me why it matters that Wisconsin beat Auburn, Stanford smoked Maryland, and Clemson crushed Oklahoma.
Ted Miller: To your first question, the answer is no. No, we can not put to bed this "obsession with 'ranking" conferences."
For one, it's necessary in college football, because we have to make subjective distinctions between teams that don't play each other. Whether it's the traditional national polls, the BCS system, or our new College Football Playoff, we have to rank teams, and how the conferences perform is one of the best ways -- the best way? -- we can do that.
Is it an exact science? No. Is it a way of conducting business that is laden with potential for bias and agenda? Absolutely.
Some, by the way, might argue that very subjectivity, an inescapable historical fact of college football, is one of the reasons the sport is so popular with its fans. Without an objective system -- such as large-scale playoffs used in pro sports -- a cherished U.S. institution therefore flourishes in college football: Endless, blathering debate, fueled by paranoia and manufactured offenses and cherry-picked "facts!"
It's a beautiful thing.
Another cherished institution is part of this: Regionalism. Due to the serendipity of a fan's or, often, a media member's birth location, that region becomes the source of all that is good and accomplished, and every other region is inferior, no matter how informed said fan or media member is on said other region. We all know from our present political reality that actually knowing stuff no longer matters and, in fact, can be a burden when debating with a louder and more pithy interlocutor.
But, hey, I'm not a scientist!
So the SEC fan thinks the Pac-12 is soft, and the Pac-12 fan thinks the Big Ten is slow, and the Big Ten fan things the Big 12 is finesse, and the Big 12 fan thinks the ACC is a basketball league, and the ACC fan thinks the SEC is overrated, etc., etc.
It. Will. Never. End.
And for that I am thankful.
Robert from New York writes: I've seen a lot of hype around USC for next season, and I'm not really sold on why. USC had a losing record against the Pac-12 South in 2014, including a blowout loss to UCLA. They're losing key players on both sides of the ball, and have a coach who has never won more than eight regular season games. Are sportswriters getting excited because they want a brand-name school to be elite, or am I missing something?
Ted Miller: Robert, you sound like some of my Pac-12 blogmates, so you are not alone in voicing some skepticism with the Trojans.
My case leads with this: Among its 16 returning position-player starters, USC welcomes back the most experienced, accomplished quarterback in the conference, Cody Kessler, and he will be playing behind an offensive line that will be the best in the Pac-12 (And USC fans should take heart for that 2016 opener against Alabama, because that should be an epic battle at the line of scrimmage between the Trojans and Crimson Tide). That offensive line welcomes back all five starters, led by senior, first-team-All-Pac-12 center Max Tuerk, as well has a good crew of backups.
Sure, there are some big hits, particularly with early departures, such as defensive end Leonard Williams, receiver Nelson Agholor, and runing back Javorius Allen. USC is going to need some young guys to step up. But finding ready-to-play youngsters is rarely a problem for USC, and, oh by the way, Steve Sarkisian is well on his way to signing what could end up a top-five class.
It will also help that Trojans should be well into the 70s in terms of scholarship players next fall. Though they won't get close to the maximum 85 scholarship players permitted by NCAA rules in their first post-sanctions season, they will be far above the 60 or so they played with in 2014. This will be a much deeper team in Sarkisian's second season.
As for doubting Sark, that's not unreasonable. No, he hasn't won a national title or a conference title, or even 10 games in a season. Yes, there were some times during his first season in which the Trojans seemed poorly prepared, poorly motivated, and poorly coached. You, by the way, could also say the same about Oregon. And Ohio State and Alabama, which went 7-6 and lost to UL Monroe in Nick Saban's first year in Tuscaloosa.
But, from today's vantage point, USC looks like the team with the fewest big questions in the Pac-12, though UCLA and Oregon could quickly counter with impressive clarity at quarterback.
I wouldn't be surprised if the Trojans are in the CFP discussion late into the 2015 season.
Does the USC "brand" play a role in that perception? Probably. But brand names have been pretty good bets over the long haul in college football.
Michael from Corvallis, Ore., writes: With Gary Andersen's staff poaching several assistants and recruits from Utah, not to mention two consecutive games going into OT, is there a chance Utah-Oregon State becomes an actual rivalry?
Ted Miller: Maybe, but it won't be because of any ill-will between the coaching staffs. Andersen and Utah coach Kyle Whittingham are extremely close -- both have said that to me within the past calendar year, Whittingham just a few weeks ago.
Whittingham also doesn't begrudge defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake jumping to Oregon State, because he knows it was a wise move professionally in the short and long term, particularly if Sitaki wants to be a head coach, which he does. Sitake needs to spread his wings outside of what had become a comfort zone in Salt Lake.
Further, being in different divisions, the Utes and Beavers will have a two-year hiatus coming up as the schedule rotates in 2017-2018.
Utah's chief rival remains BYU. Hard to believe that will change anytime soon, and it will be good to see the renewal of the Holy War in 2016. The Utes will develop Pac-12 rivalries, particularly in the South Division. But it will take time for ill-will and turf-wars to develop.
But Michael, if Utah/Oregon State is particularly annoying you, have at those dastardly Utes/Beavers (don't want to assume your preference just because you live in Corvallis).
Wayne from Mesa, Ariz., writes: With the 2014-15 Bowl Season all wrapped up, I was wondering what your thoughts were and what feedback you may have heard with regard to the new bowl lineup for the PAC-12. Granted, it was more of a tweak over the previous 4 years, but still featured new venues (Santa Clara and Tempe), new opponents (2 Big Ten teams), a slight change in the pecking order (Sun Bowl moved down, Foster Farms up), and of course, altered timing to allow for the New Year's Six. I attended the Sun Bowl, cheering on the Sun Devils. The local fan turnout and community support for that game in El Paso was very impressive! I am a bit concerned about the on-going PAC-12 fan support and enthusiasm for the Cactus Bowl. One wonders if this looks like just a late season PAC-12 road game. Local Phoenix news featured mostly Oklahoma State stories, and thank goodness the Big 12 team once again brought a big group of fans and much excitement to Tempe.
Ted Miller: The Pac-12 bowl lineup is about as good as it can be. Pretty nice mix of games against the ACC, Big Ten, and Big 12. Certainly the Pac-12 bowls have upgraded under commissioner Larry Scott.
I know some grumble about the bowl lineup. They want a matchup with an SEC team or a bowl game in Florida, but the SEC has a great bowl lineup, and Florida doesn't have much interest in bringing a Pac-12 team across the country. It's a choice of the marketplace, not due to managerial incompetence with the Pac-12 or some conspiracy of forces to keep the Pac-12 down.
Of course, if there's a business person on the West Coast who wants to offer up a $5 million per-team payout to lure a top SEC team across the country for a new bowl game against a Pac-12 team, I'm sure the SEC and Pac-12 would listen.
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Despite that progress, the Buffs still lacked explosiveness. They averaged a Pac-12-worst 5.3 yards per play. That's a figure that should improve as the talent and conditioning level in Boulder climbs the ladder. Grade: C-
Defense: Mike MacIntyre's rebuilding task is certainly no cakewalk, and that fact may be best illustrated by Colorado's weak run defense. The final conference stats are very indicative of a team not yet on the physical level of its peers: The Buffs allowed 5.6 yards per rushing attempt while the next worst Pac-12 school (Oregon State) was over a yard better at 4.6 per carry. Colorado didn't enjoy nearly as much improvement on the defensive side of the ball between 2013 and 2014 as it did on the offensive end: The Buffs only allowed 1.2 fewer points per game this past season. Needless to say, this is a huge offseason for sports performance director Dave Forman, who is tasked with molding a roster that's physically capable of keeping up with an offensively powerful conference. Colorado gave up a league-worst 6.5 yards per play in 2014. Grade: F
Special teams: Will Oliver enjoyed a solid year kicking (16-for-21 field goals) and Darragh O'Neill's 44.1 yard punting average was third best in the Pac-12. Plus, O'Neill has slick hands for a punter, as he proved in the East-West Shrine Game. Count that as a bit of extra credit for the Buffs, who registered otherwise mediocre numbers in special teams efficiency ratings.
Overall: In 2013, Colorado lost Pac-12 games by an average score of 44-20. In 2014, it closed the margin to 43-29. The Buffs might have taken a step back in the win column (their 2013 victory over Cal turned into a 59-56 double overtime loss this season), but there certainly is reason to believe the operation is heading in the right direction. Whereas MacIntyre's first year rarely saw a competitive game, 2014 saw plenty of them: the aforementioned heartbreaker at Cal, another double overtime 40-37 loss to UCLA, a 36-31 setback to Oregon State, and a 38-34 defeat at the hands of Utah. A team that finishes winless in conference play while losing twice in double overtime deserves some pity, so we'll spare the Buffs from a failing grade. But next season is MacIntyre's third in Boulder, so they'd better start turning those close losses into wins. Grade: D
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At face value, those two components seem to be incompatible, especially since there's very little room for an infusion of fresh talent, as the Cardinal return almost all pieces of the very same offense that struggled throughout most of 2014.
But this evaluation -- and the outlook for next season -- is more complex than that. A lack of talent isn't the real issue; this particular Stanford situation is more about the team's ability to properly maximize its productivity, something that eventually happened last season after the Cardinal had lost five games.
Quarterback Kevin Hogan salvaged his season with three strong closing performances against California, UCLA, and Maryland. The journey was likely more difficult than anyone on the outside realized: Hogan's father had been suffering from illness throughout the course of the season and passed away in early December.
Stanford's successful final act might not convince the naysayers -- only five teams nationally surrendered more points than Cal, while UCLA and Maryland also didn't feature true defensive juggernauts -- but it represented a massive turnaround from the team's struggles during the first 10 games of the season.
Stanford had struggled to adapt to their lack of a power running back, but the staff finally achieved rushing success with smaller -- yet more explosive -- weapons. In the closing run, true freshman Christian McCaffrey enjoyed at least five field-stretching plays per game (12 against UCLA), and Remound Wright shouldered the load near the goal line to address a red-zone efficiency problem, scoring nine of his 11 touchdowns in the final three games.
With the running game revived, Hogan was able to rediscover success off playaction. His stellar 16-for-19, 234-yard performance against the Bruins sparked a 180-degree reversal of narrative entering the offseason: Stanford's offense could survive without a 220-plus pound power back, after all.
Now, it must be noted that the 31-10 pummeling of UCLA was the only game in which Stanford's offense enjoyed real success against a top-25 team. Their scoring output that afternoon was 21 points above their season average in regulation against ranked opponents. Conventional wisdom warns us to be wary of a potential one-game fluke, but the offense's success was built on a stable foundation that can be replicated in the future.
Proof of that lies in the ground attack: The Cardinal amassed over 200 yards rushing in the last three games after not reaching that threshold a single time throughout the first 10. For a run-first offense, that helps generate balanced, methodical success.
Moving forward, it's about being consistently efficient.
The Cardinal still boast a powerful line capable of dominating at the point of attack to go along with versatile weapons that can create match-up headaches on the outside. It's about properly utilizing that talent, and a confident Hogan gives Stanford a chance to do that.
Here's an early, pre-spring practice, position-by-position look at likely starters and key pieces for the Cardinal offense next season:
Starter: Kevin Hogan
Reserves: Keller Chryst, Ryan Burns, Evan Crower
Outlook: David Shaw has all but indicated that Hogan will be Stanford's starter in his fifth year on campus. The coach has frequently praised Crower, last season's second-stringer, for his command of the playbook, but one would expect Chryst, a highly regarded redshirt freshman, to emerge as the primary backup. One interesting question here: Will Shaw insert Chryst into the lineup in an occasional package role? That's how Hogan got his feet wet in 2012.
RB: Remound Wright/Barry Sanders
ATH: Christian McCaffrey, Kelsey Young
FB: Patrick Skov, Daniel Marx
Outlook: Wright might only weigh about 200 pounds, but he did serious damage in short-yardage situations at the end of 2014. There's solid mix-and-match potential here with McCaffrey's explosiveness, Sanders' elusiveness, and Young's pure speed, but Stanford can't get carried away with a by-committee approach. As the end of last season showed, McCaffrey needs to get touches for this offense to thrive -- a lot of them.
X WR: Devon Cajuste
Z WR: Michael Rector/Francis Owusu
Y TE: Austin Hooper
F TE: Eric Cotton/Greg Taboada
Outlook: Stanford loses Ty Montgomery, one of the Pac-12's most dangerous weapons. But the Cardinal excelled without him in the final three games, a testament to the match-up nightmare Cajuste (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) presents in conjunction with Rector's speed. The tight end position emerged late, too, and should make its full return for Stanford next season: Don't forget that Dalton Schultz, the nation's top tight end prospect in the 2014 class, will likely break into the mix, too.
LT: Kyle Murphy
LG: Joshua Garnett
C: Graham Shuler
RG: Johnny Caspers
RT: Casey Tucker
Outlook: Andrus Peat is gone, and Stanford will plug another former five-star recruit (Tucker) into his spot. Murphy's versatility might encourage Mike Bloomgren to shift him to Peat's old spot on the left side (protecting Hogan's blindside), and Tucker would grab the right tackle spot in that case -- but that's just a guess heading into spring practice.
To check out the rest of the list, click here.
No. 1: Oregon QB Marcus Mariota
Statistics: 304-445, 4,454 passing yards, 42 passing touchdowns, 4 interceptions
It should come as no surprise that the Heisman Trophy winner (Maxwell Award winner, Davey O'Brien Award winner, Walter Camp Award winner, etc.) is the No. 1 player in the Pac-12 this season. He led the nation with an adjusted QBR of 90.8 (and was the only signal-caller to have better than an 86). His TD:INT ratio of 21:2 also was an FBS-best this season, as was his passer efficiency rating of 181.7. Behind a depleted and constantly adjusting offensive line, he was cool and collected and made use of a group of playmakers that really didn't have a ton of experience. On the ground, he added 135 carries for 770 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns.
No. 2: Arizona LB Scooby Wright
Statistics: 163 total tackles, 29 TFL, 14 sacks, 6 forced fumbles
Wright -- the Bronko Nagurski Award winner and the Lombardi Award winner -- led the conference with 163 total tackles (99 solo, 64 assisted) while averaging a sack per game. He also forced a Pac-12-best six fumbles. Wright is the only member of this season's top five who will return in 2015, making him the early front-runner for the No. 1 spot after the 2015 season.
No. 3: Utah DE Nate Orchard
Statistics: 84 tackles, 21 TFL, 18.5 sacks, 2 QBH
There might not be another player in the Pac-12 who made as big of a jump on defense as Orchard did. As a junior he registered 50 total tackles, including nine tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks. His tackles for loss and sack numbers more than doubled over the past season as he faced even stiffer competition. The Utah defense became one of the biggest storylines of the season, thanks in large part to Orchard and his pass-rushing ability. With the Utes offense struggling and becoming more one-dimensional (due to injury) as the season went on, the defense became even more important and Orchard continued to step up. His presence will be sorely missed by Kyle Whittingham, but his mark on the Utah program is one that will last a very long time.
No. 4: USC DE Leonard Williams
Statistics: 80 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 7 sacks, 1 interception, 1 QBH
Williams, one of the nation's top NFL draft prospects, had a terrific junior season at USC. He missed some time due to injury but was still one of the most feared defensive players in a league stocked full of quarterback talent. He has the talent to play anywhere on the defensive line, which will make his pro career an interesting one, but his college career was one that won't be forgotten soon. Williams tallied 218 tackles, including 36.5 for loss, with 21 sacks.
No. 5: Washington LB Shaq Thompson
Statistics: 61 carries, 456 rushing yards, 2 rushing touchdowns | 81 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 interception
This winter, Thompson won the Paul Hornung Award, given to the nation's most versatile player, and rightfully so. He was a playmaker on both the offensive and the defensive side of the ball for the Huskies. He scored six touchdowns -- two rushing, one interception return and three fumble returns. Thompson finished the year as a first-team All-American, as well as becoming the first player to become a double honoree as a first-team All-Pac-12 player on both defense and special teams. Filling Thompson's shoes is going to be one tough task for Chris Petersen. It's pretty rare that one player can fill so many needs, but Petersen will now have to look for someone (or, to be realistic, two to three someones) to do the work that Thompson did alone.
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Call it, Friendo.
Two quotes today... because Happy Friday.
In case you suffer from football withdrawals at any point this weekend, take solace in the fact that plenty of elite college talent will be suiting up for the Reese's Senior Bowl this Saturday. The Pac-12 is sending an entire gaggle of representatives to this game. Most will be representing the North team, but UCLA's Anthony Jefferson and Owamagbe Odighizuwa will play for the South.
There'll be a nasty collection of defensive line talent on the North team: Think Danny Shelton, Henry Anderson, Hau'oli Kikaha, and Nate Orchard -- all on the same unit. Seeing that group play together should create a fun dynamic for avid Pac-12 fans who have watched those players terrorize quarterbacks over the past few seasons.
On the other side of the ball, Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion may have a chance to throw to receivers from Stanford (Ty Montgomery) and Washington State (Vince Mayle).
Other Pac-12 representatives: Hayes Pullard and Josh Shaw (USC), Eric Rowe (Utah), Damarious Randle and Jamil Douglas (ASU)
This one will feature plenty of hustle, as it's the final live game opportunity for these seniors to raise their NFL Draft stock.
- Let's check in on former Arizona star Rob Gronkowski in the buildup to the Super Bowl. Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane doesn't think he's that good. #BulletinBoard
- Building smarter stadiums is a goal of the future, and ASU is part of the effort.
- There's a smattering of not-so-good Cal recruiting news here, including word of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh taking a look at a current Golden Bear commit.
- Colorado's season will begin two days earlier than planned -- at Hawaii on Thursday, September 3.
- FishDuck.com delivers a nice Oregon recruiting update regarding official visits.
- New Oregon State coach Gary Andersen told Sports Illustrated that he left Wisconsin because of his frustrations with that university's admissions standards.
- Stanford basketball added backup Stanford football offensive tackle Nick Davidson to its roster. The 6-foot-7, 288-pounder did not see action in Thursday's game against Arizona.
- Who'll replace Brett Hundley as UCLA's starting quarterback? A true freshman named Josh Rosen is one option. There's more here.
- An interview with USC athletic director Pat Haden, who says the arrow is pointing up for Trojan football.
- A column that will make Ute fans smile: BYU football falling behind Utah.
- Chris Petersen is having some success on the recruiting trail. He tweeted the signature #Woof after the Huskies netted a four-star commitment.
- Did Washington State defensive lineman Xavier Cooper leave for the NFL draft too soon? Cougfan.com has its take.
Did you know Ronnie Lott played basketball at USC? That guy needs to be on the football team. Sign him up!
Stanford led the Pac-12 by sizable margins in every single noteworthy defensive category. The unit surrendered a measly 4.2 yards per play, a full yard better than the second-best defense in the conference. The 16.4 points per game that the team yielded: over a full touchdown better than the league runner-up.
Simply put, the Cardinal posted certifiably eye-popping numbers on the defensive end in 2014, and a brief look at this production doesn't seem to reconcile with the team's five losses. The defense delivered a championship-caliber campaign, but for most of the season, Stanford's offense and special teams didn't hold up their ends of the bargain.
This reality surprised many. Given the aforementioned loss of star power entering 2014, a popular preseason notion centered around the idea that the Stanford offense would have to up its productivity to pick up the slack for the team's projected looming defensive decay. That theory, of course, ended up falling flat on its face: The defense statistically improved -- so there was no slack to pick up -- and that actually saved Stanford from a truly precipitous fall, because the offense took sizable steps backward.
Moving forward to 2015, the Cardinal defense must replace eight starters. That conjures the money question: Is history repeating itself? When it comes to Stanford's future outlook, that familiar "the offense is going to have carry the weight" theory is resurfacing. There's a prevailing thought that the Cardinal defense will finally slip under the weight of turnover.
But since Anderson's unit so deftly shook off the losses of Murphy, Skov & Co. -- some of the best players in program history -- it might be time to entertain the notion that Stanford has become a defensive factory, a program that's discovered the elusive combination of right-fit recruiting and schematic effectiveness that unlocks consistency on the field even through turnover.
That notion -- we'll call it the "system defense theory" -- will be put to the test in 2015. Here's an early position-by-position look at how the puzzle pieces may come together for Stanford's defense. Remember that this is a very early look at projected starters and that spring practice should help add some clarity to the currently murky situation.
DE: Luke Kaumatule/Solomon Thomas
NT: Aziz Shittu/Harrison Phillips/Alex Yazdi
DE: Nate Lohn/Jordan Watkins
Outlook: For those who contend that Stanford's defense will suffer a drop-off in 2015, this is the position group that provides the most ammunition. The defensive line has been the foundational pillar of the Cardinal's dominant 3-4 defense, and this is the first time in several years that the program has had to replace all three starters up front. Six-foot-6 end Henry Anderson was one of the best players in the Pac-12, and nose tackle David Parry's block-gobbling 305-pound man strength was the centerpiece of the Stanford defense. When Parry and backup Aziz Shittu were both hurt this past season, the Cardinal's weakness showed: 255-pound true freshman Harrison Phillips was forced into action at the nose, and that 50-pound downgrade sent shockwaves throughout the defense.
The ability of sports performance director Shannon Turley to develop Parry's replacement may be Stanford's most critical battle this offseason: The early favorite to start here is the versatile Shittu, but it may be a by-committee effort. The Cardinal need the 6-foot-7, 276-pound Kaumatule to seize his potential in 2015.
OLB Kevin Anderson
ILB Blake Martinez
ILB Kevin Palma/Noor Davis
OLB Peter Kalambayi
Outlook: A.J. Tarpley and James Vaughters are gone, but Stanford has recruited and developed the linebacker position extremely well. Vaughters' graduation means more time for Kalambayi, one of the most talented speed rushers in the Pac-12. Anderson has also developed into a force. Plenty of developing talents should have a shot to earn valuable playing time in the linebacker corps -- remember the names of Mike Tyler, Bobby Okereke and Joey Alfieri.
CB Wayne Lyons
FS Zach Hoffpauir
SS Kodi Whitfield/Dallas Lloyd
CB Ronnie Harris/Terrence Alexander
Outlook: Given Alex Carter's early departure at the opposite corner position, Lyons' return for a fifth year was a big boost. His versatility allows him to slide over and provide a physical nickelback presence, an essential tool of the Stanford defense. Replacing strong safety Jordan Richards will be a major challenge. The Cardinal signed many talented defensive backs in their 2013 recruiting class. That batch will have had a year of development under their belts by 2015, so keep an eye out for names like Alexander, Brandon Simmons, Denzel Franklin, Alijah Holder, and Alameen Murphy. This is a critical "bridge" year for Duane Akina's unit, which has a very fair share of potential firepower.
Offense: Oregon finished third in the nation, averaging 547 yards per game. With Hesiman winner Marcus Mariota leading the attack, the Ducks were very difficult to stop. He led the nation with an adjusted QBR of 90.8 and threw 42 touchdowns and just four interceptions (really, we shouldn't even count that Hail Mary throw at the end of the title game that was intercepted). Outside of Mariota, weapons emerged amongst the youth of the Ducks. Freshman running back Royce Freeman became the first true freshman in Oregon history to rush for 1,000 yards (1,365 yards, 18 touchdowns), former running back Byron Marshall became more of a slot receiver but caused havoc for opposing defenses with his multiple skills (74 receptions, 1,003 receiving yards, six receiving touchdowns, 52 rushing attempts, 392 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown) and freshman Charles Nelson burst from special teams star to offensive weapon. All of this happened behind an offensive line that saw a new lineup in nearly every game. Though Oregon finished as the runner-up this season, the offense did put up an FBS-best 681 points during the 2014-15 season. Grade: A.
Defense: This is a group that saw its ups and downs. For the most part, the prolific Oregon offense was able to make up for any gaffe the defense might make, but it eventually caught up to the Ducks when they met a defense that was able to slow Oregon's offense (Ohio State). The Ducks gave up 429.7 yards per game this season, but in their two losses that number jumped to 516.5. In their two losses they gave up 53.1 percent of third-down conversion attempts and 80 percent of fourth-down conversion attempts. It's a difficult system, and it took the players a little longer to catch on this season, but in the final month of Pac-12 play and in the Rose Bowl presented by Northwestern Mutual, the Ducks seemed to be full-steam ahead. The defense was clicking and creating opportunities and turnovers, looking like a grade-A group. But that horrible performance against Ezekiel Elliott and Ohio State is troubling, making the grade drop a bit. Against the Buckeyes, Oregon didn't look physical at all and couldn't keep the Buckeyes in front of them. Grade: B+ (overall ... against Ohio State is another story).
Special teams: Oregon's special teams played well this season. Nelson used special teams as a place to show what he could mean to this team, and that alone gives the special teams a bump here. Following kickoffs, opponents needed to travel 75.2 yards to get to the end zone (20th nationally), but on punt returns opponents started about 68 yards from their end zone (106th nationally). The Ducks returned two punts for touchdowns (no kickoffs were returned for touchdowns) and six of Oregon's 27 punt returns went for at least 20 yards. Grade: B+.
Overall: It's hard to look at this group as a whole. The defense had more struggles than the offense, but as a team -- as a whole -- Mark Helfrich's group was pretty well-oiled. The Ducks made the inaugural College Football Playoff and knocked off the reigning champion before playing one of their less physical games of the season in the title game. The kind of consistency needed to go 13-2 is hard to come by, and this team was one that really brought a lot of eyes to the Pac-12. Grade: A.