Stanford Cardinal football coach David Shaw believes in his roster, but knows they must prove themselves, and quickly.
The Cardinal, preseason Pacific-12 Conference favorites and No. 7 in the national preseason coaches' poll, will feature a brand-new starting quarterback and a new-look offensive line. They have little time to gel, as after their schedule opens with unranked Kansas State and a bye, Stanford begins Pac-12 play by facing ranked teams in USC, UCLA and Washington.
"I think we have a chance to be a good team, but we're a team in flux," Shaw said, according to The Associated Press.
A heralded Stanford player who's not new, or "in flux," is reigning Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey, son of former Stanford and NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, is a triple-threat virtuoso as a rusher, receiver and kick returner.
Stanford entered fall camp undecided about its starting quarterback with junior Ryan Burns and sophomore Keller Chryst the top contenders. Burns and Chryst didn't have much of a chance to play with Kevin Hogan starting and have thrown less than 10 collegiate passes combined.
"It's who is more ready to play the majority of snaps, and by the end of spring it was impossible to tell," Shaw said.
Besides the quarterback play of Hogan and current Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, Stanford has made its mark under Shaw and former coach Jim Harbaugh with menacing offensive lines. But the Cardinal are now without all-conference left tackle Kyle Murphy and Outland Trophy winner and left guard Joshua Garnett. And in the winter, starting center Graham Shuler announced that he's retiring from football. There are two returning starters: left tackle Casey Tucker and right guard Johnny Casper.
Stanford's defense is led up front by junior lineman Solomon Thomas, who had 37 tackles, including 10.5 for a loss, 3.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries in 2015.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Whether Stanford vies for a Pac-12 championship and a high-level bowl game may be determined by the schedule gauntlet awaiting in September. Stanford begins the month with a nonconference home game against unranked Kansas State on Sept. 2 and then gets some rest with a bye on Sept. 10. The Cardinal then entertains No. 17 USC, travels to Pasadena to play No. 24 UCLA on Sept. 24 and concludes the tough stretch with a Friday night game against No. 18 Washington on Sept. 30 in Seattle.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: Stanford must do everything it can to replicate McCaffrey's 2015 campaign. While Hogan is gone, Shaw's guidance remains, as does McCaffrey's phenomenal versatility and athleticism. If the offensive linemen can learn quickly, and Chryst and/or Burns protect the football, it's possible. On defense, it's up to outside linebackers Peter Kalambayi (42 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Joey Alfieri (31.5 tackles, 3.5 sacks) to protect the edges and apply pressure. That unit is experienced, as is the secondary, led by senior strong safety Dallas Lloyd (44.5 tackles, 1 interception last year).
AREAS OF CONCERN: So much of Stanford's success has come from its offensive front, and quarterback play ranging from solid to superb under the beloved Luck and the underrated Hogan. Both are question marks this season as is the defense's ability to make stops against ranked offenses on the road, especially against UCLA and standout sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen. The talent and depth are present at Stanford, but the front-loaded schedule could spell trouble.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're kind of tired of just winning the Pac-12. We want to do bigger and better things. Always the goal is to win the Pac-12, but hopefully we can go to the national championship. That's what we're working for." -- Redshirt senior wide receiver Michael Rector, reflecting on the direction of a Stanford program that's won three Pac-12 banners in the past four years. Rector has been around for every one of them.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
HEAD COACH: David Shaw, sixth year at Stanford, 54-14 record at Stanford and as a head coach
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: RB Christian McCaffrey -- There are Heisman Trophy bids, and then there's McCaffrey's near-unbelievable 2015. McCaffrey totaled an NCAA FBS record 3,864 yards, which was 1,227 better than the next-best mark from last season. And he was magical on the big stage, delivering 368 yards and two touchdowns in a drubbing of Iowa in the Rose Bowl. "He's one of the best players that ever played college football," Shaw said. "I mean, the numbers say that, and when you watch the film it's saying it." McCaffrey had 2,019 rushing yards and eight touchdowns and 645 receiving yards and five TDs last season, along with 1,161 return yards and another TD.
BREAKOUT STAR: WR Michael Rector -- McCaffrey is on the tip of the tongue of nearly every college football fan in America this summer. Especially on the West Coast. But Rector's potential and proven ability cannot be denied. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound senior was in-sync with Hogan last autumn, with 34 catches for 559 yards and seven touchdowns. "He's been making plays since he got here," fellow Stanford receiver Francis Owusu said, according to The Associated Press. "It's very exciting to have him back. He's such a deep threat."
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: DL Luke Kaumatule -- Kaumatule is not a newcomer in the traditional sense, as a senior who's played both tight end and linebacker before, but given his transition from position-to-position, he feels like one. The 6-foot-7 Kaumatule is now on the line which could finally be his right fit. Kaumatule could help the depth of the line, the least-experienced unit on that defense.
--Starting C Graham Shuler called it a career in January, choosing to pursue his dreams "outside of football." With Shuler's departure, 12 starters were officially gone from Stanford's Rose Bowl-winning team.
--Backup RB Barry Sanders Jr. transferred from Stanford to Oklahoma State, the alma mater of his Hall of Fame father Barry Sanders Sr., in February. In three seasons with Stanford, Sanders Jr. saw limited carries and last year had 51 carries for 315 yards.
--DT Harrison Phillips is expected to return after tearing his ACL during the 2015 season and medically redshirting.