- David Lombardi, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Stanford questions are coming in fast. If you want me to answer yours in the next edition of the mailbag, follow me on Twitter or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scott Davis writes: I'm a bit puzzled by the Cardinal's failure to make Ted Miller's list of top Pac-12 offenses. What am I missing?
David Lombardi: Ted projected the league's top six offenses here: Oregon, USC, Cal, Arizona, UCLA, and Arizona State made his cut. Now, I fully expect Stanford's attack to be immensely improved, and -- at the very least -- I think they'll more closely resemble the unit that finished 2014 as opposed to the one that started it. There's a boatload of talent surrounding a veteran quarterback and offensive line, so I see enough"'up" arrows to buy stock.
That being said, let's remember the overall picture here: The Cardinal averaged only 27.2 points per game last year, the second-worst figure in the Pac-12. Anemic offensive production cost them three gut-wrenching games. It wasn't pretty. While a late hot streak against the country's No. 107, No. 34, and No. 56-ranked defenses gave reason for 2015 optimism, it didn't suddenly thrust Stanford past Ted's six listed high-octane offenses. Those teams have done more to earn their spots. When it comes to outside perception, the Cardinal must first prove themselves through a longer stretch of consistency to re-enter the upper echelon of Pac-12 attacks.
Carlos Olin Montalvo writes: What do you think will be Stanford's toughest home and road games this year?
Lombardi: Toughest home game: Oregon. Toughest road game: USC.
Win Reis writes: Is David Shaw changing his offensive philosophy to match the lack of a bell cow running back? Recent recruits have more speed than size.
Lombardi: I wouldn't go as far as to say that Shaw is changing his offensive "philosophy" -- Stanford is still a team that relies on establishing the run to set up play-action shots through the air -- but I think he's certainly tweaked the way in which the Cardinal does generate that much-needed ground success.
The tinkering made all the difference during the offensive resurgence that closed 2014. In a past dominated by the likes of Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney (we'll call them the 220-pound club), Stanford was able to establish its ground backbone by bludgeoning their opponents with repeated power runs. This box score provides perhaps the most famous example.
Though Christian McCaffrey has bulked up a bit, 200 pounds is now the general ceiling for Stanford backs. So you're right, speed and elusiveness is the new name of the game here, especially with the addition of track star Bryce Love, who checks in at 180 pounds. Stanford's adaptation to this new truth involves maintaining the creativity that they successfully implemented late last season. The effort began by utilizing Kevin Hogan's legs -- he averaged over 6.5 yards per carry in each of the final three games and appreciated the newfound focus on his running -- and continued by finding ways to unleash McCaffrey and Barry Sanders in space.
Shaw emphasized the importance of finding room for his new weapons to roam on the perimeter. The resulting rushing success, in turn, opened up play-action for Hogan and loosened the box for Remound Wright's standard power finish: He scored nine touchdowns in those final three games, and the Cardinal solved their red zone problems.
So, the adjustments have already been made. If Shaw carries those late-season fixes into 2015 -- he's already indicated that McCaffrey will be heavily involved -- I expect Hogan to remain in his comfort zone. In that case, Stanford's offense will enjoy continued success.
David Bennett writes: Which will have a greater effect on Stanford's results this year compared to last: the better schedule or player turnover?
Lombardi: Man, that's a loaded question. It essentially calls on me to make a prediction for this team, which I'm not ready to do until I can measure the offseason progress of the young defensive linemen and backs at fall camp.
For now, here's the best I can do: If this summer's development proves to have been fruitful, the Cardinal's home-heavy and theoretically easier 2015 schedule will have a greater impact than their massive roster turnover on defense, and this team can achieve very good results. That's a huge if at this point, as this is the most daunting reloading challenge the Stanford defense has faced since rising to elite status.
Lombardi: Hogan is the starter. The competition this fall camp will be for the back-up job between Burns and Chryst.