Stanford Football: Curtis McNeal

Pac-12 top 25 for 2012: No. 12

August, 16, 2012
Our countdown of the Pac-12's top 25 players in 2012 continues.

Most of this looks back, but, of course, there also is a good dose of projecting forward. A lot of good players, as it happens every year, won't make the preseason list. It is in their hands to make the postseason list.

You can review our 2011 postseason top 25 here.

12. Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford

2011 numbers: Rushed for 1,330 yards and 10 touchdowns on 242 carries. Had a healthy 5.5 yards per carry while also catching 27 balls and a pair of touchdowns.

2011 postseason ranking: No. 24.

Making the case for Taylor: It's time to stop calling Taylor one of the most underrated backs in the college football and start calling him one of the top, most complete running backs in the Pac-12. A back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher who was often overlooked because of the guy handing him the ball (that would be Andrew Luck for those with a short memory), Taylor will be the focal point of the Cardinal offense. That should come as no surprise to those who follow the team closely, because he was actually the focal point last year and the year before despite the presence of Luck. He's durable enough to carry the ball 25 to 30 times per game, but that's not how David Shaw uses him. With a rotation of four other backs last year -- and the expectation of a similar approach this year -- Taylor will continue to make the most of his opportunities. Expect, however, a slight increase in his carries in 2012 as the Cardinal break in a new quarterback. The departure of Tyler Gaffney and the graduation of Jeremy Stewart opens up some niche roles for younger backs -- but we'll likely see Taylor carry more of the load, especially early as the new quarterback continues to grow and the pecking order behind Taylor takes shape. A second-team all-conference pick last year, Taylor's receiving skills make him extremely versatile, and he's also Stanford's best blocking back.

No. 13: Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon
No 14: Nickell Robey, CB, USC
No. 15: John White IV, RB, Utah
No. 16: John Boyett, S, Oregon
No. 17: Jordan Poyer, CB, Oregon State
No. 18: Khaled Holmes, C, USC
No. 19: Cameron Marshall, RB, Arizona State
No. 20: Dion Bailey, LB, USC
No. 21: Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford
No. 22: Curtis McNeal, RB, USC
No. 23: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
No. 24: Isi Sofele, RB, California
No. 25: Jeff Tuel, QB, Washington State

Pac-12 top 25 for 2012: No. 21

August, 3, 2012
Our countdown of the Pac-12's top 25 players in 2012 continues.

Most of this looks back, but, of course, there also is a good dose of projecting forward. A lot of good players, as it happens every year, won't make the preseason list. It is in their hands to make the postseason list.

You can review our 2011 postseason Top 25 here.

No. 21 Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford

2011 numbers: In three games Skov posted 19 tackles, 1.5 sacks and five tackles for a loss.

2011 postseason ranking: Unranked

Making the case for Skov: Had we seen a healthy Shayne Skov last year, we would have seen a guy with 100-plus tackles, 15-plus tackles for a loss, probably eight or nine sacks and a top-10 finish in the 2011 postseason Top 25. Then again, we wouldn't be seeing Skov this year because he'd be in an NFL camp right now. But that wasn't the case. A knee injury against Arizona in Week 3 kept him sidelined the rest of the year and now he's back to join a Stanford front seven that's among the best in the conference -- maybe the country. At question is if Skov is the same player. Head coach David Shaw said the rehab has gone well and Skov will be ready for action in fall camp -- though he's been suspended for the season opener against San Jose State for a DUI arrest back in February. Shaw noted that Skov doesn't have to prove that he can play the game of football. He needs to prove, through fall camp and beyond, that his surgically-repaired knee can handle the wear and tear it's going to take being a middle linebacker. If it does, expect Skov to be much higher on the postseason rankings because he's one of the top middle linebackers in the country.

No. 22: Curtis McNeal, RB, USC
No. 23: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
No. 24: Isi Sofele, RB, California
No. 25: Jeff Tuel, QB, Washington State
We talk a lot about wide receivers in this conference. And why not? The overall collection of wide receiver talent is the strongest of any conference in college football.

Heck, even Cal's Keenan Allen said he doesn't see the Biletnikoff winner coming out of any other conference this year. Most are inclined to agree.

But what about the runners? The guys on the ground who keep the safeties honest and allow big names like Allen, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee to do what they do best. According to Insider KC Joyner, the Pac-12 is home to three of the top 10 running attacks in college football and USC tops the list with the nation's best running game. And this isn't even taking the Silas Redd situation into account.

USC checks in at No. 1, followed by Oregon at No. 3 and Stanford at No. 8. You can see the complete insider article and all of the Top-10 teams here . Joyner also pops some video highlights in the story, which I'm going to include because I like you guys.
    [+] EnlargeCurtis McNeal
    Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireWith the return of 1,000-yard rusher Curtis McNeal and four starters on the O-line, USC's running game is in good shape.

  • Though USC lost its top offensive lineman in left tackle Matt Kalil, the Trojans welcome back four starters to the offensive line, including center Khaled Holmes, projected by many to be the top center in the nation. Factor in a 1,000-yard rusher in Curtis McNeal, a wide receiver corps that will scare safeties into taking an extra step backward and a Heisman-hopeful quarterback who understands the intricacies of reading defenses and you have one efficient rushing attack. Woods is also an outstanding downfield blocker -- which you can see in this highlight as he takes out a pair of Stanford defenders. McNeal was second in the conference in yards per carry (6.9) and of the seven 1,000-yard rushers in the conference last year, he did it with the fewest carries. Imagine what his numbers would have been like with a 13th or 14th game?
  • Even though LaMichael James is gone at Oregon -- taking his league-leading 1,805 yards, 7.3 average and 18 touchdowns with him -- the Ducks will still be one of the nation's top rushing teams with Kenjon Barner headlining the attack. Barner rushed for 939 yards on 152 carries with 11 touchdowns. And then there is the always potent De'Anthony Thomas -- who can line up anywhere and can turn the most simple play into a long touchdown. The Ducks blew away the rest of the conference in terms of rushing offense last season -- totaling 4,189 yards (299.2 per game) on the ground. Stanford was a distant second with 2,738. Finding a third and fourth option will be key though, which head coach Chip Kelly addressed at Pac-12 media day last week. And Barner said all the things you'd expect from someone replacing an Oregon legend: "I'll be called upon more often now, but it's nothing new. [It's] not too much pressure at all." Here's the shifty Barner in action.
  • Stanford's rushing attack is built upon its balance. Ex-Cardinal Andrew Luck, who was calling a lot of the plays last season, was phenomenal at putting the Cardinal offense in the best play against the defensive front. By the end of the year, head coach David Shaw said Luck got it right "about 99 percent of the time." But Luck is gone, as are offensive linemen David DeCastro and left tackle Jonathan Martin. But Stanford does return a pair of freshmen All-Americans to the line in David Yankey and Cameron Fleming and a solid center in Sam Schwartzstein. And, oh yeah, a back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher in Stepfan Taylor (1,330 yards, 10 touchdowns last year). And let's not forget about the most versatile fullback in college football -- Ryan Hewitt -- clearing the way for Taylor. Ty Montgomery gives the Cardinal a deep-threat option, tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo will keep safeties guessing and the Cardinal should continue to pound away with Taylor and a deep running back corps.

Pac-12's 1,000-yard rushers

June, 6, 2012
Last week we brought you our predictions for the Pac-12's 3,000-yard passers in 2012. And judging from the comments, it seems like at least 10 quarterbacks are going to hit the 3K mark.

Are folks just as optimistic about the running backs reaching 1,000 yards?

First, let's take a look at last year's 1K rushers:
So that's five of the seven coming back. Let's break it down by team.

[+] EnlargeStanford's Stepfan Taylor
Jason O. Watson/US PRESSWIREStanford RB Stepfan Taylor is seeking his third straight 1,000-yard rushing season.
Stepfan Taylor, Stanford: The Cardinal have a committee approach, but even so, Taylor has gone over 1,000 yards in back-to-back years. The loss of guard David DeCastro hurts a bit, but the Cardinal are dedicated to the run and Taylor is a fantastic back. Shouldn't have any trouble three-peating.

Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona: The Wildcats ran the ball the second fewest of any Pac-12 team last season (331 attempts), but Carey still managed 425 yards on 91 carries. Arizona will run the ball significantly more under Rich Rodriguez -- who usually has one of the top rushing offenses in the nation. His running backs had more success at West Virginia than at Michigan, where QB Denard Robinson sucked up most of the yards. Carey will be close and it might come down to whether Arizona plays a 13th game.

Cameron Marshall, Arizona State: He did it in a pass-first system on an injured ankle. Now he's in a run-first system and healthy. Do the math. Marshall should flourish in a downhill system. The Sun Devils have deep group behind him -- maybe the deepest in the conference -- but I can't imagine anyone cutting into his carries too deeply that it hinders his ability to get back to 1K.

Isi Sofele, Cal: There are mumblings that Cal might move to more of a committee approach and Sofele might not get the same number of carries as last year (252). Even so, he'll still probably be chairman of that committee and will have ample opportunity to reach 1,000 yards again. He'll get there.

Tony Jones, Colorado: The Buffs' offensive line might be their strongest offensive asset with standouts like tackle David Bakhtiari and center Gus Handler. That bodes well for Jones, who showed he can be very explosive backing up Rodney Stewart last year. But the Buffs spent a lot of time playing catch-up last season and couldn't commit to the run as much as Jon Embree probably would have liked (401 attempts). If they can't develop a downfield threat, Jones is going to see a lot of eight-in-the-box.

Kenjon Barner, Oregon: He was knocking on the door last year with 939 -- and that was behind LaMichael James and his 1,805 yards. Barner will see more carries than his 152 last season, though he'll still have to split carries with De'Anthony Thomas and the Ducks' new quarterback. Still, no one in the conference runs the ball more than Oregon so Barner shouldn't have any trouble getting there.

Committee, Oregon State: We know Oregon State wants to run the ball more. The Beavers were dead last in the conference last season in attempts (318) and rushing yards (1,043) and there are still issues on the offensive line that need to be sorted out. Several players are expected to contribute -- but chances are one individual won't get over 1,000 yards.

Johnathan Franklin, UCLA: The new system at UCLA will be pass-oriented. But Franklin (976 yards last year) won't be completely ignored. Just look at Marshall's numbers from ASU when Noel Mazzone was running the show and you can see that running backs are still a big part of the attack. And the Bruins might run a little more until the new quarterback finds his way in the system. He'll be close.

Curtis McNeal, USC: He just cracked the club by five yards last season. This year he'll have the benefit of a 13th -- maybe even a 14th -- game to get there. Can't imagine many teams will stack the box and dare Matt Barkley to beat them with his arm. McNeal should clear 1K easily.

John White, Utah: No back carried the ball more in the conference and only three players in FBS football had more rushing attempts. There's no reason to think the Utes won't take that same approach. White is an explosive back who is a proven workhorse. If Utah can get the passing game going, it will open up more for White who could probably match his yards total with fewer carries.

Committee, Washington: Chris Polk was a special running back -- the kind of guy who could run for speed and run for power. He's gone and there are questions on the offensive line where there weren't last year. Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey will probably headline the committee and Washington's balanced approach (52-48 run-pass ratio last year) will allow for plenty of opportunities for both. They should easily combine, but unless one steps up as an 18-20 carry-per-game back, it's unlikely an individual will reach 1K.

Committee, Washington State: The pie for carries is already small considering the offense. Then you have Rickey Galvin (1A), Carl Winston (1B) and Marcus Mason (1C) cutting into the pie even more to nibble on whatever slices are left. Running backs in Mike Leach's world are better used in the passing game on swings and screens in this offense. So don't expect a 1K rusher.

Breakout RBs to watch in 2012

January, 27, 2012
Who are the potential breakout running backs in 2012? Glad you asked, because ESPN's KC Joyner tackled that very question and a pair of Pac-12 running backs landed on his top five list Insider.

USC running back Curtis McNeal checks in at No. 1 overall. With a moderate strength of schedule and four returning offensive linemen, here's what Joyner had to say about McNeal:
Losing first-round NFL draft pick Matt Kalil at left tackle is a negative, but getting the other four starting offensive linemen back means the quality portion of these numbers can be replicated. And since McNeal is likely to get a significant portion of the 125 carries Marc Tyler (lost to graduation) posted last season, it means McNeal's chances of getting an increased quantity of carries are also quite strong.

Not far behind McNeal in the No. 3 spot is Oregon running back Kenjon Barner, who is expected to have three of his big men back in front of him next season.

Here's Joyner's take:
The Ducks' run-blocking win rate was also quite impressive, so much so that Barner would likely have ranked higher than this were it not for Oregon losing two starting offensive linemen to graduation. Losing quarterback Darron Thomas also could cause some early transition issues, even though Bryan Bennett, Thomas' likely replacement, should be able to put together a strong season.

And even though he's not on Joyner's list, I'm going to throw Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor in there as well. Maybe I'm biased because I'm the Stanford blogger. Or maybe it's that the guy has rushed for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons while in a four-back rotating system and no one outside of Palo Alto seems to recognize the skills. (Actually, five backs when you consider Stanford's use of the fullback.)

Granted, this list is "breakout" backs. But Taylor's contributions continually seem to get overlooked. So much so that every year it feels like he has to have another "breakout" season just to get recognition. So keep an eye on that guy also in 2012.

Best game atmosphere of the season

January, 18, 2012
The rest of the blogging crew is looking at the best atmospheres from their conference during the season. So here at the Stanford blog, we're going to look at the best single-game atmosphere.

Now, the folks in Palo Alto deserve a pat on the back for rallying their program this season. Stanford fans bucked the reputation that they don't support their team by selling out six of the seven home games this past season.

The atmosphere at every home game (save the season opener against San Jose State when the bulk of the students still weren't on campus) was fantastic and the fan support was great throughout the year.

But the best single-game atmosphere this season belongs to the fans of Troy. And, in all due fairness, the Stanford fans who made the pilgrimage to USC in late October.

Naturally, the biggest game of the season to that point for both teams drew a vocal 93,607 to the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. And the fact that the game was nip and tuck made the environment absolutely electric.

When Curtis McNeal put together touchdown runs of 61 and 25 yards in the third quarter to give USC the lead, it was pure madness. And then Nickell Robey's 33-yard pick-six with 3:08 left in the game that put the Trojans ahead brought the crowd to a deafening frenzy.

Over the public address system, there were warnings not to rush the field after the game -- a sure sign that fans were expecting the upset victory. Stanford safety Michael Thomas would later say that he and the rest of the team heard the announcement and took exception.

Each touchdown in overtime brought the fans -- and those on deadline in the press box -- to madness. And when A.J. Tarpley recovered the fumble in the end zone to end the game, a collective gasp went out, followed by silence, except for a small sliver of fans dressed in Cardinal.

Stanford fans did a great job this year supporting their team, but nothing this season matched the thrill and excitement at USC on Oct. 29.

Stanford mailbag

November, 4, 2011
Another great week of questions. Thanks for the feedback and queries.

Jay in Palo Alto writes: Kevin, I'm wondering why the D-line is getting beat up in the press, including your post because they didn't get a sack on (Matt) Barkley. Anyone who watched that game saw Barkley on his butt probably a dozen times, and a lot of those knock-downs looked like they hurt. He always managed to get rid of the ball, but it was pretty rare that he had any extra time in the pocket. It's ironic that people are talking about how great Barkley's quick release was, but ignoring the flip side: Stanford's pass rushers made him get rid of it quickly, over and over. That's about all you can ask of them, never mind the sack stats.

Kevin Gemmell: Jay, I don't recall "beating them up" in a post, but your point is well-taken and certainly valid. I was addressing the pass rush as a whole. Now give credit to a very good USC offensive line -- and I gave Barkley his due on the quick release -- some were by design, others were not. And they did hit him. But you can't "never mind" the sack stats because sacks are game-changers. When a quarterback gets hit and still completes the pass, he feels better about himself. The hits don't hurt as much (at least during the game). When a quarterback gets hit and takes the ball with him, it's a sinking feeling. I'm not saying the defensive line had a bad game -- but it wasn't a great game on the whole. And that falls on the linebackers as well. There were long runs, significantly fewer tackles for a loss and USC's offensive line did a pretty good job keeping them out. I've been a big supporter of the defensive line this year, but it wasn't their best game. But they did make the plays when they had to make them. In the end, that's all that matters.

Shirin in Boston writes: My fellow Stanford alum friend and I were having a big debate on who we should be rooting for this weekend in the LSU vs. Alabama game. My thought is to root for Alabama because I don't want LSU to have a home game when we play the winner in the national championship game. However, my friend Matt said I should be rooting for LSU because an Alabama loss will hurt (Trent) Richardson's Heisman case and an LSU win will help our strength of schedule and Pac-12 perception due to Oregon's loss to LSU. However, I think Luck is going to win the Heisman anyway and the strength of schedule argument won't matter as much if we beat Oregon! Please let us know your thoughts. Thanks!

Kevin Gemmell: Shirin, I'd be more focused on the Oklahoma State-Kansas State game. But if I had to pick, I'd back you up. Going to be a tough trip to New Orleans regardless of who they play. But LSU would make it tougher. Then again, I covered the USC-Texas national championship game a few years back and that was essentially a home game for the Trojans. And we all remember how that turned out.

Matt in Austin, Texas writes: Kevin, I'm concerned about the pressure that USC's front four got on Luck throughout the game this past Saturday. To me, their pressure schemes most closely resembled Duke's defensive line's strategy (at least through the first half of that game). If you recall, Duke utilized their quick defensive ends to run stunts behind their defensive tackles, confusing Stanford's interior offensive line as to whom to pick up in the rush coming up the middle. USC mirrored this strategy, and was successful with it throughout the game thanks to their superior athletes. Tell me why I shouldn't be worried about Oregon also copying this stunt-rush strategy two Saturdays from now, given their athletic front four and speedy defensive ends.

Kevin Gemmell: Matt, from my recollection, Duke was using delayed blitzes to complement the defensive line, and that was the reason for the confusion up front. Plus, it was just the second game for the three new starters and it took a half for them to figure out the adjustments. USC was getting pressure with just its front-four. And in that case, I'd be a little concerned. There were some injuries to the offensive line, which might have contributed. But the pressure on third downs was alarming. I can't tell you not to be worried, sorry. I think Stanford will have a good blocking scheme in place for that game. But I'd like to see how they rebound against Oregon State first before jumping too far ahead to Oregon.

Ryan in San Francisco writes: One thing Stanford has always struggled with is recruiting speed and athleticism on the defensive side of the ball. The recent recruiting classes have definitely helped in this area but it seems the team was still a step or two slow on the long runs by (Chris) Polk and (Curtis) McNeal the last two weeks. In your opinion do you chalk this up as still lacking some athleticism to keep up with the true burners, bad angles by the defense, and/or injuries to (Shayne) Skov and (Delano) Howell as the main culprits?

Kevin Gemmell: Ryan, all of the above. As we know, Stanford has a different recruiting strategy and criteria than most schools. It's tough to find elite athletes who also fit the Stanford mold. But it's not just Stanford -- Polk and McNeal are darn good running backs. Would it be different with Skov and Howell -- probably. No doubt those two are missed. But bad tackling/angles also played a major role.

Manny in Fremont, Calif writes: Would you call the OSU game a trap game for the Cardinal (given the emotional USC game and the upcoming showdown with Oregon)?

Kevin Gemmell: I think all of the ingredients for a trap game are there -- except for the other team. As I wrote in my prediction, I just don't think OSU has the horses to keep up with Stanford. And I don't see a special season being lost to a 2-6 team. I like Mike Riley a lot. I covered him when he was with the Chargers and always found him to be an innovative coach. But innovation can only go so far without the players. I will say that the Cardinal need to start fast -- something that's hampered them on the road this season -- to not let OSU get any illusions of an upset.

Tarpley stepping into the spotlight

October, 31, 2011
A.J. Tarpley would have looked more comfortable if he were getting a root canal. It was the redshirt freshman's first crack at a postgame news conference, and sitting among media-savvy veterans like Andrew Luck and Michael Thomas, Tarpley looked almost out of place.

If he keeps playing the way he did Saturday night, this won't be his last time being a spokesman for the defense.

The middle linebacker turned in the performance of his young and bright career in Stanford's 56-48, triple overtime win against USC. While it was not a night for defensive stars as the teams combined for 104 points and 948 yards of total offense, Tarpley stood out.

He logged his first career interception, picking Matt Barkley in the second quarter which led to a Stanford field goal. He forced a fumble (which USC recovered). He tallied nine tackles and recovered Curtis McNeal's fumble on the game's final play in overtime. It was a veteran performance from a non-veteran.

"The kid was everywhere," said head coach David Shaw. "The things we saw when we recruited him -- you could say what he doesn't have -- but he finds a way to get to the ball. He has a nose for the ball. He avoids blockers and finds a way to make a tackle. The ball's on the ground, he finds a way to get to the ball. He gets off blocks and gets to the ball. The kid has great instincts, and we think he'll be a heck of a football player."

He also has pretty good media instincts -- understanding that Saturday wasn't a night to pat the defense on the back.

"It was a helluva ballgame," Tarpley said. "The teams battled all the way through. In a place like this, we knew it would be a tough game. I don't know if you can credit the defense too much. We just gave up 50 points."

Well, 48. But still, some of Tarpley's individual plays go beyond noteworthy.

His interception of Barkley in the second quarter was textbook, instinctual linebacking. Tarpley picked up tight end Randall Telfer off the line, saw him breaking to the outside, anticipated the pass and made an athletic, diving catch.

"I was just playing off my man and (Barkley) happened to throw it my way," Tarpley said. "Any of our linebackers could do that."

So far they haven't. Tarpley's pick is the first from the linebacking corps this season. The Cardinal now have four interceptions -- two from Thomas and one from cornerback Barry Browning.

And then there was the clincher. Terrence Stephens stripped McNeal in triple overtime and sent the ball shooting into the end zone. Tarpley fell on it to seal the victory and was mobbed by teammates.

LOS ANGELES -- Quick observations on an epic game in Southern California.

How the game was won: First, Stepfan Taylor scored from 2 yards out with 38 seconds left in regulation to tie the game at 34-34. Then Taylor plowed in from 5 yards out in the third overtime period and Andrew Luck completed the 2-point conversion to Coby Fleener. USC’s Curtis McNeal fumbled to end the game.

Turning point: USC wide receiver Robert Woods failed to get out of bounds at the Stanford 35 as time expired. Despite two timeouts, USC was unable to get a field-goal attempt because Woods went for the sidelines rather than going down and taking a timeout.

Stat of the game: Two — the number of times Luck was sacked this game after being sacked just twice in the previous seven games. Both came on third down.

Best call: Stanford’s double-reverse, wide-receiver pass out of the wildcat. Running back Tyler Gaffney took the direct snap, handed off to Anthony Wilkerson on an end-around, who flipped it to Luck, who was lined up as a wide receiver. Luck then connected with Ty Montgomery for a 62-yard gain.

Unsung hero of the game: Cardinal linebacker A.J. Tarpley played his best game of the season, notching an interception in the first half and finishing the game with nine tackles. He also recovered McNeal’s fumble on the game’s final play.

Second guessing: With Stanford knocking on the door, trailing 27-24 in the fourth quarter, the Cardinal went back to the wildcat on third-and-8 on the USC 13 with 5:20 remaining. Gaffney took the direct snap and ran for just 2 yards. Eric Whitaker converted the 29-yard field goal to tie the game, but I wasn’t a fan of taking the ball out of Luck’s hands at a crucial point in the game.

What it means: The Cardinal are still in the conversation for a spot in the national championship game.

3Q: USC 20, Stanford 10

October, 29, 2011
LOS ANGELES -- There's the running game.

After it was essentially non-existent in the first half, USC's running game has come alive early in the third quarter behind a pair of Curtis McNeal touchdown runs. He came out on USC's first drive and went 61 yards untouched to give the Trojans a 13-10 lead. It was the first time all season the Cardinal have trailed.

After the Cardinal failed to convert in their own territory when Andrew Luck was sacked, and following a shanked punt, McNeal went in again from 25 yards out.

USC looks completely dominant and for the first time this year, Stanford looks fragile.


Pac-12 Weekend Wrap: Sept. 16
Recruiting reporter Erik McKinney breaks down the top weekend storylines from the Pac-12.