I'm not sure how you want to label Bob Dylan. Is he a folk singer? A poet? A rockstar? Any way you categorize him, he is undeniably an American icon, as his recent Nobel Prize in Literature will attest. What's interesting about Dylan, however, is that some of his greatest songs have actually been elevated when covered by other artists. What might've possessed Jimi Hendrix, for instance, to cover "All Along the Watchtower" and make it his own? What was it that made him think he had anything relevant to add to what Dylan had already created?
What does this have to do with Stanford football? Stay with me. Just as Hendrix covered "Watchtower" and every aspiring guitar hero learns the opening few bars of "Stairway to Heaven," athletes are inspired by greatness as well, but not just to emulate it. The goal will always be to surpass those who have come before, and this can be seen in the rich legacy of Stanford quarterbacks. Jim Plunkett may have won a Rose Bowl and a Heisman Trophy, but John Elway was the #1 overall selection in the 1982 NFL Draft. Elway was long considered the greatest quarterback in school history, but then Andrew Luck came along and became a two-time Heisman runner-up and #1 pick himself. And while Kevin Hogan was neither in the Heisman conversation nor an early draft pick, all he did was win three conference championships and two Rose Bowls, better than those other three legends combined.
The problem, of course, is that fans have a difficult time with this. Our memory is selective. When we look back at our past heroes, we remember only their highlight reels and glorious closing acts, not the struggles of their youth, and for that reason no one who comes later can ever compare. Andrew Luck, the greatest quarterback in Stanford history, threw away the Axe with a foolish interception at the goal line in the closing minutes of Big Game in 2009, but people don't talk about that. Kevin Hogan, future member of the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame, had but the shakiest of grips on the starting job during the 2014 season, but that chapter is left out of the story.
Some quarterbacks, however, don't work out. Josh Nunes had a few bright moments early in 2012 after taking over for Luck, but he ultimately ceded the starting position to Hogan. In 2016, Ryan Burns was handed the job after Hogan's departure, but he struggled and was eventually replaced by Keller Chryst, who was then eventually replaced by K.J. Costello during the tumultuous 2017 season.
At no time in the David Shaw Era has the quarterback position been as murky as it was last fall. Take a peek:
The chart shows the week by week performances of Chryst, the original starter, and K.J. Costello, as measured on the 100-point scale of Adjusted QBR. You'll remember that Chryst's struggles against San Diego State first led fans to look at the Stanford offense and think, in Dylan's words, "there must be some kind of way outta here," but it wasn't until another dismal performance five games later against Oregon State that David Shaw finally made a change and installed Costello as the starter.
There was a clear learning curve and a few costly mistakes, especially his two interceptions against TCU in the Alamo Bowl, but that's no reason to get excited. You and I, we've been through that, so we remember more than just the numbers. Everything about the team changed when Costello stepped into the huddle. He brought an energy that had been missing, and his excitement was reflected in the emotions of his receivers celebrating each other's touchdowns and his linemen sprinting down the field to join those celebrations. Nowhere was this more apparent than this play against UCLA:
The Cardinal had been sleepwalking through that game, and this gritty touchdown did more than just give his team seven points; it woke them up. The score was significant, as it gave Stanford a 20-13 lead it wouldn't relinquish, and the play was impressive, but the reaction of Costello's teammates was more important. Even though it would still be a few weeks before Shaw would name him the starter, it certainly seemed like the team became his at that moment.
So what can we expect to see this fall? Now that Keller Chryst has moved on to Tennessee, there is no longer any confusion. Junior K.J. Costello is the unquestioned starting quarterback, and the expectations are high. His numbers as a starter were somewhat inconsistent over the closing six games of last season, but he showed that he had all the physical tools necessary to run the Stanford offense. When he strides into the huddle on August 31st against San Diego State, he'll be completely healthy (according to Shaw), he'll have a deeper understanding of the playbook and a better understanding of what opposing defenses are trying to do, and -- here's the best part -- he'll have an array of offensive weapons that will be the envy of every quarterback in America.
We've already discussed the depth of talent in the wide receiver corps, and everyone knows about Bryce Love, but Costello will also have two NFL-caliber tight ends (Kaden Smith and Colby Parkinson) and the protection of what's sure to be the best offensive line in the Pac-12.
There are two things I'll be watching for from Costello in the early going. First, can he continue to use his athleticism to move the pocket and extend plays? He won't remind anyone of Cam Newton, or even Kevin Hogan, but Costello's mobility is good enough to keep the read-option in the play book (though hopefully not too often) and allow him to use his legs and pocket awareness to keep a play alive and give his receivers the extra second or two that they need, like on this touchdown pass to Smith against Cal.
The second question: Can he continue to use his accuracy in order to take advantage of the size of his receivers. Take a look at this play against Notre Dame, one of four touchdowns Costello threw that night against the Irish:
That sequence alone should be enough to get you excited about Costello's future. First, he feels and steps away from the pressure in the pocket, waiting for his receiver to clear his defender. And then there's the throw, an absolute laser. This is just one of several throws Costello made like this last season, rifling a pass on a line to one of his big receivers, putting the ball exactly where he wanted it -- up high where no defender had a shot at the ball. Expect to see a lot of these to people like Smith, Parkinson, and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside in 2018.
All of this leads to a big question. How good can this offense be? The answer is simple: historic. There will be times this season when this group will look absolutely unguardable, but how exactly do we measure this? Last month Coach Shaw said that there are four numbers he'll be tracking to help him measure the effectiveness of his offense: 1st down efficiency, 3rd down efficiency, red zone efficiency, and completion percentage. He further explained that all four of these categories are linked to one another. Success on 1st down leads to 3rd and short situations, which increases 3rd down efficiency. High efficiency on 3rd downs will move the ball down the field and give the team more red zone opportunities.
As you look through the data on the chart, focus on the first two lines, Jim Harbaugh's last year at the helm followed by Shaw's first. We've seen individual genius from Christian McCaffrey in 2015 and Bryce Love in 2017, but when discussing Stanford offenses as a whole, the conversation will always begin with 2010 and '11. If we use the metrics Shaw prefers, that data supports what our eyes told us back then. Also, even though people weren't talking about S&P+ at the time (it's the gold standard today), it's interesting to note that the Stanford offenses were elite by that measurement as well. Mainly, though, the chart supports Shaw's statistical focus. The offenses that we remember struggling (2014 and 2016), both measure poorly here, specifically in red zone efficiency and (obviously) scoring.
Can Costello and the 2018 offense reach those heights of 2010 and 2011? Perhaps the better comparison is 2015, at least in terms of production. That team was driven by the generational talent of McCaffrey, but also had the benefit of a senior quarterback. While this year's team has Love, the biggest variable, again, will be Costello. Shaw's goal for completion percentage is 60%, but Costello came up short of that last season, finishing at 58.8. (Not surprisingly, his three poorest games came in the losses to Washington State, USC, and TCU.) The thought here is that if Costello can bump his completion percentage up to Shaw's desired number -- and that would seem likely given the typical progression of a young quarterback with Costello's physical tools -- we'll see an offense that surpasses 2015 and could even reach the dizzying heights of the Andrew Luck Era.
Backing up Costello, presumably, will be sophomore Davis Mills. Few players on the Stanford roster are as enigmatic as Mills. When he signed with the Cardinal in 2016, there were numerous positive comparisons to Andrew Luck, and even though the position was stocked with talent when he arrived that fall, there were some who wondered if he might've had a chance to jump up the depth chart and maybe even challenge for playing time. But Mills had suffered a knee injury at the tail end of his high school career, and he was limited during his first year on campus. Soon after recovering and beginning workouts towards the tail end of the 2017 season, however, Mills suffered what Shaw termed a "setback," injuring his knee again and keeping him out of spring and summer workouts. (Shaw has said that while Mills still isn't participating this summer, he should be soon.) There are some who still believe that Mills is the most talented quarterback on the roster, but talent is not the issue. Assuming that Costello keeps the starting job at least through next year and maybe even 2020, Mills could have some decisions to make.
Assuming Mills settles in as the backup quarterback, that leaves junior Jack Richardson and freshman Jack West battling for the third spot on the depth chart. Richardson came to Stanford as a walk-on, but when Chryst announced his graduate transfer to Tennessee and Costello and Mills were both injured, Richardson was suddenly the last man standing in the quarterback room. He took almost all of the snaps during spring practice (Chryst helped out some and offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard even filled in when necessary) and was rewarded with a scholarship. West, meanwhile, was not an elite prospect, but offers from places like Auburn, Michigan, UCLA, and USC speak to his quality.
Finally, the conversation wouldn't be complete without mentioning Tanner McKee, one of the top recruits in the Class of 2018. Instead of serving as Costello's understudy, however, McKee will be in Sao Paolo, Brazil, serving a Mormon mission for the next two years. Depending on how the other dominos fall, he could give the Cardinal one of the most talented quarterback groups in the country when he matriculates in the fall of 2020.
So that just about covers it.
- I calculated these numbers for Stanford using the data available at cfbstats.com. Since I've only got the Stanford numbers, I don't have a ranking of the teams. Special thanks to CTcard for pointing me in the right direction.
- This is actually just 3rd down conversion percentage. You can see the full ranked list here.
- This is team completion percentage, not just for the starting quarterback. Data can be found here.
- Red Zone Efficiency only measures how often a team scores in the red zone, but does not take into account how many points are scored. A team which scored a field goal on every trip into the red zone, for example, would still have an efficiency score of 100%. This data comes from TeamRankings.com.
- Points Per Play is a metric that's especially useful for a team like Stanford which tends to run far fewer plays per game than some of the more frenetic offenses dotting the college football landscape. You can check this out at TeamRankings.com.
- Points Per Game is kind of obvious, no? Here's a ranked list you can peruse at your leisure.
- S&P+ is the metric all the cool kids are using nowadays. Created by Bill Connelly, it's an attempt to measure and compare every team's offensive efficiency. That's the short answer. If you want a longer answer, you can read what Connelly has to say about his system here. Also, you'll notice that the numbers change after 2013. Beginning in 2014, the S&P+ Rating "is communicated as an adjusted scoring average." Anyway, here's where I found all this data.