By Ben Leonard
photo credit Stanford Athletics Dept: Stanford Cardinal preparing to face White shirts on Saturday afternoon at Stanford Stadium
STANFORD, Calif. –Historically, Stanford’s spring game has been dominated by defense. The coaching staff is generally unwilling to flash out their entire playbook, so a vanilla offense usually gets trampled by a party in the backfield.
Saturday, that script was flipped by two quarterbacks, who led the offense (Cardinal) to a 42-31 win over the defense (White). The program’s winningest quarterback, Kevin Hogan, graduated and headed to the NFL Draft, leaving a void at the position. Enter Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns, two strong-armed, physical quarterbacks, vying for the job.
Heading into Saturday’s Spring Game, the word around the program was that Chryst was the internal favorite to win the job, despite head coach David Shaw’s maintaining that the two are neck-and-neck. A Palo Alto High School grad, Chryst had been touted as the next Andrew Luck before he had even stepped on campus, but that notion might have changed a little bit after Saturday.
Shaw seemed pretty accurate in that assertion, as both struggled early but played similarly well. Chryst got the bulk of the reps with the first team, if you want to read into that, but their stat lines were comparable. Burns was slightly more efficient and certainly gained momentum in the race, completing 17 of 23 attempts for 153 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, while Chryst completed 16 of 25 for 156 yards, one touchdown and an interception. Overall, Shaw was happy with his quarterbacks’ performances, but declined to comment on who was leading the pack.
“It’s hard to say who had the upper hand because we had to see what the decision making looked like, but I was exctied to see both guys come back and make some big throws,” Shaw said. “We’ve got two big quarterbacks with strong arms that are athletic, and they made some big plays downfield and some accurate throws down the middle to Dalton Schultz and the tight ends and checking the ball down. There were a lot of positives for both guys.”
The well-built, 6’5″, 235 pound Chryst started out with the game with two drives, and struggled to find a rhythm. His timing was off, throwing too late, and paid the price, fluttering a deep ball that was picked off by Noor Davis. Chryst had a window to hit Michael Rector for an open touchdown, but underthrew it.
“I saw him, and there was lane behind him, and I should have hit it,” Chryst said. “Six inches more and it would have been a touchdown to Michael Rector, but I mean it’s in the past, and I’m looking forward.”
After that, Chryst “found a rhythym,” and the offense started to roll along with him. He connected with tight end Greg Taboada for a score, hitting a tight window in double coverage for a long touchdown pass. Overall, after that rough stretch, Chryst felt pretty good about his performance:
“I did pretty well, but I have a lot of things to work on,” Chryst said. ” I missed some check downs and missed some little things, but overall, I think it was a pretty good day for myself and as an offense.”
On the other hand, Burns hadn’t looked quite as confident heading into this spring, but he seemed to turn a corner on Saturday, aside from the one interception. The 6’5″, 233 pound senior from Leesburg, Virginia looked much better under pressure than he had previously, an encouraging sign. He pushed Chryst, if not outperformed him on Saturday, making this quarterback race very tight.
Burns felt that with Hogan gone, he could finally step up and be “the man” for the Cardinal. “Being under him (Hogan), it was hard to take control of the offense,” Burns said. “When you’re getting reps, you’re the number two or number three guy, so you can’t get those guys behind you 100 percent. Now, with him gone, I felt like there was a void to fill, and I’m trying to fill it.”
Now, he feels much more assertive in a leadership role, and encouraged by his performance: “Ever since spring started, things have just started clicking a little more,” Burns said. “The guys have gotten behind me a little bit, and that helps with your confidence and your overall play tremendously. That’s the biggest thing for now, as well as to keep progressing…I started out kind of slow, but the middle was pretty good.”
The duo of quarterbacks was faced with a unique challenged on Saturday — playing without Heisman runner up Christian McCaffrey. The dynamic playmaker only fielded punt returns, which were no contact plays, because Shaw wanted to rest his workhorse for the long season ahead.
Shaw took the media through his thought process on Saturday: “I’ve been around putting a lot of carries on a lot of running backs,” Shaw said. I’m convinced that we start spring so early now, there’s no way that he’s physically ready for what we do in practice. There’s no way with 400+ touches and with how physically he runs, there’s no way he’s ready. We took care of Toby Gerhart in the spring, we took care of Stepfan Taylor in the spring, but we didn’t have to with Gaffney because he always played baseball in the spring. I kept looking at how many times he touched the ball and how physical he was, and he got through all the practices and did really well in the practice, but we’ll get him back to some tackle stuff in training camp. For me, it was just a mileage thing, to get him completely recuperated before we start beating him up again.”
Even with McCaffrey out, the pair still had a great set of playmakers to work with. Shaw expressed confidence in a multitude of offensive weapons after the game:
“I’m excited about Francis Owusu, coming off an outstanding last week of practice, and capped it off with a great day today. Michael Rector has had a really good spring. Trent Irwin has been making some plays. Dalton Schultz is now the go-to guy at tight end, and you have three receivers with some experience. We have explosive running backs coming out of the backfield, and quarterbacks now that can get them the ball. It’s exciting, but we have a lot of work to do and a lot of things to shore up, but it was a good start for this team.”
With the way things looked on Saturday, it’s going to be a very tough decision for David Shaw to make, one he won’t decide on until roughly a week before the season opener September 3rd against Kansas State. Either way Shaw chooses, Stanford will have itself an at least competent, if not great quarterback of the future — and the present.