May 28, 2024
“Obviously we have a very young inexperienced team, but they're very hungry to play,” Taylor said.

STANFORD – A new coach, a new offensive identity and 16 new starters, including a QB making his first-ever start.

After an offseason full of change – including the breakup of the Pac-12, which has left Stanford’s future conference affiliation in doubt – the new-look Cardinal finally take the field Friday night at Hawai’i to open its 2023 season.

The changes started at the top. Former Cal QB and Sacramento State coach Troy Taylor will be coaching an FBS team for the first time after taking over for David Shaw, who resigned after 12 seasons at Stanford.

“I’ve coached at almost every level and played at all of them, and they’re really all the same once you start,” Taylor said. “The players are a little bigger and a little faster but you get nervous just like any other game, and then typically once you get started the nerves kind of go away and it becomes another game.

“Once you get into the game I’m really focused on being a play caller and strategy and moving the ball and making those decisions.”

Stanford, which hasn’t made a bowl game since 2018, is hoping Taylor can lead a turnaround like he did in his first season as a head coach, when he joined Sacramento State. In 2019, Taylor won the Eddie Robinson Award (FCS national coach of the year) for guiding the Hornets to their first-ever FCS playoff berth in his first season.

Taylor went 30-8 in three seasons at Sacramento State before arriving at Stanford, where he hopes his up-tempo style can spur an offense that sputtered by the end of Shaw’s tenure.

“When you come into a new place, you’re always wondering what’s the level of mental toughness, how important is football to them,” Taylor said. “And these guys love it. They love football, they love practicing, they love competing. So that’s what I know about our guys. We have some talent, there’s no doubt about that, it’s just we’re just young and experienced.”

Taylor may feel he needs every edge he can get. Previous Stanford teams didn’t need to resort to gamesmanship to get an edge on non-Power 5 teams like Hawai’i, but Taylor wouldn’t announce his starting quarterback leading up to the game, presumably so the Rainbow Warriors wouldn’t know who to prepare for.

Syracuse transfer Justin Lamson has been competing with junior Ari Patu and sophomore Ashton Daniels, who spent their Stanford careers backing up Tanner McKee before he turned pro after last season.

The Cardinal may have some opportunities on the ground, with E.J. Smith and Casey Filkins back to full health. Smith averaged 6.9 yards a carry and Filkins averaged 97 all-purpose yards a game last year before they both suffered season-ending injuries.

But that also depends on a completely rebuilt offensive line, which featured true freshman Simione Pale starting at right guard.

Overall, Taylor oversees a team that had 17 major contributors transfer out or turn pro since last season. Other than the defensive line of tackles Tobin Phillips and Anthony Franklin and edge David Bailey, the only other returning starters are tight end Benjamin Yurosek, receiver John Humphreys and center Levi Rogers, who was the right guard last season.

The new secondary will face a significant challenge against Hawai’i’s run-and-shoot offense. Rainbow Warriors quarterback Brayden Schrager completed 27 of 35 passes for 351 yards and three touchdowns (with two interceptions) in a 35-28 loss at Vanderbilt last week.

While Hawai’i got some game experience last week, Stanford at least got to do some advanced scouting.

“It was great that we got that Week Zero game to take a sneak peek of what their offense is like,” junior safety Alaka’i Gilman said.

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Besides the new personnel — Gilman and fellow junior safety Jimmy Wyrick, cornerbacks Collin Wright and Zahran Manley, and nickelback Jaden Slocum didn’t start any games last season – Gilman said the defense would also play differently than previous Stanford units.

“It’s a great change for us to be able to play faster, to get pressure on quarterbacks, to bring anxiety to offenses and mix up looks so that we’re not kind of sitting back in vanilla coverage,” Gilman said.

After an offseason full of change, Taylor looks forward to seeing how it all comes together.

“Obviously we have a very young inexperienced team, but they’re very hungry to play,” Taylor said. “We’re going to learn a lot about ourselves. As I tell the guys, it’s not going to go perfectly well — it never does. There’s always challenges that arise, and how we handle those are the things I’m looking forward to seeing.”