Stars gone but Stanford set to roll on

Aug 18, 2017 - 8:09 PM Losing two first-round NFL Draft picks is difficult, but Stanford is among the most stable programs in the country and is built to absorb the departures.

The Cardinal will miss defensive lineman Solomon Thomas (the third overall pick in the draft) and running back/returner Christian McCaffrey (eighth overall pick), but coach David Shaw liked what he saw in camp as his team prepared for an Aug. 26 opener against Rice in Sydney, Australia.

"I was really nervous about having the kind of training camp we need to prepare ourselves for the real grind," Shaw said. "The season's hard. Once we start, every week is going to be difficult. So you have to prepare with a tough and physical training camp. We fought and scrapped and got a lot done."

Junior tailback Bryce Love, who averaged 7.2 yards per carry in his first two seasons, can step in for McCaffrey behind a reliable offensive line.

Still, replacing McCaffrey is almost impossible, statistically speaking. McCaffrey set a record with 3,864 all-purpose yards in 2015. In 2016, he shook off an injury to rush for 1,596 yards and compile 16 total touchdowns.

In 2015 and 2016, Stanford was 18-1 when McCaffrey rushed for at least 100 yards.

But Stanford has seen Love in action and trusts him to be the featured tailback.

"You've already seen glimpses of it," Stanford quarterback Keller Chryst said. "He got maybe five carries a game, if that, and he went 60 yards to the house on a regular basis. With more carries, more touches, that will only increase his productivity."

Chryst's health is being monitored after he tore the ACL in his right knee during Stanford's 25-23 win over North Carolina in the Sun Bowl. So Ryan Burns, or newcomer K.J. Costello, may have a shot should Chryst's knee falters. But Shaw has happy with how well Chryst -- who went 6-0 as a starter last year -- was able to drive off that leg, and the coach was comfortable enough to make Chryst the opening-night starter.

The Cardinal may not have a pass rusher quite like Thomas, but the secondary -- with cornerbacks Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder, and safety Justin Reid -- is a strong point to stop prolific Pac-12 passing attacks.

Meeks and Holder both missed time with injuries in 2016, in part why Stanford stumbled through a rough stretch before a strong finish and a 10-3 overall record, 6-3 in conference play.

"It's an exciting group to watch, because not only are they talented, they work and they study and they have great camaraderie," Shaw said of the secondary. "I can't wait to watch those guys play."

The favorite to lead the defensive front without Thomas is a trustworthy force in Harrison Phillips. The defensive tackle had 46 tackles, including 10 for a loss, and seven sacks in 2016.

Stanford doesn't have much time to jell before a brutal test, as it faces USC on Sept. 9 in Los Angeles. The Pac-12's North Division champion may be decided in early November, as the Cardinal has a game against Washington State on Nov. 4 in Pullman, Wash., and returns home to host reigning champion Washington on Nov. 10 at Stanford Stadium.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Keller Chryst -- Chryst showed flashes in 2016, when he had 10 touchdown passes to just one interception. His continued growth and dependability are paramount to the Cardinal's success. Expect a continuous connection between Chryst and wide receivers Trenton Irwin and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, and tight end Dalton Schultz.

BREAKOUT STAR: RB Bryce Love -- This season is Love's time to shine. He has the ability to turn a slight opening into a home run play. Love may not be the proven special teams aficionado that Christian McCaffrey was, but he can be the motor behind the offense and become a 1,000-plus yard rusher for the first time in his career. Plus, Love could take his turn at returning kicks. While Love isn't big and menacing, his linemen are, and Stanford would be lucky to keep the ball in Love's hands, especially with a lead.

NEWCOMERS TO WATCH: OT Walker Little and OT Foster Sarell -- Stanford prides itself on playing veterans, while underclassmen earn their way. So while we might not see much of Little and Sarell on Stanford's proud offensive line this season, they're huge additions to the program. Sarell is the fifth-ranked overall recruit from the class of 2017, while Little was No. 9. Little is a 6-7, 304-pound product of Houston; and Sarell is a 6-7, 309-pounder from Graham, Wash.

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