BURBANK, Calif. — It was a Sunday, one day after Stanford lost to Utah in double overtime to fall to 5-5 last November, when Cardinal players finally decided to clear the air.
The locker room had become so divided that linebacker Blake Martinez described the tense atmosphere as if the defense was “our own team,” openly talking about needing to hold teams under 10 points and return takeaways for touchdowns to win in spite of their sputtering offense.
“They would go out there, do their job, and we would be like, ‘Whatever,'” Martinez recalled Thursday at Pac-12 media days. “‘If they didn’t get it done, we’re going to get it done.’ It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, we got your back.'”
But after that meeting, Stanford rallied. The Cardinal smashed rival California, demolished No. 9 UCLA and routed Maryland in the Foster Farms Bowl, and they’re looking to build on that success this fall by reclaiming the Pac-12 North title.
It starts up front with the offensive line, which Stanford coach David Shaw expects to benefit from improved depth. That group struggled with missed assignments and mental mistakes until that late-season surge, when the offense averaged 45 carries for 204 yards rushing over the final three games.
“It’s just our mentality,” Shaw said. “We’re a physical team. That time also coincided with us jelling as an offensive line and being a more efficient and explosive running game.”
“Toward the end of the year, we just decided to try and ball out. You saw the results on the field,” said Kyle Murphy, who is moving from right tackle to left tackle. “We plan on picking up where we left off last year and doing even greater things.”
Sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey is expected to be the beneficiary of that development. As a true freshman, the son of 13-year NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey had 796 all-purpose yards and scored two touchdowns lining up at tailback, wide receiver and as a return specialist.
McCaffrey now weighs over 200 pounds, Shaw said, and is capable of picking up blitzes in pass protection, running between the tackles and doing everything required of a feature back.
“We needed him to get stronger before we asked him to do much more than we asked him to do last year,” Shaw said. “He’s bigger. He’s stronger. He’s more physical. There is not a lot limiting what he can do.”
Shaw also praised the development of Remound Wright and Barry Sanders Jr., which will allow McCaffrey to continue to line up all over the field. The Stanford offense will also have a healthy Devon Cajuste at wide receiver when fall camp opens, as the redshirt senior did not require surgery for a high ankle injury.
Just as vital is a renewed focus on conditioning, as Stanford lost four games by seven points or less last season. Martinez said each offseason workout is being treated like a game, and the only way to win the fourth quarter is for everyone to finish, from starters to scout team.
That emphasis on the entire team is the result of hard-learned lessons.
“Even if something were to happen where the offense or defense is terrible, we’re still going to be all together as a unit no matter what happens,” Martinez said. “We’re never going to go back to where we were 5-5 and blaming each other about things.”