Stanford-Oregon: Need-to-knows

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Stanford-Oregon: Need-to-knows

Ryan Buckley
CSNBayArea.com

Well before Stanford kicked off its season against San Jose State, Nov. 12 was the date every Stanford fan had circled on the calendar. Well before the season began, most believed the matchup against the Oregon Ducks would decide the Pac-12 Conference.

As Stanford's season has progressed, however, it seems the focus of the Stanford faithful has shifted. Stanford fans now seem to be as consumed with the current BCS standings as they are with Stanford's remaining schedule. And while in its first nine contests No. 3 Stanford has appeared vastly superior to the rest of its conference opponents (with the exception of USC), this is not a week to be concerned with computer formulas and how the team is perceived in the national polls. Look past No. 6 Oregon, and none of it will matter, because the Ducks have the firepower to derail Stanford's dreams of a BCS title shot in the blink of an eye.

While Stanford has ripped off 17 straight victories in impressive fashion, Stanford's most recent loss is cause for concern. Last year in Eugene, Stanford had the Ducks dominated in every facet early on, and jumped out to a 21-3 lead. Stanford appeared on its way to a victory over Oregon, a conference title, and more. But swiftly and relentlessly, Oregon erased the 18-point deficit and beat the Cardinal into submission, outscoring Stanford 49-10 in the final three quarters en route to a 52-31 win. Oregon steamrolled the Cardinal for 388 yards on the ground last year in Eugene, including 273 yards from 2010 Heisman Trophy finalist LaMichael James.

Yes, this is a new season. And yes, statistically, Stanford's run defense is considerably stronger this year, but there's a reason that these statistics still matter. The 388 rushing yards that Stanford yielded to the Ducks last season were the most the Cardinal had allowed in a game since 1996 -- and Oregon's current ground attack is every bit as potent as it was last season. In fact, with Shayne Skov on the shelf and Owen Marecic no longer in uniform, it's reasonable to suggest that Stanford's run defense may be even more vulnerable to the Ducks' dominant, hurry-up ground attack than a year ago.

Oregon's team speed is unparalleled, and though the Cardinal are currently allowing just 78.9 yards per game on the ground (No. 3 in the nation), those numbers can easily be categorized as misleading. Despite stone-walling conference bottom-dwellers, Stanford's run D hasn't exactly been stout against the conference's stronger rushing offenses. Consider that Washington's Chris Polk and USC's Curtis McNeal averaged 144.5 rushing yards against Stanford, and the notion that the Cardinal can bottle up James is far-fetched. Oregon's star back leads the nation in rushing and is averaging 184 yards per game on the ground against conference opponents. Stanford fans may have breathed a collective sigh of relief when James dislocated his elbow against California five weeks ago, but last week against Washington he ran for 156 yards and looked every bit as healthy as he did before the injury.

The health of the Ducks' star players brings to light another major issue for the Cardinal this week -- injuries. While James and QB Darron Thomas are coming back from midseason injuries at the best possible time for the Ducks, the same cannot be said for Stanford. Though weeks ago it appeared that Stanford was equipped to withstand a shootout against the Ducks, Stanford now finds itself missing key offensive contributors Zach Ertz and Chris Owusu, with tight end Levine Toilolo trying to return from injury this week. The aforementioned trio were on the receiving end of 74 of Andrew Luck's 203 completions this season (34 percent), leaving Stanford with few reliable and experienced options to support its All-American signal caller in the passing game. It begs the question: Does the Cardinal even have the personnel to keep up with an Oregon attack that's currently gouging opponents to the tune of 46 points per game?

Sure, the Ducks have their own issues. Their defense was ranked second in the nation last year in takeaways, and it forced three Stanford turnovers in Eugene. But the 2011 version has struggled to pry the ball away from opponents. Thomas has at times been wildly inaccurate; he currently has a lower completion percentage than he did a year ago.

That being said, Oregon's shortcomings may be masked in Saturday's battle in Palo Alto if Stanford can't find solutions for the most glaring problems -- stopping Oregon's running game and finding suitable replacements to support Andrew Luck in the passing game.

Realistically, Stanford isn't stopping James and the Oregon ground attack. Before injuries began taking a toll, Stanford could take solace in the fact that it had the ability and personnel to match Oregon's scoring output point-for-point. Now, that proposition is hardly a certainty. For Stanford to keep its national championship aspirations alive this week, it will have to either find a way to slow down Oregon's running game or come up with some solutions in the receiving corps that allow Luck's offense to remain balanced. If neither problem is remedied, Stanford's title hopes end Saturday.

With an unblemished record this deep into the season, it's easy to get caught up in the hype and look ahead to potential postseason scenarios, perhaps questioning a system that could leave an undefeated team out of the national championship picture. But this isnt a week for Stanford to be asking questions. With the two-time reigning Pac-12 champion Ducks in town, it's a week for Stanford to prove that it has some answers.

Ryan Buckley is a production assistant with Comcast SportsNet Bay Area and a graduate of the University of Oregon.

Stanford star McCaffrey boosts NFL Draft stock with special teams skills

Stanford star McCaffrey boosts NFL Draft stock with special teams skills

INDIANAPOLIS -- More and more college coaches are putting their starters and even their stars on special teams as they seek to pile up every possible point in an era of pedal-to-the-metal shootouts and never-safe leads.

Fading fast are the days when superstars would catch their breath on the sideline when the kicker or punter trotted onto the field with the scrubs.

NFL teams love it.

Watching how players handle themselves as a blocker, gunner or returner provides a glimpse into a prospect's range, selflessness and versatility. It also delivers a sneak peek into how coachable he'll be, says Phil Savage, the SiriusXM NFL Radio host who spent two decades as an NFL coach, scout and executive and now oversees the Senior Bowl.

"I think because of the landscape of college football where scoring is at a premium, you've got to figure out a way to put points on the board not only on offense but through your special teams and defensively, as well," Savage says. "These coaches want to get these young players on the field as soon as possible, and a way to do that is utilize them on special teams."

These tapes provide a bonus to pro scouts.

"Now you have a vision of what that player might forecast to in the NFL as a young player and, specifically, as a rookie," Savage said.

Offensive and defensive coaches have a better idea of the types of players they're integrating into their schemes, and special teams coaches no longer get blank stares and blank canvases from the rookie class.

"Not only do you like the fact that they come in and have experience doing it, but you love the mentality if you're a coach and a decision maker that this guy isn't a diva, he's got no ego about it, he understands the team and puts team before self," says ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay.

"And he comes in with the mindset of 'What can I do to help the team and how can I contribute?' Those are the guys that seem to make it and last longer in the league because they're just willing to do different things and whatever it takes."

The prime example in this year's draft class is Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey , a "dynamic player than can do it all," according to Broncos GM John Elway.

McCaffrey gained more than 5,000 yards from scrimmage in his college career and added almost 2,000 more as a returner.

"There's just a lot of big plays open in the return game," McCaffrey says. "You see special teams have such an impact on the game today. Any time I can have the ball in my hands, I feel like I can do something dangerous, and that's really why I love the return game."

Other highly touted draft prospects who polished their resumes on special teams include Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers, LSU safety Jamal Adams, Washington wide receiver John Ross, and USC cornerback Adroee' Jackson, all of whom are projected as high selections.

McShay says "we're seeing more and more programs put an emphasis on special teams and having their key players contribute in one or more areas on special teams."

He pointed to Ohio State, where Urban Myers coaches special teams himself.

"It's a major emphasis there, and so you'll see some more guys typically lined up and contributing that are starters and stars," McShay says. "It's an honor to be on special teams."

Not a burden.

"It is not uncommon now to see people that are going to be picked in the first round having 100-plus special teams plays," suggests NFL draft consultant and former Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt.

He pointed to the University of Florida, where Gators defensive backs cover kickoffs as well as they do receivers.

"Everyone's always trying to get their best guys on the field," Brandt says.

That's a change from years past when coaches feared exposing their star players to the extra hits.

The added value benefits the players, whose multiple talents allow NFL general managers to address many needs.

"We're seeing more emphasis on it in college, and I think NFL teams love to see it because if just means you're getting a bit more for your buck," McShay says.

Top talents who bolstered their value by playing special teams:

CHRISTIAN McCAFFREY , RB, STANFORD: He shined at the combine working out with the running backs and was as impressive running routes. Asked if there was anything he couldn't do, the son of former NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffrey said then: "I can't sing."

JABRILL PEPPERS , S, MICHIGAN: He worked out with safeties and linebackers at the combine, where teams talked of him playing RB and WR in addition to returning kicks. "The bottom line is I'm a ballplayer and I'm a hell of a ballplayer," Peppers said.

JOHN ROSS , WR, WASHINGTON: He caught 81 passes with 17 TDs last season but actually posted more return yards (2,069) than scrimmage yards (1,924) in his college career.

ADOREE' JACKSON , CB, USC: One of the best special teams coverage players in the NCAA, Jackson also scored eight TDs on punt and kick returns in college. His punt return averages rose from 6.0 yards to 10.5 and 15.8.

JAMAL ADAMS , S, LSU: Another star in coverage, Adams' defensive mentality extends to special teams. "I love being on the field and just playing football," said Adams, whose father, George, was a first-round pick by the Giants in 1985.

ALVIN KAMARA , RB, TENNESSEE: In a deep running back group, Kamara separates himself with his special teams acumen. "A lot of teams have been bringing up special teams," Kamara said.

DESMOND KING , CB, IOWA: He had eight interceptions as a junior and three as a senior. "I had a really good special teams season," King said. "Not being targeted as much, I still went out there and competed the best I could and was still making plays."

CHRIS WORMLEY , DE, MICHIGAN: Wormley touts playing for Jim Harbaugh as one of his attributes. "Coach Harbaugh came in and ran our program like an NFL program, like he had with the 49ers," said Wormley, who blocked three kicks his senior season.

ZAY JONES , WR, EAST CAROLINA: Like McCaffrey, he has good NFL bloodlines (son of Robert Jones, brother of Cayleb Jones). He caught 158 passes as a senior, but spent his first two seasons in college also making his mark as a returner.

Former Napa star Josh Jackson leaving Kansas, entering NBA Draft

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Former Napa star Josh Jackson leaving Kansas, entering NBA Draft

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Josh Jackson declared for the NBA draft on Monday after one of the best freshman seasons in Kansas history, one marked by plenty of highlights on the floor and a few distractions off it.

The 6-foot-8 swingman, who is considered a certain lottery pick, was the Big 12 newcomer of the year after averaging 16.3 points and 7.4 rebounds. He helped the Jayhawks to a 31-5 record and its 13th straight regular season Big 12 title before losing to Oregon in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.

Jackson signed with former NBA player B.J. Armstrong of Wasserman Media Group.

"After thoroughly consulting with my family, I have decided to enter the 2017 NBA draft and pursue my dream of playing professional basketball," Jackson said in a statement Monday.

"I am very thankful for all of the support I have received from my coaches and teammates at Kansas," he said, "and I look forward to starting my career in the NBA."

Jackson was the nation's No. 1 recruit when he signed with the Jayhawks out of Prolific Prep Academy in California. He immediately earned a spot in the starting lineup, teaming with national player of the year Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham to form one of the nation's top backcourts.

With natural athleticism and ability to slash to the basket - not to mention defensive chops that are rare among freshmen - Jackson quickly established himself as one of the nation's top draft prospects.

His importance was never more evident than in the Big 12 Tournament, when he was suspended by coach Bill Self following a series of off-the-court issues. The top-seeded Jayhawks stumbled in a quarterfinal loss to TCU, ending their run at the conference tournament before it really began.

He returned for the NCAA Tournament and played well in wins over UC Davis, Michigan State and Purdue, but was hamstrung by foul trouble and managed just 10 points in a season-ending loss to the Ducks.

Jackson's suspension came following an incident outside a Lawrence bar in December, when a member of the Kansas women's basketball team got into an altercation with Jackson's teammate, Lagerald Vick.

Jackson followed the woman to the parking lot and the woman said he kicked her car and caused hundreds of dollars in damage. He pleaded not guilty last week in Douglas County District Court to one misdemeanor count of criminal damage to property and a trial is scheduled for May 24.

His attorney, Hatem Chahine, said he was planning to file for diversion.

Jackson also was ticketed in February after he struck a parked car and fled the scene, and that drew Self's ire when he didn't tell his coach about the incident until several weeks later.

His decision to declare for the draft came a week after teammate Svi Mykhailiuk announced he would skip his senior season. But unlike Jackson, the 6-8 sharpshooter has not hired an agent and could withdraw his name by May 24 and return to the Jayhawks.