Stanford coach David Shaw enters his seventh season as the Cardinal head coach. He’s led his alma mater to five double-digit victory seasons in his six years, and the 2017 season percolates with the possibility of another.
Shaw has also emerged as one of college football’s most respected voices, a passionate yet pragmatic perspective on issues like amateurism, recruiting reform and student-athlete welfare. (Shaw has also emerged as a polished NFL draft analyst for the NFL Network).
Recently, Shaw sat down with Sports Illustrated to chat about skipping bowl games, this year’s crop of quarterbacks selected in the NFL draft, the 2017 Stanford season and the Pac-12’s glut of high-end QBs.
SI: You brought up a great point in Mobile at the Senior Bowl about how Solomon Thomas and his rocketing draft stock illustrate the value of playing in bowl games. I know you’ve been asked a lot about Christian McCaffrey a ton, but what’s the counter-argument?
David Shaw: Like I said before, Christian’s two years were the best two-year span in the history of the league [in terms of production] so there’s some padding there. Yes, this kid is tough. No, he’s not afraid of competition. This [didn’t] hurt him.
Then you have a guy like Solomon. Should he come out? Should he stay? The bowl game became of paramount importance. All the scouts watched it, there were multiple scouts at the game, so they get the chance to see it live, and I got a ton of calls that night from guys saying, ‘O.K., we love this guy.’ It’s one thing to see a guy on film or a guy live. Sometimes those bowl games are the tipping point. You get to rest, get to recover, and you get to say, ‘O.K., I have one game to play to give it my all. It’s not my seventh game in a row in seven weeks.’ That’s what you saw from Solomon. You saw fresh, explosive. It was a great time to evaluate him, and that was him at his best and that’s phenomenal.
SI: Why do you think the NFL scouting establishment hasn’t come around on Deshaun Watson?
Shaw: For me, I agree it’s hard to evaluate. The wide field is so wide. It’s a completely different game. In the NFL, you have to throw the ball into tight windows from the pocket. There’s no escaping it. If your film doesn’t show you can do that, you’re an unknown commodity.
The difference for me for guys like Deshaun Watson, Marcus Mariota, who don’t necessarily all come from pro-style offenses, every single game you’ll see a time they’re in the pocket, sliding in the pocket and throwing into tight windows. So although the entire game isn’t that, you can take those plays out and say this guys has the stature, the arm strength, got the gumption to stand in there to see those tight windows and get the ball out and make big plays. So for me, it’s hard to evaluate them sometimes as a whole, but when you find those plays that aren’t bubble screens and RPOs, and you find those plays where they’re standing in the pocket or pushing the pocket, their eyes downfield, they show they have the ability to play. I don’t think it’s ever going to be a complete correlation. I don’t think the college world is going to adjust to the NFL, and the NFL certainly isn’t going to completely adjust to college because the field is different. You can’t do the same things. What you can get away with in college, throwing to the side of the field, you can’t get away with that in the NFL.
SI: Why were you so sold on Watson heading into the draft?
Shaw: For me it’s three big things. One is the quarterback component, tight motion, strong arm, though he did miss some throws. You can see streaky accuracy. You can see some big-time NFL-caliber throws. That’s one.
No. 2 is when you watch him in the biggest games in the fourth quarter, there is no comparison. He is the best quarterback in the nation and maybe the best quarterback in the last couple of years. Fourth quarter with the game on the line, a guy who gets better when the game gets tighter, not worse when the game gets tighter. That goes a long way, and I bring that up because Jon Gruden asked me to do a study years ago with the Oakland Raiders, a study with quarterbacks, guys coming out in the draft. I did a fourth quarter study, and that year the best quarterback in the nation in the fourth quarter? Drew Brees. He didn’t have the best stats of everybody or best body of work, but when he was really good at Purdue, in the fourth quarter, it wasn’t even close. He’s phenomenal. The NFL is four quarters of college fourth quarters, right? It’s crunch time every single play.
The best part for me is the kid’s makeup. I was fortunate to go down to Clemson two years ago and watch spring practice with Dabo [Swinney] and Deshaun because he was injured, and I got to stand next to them and he took every single rep seriously even though he wasn’t in. He knew every play. Relayed every single play to Dabo. Evaluated the quarterback on every single play. He should’ve done this, should’ve done that. It was like watching a coach, and this kid just finished his freshman year. He kept telling me, this guy’s special. I spent a day around him, and there’s a presence you can’t fake. It’s a just who you are and you get that with Deshaun.
A kid who has a presence, as an NFL quarterback “put it on my back type guy,” and in crunch time he backs that up because he gets better and when games get tighter he gets better, when games gets bigger. And on top of that I see characteristics I say do translate, although the offense doesn’t translate, the plays you can see he translates, and for me it’s easy. I’d take him in a heartbeat. I know he’s going to do well.
SI: So behind Andrew Luck and even with Jameis Winston for guys who came out the past few years?
Shaw: I’d probably put Jameis ahead of him slightly on offense. Jameis was more in the pocket, but this kid has an X-factor Jameis had too, which is, like it or not, his personality wins over a locker room. They love that guy. And Deshaun is going to do the same thing. His Day 1 in that locker room, guys are gonna say, ‘Oh there’s our quarterback. Coach, you tell me he’s not going to start but I’m following him already.’ That’s the kind of person he is.
SI: You had a competitive spring at quarterback with Keller Chryst out injured. How do you see that position shaping up for the fall?
Shaw: For me, it is settled. All the guys know Keller is the quarterback. He’s set to come back healthy in training camp, so we don’t expect any changes.
I think the spring was great, and I told both of our other quarterbacks, ‘Look you’re not competing with each other. It’s your job to be the best version of you.’ That’s all I’m looking for. We’re not looking to name a No. 2 quarterback. We’re looking because, no, it’s not a competition, it’s about pushing yourself to be as good as you can be. So for Ryan Burns, my opinion is he made a big jump from the season. He told me, ‘When I’m coming back, I want to show the guys I’m better than I played last year.’ I think he did that this spring, had great command in the huddle, made better plays, didn’t turn the ball over.
What we needed from K.J. Costello was making that first step. He’s no longer the quarterback on the scout team. No longer the freshman quarterback. Take that next step. Run the offense. Don’t worry about mistakes because you’re going to make some. Mistakes are going to turn into learning. Go out there and run the show, and when you’re quarterback, there’s only one quarterback on the field and you’re in so show us that. I think his ceiling is really, really high. I think he’s got a lot to learn but has a chance to be special.
SI: For so many years your offensive line was an advantage for you. For a lot of last year, it wasn’t. How’s it coming along?
Shaw: We got the perfect storm last year, losing two very good football players and having inexperienced players on the field and then also injured. It was the first time the injury bug hit us multiple times. Four of our five starters were injured at some point. Guys played left tackle, right tackle, left guard, right guard, and we moved everybody constantly except for the center. That was the only spot that stayed, and he was the most inexperienced guy. First time we ever started a freshman. So much flux. Once we settled down, and doesn’t matter who we were playing, that’s immaterial for me. When you watch our last three games on the offensive line, you see the guys coordinated, you see them comfortable together, the communication was great and they play so much better. It took us almost eight games to get there, but we finally gelled as a unit, and once we gelled as a unit, Christian exploded, Keller started playing well, [JJ Arcega-Whiteside] starts making plays. Now we’re feeling like the offense we want to be and go into the bowl game feeling good about ourselves, and second drive, Keller goes down.
So now O.K., we’re starting back over again. We took a step back, but where we are right now, I feel much more comfortable right now than I did last year when we were hitting it. We’re more secure. There’s going to be some great competition up front, but I feel much better about where we are offensive line wise and quarterback.
SI: I remember in your early years at Stanford, it was an annual search to get competitive in the secondary. This year, that may be the best unit on your team. How did that happen?
Shaw: I’d say this, I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, but we’re challenging our guys to be as good as they can be. When it comes to length and athleticism and competitiveness, we think we can be as good as anyone in the nation in our secondary between [Quenton Meeks] and Alijah Holder. Justin Reid, I haven’t seen many guys on the ascent like he is, it’s phenomenal. Our other safety, it’s great competition between Ben Edwards and Brandon Simmons, a fifth-year senior who is playing good football. We have five or six guys right now we think can play with anybody, and the challenge is when we’re at our best. I talked to all of them at the end of spring, there’s a difference between being a collection of really good players and being a great unit. Our focus needs to be on being a great unit. And with [defensive backs coach Duane Akina], you can’t find a better coach for this group. The standards are high. He gives them as much love as he does criticism because he wants them to be great as well. It’s a young unit that has great potential.
SI: How’s it looking replacing Solomon Thomas on the defensive line?
Shaw: So Harrison Phillips really for the first time in two years is completely healthy. He’s been battling injuries and you know he’s not an injury prone guy, just legitimate leg injuries and once you get a leg injury, you gotta play nine more games until you get a chance. He’s healthy, loose, physical, strongest guy on the team, and he’s due for a breakout year. As well as Solomon played last year, I have to remind people Harrison led us in sacks (6.5). He’s the stalwart in our front.
And then behind that we have a lot of inexperience. Dylan Jackson played a lot of football for us last year as a redshirt freshman. We anticipate him making a lot of plays. Eric Cotton sliding over from tackle as a fifth-year senior has an opportunity to show his athletic ability and strength. We got a bunch of young guys, four or five other guys competing for playing time and they’re talented but young and inexperienced. Whoever knows what to do and do it at the highest level is the guy that will play.
SI: You were among the most vocal critics of an early signing period mostly because of the academic standards at Stanford. The NCAA ended up moving it up two months. How do you feel about that?
Shaw: December is manageable to me. Selfishly, we have a lot of academic things we need our guys to do. We might have a couple, but most of our guys aren’t going to be ready to sign in December, but it’s manageable.
For [schools] who want to do it earlier [than December], it’s untenable. It really is. What the coaches want to do is going to be counterproductive because many of them want to be able to lock up their class. But here’s the thing nobody can avoid: If a young man changes his mind between August and February, he’s going to be able to change his mind, so I don’t care when he signs. That letter of intent is not binding, so he’ll be able to appeal. So you’re recruiting two linebackers and you get both of your guys to sign early in August, you stop recruiting linebackers. In January, when your linebackers coach becomes defensive coordinator somewhere else, they're going to appeal, and now you have not recruited linebackers the entire season and now you have to scramble and get two more guys. Unavoidable. Guys think, ‘Oh, it will be great’ because they'll have guys locked down. No you won’t. They're still 16-, 17-year-old kids, and they might change their mind and when they change their mind, you won't be able to hold them to this contract because it’s not a contract.
SI: I’m curious on your perspective of UCLA’s Josh Rosen and USC’s Sam Darnold, who will be the headline players in the Pac-12 this season.
Shaw: The craziest thing for me is there a guy at Washington State, Luke Falk, throwing for more yards than all of them. We got three guys in the conference that are head and shoulders above anybody in the nation. Talented, motivated, and what motivates them, whether they motivate each other and want to be better than the other, that’s all fine too, if it makes the best. But we’ve got three guys in conference that have the chance to be special on this level and the next. I’m surprised Falk came back.