The discussion surrounding Stanford football last season began and
ended with Andrew Luck. But this time around, the talk may well end
with the Cardinal defensive front seven. Josh Nunes is the new
quarterback, and his job is largely to position the defensive studs
for the kill. Over the course of the past two weeks, The Bootleg has
had the chance to gauge a unit that has bordered upon dominant for
a large portion of spring and summer practices.
The aforementioned linebacking corps is vicious on its first level
and deep beyond that, and nose guard Terrence Stephens is the
bedrock of the operation up front. Already the author of a legendary
moment in Stanford history (his forced fumble sealed last season's
56-48 triple overtime win at USC), Stephens has been sharing
considerable time with former walk-on David Parry, who has muscled
his way into Tyler Gaffney's vacated scholarship. The two combine for
605 pounds of double team-commanding meat in the middle.
"You can't stop either of them with one man," defensive end Ben Gardner said. "They eat up blockers."
So says a man who is no easy block on the perimeter, either, as he
demonstrated in his 4.5-sack breakout 2011 campaign. After an
offseason of hellish muscle-building slow-motion pull-up workouts,
the former (barely) two-star linebacker recruit is
confident that he can bring five-star pressure from the edge.
"I really think I'm ready to have a dominant year," Gardner said
after practice last week. "[As a front seven], we think we can be
the best in the country."
Linebacker Shayne Skov's return from a devastating knee injury certainly fuels much of that belief. Fellow defensive players have
raved about the "missile's" ability to punish ballhandlers and
extinguish openings with surreal quickness. What's most intriguing,
though, is Skov's supporting cast on the second level. Vaughters,
for one, has been practicing like the next star ‘backer in the
conference. Murphy's size swallowed up even Stanford's large
offensive line during the Spring Game. And for the first time, Skov
will play alongside the bulked-up version of outside linebacker
Chase Thomas, who skipped last season's NFL Draft to continue
terrorizing college quarterbacks.
"The best is when you hear that little squeak or whimper when you
hit him really good," Thomas, who added over 10 pounds of offseason
muscle, recently told Sports Illustrated.
Sounds like a kind of guy opponents may want to double team.
One problem: that probably won't be possible with Skov, Vaughters,
and Murphy also targeting the football. Used almost exclusively in
nickel packages on the outside during his freshman 2011 campaign,
the six-foot-two, 250-pound Vaughters has grown comfortable with the
speed and nuances of college football. He's terrorized Stanford camp
as a result, earning a starting spot back at inside linebacker for
Stanford's season opener against San Jose State.
"James is a freight train out there," Shaw said. "Almost every day,
he's gotten a new nickname. He's phenomenal."
"Juggernaut" has been another one of those monikers for Vaughters,
that one coined by fellow truck Murphy - who is not built like an
average human being, either. The six-foot-six, 261-pounder - massive
and "country strong" - will line up on the outside opposite Thomas.
Like Gardner, his 6.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss in 2011
highlighted a breakout campaign that may have foreshadowed absurd
"This is why I came to Stanford," Vaughters, a Georgia product,
said. "To be able to play alongside all these guys, all this talent,
under this coaching staff, it's a great opportunity for me."
The front seven is so loaded, in fact, that the two leading tacklers
of last year's studly unit likely won't start once Skov's one-game DUI suspension is finished. Jarek Lancaster (a team-leading 70
stops) and A.J. Tarpley (56, plus the game-winning fumble recovery at
USC) are fundamentally solid options that could top the lineup on
most Pac-12 rosters. But at Stanford, they'll have to settle for
providing immediate depth at linebacker. Toss speedy, smart Joe
Hemschoot into the mix and serious reinforcements begin
accumulating. On the outside, there is no shortage of bodies,
either: Under Armour All-American true freshman Noor Davis
complements fifth-year senior Alex Debniak and sophomore Kevin Anderson, both of whom aggressively rushed the quarterback in the
Last season, opposing backs barely scratched out 3.0 yards per carry
on the ground against a unit that was Skov-less from week three
onward. Nearly a third of opponents' yards gained rushing (1548)
were negated by their yards lost rushing (451), thanks largely to the Cardinal's
39 sacks on the season. The ratio of yards giveth to yards taketh
away could be lower this time around, given full health, extra
muscle, and the addition of Vaughters to the consisent mix.
Still, some issues must be addressed before
Stanford can coronate this front seven its best ever. Skov's
return to 100 percent from last year's brutal ACL tear is never a
guarantee, but he has impressed so far in practice. Shaw said that
it'll probably take him a few contests to regain full game
endurance, but he expects him to be playing most snaps as the season
Matt Masifilo's production (2.5 sacks, 8 TFL) at the defensive end
spot opposite Gardner has graduated, and it'll have to be filled by
two players with no prior starting experience. Both projected starter Henry Anderson
and Josh Mauro have proven legitimate so far
in practice. Anderson's six-foot-six, 278-pound frame
is especially promising. His exciting fumble recovery and return in last
season's opener against San Jose State was a tantalizing preview of
the large man's athleticism. If he can burst onto the scene like Gardner did last season, the Cardinal have the
tools to be unblockable up front. More than one defender will
require a double team to be impeded, and there's a finite amount of
double teams to go around.
Obviously, defensive coordinator Derek Mason's plan is for the
expected pressure to set the table for a secondary that has yet to
realize its potential. Last season, the Cardinal intercepted only
seven passes. Four of those picks have graduated, three
with Michael Thomas. With Andrew Luck gone and passing juggernauts
like USC and, potentially, Marquess Wilson-fueled Washington State on the schedule, a ball-hawking secondary is mandatory.
"[The front seven is] good, and it makes things fun because they're so good against the
cornerback Alex Carter said. " That means we're going to get to defend a lot of pass
opportunities. And then they rush the quarterback, and that means
he'll be hurried to throw. That just means more opportunities for us
defensive backs to make some plays on the ball."
As a secondary, playing bad balls is certainly easier than the
alternative of trying to track premiere conference receivers like
Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, and Wilson.
Thus, Stanford's touted front seven will go a long ways to determining the team’s success. If the big boys up front can live up to their
billing on paper, expect stifling run defense and improvement to
last year's 39-sack tally. More importantly, expect a Thanksgiving
feast for an athletic crop of defensive backs. The unit will feed
off the front's success. It's a known football fact that time is a
quarterback's best friend, but it's also been well-documented that
Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas don't like letting throwers enjoy that
If pressure ends up ruling the day, let the big hits, mistakes, and
wobbly passes begin. That'll be the only way to beat Barkley and
return to the BCS for a third straight year. Stanford may just have
the tools defensively to do it, though.
[Ed: Talk to people who really know college football, and they’ll say that if the SEC is a cut above the rest of the nation, it starts and ends with defensive line play, defensive tackles in particular. I’m strangely bullish on Stanford’s 2012 prospects, and a major reason why is a front seven that could go toe to toe with any unit in any league.]
David Lombardi, a TV and radio
(95.7 The Game SF) personality in the Bay Area, is a Stanford and Pac-12
Conference enthusiast. He is KZSU's former lead football
broadcaster. You can check out several of his Stanford calls and
other writing at www.davidlombardisports.com
and follow him on Twitter @davidmlombardi.
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