Stanford 2014 Defensive Prospectus
My 2014 offensive prospectus outlined the blueprint for a more effective attack next season. If the Cardinal intend to qualify for the inaugural four-team college football playoff, that plan will likely have to materialize because the team's defense will almost certainly lose some traction next season.
Amongst the Rose Bowl starters, inside linebacker Shayne Skov, outside linebacker Trent Murphy, and defensive end Josh Mauro have exhausted their eligibility. Free safety Ed Reynolds will likely declare for the NFL Draft. Defensive end Henry Anderson and inside linebacker A.J. Tarpley are still deciding their future plans -- though The Bootleg predicts they'll both return for one more hurrah. And of course, injured defensive end Ben Gardner has also exhausted his college eligibility.
The Boys Up Front
A monstrous line has been the bedrock of the Cardinal's defensive success the past two seasons. Even if Anderson (who told me he did not play at 100 percent this year, even after coming back from his week two injury) returns for his fifth year to play alongside tackle David Parry, Stanford may still have to rely on a relative newbie to develop and fill the void that Mauro and Gardner will leave.
Blake Lueders made a midseason move from outside linebacker to defensive end when depth issues necessitated it. There's a solid chance he stays there for his fifth year, in which case he'd likely be asked to put a bit more bulk on his 6-5, 260-pound frame to do the job permanently. Of course, Stanford would like Aziz Shittu to hasten his development at a position that saw an infusion of competition when Lueders and 6-foot-7 goliath Luke Kaumatule moved to it this year. Jordan Watkins and Nate Lohn are other prospects at defensive end that the Cardinal may look to in a year of need. There certainly is imposing beef to work with here; it's just inexperienced or unpolished at this point, but that can (and must, for Stanford to maintain defensive sturdiness) change within the next nine months. Pay especially close attention to Kaumatule.
Regarding Parry's interior, Stanford can hope that monstrous tackle Ikenna Nwafor, who won't practice until the second spring session at the earliest because of corrective foot surgery, is able to get back on the horse and work toward attaining his full potential. At 6-6, 300 pounds, he'll again be a darkhorse candidate to make an impact up front on the inside. His length is a potential problem for the vision of opposing quarterbacks.
The Second Level
The void Skov leaves at middle linebacker is even bigger. No. 11 put together the finest season of his career in 2013 (109 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 13 TFL, 3 forced fumbles, 10 QBH). Jarek Lancaster has also exhausted his eligibility and is ready to take his NFL shot. That will put major responsibility on the shoulders of junior Blake Martinez, who rotated in to spell Skov this season. There are also said to be some similarities between Skov's style of play and youngster Kevin Palma, but it remains to be seen if the sophomore will be ready to play significant snaps come Fall. Formerly touted recruit Noor Davis will also be looking for a breakout year. He moved from outside linebacker to the inside last offseason. Tarpley's potential return is critical for Stanford. If that does not happen, the Cardinal may be forced to heavily rely on a completely inexperienced 'backer in 2014.
The hurt of Murphy's loss will also be significant, but the Cardinal should find some solace in the fact that Kevin Anderson came on so strong toward the end of this season. He dropped one interception and returned another for a touchdown in the Rose Bowl, culminating a fine season of development that saw him overpower some offensive linemen on pass rushes. James Vaughters will continue to man the other side, while Stanford should find productivity from Joe Hemschoot, who made positive contributions at a hybrid outside linebacker/nickel back position this year after moving from the inside. Coaches have raved about the progression of freshman outside 'backers Peter Kalambayi and Mike Tyler (6-5, 219 pounds at last listing), and it will be interesting to see if either can crack the rotation after a full year of strengthening with Shannon Turley.
The Back Four (and Five)
Assuming Reynolds does leave, Stanford may have to scramble to fill a void at free safety since Devon Carrington will also be gone. Drew Madhu was once Reynolds' heir apparent at the position, but he was forced to retire last offseason because of concussion-related problems. Quarterback Dallas Lloyd began working out at free safety this December, and his physicality (6-3, 212 pounds) and athleticism may well earn him immediate playing time in the back four. Jordan Richards is expected to be the Cardinal's senior strong safety in 2014, while Kyle Olugbode will again back him up.
Of course, there's also another possibility: Cornerback Wayne Lyons, who was a highly-touted safety coming out of high school, can theoretically move back to that position. Ronnie Harris, who saw significant action at corner down the stretch of 2014, may be able to assume a starting role if that happens. Harris, once Stanford's reserve at nickel back behind Usua Amanam, may not be needed at that position anymore since former safety Zach Hoffpauir seems to have found a new home there (it allows him to truly showcase his physical nature). Alex Carter, of course, has cemented himself into one of the Cardinal's cornerback spots. Freshman speedster Taijuan Thomas will look to break into the rotation next year, as will 6-2, 202-pound senior Ra'Chard Pippens, who has shown promise with his physicality in open practices.
Punter Ben Rhyne told The Bootleg that he will return for his fifth year, while Jordan Williamson is expected to follow suit. The Cardinal will likely redshirt incoming kicker Hayden Lekacz, while Conrad Ukropina will remain on the roster. Ty Montgomery, Barry Sanders, and Kodi Whitfield should all still be around to handle various returning duties. Long snapper Reed Miller has two years of eligibility remaining, while touted recruit C.J. Keller just committed to the Cardinal at the position.
Shaw's special teams unit looks to be excellent in 2014, and that may be critical for a team whose defense will be forced to discover an identity following the departures of such critical cogs. Talent certainly remains on Derek Mason's side of the ball, but all indications suggest that Stanford will have to find extra production in the other two phases of the game to make up for an inevitable drop-off.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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