2011 Stanford Preview – Defense
Stanford LB Shayne Skov
CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Stanford Cardinal Defense
Preview 2011 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: Coordinator Vic Fangio did a brilliant job with the Stanford defense a year ago, pitching three shutouts and ranking second in the Pac-10. Too bad he followed Jim Harbaugh to the NFL after just one year. Fortunately, he left behind the blueprint of the successful 3-4 defense and a fair amount of talent for his successors, Derek Mason and Jason Tarver. The Cardinal features an all-star—and a hole—at every level of the attacking D. Up front, there's DE Matt Masifilo and two openings. At linebacker, Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas were all-conference in 2010, but will be surrounded by two new starters. And the secondary, so good last fall, is rock-solid at safety and unsure of itself at corner. The defense is a dichotomy and a work-in-progress that's determined to duplicate last year's improbable effort under new management.
Star of the defense: Junior LB Shayne Skov
Tackles: Shayne Skov, 84
Sacks: Chase Thomas, Shayne Skov, 7.5
Interceptions: Delano Howell, 5
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior NT Terrence Stephens
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Trent Murphy
Best pro prospect: Skov
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Skov, 2) Senior SS Delano Howell, 3) Junior LB Chase Thomas
Strength of the defense: Linebackers, safeties, run defense, takeaways
Weakness of the defense: The defensive line, cornerbacks, red zone defense
State of the Unit: The Cardinal made a successful shift to a 3-4 last season, getting more playmaking athletes on the field. The decision to maintain that system means it'll be a little easier to replace long-time veterans Sione Fua and Brian Bulcke, two of the program's steadier defensive linemen. The staff is always on the lookout for active big men, who have the versatility to rush the passer, stuff the run, and even drop back into coverage if asked.
The anchor of the defensive line will be 6-3, 278-pound senior DE Matt Masifilo, who's coming off an honorable mention All-Pac-10 season. On the verge of maximizing all of his potential, he started every game in 2010, making 33 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and four sacks. Finally playing at full strength, he has a contagious motor and the intensity to fight through blocks and make stops behind the line of scrimmage.
The favorite to start on the opposite end of Masifilo is 6-4, 263-pound sophomore Ben Gardner, he played sparingly but lettered in his first year. Active off the edge, he's worked on adding weight in an effort to hold up better versus the run. Sophomore Josh Mauro is also in the hunt after earning his first letter last season. At 6-6 and 266 pounds, he has the long arms to obstruct the quarterback's vision, needing to maintain his leverage and work on knock backs.
At the nose, 6-2, 287-pound junior Terrence Stephens is being counted on to replace Fua, which is no small task. Although he's lettered twice, he hasn't played much on defense, and has to find a way to use his power to hold blocks and allow the linebackers to make plays. Redshirt freshman David Parry is also trying to work his way into the rotation. Built for the job at 6-2 and 294 pounds, he's difficult to move off his stance.
Watch Out For … Stephens to be up to the challenge. No, he won't be Fua right away, but he will be effective at occupying blockers and getting a hand on opposing backs. He's been preparing for this moment for the last two years, and has the strength and quickness to be productive at nose tackle.
Strength: Motors. With Masifilo setting the tone and providing veteran leadership, the Cardinal has no choice but to play at a high level of intensity. All of the linemen are going to grapple until the whistle because anything less than maximum effort won't cut it on this unit.
Weakness: Proven pass rushers. Masifilo is an asset on one side, but who else can be counted on to supply pressure? Gardner has yet to prove anything outside of the practice, and there isn't another lineman on the roster who had more than one sack last season.
Outlook: The defensive line could be an area of legitimate concern for the Cardinal in 2011. Sure, some of the linebackers double as hybrid linemen, but that won't absolve the front three from doing their jobs. Someone other than Masifilo has to deliver on a consistent basis or else those second-level defenders will be making more stops than the staff would like.
Unit Rating: 7
State of the Unit: Coordinator Vic Fangio may be gone, but the 3-4 alignment, wildly successful a year ago, stays. That means the Cardinal are in a position to replace starters Owen Marecic and Thomas Keiser on the inside and outside, respectively. Keiser was particularly painful since he still had a year of eligibility remaining. The coaches like to put this group in a position to make plays, maximizing their blend of size, speed, and keen instincts for getting to the ball.
The budding superstar on the inside is 6-3, 244-pound junior Shayne Skov, a former blue-chipper living up to his press clippings. Despite playing in just 11 games, he still led the team with 84 tackles, adding 10.5 stops for loss, 7.5 sacks, and five pass breakups. In the Orange Bowl rout of Virginia Tech, he showcased his talent to the nation, making a dozen tackles and three sacks. A next-level prototype at the position, he's big, fast, and has the uncanny ability to diagnose and quickly get to the man with the ball.
Skov's counterpart on the outside is 6-4, 240-pound junior Chase Thomas, a hybrid between a linebacker and defensive end. He can put his hand in the dirt or come charging off the edge, using his closing speed and natural pass rushing skills to get a hat on the quarterback. Coming off an honorable mention All-Pac-10 year, he was second on the team with 70 tackles while posting team-highs with 11.5 stops behind the line and 7.5 sacks.
So who joins Skov and Thomas in the starting lineup? On the inside, 6-2, 225-pound senior Max Bergen is the safest bet. He's earned three letters and has starting experience, making 21 tackles on defense and special teams a year ago. However, he can hardly rest easy at this point. Lurking behind is a talented trio, 6-1, 221-pound redshirt freshman Joe Hemschoot, 6-2, 231-pound redshirt freshman A.J. Tarpley, and 6-1, 226-pound sophomore Jarek Lancaster, who are looking to return him to the bench. The battle brewing on the outside involves 6-6, 242-pound sophomore Trent Murphy and 6-2, 234-pound junior Alex Debniak . While Debniak is very physical and more experienced, making 18 stops in 2010, Murphy is ceding nothing. He has a great build for the outside and has turned heads during the offseason.
Watch Out For … the arrival of true freshman James Vaughters . One of the country's premier recruits, a product of Tucker (Ga.) High School, is probably too talented to redshirt in 2011. It's not as if he'll be needed right away, but if he's ready to go, the new staff has no reason to keep him under wraps.
Strength: Athleticism. They're big. They're fast. And they can cover a lot of ground in a short period of time. In short, the Cardinal linebackers are perfectly built for a 3-4 defense that requires its players to be versatile, halting the run and pressuring the pocket with either skill.
Weakness: Inconsistency. Skov and Thomas aside, the Cardinal doesn't have a wealth of linebackers with substantial experience. That'll change as time passes, but for now, it could be an inconsistent bunch that suffers from missed assignments and lapses in pass coverage.
Outlook: The linebackers are sort of like the defense's version of the Stanford offensive line. There are two all-star candidates to build around, but some head-scratching beyond that point. While Skov is set to go national and the unit harbors plenty of young talent, its ultimate grade will depend on the play of underclassmen, like Murphy and Vaughters.
Unit Rating: 8
State of the Unit: A replacement for CB Richard Sherman is needed and backups at safety are being sought, but the coaching staff likes the makeup of its defensive backfield. Headlining a group that ranked No. 15 nationally in pass efficiency defense are five players who started at least one game a year ago and a pair of All-Pac-10 honorees.
Senior Delano Howell arrived in Palo Alto as a running back. He'll leave as one of the league's premier strong safeties. A third-year starter on defense and reigning member of the All-Pac-10 second team, he had 60 tackles and a team-high five picks last season. At only 5-11 and 189 pounds, he's a much bigger hitter than he looks, and is rapidly improving with his cover skills.
Giving Stanford a terrific tandem along with Howell is 5-11, 185-pound senior FS Michael Thomas . A safety who was a cornerback in a past life, he started 11 games in 2010, making 61 tackles, six tackles for loss, and three forced fumbles. While not very big, he plays the game very fast and with a level of enthusiasm that can be infectious to those around him. While no one is supplanting Howell or Thomas this year, successors for 2012 will begin lining up now.
Sophomores Devon Carrington, Ed Reynolds, and Myles Muagututia are hoping to learn behind them on the second team after lettering as rookies. Carrington excelled in the spring, while Reynolds continued his recovery from a knee injury.
With Sherman gone, 6-1, 197-pound senior Johnson Bademosi elevates to the leader of the cornerbacks. He started nine games last year, making 40 tackles and breaking up four passes. He has great size and all of the necessary measurables, simply needing to tighten up in coverage. Sophomore Barry Browning appears to be gaining a foothold at the other corner opening. Like Carrington at safety, he's had a terrific offseason, a year after starting three games and making 15 tackles in his debut on campus.
Junior Quinn Evans returns as one of the more experienced corners, earning letters in each of the last two years. He's a little undersized at 5-10 and 179 pounds, but can get up in the air and breaks well on the ball.
Watch Out For … Browning to improve throughout the year. While not spectacular in his playmaking skills, he's rapidly being recognized for his technique and know-how. With more reps and live action, he's only going to get better as a sophomore.
Strength: The safeties. Howell and Thomas give Stanford one of the ten best safety duos in the country. Both are physical, athletic, and capable of emulating cornerbacks when the ball is in the air. Injuries aside, the Cardinal can use 2011 to groom the sophomores on the second and third team, preparing them for taking over next fall.
Weakness: Cornerback. Sure, there's potential, but there's also uncertainty now that the team's best cover guy has graduated. Bademosi can be inconsistent and Browning, while brimming with potential, is still in just his second year removed from high school.
Outlook: The Cardinal made a quantum in pass defense a year ago. It's up to this season's rebuilt group to prove that the 2010 secondary was no one-hit wonder. The safeties are set with Howell and Thomas, leaving the cornerbacks to step up and gel before the opener. If they're not up to the challenge, the pass defense is liable to suffer accordingly.
Unit Rating: 7.5
State of the Unit: The primary special teams concern heading into the summer is to find a replacement for All-Pac-10 PK Nate Whitaker, who was 17-of-19 on field goal attempts last year. Younger brother Eric Whitaker, a sophomore, is one option, though he's being challenged by redshirt freshman Jordan Williamson . Coming out of spring, this was too close to call.
At punter, the program has two players with ample experience. Junior Daniel Zychlinski was the primary option in 2010, 41.8 yards on 24 attempts. However, versatile senior David Green got in the mix late, averaging 43 yards and having half of his eight punts fair caught. Both could be used this fall.
Junior Drew Terrell and sophomore Usua Amanam are vying for reps in the return game. Amanam averaged 21.4 yards on kickoffs, while Terrell posted a healthy 12.2 yards on punts.
Watch Out For … the health of Chris Owusu . One of the country's most lethal kick returners when he's healthy, he's rarely at full-strength. In fact, he missed six games last year and the spring to get healthy. This is the same Cardinal weapon who took three back for touchdowns in 2009.
Strength: The return game. Yeah, a lot depends on the availability of Owusu, but if he's ready to go, Stanford has a legitimate game-changer on special teams. Oh, and Terrell was a pleasant surprise last fall, ranking fourth in the league in punt returns.
Weakness: Uncertainty at placekicker. Not only will the Cardinal be breaking in a new one, but it has to replace an All-Pac-10 first teamer. Admittedly, Stanford didn't need the kicker to be great last season, but there's going to be a game or two where a skittish kicker would prove costly.
Outlook: Brian Polian's special teams unit has tailed off a bit from this time last year. Whitaker is gone, Owusu is a question mark, and the coverage teams need to tighten up some loose ends. The group is a point of emphasis, with most of the attention going to the competition at kicker.
Unit Rating: 7
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