2012 Stanford Preview – Defense
Stanford LB Chase Thomas
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Stanford Cardinal Defense
Preview 2012 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: Once again operating out of a 3-4 alignment, Derek Mason's front seven is going to be suffocating. While the defensive line will miss the motor and intensity of DE Matt Masifilo, there's plenty of talent left in the wake. DE Ben Gardner was an All-Pac-12 second-teamer in 2011, and NG Terrance Stephens played well in his first year as a full-timer. Plus, the staff really likes the upside of young ends Henry Anderson and Josh Mauro. It's on the second level where the Cardinal might harbor the best collection of linebackers in America. The unit boasts the depth, talent and size to stuff the run, while consistently exploit the holes in an O-line on blitzes. Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov are All-American candidates on the outside and inside, respectively, though Skov still must get past last season's ACL tear and February's DUI arrest. Trent Murphy, Jarek Lancaster and James Vaughters will further flood the field with big, physical playmakers. The biggest question mark on this defense—by far—is the secondary. Three starters are gone, namely all-star S Delano Howell. Corners Barry Browning and Terrence Brown are the lone holdovers, but it remains to be seen who'll join them in the lineup. Safeties Jordan Richards and Kyle Olugbode got the most first-team reps in the spring, but the competition will heat up again in the summer.
Star of the defense: Senior LB Chase Thomas
Tackles: Jarek Lancaster, 70
Sacks: Chase Thomas, 8.5
Interceptions: Multiple players, 1
Player who has to step up and become a star:Junior CB Barry Browning
Unsung star on the rise:Junior LB Trent Murphy
Best pro prospect: Thomas
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Thomas, 2) Senior LB Shayne Skov, 3) Junior DE Ben Gardner
Strength of the defense: Linebackers, run defense, the pass rush, third-down defense
Weakness of the defense: The defensive backfield, lateral speed, red-zone D
The Cardinal welcomes back a pair of starters from last year's three-man front. One of the pleasant surprises of 2011 was the play of 6-4, 274-pound DE Ben Gardner, who quietly played his way on to the All-Pac-12 Second Team. The beefed-up junior made 35 tackles, 10 stops for loss and 4.5 sacks in just his first year as a starter. Overlooked coming out of high school in Wisconsin, he has played with a chip on his shoulder ever since, operating with a motor and a level of intensity that rubs off on the guys around him.
The competition to replace Matt Masifilo at the other end position will come down to two players, 6-6, 273-pound sophomore Henry Anderson and 6-6, 275-pound junior Josh Mauro. Both similarly-sized players impressed during the spring, lending hope that there'll be minimal drop-off at the position. They are big, long-armed and tenacious at the point of attack. Mauro had four tackles and a couple of sacks last year, while Anderson got in on six stops.
Back for his second—and final—year at the nose is 6-2, 296-pound senior Terrence Stephens. He plays with the upper body strength and pad level to eat blockers, but the coaches would like to see a little more production from their lone tackle up front. He had just 11 tackles and four stops for loss, despite the fact that opposing lines had so many other Cardinal defenders with which to contend.
Watch Out For … Anderson and Mauro to split reps during the season. Not only are they so similar, but both ends appeared in the spring of being up to the challenge. The coaches like to rotate whenever possible, so both players will get plenty of opportunities to make plays regardless of who actually gets the start.
Strength: Run defense. The linebackers get all of the pub for the team's stout run D, but this three-man line is going to hold its own as well. Averaging well over 275 pounds from left to right, they're tough at the point of attack, able to gum up running lanes and always playing to the whistle. Particularly in short-yardage defense, this unit will be very tough to move off the ball.
Weakness: Proven penetrators. Big? Yes. Quick to the pocket? Not so much. Gardner being the exception, the Cardinal D-line is going to strike fear into opponents with its ability to consistently collapse the pocket. This ensemble is more about holding the line so that the linebackers can wreak havoc in the backfield.
Outlook: The defensive line will once again be trading style for substance. While there's not a lot of flash inherent to this group, it has been constructed pretty much to the staff's liking. Gardner is going to set the tone for a trio of starters that fights to the whistle, and does a solid job of stuffing the run. They won't pile up the sacks, but their benefit to the defense as a whole will be undeniable.
Unit Rating: 7
The program was shrewd to shift to a 3-4 alignment a couple of years ago. It was a necessity in order to get all of those talented linebackers off the sidelines, and on to the field. The Cardinal is loaded here, a situation bolstered further by the anticipated return of 6-3, 244-pound Shayne Skov. It's been a tough past year for the senior. Last September, he suffered a season-ending knee injury, and in February, he was arrested on a DUI that might cost him time this fall. Suffice it to say, he's eager to rebound in 2012. A beast from the inside for the Cardinal defense, he impacts the game as a run-stuffer, pass rusher and coverage guy. For his size, he has the uncommon range to make plays all over the field. Plus, his instincts are sharp, and his intensity and passion for the game are boundless. In his last full season, Skov was just beginning to hit his stride in 2010. He capped a breakout sophomore year by tormenting Virginia Tech for 12 tackles, four stops for loss and three sacks in an Orange Bowl rout. However, he made just 19 tackles with 1.5 sacks in just over two games last season before getting hurt.
The likely Cardinal to line up next to Skov on the inside will be 6-1, 235-pound junior Jarek Lancaster. He started the final 10 games after Skov was injured, finishing the year with a team-high 70 tackles, seven stops for loss and 3.5 sacks. While not very big by this program's standard, he plays with good lateral quickness and the instincts to continue developing as a run-stopper. Lancaster will move back into the shadows a bit this year, but could be the group leader in 2013.
Not just talented on the inside, Stanford is deep as well. Sophomore A.J. Tarpley cannot be ignored after starting eight games and finishing third on the team with 57 tackles. The 6-2, 232-pounder plays with the sound fundamentals to displace Lancaster, or do no worse than being a key part of the rotation. Barring an injury, 6-2, 250-pound sophomore James Vaughters will have to wait another year before truly hitting the primetime. The mega-recruit from the 2011 class earned a letter and made 11 tackles in what promises to be a terrific career on the Farm.
Senior Chase Thomas is to the outside linebackers what Skov is to the inside. The 6-4, 245-pounder is a hybrid for the Cardinal, part-linebacker and part-defensive end. The First Team All-Pac-12 pick showcased his closing speed and natural pass rushing skills in 2011, collecting 52 tackles and team-highs with 17.5 stops for loss and 8.5 sacks. He explodes off the snap, fights through blocks and will never quit on a play. Thomas could have been in the NFL right now, opting instead to return to school for one final season. He'll again rank among the league's top pass rushers, routinely making his presence felt in the backfield.
Forming a dominant bookend with Thomas will be junior Trent Murphy. He's coming off a building block season as a full-timer in which he made 40 tackles, 10 stops for loss and 6.5 sacks. He's Thomas, but bigger. Murphy goes 6-6 and 255 pounds, yet has the sudden burst off the snap, upper body strength and long arms needed to school opposing tackles. While he'll put his hand in the dirt frequently, he can also drop back into coverage to blanket even the league's biggest and best tight ends.
The staff can also lean on 6-2, 232-pound senior Alex Debniak, the veteran of three career letters. He had 10 stops as a special teams performer and reserve on defense.
Watch Out For … the rotation to spin like a merry-go-round. Every program in the country goes two-deep, but Stanford goes two-deep. Expect to see as many as eight or nine of the team's linebackers earn letters this season, good news for both the current team and next year's edition.
Strength: Cranking up the heat. The linebackers are an extension of the D-line, often pressing up to the line of scrimmage before pinning their ears back. From the outside, Thomas and Murphy excel at getting into the backfield, combining for 27.5 stops for minus yards in 2011. Skov, too plays with a perpetual head of steam, getting to the quarterback 7.5 times in 2010.
Weakness: Speed to the edge. If there's a knock on the Cardinal linebackers, it's that they can be a little deliberate in string out running plays. It's an undetectable nit-pick against just about every opponent on the schedule except Oregon. In the most important game of 2011, the Ducks LaMichael James burned Stanford for 146 yards and three touchdowns on just 20 carries.
Outlook: If Stanford isn't home to the nation's deepest collection of linebackers, it's certainly in the top 5. The Cardinal boasts two All-America candidates, Skov and Thomas, a slew of returning starters and a general embarrassment of riches in terms of both depth and talent. This second level of the D is so good that it promises to make everyone around it better. The linebackers are going to do it all this fall, from rushing the passer and stuffing the run to supporting the secondary in coverage.
Unit Rating: 10
The secondary was Stanford's biggest defensive concern in 2011. Still is. From the 95th-ranked group that only picked off seven passes, three starters must be replaced. Junior Barry Browningis back after starting three games in 2011, and making 21 stops and a pick. The 6-1, 179-pounder has terrific size to go along with the requisite agility and speed, but needs to improve his overall coverage skills if he's going to maintain a spot atop the depth chart.
The program's most experienced corner is 6-1, 174-pound junior Terrence Brown. The nine-game starter in 2011 made 43 tackles, but only had one pick and five pass breakups. Not unlike Browning, Brown looks the part, and has a great frame for the position, but needs to come up with more big plays when the ball is in the air this season.
The wild card among the cornerbacks is 6-1, 194-pound redshirt freshman Wayne Lyons. An elite, four-star recruit from a year, he had his season cut short by an injury after just two games. From a physical standpoint, he's already among the most gifted athletes of the secondary, blending fluid hips with the pop and tackling skills of a safety.
Both safeties must be replaced. The frontrunner at strong safety is 5-11, 211-pound sophomore Jordan Richards. In a part-time starting role when starter Delano Howell was injured, Richards acquitted himself well in 2011, making 31 tackles, and getting more comfortable as the season wore on. Big enough to deliver the payload in run defense, he also has the ball skills to make errant throws hurt. He currently enjoys an edge on sophomore Ed Reynolds, who has the tools, but sat out last year with a knee injury, a recurring problem. The 6-2, 204-pounder is cautious optimistic that he can go full bore in the summer.
At free safety, it's a toss-up between 6-1, 195-pound sophomore Kyle Olugbode and 6-1, 200-pound junior Devon Carrington. Carrington has a deeper resume, making 30 tackles and a couple of fumble recoveries a year ago. He's poised to earn a starting job for the first time in his career. Looking to keep him out of the lineup will be Olugbode, a hard hitter with surprisingly good range.
Watch Out For … jobs to be up for grabs in the summer. Very little is cemented in granite at this point, meaning competition is going to be intense in August. The Cardinal houses a lot of good players, but few defensive backs who can be considered locks or all-star-caliber at this stage of their careers. The staff will be watching very closely as it attempts to get the four best players on the field.
Strength: Length. The Cardinal has good size in the secondary, a plus when facing some of the Pac-12's taller receivers. The standard is right around 6-1, including the cornerbacks, a luxury in an age of pass-catchers who can elevate high into the air in order to pull the ball down.
Weakness: Pass coverage. Too many big plays. Not enough picks. Even when the Cardinal was a veteran-laden group, it ranked 73rd nationally in pass efficiency D, picking off just seven passes all year, and regressing as the season unfolded. With uncertainty the theme heading into 2012, there's no telling where this group is headed.
Outlook: No unit will test Stanford's ability to return to a third straight BCS bowl game than the defensive backfield. It's young, vulnerable and about to be exploited by a schedule dotted with quality hurlers. While there is raw talent in place, the staff has a mandate to get those young up to speed as quickly as possible … preferably before league play begins.
Unit Rating: 6.5
Stanford will have no shortage of placekickers entering the 2012 season, but a new punter is needed. David Green exhausted his eligibility, so it's good news that senior Daniel Zychlinski
still has one year remaining. No novice, he handled the job on a part-time basis in 2010, and had three attempts for an average of 31.3 yards last fall. He's no boomer, but is a luxury for a squad losing its primary punter.
The Cardinal has had an all-conference kicker in each of the last two seasons. Sophomore Jordan Williamson remains on the Farm. In his debut, he was a modest 13-of-19 on field goal attempts, but also showcased a big leg by ranking No. 12 nationally at 66.5 yards per kickoff. The program needs him to rebound from Fiesta Bowl nightmare that included a missed 35-yarder in the final seconds that would have won the game.
No changes are expected among the return men. Sophomore Ty Montgomery averaged more than 25 yards a kickoff to rank No. 4 in the Pac-12. With an average of 12 yards a touch, senior Drew Terrell led the league in punt returns, and was No. 12 in the country.
Watch Out For … a lot of angled punts out of Zychlinski. Since he won't often outkick his coverage or hang the ball in the air as if it's a kite, the senior will opt instead to leverage his biggest asset at the position—directional kicks.
Strength: The return game. There was a silver lining to former Cardinal Chris Owusu's injury problems; they opened the door for Terrell and Montgomery to showcase their ability on special teams. Both took full advantage of their chance in 2011, ranking among the Pac-12's most dangerous returners. The offense could use a little kick start this fall, and the aforementioned athletes are prepped to provide it.
Weakness: Punting game. The situation could be a lot worse, but there's a reason why Zychlinski lost his job before the start of the 2011 season. Relative to the talent surrounding him on this unit, he's the weak link as the new season rapidly approaches.
Outlook: The Cardinal will rank in the top half of the Pac-12's special teams units for 2012. The kicker is an all-star, the punter has been around the block a few times and the return game will be a consistent threat to rip off the kinds of plays that dictate field position. If Stanford continues to cover punts and kicks with relatively well, there'll be few outcries about this group.
Unit Rating: 6
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