2013 Stanford Preview – Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - Stanford Cardinal Defense
Preview 2013 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: Ever so quietly, coordinator Derek Mason continues to do an outstanding job of attracting and coaching up the defensive talent at Stanford. His 3-4-based D was suffocating again last year, leading the Pac-12 in run defense, scoring defense and total defense. More of the same is expected in 2013. In fact, the Cardinal will boast one of this year's nastiest defenses. All but three starters return, meaning there are all-league, if not All-American candidates, at each level of Mason's attacking, disciplined group. The front seven is especially dominant, a looming handful for every opponent on the schedule. Stanford is loaded with big and physical playmakers, ranging from ends Ben Gardner, Henry Anderson and Josh Mauro to yin-yang linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov. Forget running the ball on this D, even as new NG David Parry gets broken in. Throwing on the Cardinal? Not a whole lot easier, particularly with safeties Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards roaming around and looking to capitalize on mistakes. The corners aren't elite, but you'll rarely know it with all of the support they receive.
Star of the defense: Senior LB Shayne Skov
Tackles: Shayne Skov, 81
Sacks: Trent Murphy, 10
Interceptions: Ed Reynolds, 6
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior NG David Parry
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore CB Alex Carter
Best pro prospect: Skov
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Skov, 2) Senior LB Trent Murphy, 3) Junior FS Ed Reynolds
Strength of the defense: The ends, the pass rush, run defense, pass defense, linebacker, leadership, third-down D, red-zone D, limiting big plays, depth
Weakness of the defense: Nose guard, edge speed
The Cardinal is seeking a new nose guard now that Terrence Stephens has graduated. The ends? Well, they're going to be well-fortified with talent and experience. Both of last season's starters, senior Ben Gardner and junior Henry Anderson played their way on to the All-Pac-12 Second Team in 2012. For the 6-4, 275-pound Gardner, it was his second straight year as an all-star, the reward for making 49 tackles, 14.5 stops for loss and 7.5 sacks. The high-motor Wisconsin native really wanted to be a Badger four years ago, but instead has carved out an improbably good career on the Farm. Gardner brings toughness, physicality and an infectious attitude to the first line of Stanford D.
Anderson was revelatory in his debut as the successor to Matt Masifilo, making 51 stops, 13 for minus yards and 5.5 sacks. He was largely overlooked, and may be again this fall, but doing so can be perilous to opposing offenses. At 6-6 and 282 pounds, he's long, lean and very athletic, with the wingspan to obstruct the vision of quarterbacks. Yet, Anderson is also tough enough to move inside to the nose in certain nickel packages, testament to his flexibility as a lineman. He saved arguably his best game of 2012 for the upset of unbeaten Oregon, getting in on seven tackles, 2.5 stops for loss and a sack.
Testament to Stanford's depth at end, Anderson is being pushed by 6-6, 281-pound senior Josh Mauro for a starting spot. Mauro plays the game with a high motor and the reckless abandon that leads to momentum-building plays. He made the most of his limited opportunities off the bench a year ago, collecting 19 tackles, seven stops for loss, five sacks and a pair of fumble recoveries.
At the all-important nose guard spot in the 3-4, junior David Parry is on the verge of winning the starting assignment. He got a nice crash course last fall, starting three games, including the Rose Bowl, and notching 28 tackles, three stops behind the line and a pair of sacks. The 6-2, 303-pound self-made grinder arrived as a preferred walk-on in 2010, and has thrived on physicality and a tremendous work ethic.
Watch Out For … redshirt freshman Ikenna Nwafor to establish himself as the long-term future at the nose. Nah, the 6-6, 288-pound force probably doesn't start right away, but he'll become an increasingly important cog in the rotation. He's dropped unnecessary weight since arriving, now possessing the size and quickness needed to bust through O-line gaps.
Strength: Owning the line of scrimmage. Stanford stood No. 5 in the country against the run, allowing three yards a carry, while leading the FBS in sacks. The dominance of the D-line had plenty to do with the aforementioned stellar results. The Cardinal is bigger and stronger than most of its opponents, often blowing up plays before they have a chance to develop.
Weakness: The nose. The Cardinal isn't necessarily vulnerable in the middle with Parry and Nwafor, but the difference between the ends and the tackles is stark. Stephens was a reliable veteran plugger who'd frequently occupy more than one blocker. While isn't replacing a standout, he will have to be a factor in run defense this year.
Outlook: The D-line is very similar to the O-line on the Farm, experienced, exceedingly physical and flush with returning talent. Yeah, Parry has a lot to prove at nose guard, but he'll be bookended and supported by two terrific defensive ends. The rotation of Gardner, Anderson and Mauro is one of the hardest working and most disruptive in America, a trio that'll conduct frequent meeting in opposing backfields this fall.
Unit Rating: 8.5
Depth and quality at linebacker is especially critical at Stanford, which operates out of a 3-4 alignment. Good thing for the Cardinal that it's once again well-stocked at the second level. The leader on the outside will be pass-rush specialist Trent Murphy, particularly now that bookend Chase Thomas is off to the NFL. Murphy could have followed his teammate to the pros, opting instead to return for his senior year. He's like a chess piece, moving around to whatever spot that allows him to do the most damage. The 6-6, 261-pound All-Pac-12 first-teamer, and third-team All-American, is most dangerous near the line, where he can zero in on the quarterback. Long-armed, strong at the point of attack, and skilled with his hands as a rusher, he made 56 tackles, while leading the D with 18 stops for loss and 10 sacks.
Murphy's equal on the inside will be senior Shayne Skov, who's itching to use 2013 as a springboard to Sundays. After missing most of 2011 to a knee injury, and beginning last fall on suspension, he's eager to recapture the form that had him pegged as a rising star two years ago. Skov played well a season ago, making a team-high 81 tackles, nine stops for loss and 2.5 sacks. But, he's capable of so much more. The emotional and physical 6-3, 244-pounder is a ferocious run-stopper, with the range, tenacity and instincts to impact a game in myriad different ways. Skov is seeking redemption in his final year as an amateur.
Partnering with Skov on the inside will be 6-2, 237-pound A.J. Tarpley, a starter in 17 games over the last two seasons. A year ago, the junior registered career highs with 66 tackles, seven stops for loss and a couple of sacks. Underrated due to his surroundings, Tarpley probably won't get the recognition he deserves until his senior year, when Murphy and Skov are gone. However, he possesses the range and instincts to continue earning the praise of the staff.
A pair of juniors, 6-5, 258-pound Blake Lueders and 6-2, 245-pound James Vaughters are still jostling for the opening at outside linebacker once filled by Thomas. Vaughters is the more heralded of the two, a can't-miss recruit from the 2011 class. He has immense untapped potential that could start being approached in 2013. He's lettered in his first two seasons, even starting the first four games, but eventually wound up with only 26 tackles as a reserve. Lueders sat out last year to recover from a shoulder injury, but is back and healthy again. He's a tweener, with the size and presence to be a poor-man's Murphy on the outside.
Whoever finishes second between Lueders and Vaughters will be the top reserve at outside linebacker. That guy on the inside will be 6-1, 232-pound fifth-year senior Jarek Lancaster. The steady veteran off the bench has lettered in each of the last three years, starting the final 10 games of 2011 after Skov was injured and leading the Cardinal in tackles. He pitched in with 36 stops a year ago, and is a luxury to have on the B team.
Watch Out For … Vaughters. Is he ready to begin approaching the advanced billing that preceded his arrival from the state of Georgia? Or is he doomed to being labeled overrated? It's a pivotal summer for No. 9 who' going to get the best that Lueders has to offer when practice resumes in August.
Strength: Ratcheting up the heat. The linebackers are essentially an extension of the D-line, often pressing up to the line of scrimmage before pinning their ears back. From the outside, Murphy excels at getting into the backfield, while Skov, too, plays in a perpetual state of motion. The Cardinal parts with just a single linebacker from a group that was responsible for 58.5 tackles for loss and 29 sacks a season ago.
Weakness: Speed to the edge. If there's a knock on the Stanford linebackers, and it's a bit of a nitpick, it's that they can be a little measured in stringing out running plays. It's an undetectable quibble against just about every opponent on the schedule except Oregon. Against the Ducks last year, the Cardinal yielded 198 yards, or more than 100 yards above its season average.
Outlook: If Stanford isn't home to the country's deepest ensemble of linebackers, it's certainly in the top 3. The Cardinal boasts a pair of All-America candidates, Skov and Murphy, a mess 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 will do it all this season, from rushing the passer and stuffing the run to supporting the secondary in coverage.
Unit Rating: 9.5
Five Cardinal defensive backs received some all-league consideration in 2012. All but one, CB Terrence Brown, remain on campus. Stanford will be especially stout at safety this season. A year after missing 2011 with an injury, junior FS Ed Reynolds was sensational in his starting debut, earning First Team All-Pac-12 and Third Team All-America. He'll just keep getting better with more snaps, but is already well on his way to becoming a complete player at free safety. Reynolds is 6-2 and 205 pounds, with advanced ball skills and cover ability. In other words, he can do it all out of the secondary. As an introduction to the Pac-12, he had 47 tackles and six picks, three of which he returned for touchdowns.
Reynolds' partner will be junior SS Jordan Richards, who also enjoyed an outstanding first year as a regular in the lineup. While the former is the better pass defender, the latter is much tougher versus the run. Richards is a hard-hitting 5-11, 208-pounder, who'll lower his shoulder and administer jarring hits on opposing ballcarriers. However, he shouldn't be typecasted as simply an enforcer. Sure, the honorable mention All-Pac-12 selection led all defensive backs with 68 tackles, but he also had three interceptions and a Cardinal-high 15 passes defended.
With Brown gone, the new mainstay of the cornerbacks is 6-0, 204-pound sophomore Alex Carter. The four-star recruit debuted with the program by starting four games, making 46 tackles, three stops for loss and three forced fumbles. Sure, there were growing pains in 2012. But, Carter has the potential to blossom into the total package at the position, an athletic cover guy with the physicality to support the run.
While Carter is the future at corner, 6-1, 193-pound junior Wayne Lyons brings a little more experience and a veteran feel to the position. Another of the team's former four-star recruits, he had his progress stunted by an injury in 2011. Lyons bounced back last year, but started only once and made just 25 tackles. At his best, he's one of the unit's most gifted all-around athletes, combining soft hips with the pop and tackling skills of a safety.
The wild card of the secondary is 5-10, 175-pound senior Usua Amanam, the versatile nickel back and reserve corner. After a quiet start to his career, he erupted into a playmaker in 2012, displaying an uncanny ability for never being too far from the action. The Rose Bowl Defensive Player of the Game only started four games, but finished the year with 59 tackles, 10.5 stops for loss, four sacks, eight passes defended and three fumble recoveries.
Coming off the bench, and battling Lyons for his job, will be a pair of quality seniors, 6-1, 179-pound Barry Browning and 6-1, 200-pound Devon Carrington. Carrington has great size and speed, but needs to tighten up his coverage skills. He made 23 tackles in 2012, and can be used at safety as well. Browning is no stranger to the lineup, starting five games last fall. He's a long and lean athlete, with the vertical ability to match up with taller pass-catchers.
Watch Out For … Carter to take the next step in his evolution as one of the Pac-12's top young corners. He's big, he's quick and he's improving his instincts all the time. In other words, he's going to surprise plenty of quarterbacks this fall, especially with all of the support he receives from Reynolds and Richards.
Strength: The safeties. Reynolds and Richards help give the Cardinal one of the better safety tandems in the Pac-12, if not all of college football. Both are playmakers on the last line of defense, watching the quarterback's eyes before jumping routes and getting their hands on the ball. Stanford has reliable depth at the position as well.
Weakness: Consistency. The pass defense was fantastic last year, but there were occasional breakdowns, such as the shootout with Arizona. Plus, Stanford would like to reduce the opposition's completion percentage this fall after yielding 61% in 2012, which only ranked 79th nationally.
Outlook: Once seen as the weakest link of the D, the secondary delivered a major and unexpected improvement a year ago. With so many returning players, and so much support from a nasty front seven, there's no reason to believe that the northern trend won't continue. Essentially playing four cornerback equivalents, the Cardinal will stick close to receivers, and should get their hands on a lot of errant throws this season.
Unit Rating: 8
Stanford returns junior PK Jordan Williamson, a seasoned veteran with a knack for coming through in the clutch. He kicked the game-winners against San Jose State, Oregon and UCLA in the Pac-12 Championship Game, though consistency has eluded him. Over the past two seasons, he's 30-of-46 on field goal tries, including just 6-of-16 beyond 40 yards.
The staff is still deciding on its punter, a tight battle between junior Ben Rhyne and redshirt freshman Conrad Ukropina. Rhyne has the edge in experience, both as a punter and a kickoff specialist. Ukropina, though, continues to surge since an arm injury ended his career as a prep quarterback.
Junior Ty Montgomery will once again be the staff's top option on kickoffs, a dangerous return man who's averaged more than 25 yards in each of his last two seasons. He might also be a contributor on punts, though sophomore Kodi Whitfield, junior Keanu Nelson and redshirt freshman Barry Sanders are getting long looks as well.
Watch Out For … the outcome of the punting battle. While the Cardinal D certainly doesn't need much help, it becomes downright impenetrable when the punter pins the opposition deep in its own territory. Rhyne is the veteran, but he would have the job already had he been markedly better than Ukropina.
Strength: The coverage teams. Running parallel to the defensive unit, Stanford was very stingy on special teams as well. The Cardinal rarely allowed an opposing return man to break loose, ranking 43rd nationally in punt coverage and 11th on kickoffs.
Weakness: The punting game. Stanford hasn't been great at punting during this recent run of success, and this season looks as if it'll be no different. A year after getting a yeoman's work out of Daniel Zychlinski, the unit is back to square one, trying to figure out of either Rhyne or Ukropina will be the answer in 2013.
Outlook: Flashes of brilliance, yet not quite enough consistency for the liking of the coaching staff. For every Williamson game-winner, there's a hooked field goal attempt. And for every long return from Montgomery, there's mediocrity from the punt returners. There are worse units in the Pac-12. But there are better, too.
Unit Rating: 5.5
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