2010 Stanford Preview – Defense
Stanford LB Shayne Skov
CollegeFootballNews.com 2010 Preview - Stanford Cardinal Defense
Preview 2010 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: Desperate times call for desperate measures. In an effort to solve a defense that was pitiful last season, Jim Harbaugh has hired coordinator Vic Fangio, who has spent the past quarter-century in the NFL. He has an extensive and impressive resume, but how will he translate to the college game? His first step will be to install a 3-4 defense that the Cardinal began getting accustomed to in the spring. The obvious need for more linebackers has meant changes in location for the likes of Owen Marecic and Chase Thomas, who are better known as a fullback and defensive end, respectively. Even leading pass rusher Thomas Keiser could be in a hybrid role that mixes in elements of defensive end and outside linebacker. The biggest concern—again—will be the ability of the secondary to survive in a Pac-10 flush with quality quarterbacks and receivers.
Star of the defense: Junior DE/LB Thomas Keiser
Tackles: Delano Howell, 78
Sacks: Thomas Keiser, 9
Interceptions: Delano Howell, Richard Sherman, 2
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior CB Corey Gatewood
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Shayne Skov
Best pro prospect: Keiser
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Keiser, 2) Junior SS Delano Howell, 3) Skov
Strength of the defense: The defensive line,
Weakness of the defense: Pass defense, run defense, creating turnovers, creating pressure, third down defense, red zone defense
Projected Starters: The switch to a 3-4 defense means fewer concerns about depth and a greater focus on the nose tackle. In this case, 6-2, 307-pound senior Sione Fua. In his first season of significant action, he played very well, starting 11 games and parlaying 24 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks into All-Pac-10 honorable mention recognition. An explosive interior lineman, he has the quickness and upper body strength to dominate many opposing blockers. He's exactly the type of player the Cardinal wants to anchor the middle of the line.
It's a bit of a mystery right now where 6-5, 249-pound junior Thomas Keiser is going to be lining up. The one certainty is that he's going to be starting and he's going to be around the ball a lot. Another honorable mention All-Pac-10 selection, he has the speed and passing rushing skills to play defensive end, but can also be used as a hybrid of sorts at outside linebacker. He built on a terrific first year by racking up 47 tackles and team-highs with 15 tackles for loss and nine sacks, routinely beating tackles with a quick step and an insatiable appetite for the backfield.
A candidate to start at the other end spot is junior Matt Masifilo, a former can't-miss recruit, who has yet to reach full potential. Although he's lettered twice, he's been hampered by injuries, making just 18 tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack in eight games a year ago. At 6-3 and 270 pounds, he'll serve as more of a strongside option, using his strength, motor, intensity, and quickness to support in run defense.
Projected Top Reserves: Providing depth and competition for Fua in the middle will be 6-4, 273-pound senior Brian Bulcke, who was selected sixth overall by the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL in May. A real grinder, who has played in 35 career games and started nine, he'll bring a blue-collar toughness and stability to the second unit if he can remain off the trainer's table.
On the outside, there's hope that 6-6, 253-pound redshirt freshman Josh Mauro can grow up in a hurry and provide some heat off the bench. A terrific athlete, who has added considerable weight without losing a step, he has the long frame and light feet to begin emerging as the future at defensive end for the program.
Watch Out For … Masifilo to begin emerging into the prospect everyone had to have three years ago. He's had some bad breaks along the way, but the new alignment could wind up playing in his favor. Removed from the traffic, where his size became a hurdle, he's capable of spicing up the pass rush with his frenetic style and non-stop motor.
Strength: First line potential. When the Cardinal lines up with Keiser, Fua, and Masifilo, it'll put forth three quality athletes, who are going to bring it until the whistle on every play. All three are quicker than their size might indicate and a handful for opposing blocker to keep out of the backfield.
Weakness: Consistency. Whether it was the pass rush or run defense, this group lacked consistency on a week-to-week basis. It's imperative that the linemen bring it on a weekly basis, including a collection of backups that's largely unproven and untested.
Outlook: If injuries and position switches weren't a part of the discussion, Stanford would be just fine up front, especially as Keiser and Fua emerge. However, that's not the case, and the Cardinal could learn early that some of its kids must contribute. With confidence in the reserves, it'll also give the staff the flexibility it needs to freelance Keiser in different spots.
Unit Rating: 7.5
Projected Starters: In Vic Fangio's new 3-4 defense, the linebackers are undergoing a noticeable makeover that's required some shifting of positions. The most prominent mover is 6-1, 243-pound Owen Marecic, a three-time all-star fullback. Slated to start on the inside, he played some linebacker a year, and has more than enough toughness, know-how, and dedication to turn this decision into a win for the defense. After being an unsung hero since arriving, it'll be interesting to see how he reacts to a more visible role.
Joining Marecic on the inside will be 6-3, 242-pound Shayne Skov, one of the undisputed rising young stars on defense. As good as advertised in his debut on campus, he broke into the lineup and finished third on the team with 62 tackles and three stops behind the line. The prototype at the position, he has everything coaches seek in a run-stopper at middle linebacker. Big, fast, and instinctive, he has the diagnostic skills of a much older player and an All-Pac-10 ceiling before too long.
The need for outside linebackers has prompted the staff to move former DE Chase Thomas back a level, where he'll have a greater opportunity to roam the field. Because of the sophomore's size, this is going to be a benefit anyway for the 6-4, 233-pound sophomore. He showed plenty of flashes and natural pass rushing skills after Erik Lorig was lost last year, starting eight games and making 36 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and four sacks. If he picks up the nuances of the position fast enough, he's got the range to make a ton of big plays this year.
After taking it all in his first two years, 6-2, 233-pound sophomore Alex Debniak is set to explode now that he has an opportunity for a full-time gig. Never quite right health-wise, he took last year off, with an eye toward cracking the lineup in 2010. An outstanding physical specimen, he has terrific speed to go along with a frenetic playing style that fits the Cardinal's quest to bring pressure from the second level.
Projected Top Reserves: Whether he winds up starting or not, 6-0, 239-pound senior Chike Amajoyi is going to be an absolute luxury for this unit on the outside. He's played a lot of football for Stanford, earning a letter in each of the last three seasons and starting the first half of 2009. An athletic defender, who covers from sideline to sideline, he had 56 tackles a year ago and is dependable in pass coverage when not matched with taller receivers.
In an effort to bolster the corps of inside linebackers, 6-2, 229-pound junior Max Bergen has relocated after beginning his career at weakside. Although he's earned a letter in each of the last two seasons, his playing time has been relegated to special teams, making just four stops a year ago. Still, he has the athleticism of a safety, lending high hopes for his final two years on campus.
Watch Out For … Marecic's transition from offense. This is a story that's going to gain traction nationally as the season develops. Not only is the blue-collar fullback getting a chance for more visibility, but he's being viewed as one of the keys to Stanford's shift to a 3-4. Already a fan favorite, his Q rating is about to soar.
Strength: Toughness. Although there is some finesse in this group, it's personality is more of a rugged, in-your-face style of defense. The Cardinal linebackers have excellent overall size and strength, making ballcarriers earn every yard they gain. They can handle pulling guards and will excel against the run.
Weakness: Pass coverage. This will be the area most likely to impact the imports. With all of the changes that have hit this unit, the Cardinal will be especially vulnerable through the air, lacking the elite speed to keep up with some of the league's quicker tight ends.
Outlook: Although there are quality linebackers embedded within this group, it could take a while for all of them to mesh and understand their spot on the field. Skov is a sure-thing to blossom into a star, but the final grade for the Cardinal will depend on the transition of Marecic and Thomas to their new digs.
Unit Rating: 7
Projected Starters: Considering last year's feeble results, no one is content just to have most of last year's letterwinners back in the secondary. It's time for the holdovers to begin playing much better. One of the cornerstones will be 5-11, 198-pound junior SS Delano Howell, who made a successful transition from offense a year ago. In his first year in the secondary, he finished second on the team with 78 tackles and added a couple of picks. He has an ideal blend of speed and aggression to go along with last season's much-needed dozen games of experience.
Working to join Howell at free safety is 6-0, 196-pound senior Taylor Skaufel, a veteran of three letters and last season's backup to Bo McNally. Though he's had a lot of experience with the program, most of it has come on special teams, and he contributed just 10 stops in 2009. A solid tackler in the open field, he'll be judged mostly by his ability shut down receivers and keep the ball in front of him.
Both of last season's primary cornerbacks are hoping to reprise that role this fall. On one side, 6-3, 197-pound senior Richard Sherman has fully adapted to the defensive backfield after starting off his career as a playmaking receiver. From a physical standpoint, he has next-level measurables and upside, but has to improve his technique and cut down the number of blown assignments.
On the other side, 5-11, 189-pound senior Corey Gatewood has the edge following the most extensive action of his career. He played in 10 games and started six as a junior, making 28 tackles and a pick. However, despite all of his athletic ability, he broke up just a single pass, calling into question his cover skills and ability to adjust to balls in the air.
Projected Top Reserves: Gatewood's biggest challenge is going to come from 6-1, 199-pound junior Johnson Bademosi, who split time in the lineup a year ago. He played in every game, starting six and making 28 tackles and four pass breakups. While it's a common and frustrating theme in this group, he has no shortage of physical gifts, but has to do a much better job of cutting off passing lanes.
In line to become the first safety off the bench is 6-4, 219-pound senior Austin Yancy . Marked by an up-and-down career and position changes, he'll bring experience and a tremendous combination of size, speed, and physicality to the final line of defense. A former starter back in 2007, he chipped in with 23 tackles as a reserve last fall and will give breathers to Howell at strong safety.
Versatile junior Michael Thomas continues to make a push for more playing time. Unlike a year ago, however, when he played cornerback, he's being moved to free safety. At 5-11 and 185 pounds, he'll have to overcome modest size for the position with his speed and top-notch athleticism. A former option quarterback in high school, who just keeps getting better on defense, he made 23 tackles and broke up five passes as a backup in 2009.
Watch Out For … Howell to move a step closer to the All-Pac-10 team. The ease with which he transitioned to defense even surprised the staff a year ago. He's always been an elite athlete, but he also has a high football IQ and a great work ethic, which are going to hasten his development at strong safety.
Strength: Bodies. Although there are a lot of shortcomings here, adequate experience is not going to be one of them. The Cardinal will fill out the two-deep with returning players, welcoming back a whopping nine defensive backs who earned a letter in 2009.
Weakness: Cover skills. This continues to be a major concern for the Cardinal on defense. Stanford simply gives up too much ground in pass defense, often lacking the skill to match up with the league's better receivers. In a familiar scene, it was burned for 23 touchdown passes, picked off just eight, and ranked 110th nationally at stopping the pass.
Outlook: Easily the Achilles' heel of the program, the secondary is a never-ending work-in-progress. The staff has thrown a lot of good athletes at the problem, but it hasn't resulted in tighter coverage or fewer blown assignments. Even if progress is made, the league's better quarterbacks will again have success versus this inconsistent group.
Unit Rating: 6.5
Projected Starters: Senior Nate Whitaker did a solid job in his first year as the Cardinal placekicker, making 16-of-22 field goal tries and improving his consistency as the season wore on. A transfer from Notre Dame, with above average leg drive, he'll be available for 50-yarders in the fall, especially if there's a little help from the wind at his back.
Versatile junior David Green held off sophomore Daniel Zychlinski a year ago, and returns to once again handle punting duties. Overcoming prior issues with his back, he raised his average from the previous season to 41.2 yards, doing his part to help the team to a third place finish in net punting.
The return game will contend to be one of the best in America, bolstered by junior Chris Owusu and senior Richard Sherman. Owusu ranked No. 5 nationally in kickoff returns, taking three back for touchdowns, and Sherman scored a touchdown of his own, while averaging more than 10 yards on punt returns.
Watch Out For … the new holder. The departure of Bo McNally is the only uncertainty heading into the season for the Cardinal special teams unit. He'll be missed, creating some competition for the opening in the offseason.
Strength: The return game. In Owusu, Sherman, and even junior Delano Howell , the Cardinal has athletes, who will force the other team to kick the ball away from them. As if the offense needs more help, these returners are going to be a boon to field position.
Weakness: Punting. It's the ultimate splitting of hairs, but Green can be a little erratic at times and doesn't possess the booming leg of some other league punters. Had he qualified with enough opportunities in 2009, he only would have ranked sixth in a 10-team league.
Outlook: New coordinator Brian Polian has to be pinching himself after inheriting such a complete special teams unit. Showing no glaring holes, the Cardinal has a veteran punter and kicker, covers kicks like a blanket, and features one of the most dangerous collections of return men in America.
Unit Rating: 9
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