(Offensive Preview to come soon)
The Stanford Cardinal come in to the 2014 season facing the daunting task of Pac-12 and Rose Bowl three-peat. It may be even harder this year, with many stalwarts on the defensive side of the ball from 2013 graduating. It will have to get past third-ranked Oregon in the Pac-12 North once again, although the Cardinal have prevailed in the last two contests. Kevin Hogan’s Stanford team has been kryptonite for Oregon and their high-octane offense. Will David Shaw and the Cardinal be able to overcome their daunting road schedule and reach the promised land, the sparkling new College Football Playoff?
It all starts with the defense for this Stanford program that plays a brand of hard-nose football envied around the nation. Last season, this team allowed a measly 19.0 points per game, good for tenth best in the country and first in the Pac-12. Will they be able to continue their dominance in 2014?
The dominant front seven that Stanford employed last season completely shut down the running game, holding opponents to a miniscule 2.9 yards per carry. It should be a force again in 2014.
Stanford will lose defensive ends Josh Mauro and Ben Gardner, stalwarts on the edge. Gardner, one of the Cardinal’s senior leaders, totaled 7.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks despite playing in only eight games, due to a torn pectoral muscle that ended his final college season early. He fell to the seventh round because of the injury, despite exceptional tools. (39.5″ vertical) He will be a tough part to replace.
Aziz Shittu, a junior and former five-star recruit, will work in tandem with fifth-year senior Blake Lueders to fill in for Gardner. Shittu has fallen short of his lofty expectations so far, totaling only five tackles in all of 2013. He has been behind many great players, so the playing time has not been consistently there. He should have blossomed in this newfound opportunity, but failed to pass the scrappy Lueders on the depth chart. Lueders was the superior player last year, collecting 23 tackles, five for loss, and 2.5 sacks. Lueders was a four-star recruit coming out of high school, so he is not exactly a walk-on. He has the experience knowledge of the system under his belt that Shittu lacks, and will likely take most of the snaps at defensive end.
Henry Anderson will start at the other end position. Anderson, an emotional leader for the team and a fifth-year senior, missed the beginning of last year after suffering a knee injury versus Army. He returned in full force, making nineteen tackles in eight games, along with three sacks. He is an Athlon Sports Pre-Season First-Team Pac-12 Honoree, and is on the watch list for numerous awards.
David Parry, another fifth-year senior, will hold down the nose tackle position, a role he has thrived in since being installed as the starter in 2012. The line will not miss a beat in 2014, with boatloads of veteran leadership, as all three are fifth-year seniors. As daunting a task it may seem, the combination of Shittu and Lueders will prove to be competent to replace Gardner, a prominent figure in Stanford’s resurgence as a program.
The Farm will certainly miss the presence of the menacing Shayne Skov, who graduated after his fifth-year senior season. His fire and ruthless play was invaluable for the success of this program, going to four BCS bowls under his leadership. Skov was sixth in Stanford history with 354 tackles in his career, despite only playing three games in 2011 after suffering a torn ACL. His instinct was unparalleled at the college level. One of the most memorable plays was his play to jump the snap against Taylor Kelly and ASU in the Pac-12 championship game.
Although no one can replicate Skov’s leadership and passion, Blake Martinez will be considered successful if he can mean half of what Skov meant. This is by no means a cheap shot at Martinez, but a testament to the ability of Skov. Martinez has received very little playing time because of Skov’s presence. He has, however, taken advantage of his limited opportunities. He thrived in the Big Game versus Cal, forcing a fumble, picking off Jared Goff and totaling six tackles in a blowout. He has shown Coach Shaw that, when given a chance, will give it his all to help the team win. He also showed up on a big stage in the Pac-12 Championship game, making five tackles in Stanford’s beat down of the Sun Devils. He is an underrated piece in the offense that will surprise many by playing an integral role in the defense in 2014, despite being an unheralded recruit.
A.J. Tarpley, another fifth-year senior, will try to emulate Skov’s role, being the veteran leader at inside linebacker. He was quietly great last year, making 93 hard-fought tackles, good for second on the team. An All Pac-12 Honorable Mention in 2013, Tarpley will continue to improve and gain more recognition as an elite linebacker, as he will take over a team captain spot, and was also honored as an USA Today’s preseason second-team All American. Skov’s name brand may be gone, but Tarpley is fully capable of reproducing Shayne’s production.
At the outside linebacker position, Trent Murphy leaves huge shoes for Kevin Anderson to fill. A consensus All American, his pass rushing presence will be sorely missed. Although he lacked speed and explosion, his motor, instincts, and variety of moves certainly made up for it. He ranked second nationally with 1.07 sacks/game, and fourth in the nation with 1.7 tackles for loss/game.
Anderson, a senior, has proved he can excel under the brightest of lights. He had a 40-yard interception return for a touchdown against Michigan State in the Rose Bowl, and would have had a second for a touchdown had he not dropped it. Anderson, a Palo Alto High School graduate, when asked about replacing Murphy, explained: “I want to emulate him on the field. But at the same time, I can’t think to myself, ‘I have to lead the nation in sacks like Trent did.'”
Anderson finished fourth on the team in tackles for loss, and should continue to improve and mature as a run-stopping outside linebacker. He in no way will be able play up to the pass-rushing caliber of Murphy. Murphy and Anderson are very different styles of player, as Anderson is built to stop the run.
James Vaughters was quietly brilliant in 2013, and will return even stronger in 2014. At 6’2″ and 258 pounds, he is an intimidating force for Stanford’s front seven. He was a major contributor in the landmark win versus Oregon, forcing a fumble, sacking Marcus Mariota, and adding four tackles. As a former four-star recruit, he will continue to grow, especially with gaining more experience at the outside linebacker position. He played on the inside in high school, and also played there in 2012.
The secondary simply could not measure up to the vaunted front seven in 2013, mostly because teams would run an Air-Raid offense to avoid running into Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy
The pass defense ranked eighth in the Pac-12 in total passing defense, but was tenth (behind only Cal and WSU) in opponent’s completion percentage (62.1%)
Stanford returns four out of five starters out of the secondary from 2013, the exception being Ed Reynolds. Reynolds made the curious decision to leave for the NFL Draft despite having another year of eligibility and having a down year (in terms of interceptions) in 2013. He was projected to be a sixth or seventh round pick, yet still left, and was taken in the fifth round by Philadelphia. A year being one yard short of setting the NCAA single-season record for interception return yards with 301 and a school record three returns for touchdowns, he only had one interception in 2013. He did improve upon his tackling(86 vs. 47), but still struggled to make plays in the open field.
Kyle Olugbode will replace Reynolds at free safety. He played in all fourteen games last year, totaling thirteen tackles in limited time. He may go through some growing pains early, as he has simply just not had the experience that Reynolds had.
The cornerback tandem of Alex Carter and Wayne Lyons will continue to lock down opposing receivers. Carter missed spring practice with a hip injury, but will be ready to go for the opener Saturday against UC Davis. His absence at practice created more opportunities to groom backups Ra’Chard Pippens and Ronnie Harris to play in the future. Carter was a four-star recruit, and has great ball skills coupled with explosiveness and quickness.
Lyons, also a four-star recruit, came into his own in 2013. He was fifth on the team in tackles with 69, and had two clutch fourth quarter interceptions to seal the game versus Notre Dame. He comes into 2014 being pegged as a third team preseason All-Pac 12 corner by Phil Steele.
Jordan Richards will return as the unquestioned leader of the secondary at strong safety. As a consensus preseason All American, it will be upon his shoulders to make up for the loss of Reynolds. He is up to the task, as he was a second team All Pac-12 player in 2013, according to Phil Steele. He is tough against the run, yet also excels in pass coverage. He will be playing on Sundays too soon for Stanford’s taste.
OVERVIEW: David Shaw’s abundant wealth of talent and exceptional scheming should be enough to make up for the loss of many senior leaders. However, road games versus #3 Oregon, #25 Washington, #7 UCLA, #18 Arizona State, and #17 Notre Dame will provide ample opportunities for slip ups. The daunting schedule, the toughest in the country, will be tough to overcome, especially given the way this team has played on the road in recent years.
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Cover Image: By Cynthia Yock (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons