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December 19, 2013
Notebook: Defensive front leaves a legacy
Over the last two seasons, Stanford's defense has recorded a combined 222 tackles for loss and 97 sacks, and has been widely recognized as one of the nation's top units. The Cardinal's senior-laden front-seven is a major reason why.
The group, which will play together for the final time in the 100th Rose Bowl, has been the catalyst behind two of the best defenses in program history and a pair of Pac-12 conference titles.
It's also been responsible for several season-defining plays. Cardinal defensive coordinator Derek Mason pointed to the goalline stands against Oregon in 2012 and Arizona State in the Pac-12 title games as moments that best exemplified the unit's game-changing presence.
"I think these guys understand what it is to defend a blade of grass," Mason said. "That's what you do. That's what championship defenses and championship teams do. They rise up in the moment. And these guys have risen up in the moment over the years. And I think that's special."
Mason recognized that Stanford's young defensive players could one day form a special defensive front early in his coaching tenure on The Farm.
"I thought after that first year when you saw how young we were, after being here in 2010, you saw a bunch of young guys who were talented and worked hard," Mason said. "And those things don't happen by accident. When you have veteran guys like Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro who have played a lot football, you look at David Parry and how far he had come. And you look at Trent (Murphy) and Shayne (Skov) and (A.J.) Tarpley... It's one of those deals where you look and you say, 'You know what? These guys are pretty good and they can be pretty good for a long time as long as we can stay healthy.'"
When Trent Murphy arrived on campus in 2009, he competed with Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro for reps at the 4-3 defensive end position. Stanford adopted a different scheme and Murphy switched positions the following season, but he, too, had an inkling that Stanford's front could eventually become an imposing force.
"(I knew) these guys were great competitors and knew if we pushed each other until the end we would be pretty good our fifth-year senior year," Murphy said. "Who would be able to stop us then?"
The front-seven experienced some adversity along its path to dominance. Shayne Skov suffered a devastating knee injury early in the 2011 season and wasn't fully recovered until the 2013 season. This year, Henry Anderson missed eight games with a knee injury and Ben Gardner missed the final five games of the season with a torn pectoral muscle.
Nonetheless, the unit had enough depth and talent to sustain a high level of play.
"We've always been able to find that guy, that spot guy, that stopgap guy who's been able to sort of hold the front-seven together," Mason said. "I think that's part of what makes this group and these guys special."
Aside from their physical attributes - several players in Stanford's defensive front should be high picks in this April's NFL Draft - Mason lauded the football intelligence of Stanford's front-seven. That, Mason said, helped the Cardinal adjust to opposing offenses on the fly.
"Teams have attacked us early and then we've been able to make adjustments," Mason said. "Any time we get hit we can make adjustments with these guys, in-game adjustments. I don't know how many college teams across the country can make in-game adjustments with guys and say, 'Hey, listen we need to do more of this, we need to get better knockback up front, we need to make sure we secure our edges.' Guys get it. They get it and they're locked in. That's special. I don't know where else you can go but I know at Stanford it's been able to be done, and it's on tape."
With the nation's longest BCS bowl streak and four straight 10-win seasons, the veterans in Stanford's front-seven will leave a lasting legacy.
"People may not get who these guys are and how hard they work, but you have to go past the draft status and you look at the wins," Mason said. "You have to calculate what these guys have done... You look at this year's front-seven, (they're) 37-1 at home. That's a hell of a feat. So at the end of the day, kudos, job well done, and they have one more chance to get out here and show these young guys and leave these young guys with the memory of what they were and what they have to aspire to be."
Though Stanford will face a difficult task in replacing its departing seniors, the outlook for Stanford's front-seven in 2014 is far from grim. Stanford could return four starters from this year's defensive front, and should receive greater contributions from several players who are not currently starters.
"There's been a group that's developed behind those guys," Mason said. "I think you can't discount that David Parry is coming back. You can't discount that you have a guy like (A.J.) Tarpley or how far Kevin Anderson has come. A guy like Blake Martinez in there, the quality reps that he's been able to get. You look at Aziz. He's been able to come in there and make some plays. So I think that type of work ethic and that type of readiness and sense of urgency has been passed on from one group to the next. Those guys never let it die. The Shayne Skov's, the Trent Murphy's, just like Chase Thomas, just like Michael Thomas, Richard Sherman, (Tom) Keiser. Those guys call back to these guys. They want these guys to know: 'We're watching.' I think that's important to these guys."
Mason also singled out Joe Hemschoot and Zach Hoffpauir as relatively unproven defensive players on the rise.
"These guys are ready," Mason said. "They're just waiting their turn."
In addition to the continued development of its underclassmen, Stanford's defense could get a boost from an unlikely source. Redshirt freshman Dallas Lloyd, who spent the entire regular season at quarterback, is now working at safety.
"We brought Dallas over to play safety and he's showing signs early," Mason said. "I think that's what Coach Shaw does best. He sits down, we get a chance to evaluate what these guys do and you say to yourself, 'Hey, let's move the pieces around. Let's put the best players where they may fit.'"