For the first four seasons of his Stanford career, Michigan native Alex Debniak tantalized Cardinal fans with his potential. Debniak was one of the stars of Stanford's 2009 spring game, rushing four times for 91 yards. Two seasons ago, in Stanford's first spring ball after Toby Gerhart left for the NFL, then-coach Jim Harbaugh called Debniak one of the team's "best 22 players". Yet for a variety of reasons (health, position switches, etc...) Debniak was never able to become a consistent contributor.
This season, he has been. Through the first two games of the 2012 campaign Debniak has been one of the team's most productive defensive players. He's forced a fumble, recorded a half-sack, and made eight tackles. (By comparison, Debniak had 10 tackles in all of 2011.) Moreover, he's emerged as a dangerous and dependable member of the Cardinal's talented outside linebacker rotation.
"It's been an absolutely phenomenal year for me on a personal level and an individual level and really just for the team effort," Debniak said. "I feel a lot more confident. I have a lot higher self-esteem than I used to before and I feel like I'm focusing a lot better. All those kind of came together at just the right time for me and I hope for more success in the future."
Stanford head coach David Shaw said that Debniak has forced his way into the defensive rotation with his strong play.
"He's playing so well that we have to rotate him in to get him on the field," Shaw said.
Getting on the field is no easy task for any Stanford outside linebacker not named Chase Thomas or Trent Murphy. The duo of Murphy and Thomas has a legitimate claim as the nation's best starting outside linebackers tandem. That factored into Debniak's lack of playing time in the past few seasons.
But starting with a strong showing in spring ball, Debniak has been a different player this season, Shaw said.
"We've had such good outside linebacker play the last few years that he didn't have an opportunity to really get on the field the way those guys were playing, but it really started last spring," Shaw said. "It really started coming together for him last spring. And then this training camp he was outstanding so now we feel like we've got three guys that can play on a really, really high level both on base downs and nickel downs."
According to Debniak's longtime position coach, Lance Anderson, there are two primary reasons for Debniak's emergence. A combination of good health and experience in Stanford's complicated 3-4 defense have boosted Debniak to new heights.
"I think No. 1 is the experience that he's gotten over the past three years really playing the same position, doing the same thing, learning the techniques, the fundamentals," Anderson said. "He's really learned to grasp what we're doing, feels comfortable and confident in what he's doing. And especially just staying healthy. And just being able to do it all spring, all fall, has really paid off."
Debniak suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2009, and has suffered through a variety of nagging ailments since. He said that a renewed training approach has energized his game.
"They really had a good plan for me to make sure that I was a lot more flexible in equilibrium," Debniak said. "And it's really made all the difference. "I haven't really had any problems with injuries so far this season."
Debniak and Stanford hope that his health and productivity continue throughout the year. With the possibility that 2012 will be his last season of organized football, Debniak has no shortage of motivation to continue his strong play.
"Every single day that I come in I look at the opportunity that this could be the very last time that I play football all together," Debniak said. "Hopefully I'll have opportunities in the future but until then I just want to enjoy my time with my teammates and I just want to do my very best out here because it could be my last."
Lueders progressing well: Outside linebacker Blake Lueders still seems likely to take a redshirt this season, but is progressing well from a shoulder injury that's kept him out of action.
"He's doing well," Lance Anderson said. "I think from what I understand he's ahead of schedule with his rehab. He's such a hard worker I know he's going to give it everything that he has. I think he should be out here practicing a little bit ahead of schedule but still I think it's probably middle to the end of the season before he'll be back out on the practice field."
Davis wins Scout Team honor: After an injury-riddled start to his Stanford career, true freshman outside linebacker Noor Davis was named the team's Scout Team defensive player of the week for the Duke game.
"He's coming along well," Anderson said. "His effort the past two or three weeks has been great. If he keeps working hard like that he's going to be a good football player here. He still has to get in the weight room and get stronger and more explosive, but that stuff is definitely coming along."