A legitimate argument could be made that Stanford has the best collection of outside linebackers in the nation. Starters Trent Murphy and Chase Thomas combined to record 32.5 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks (epitomizing the defense's "party in the backfield mantra"), while backups Alex Debniak and Kevin Anderson combined to register six sacks and three forced fumbles.
"All of them played at a very high level," outside linebackers coach Lance Anderson told Cardinal Sports Report after a recent practice. "I think one of the things that was most impressive is that those guys really never missed a practice from the time we started in fall camp all the way through the end of the season, through that last UCLA game. They were there every day, they worked hard every day, and that resulted in those guys playing at a very high level. Chase, Trent especially, and Alex, those three really played at a high level. And Kevin, for a freshman came in and did a really nice job as well."
While Thomas was expected to have an All-American type season after he spurned NFL riches for a fifth year on The Farm, Murphy's emergence as one of the top pass rushers in the nation was a bit unexpected. According to Anderson, Murphy's rise was keyed by good health and a productive offseason.
"I think just the experience he got last year, the playing time he got last year, and then all the work he got in the bowl practices last year, spring ball, fall camp leading up to this season has just allowed him to play with much more consistency, much more confidence," Anderson said. "He's stronger, he's faster than what he was before. He's been healthy. He's really showed us what he can do in terms of pass rush, playing in space, and he's a big long athlete that can run real well and is very athletic."
Another player who fits that description is fifth year senior Alex Debniak, whose remarkable story was chronicled by Mark Soltau of GoStanford.com. Debniak overcame a learning disability to thrive both in the classroom and on the field at one of the nation's finest academic and football institutions. The Michigan native finished the 2012 regular season with four sacks (including a game-clincher against Oregon State) and two forced fumbles.
"It's been great to see," said Anderson of Debniak's success. "He has worked so hard from the day he got here until now. You never questioned his effort. He works hard every day, he has a great desire to be really good, and it's great to see that all pay off on the field this year. And he has, he's played at a high level. Sometimes it's unfortunate for him that he's playing behind a guy like Chase because he has really played at a high level, but what he's done is he's played himself into a position where he's probably going to be able to continue playing football. So many of the scouts that have come through this year have been so impressed with what he's done on the field, both on special teams and on defense. He's played himself into an NFL camp and he's going to have a chance to keeping playing football, which is great for him."
Redshirt sophomore Kevin Anderson didn't play as much as his outside linebacker peers in the two-deep depth chart, but should still have a bright future on The Farm. The Paly High grad has done a fine job transitioning from his high school position of defensive line.
"He's another kid that you never question his effort, loves to play, plays hard, plays physically every single snap," Anderson said. "It's been a little bit of a transition. He was a guy who played defensive end and offensive line in high school and now we're asking him to play outside linebacker where he's rushing the passer some, but he's also dropping in pass coverage, he's playing in space. He still has something to learn and he's getting better at those things all the time. But you see from the snaps he's got this year he's been very productive, a couple of sacks, a forced fumble, so we're very pleased with his progression as well."
Don't forget about Lueders: Though he missed 2012 due to injury, redshirt sophomore Blake Lueders is expected to make significant contributions to Stanford's defense in 2013. Lueders has progressed well from off-season shoulder surgery.
"He's getting there," Anderson said. "He had both shoulders operated on so he's missed a lot of time. Just now at the end of the season he's been cleared to do some drills, so he's rusty. You can really tell that he hasn't played football for a long time, but at least we have him out on the grass moving around a little bit now and by the time we get to spring ball he'll be fully healthy and we'll be able to get a full look. He did some really good things for us last year. He's a real physical player a tough kid, plays hard, so it will be nice to have him back next year."
Putting the shoulder issues behind him could help elevate Lueders' level of play even beyond what it was during his true sophomore season, when he made 17 tackles and two sacks.
"He's told me several times how different he feels (compared to before the surgery)," Anderson said. "They're still a little sore from the surgery and he's not 100 percent yet, but he's said several times he thinks he's going to be able to play at a higher level because he's going to be healthier.
"Especially losing Chase and Alex, if we can add a guy of Blake's caliber, it's very helpful."
Davis not yet ready: True freshman linebacker Noor Davis entered Stanford with high expectations, but he still might have some work to do before making an impact on the Cardinal defense.
"He's still learning," Anderson said. "He's still in the process of changing his body, getting the weight room, getting stronger, understanding what it's like to play at this level, the speed of the game. He's definitely coming along but he's a freshman and he still has some things to learn."
The OLB x-factor: Although he registered 35 tackles playing inside linebacker in 2012, sophomore James Vaughters could be moved outside next year. With Shayne Skov and A.J. Tarpley likely slotted as starters at inside backer, there could be greater opportunity for Vaughters outside.
"James is still practicing inside and doing a very good job there," Anderson said. "We haven't had any discussions there yet, but we'll see what happens. Obviously we'll lose Alex and we'll lose Chase from the linebacker core. We'll see what guys like Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov do, so we'll see what our numbers are like next year. Our goal is always to put the best guys on the field and so we'll figure out who that is and how we can best get them on the field."
Stanford head coach David Shaw said that the staff will try to take advantage of Vaughters' ability to play multiple positions moving forward.
"James' versatility is one thing we have to talk about," Shaw said. "Because he's done well inside. He's a really good pass rusher. He showed that as a true freshman. He's one of those guys who has versatility. Hopefully we can move him around a lot."