Stanford benefited from one of the nation's most stout and deepest defenses on its way to consecutive Pac-12 titles in 2012 and 2013. But while the Cardinal should once again be strong on the defensive side of the ball, the outlook isn't quite as rosy in 2014 as it was in previous seasons.
The Cardinal must find a way to replace some of the best defensive players in program history, along with a number of key reserves. In order for that to happen, a number of the program's highly touted and heavily recruited younger players must be up to the task of playing major minutes.
Stanford will have three open practices (four, including the Spring Game). Here's a look at what to keep an eye on during those sessions and throughout the entirety of spring ball.
Saturday, March 1: 9:30 A.M. - 11:35 A.M.
Saturday, March 8: 12:30 P.M. - 3:10 P.M.
Saturday, April 5 (TBD)
Saturday, April 12: Stanford Spring Game
Defensive line: Stanford will lose a lot with the departure of Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro to the NFL, but the situation could have been a lot worse. Fifth-year seniors Henry Anderson and David Parry chose to return to The Farm; each is an NFL prospect, and each is expected to be fully healthy after dealing with injury-plagued 2013 campaigns. Additionally fellow fifth-year senior Blake Lueders' move from outside linebacker to defensive end was made permanent in the offseason - Lueders was very solid playing defensive end in the second half of the 2013 season.
But while there is plenty of talent, the depth beyond those three players is unproven. The five heralded members of the Cardinal's 2012 defensive line recruiting class (Aziz Shittu, Jordan Watkins, Luke Kaumatule, Nate Lohn and Ikenna Nwafor) and the 2011 defensive line class (Anthony Hayes, Lance Callihan, J.B. Salem) haven't broken through the playing rotation. (In fact, the defensive lineman from the 2011 class most likely to contribute in 2014 might actually a walk-on, Alex Yazdi.)
But there is hope in the form of several members of the 2012 class. Jordan Watkins received praise from coaches for his performance in practice late in the season and in the pre-Rose Bowl sessions. Aziz Shittu had the best game of his career against Cal in late-November. A former five-star recruit, Shittu has the tools to be successful - consistency, among other factors, has held him back. Luke Kaumatule, the former Mackey Award Watch List candidate who moved from tight end to defensive end midway through the 2013 season, has the physical tools and motor to be a top-flight player for Stanford, but, after spending over a year working at tight end, he has some catching up to do on the defensive side of the ball.
Meanwhile, Nate Lohn and Ikenna Nwafor are the candidates from the 2012 class to eventually fill Parry's shoes at nose tackle. Nwafor in particular has the physical tools to be a very good player for Stanford - he drew significant praise from the Cardinal coaching staff during 2013 Rose Bowl practices. But an injury early last season derailed Nwafor's progress, and it remains to be seen if the Texas native is completely healthy. Spring ball will provide the young linemen an opportunity to start to make their cases to break into Stanford's defensive line rotation while going up against what should once again be a very solid Cardinal offensive line.
Linebacker: The heart and soul of Stanford's defense (Shayne Skov) and the Cardinal's most dynamic pass rusher (Trent Murphy) are off to the NFL, and the duo won't be easy to replace. Add top reserve Jarek Lancaster to the list of departures, along with veteran inside linebackers coach David Kotulski, who accepted the defensive coordinator position at Vanderbilt, and the questions surrounding the Cardinal's linebackers are numerous.
Stanford's linebacker corps is still in pretty good shape, however, at least at the starting spots. James Vaughters, who had six tackles for loss and four sacks as a starter in 2013, and Kevin Anderson, whose pick-six in the Rose Bowl culminated a strong second half to the 2013 campaign, will likely open the year as starters at outside linebacker. Fifth-year senior A.J. Tarpley, who should be one of the top inside linebackers in the Pac-12, and sophomore Blake Martinez, who's played well in limited opportunity, will comprise the first unit at inside backer.
It gets more dicey at both backup positions. Stanford moved Joe Hemschoot from inside linebacker to outside linebacker in the middle of the 2013 season and the Cardinal will use his speed in various ways. One of the team's two freshman outside linebackers - Peter Kalambayi and Mike Tyler - will likely fill out the two deep. Each redshirted in 2013. The rotation of Vaughters, Anderson and Hemschoot should be able to handle the majority of the defensive reps at the outside linebacker position, but Stanford would surely prefer if Kalambayi or Tyler proved ready for playing time. Walk-on Torsten Rotto has made some noise and is another candidate to round out the two-deep. Redshirt freshman Sam Shober, who recorded his first career tackle in the Big Game, should provide depth at the position.
At inside linebacker, beyond Tarpley and Martinez, there's a complete lack of proven players. (And while Martinez has played well in limited opportunities and is expected to be a strong player for Stanford, he, too, is largely unproven.) As for the backups, former four-star recruit Noor Davis, initially recruited to play outside, moved inside last season. But it's uncertain whether he'd be able to handle major minutes. Freshman Kevin Palma, an athletic linebacker who should be strong in coverage, will also be in the mix to break through the two-deep. Walk-ons Sam Yules and Craig Jones will add depth to the inside backer unit.
Given the composition of the linebacker group, the real intrigue of spring ball as it pertains to the position will be about the progress of the Cardinal's young linebackers. Reinforcements in the form of Stanford's touted four-man 2014 linebacker recruiting class will arrive this summer, but in the meantime, there are plenty of spots in the two-deep available, and several young players capable of earning them.
Defensive back: As it does at linebacker, Stanford faces plenty of questions in its secondary. First and foremost, the Cardinal has not yet announced a new defensive backs coach to replace Derek Mason. Former Texas DB's coach Duane Akina and Weber State defensive coordinator Erick Lewis are among the rumored candidates; an announcement is expected at any time.
Filling the safety position formerly occupied by Ed Reynolds is the biggest on-field concern. Aside from Jordan Richards, one of the top safeties in the nation, and Zach Hoffpauir, who could well be headed for the nickel back spot (and won't participate in spring ball due to obligations with Stanford's baseball team), the Cardinal has very little in the form of proven players at safety. In fact, Kyle Olugbode is the only safety aside from Reynolds (and Hoffpauir) currently on the roster who has so much as registered a tackle on defense. As the position is currently constructed, Olugbode, who will be on scholarship, is a leading candidate to earn the starting job opposite Richards. Walk-ons Calvin Chandler and Chandler Dorrell will also compete for playing time at safety.
But the most interesting part of the safety competition will involve the two newest members of Stanford's defensive backfield - former wide receiver Kodi Whitfield and former quarterback Dallas Lloyd. Lloyd moved to safety during the bowl practice period; Whitfield has been working out at the position in the informal offseason player workouts. Additionally, both Whitfield and Lloyd have played safety in the past - Lloyd played the position until his sophomore year of high school, and Whitfield was even recruited by some schools to play defensive back. It's highly unlikely that Stanford settles on a starter at safety during spring ball, but the period should provide a solid indication of whether Whitfield or Lloyd has the necessary tools to one day become major players at safety, and if there's anybody else (aside from Olugbode) currently on the roster who has what it takes to break into the rotation.
As for the cornerback spot, Stanford's starting tandem projects as one of the best in the conference, but depth is a concern there, too. Ronnie Harris is the only cornerback on the roster aside from Wayne Lyons and Alex Carter who has received significant playing time. Spring ball will be a prime opportunity for Harris and the likes of Ra'Chard Pippens and Taijuan Thomas to make their case to be the top reserve corner. Harris certainly has an early leg up there.
Five Spring Ball Questions: Defense
How do Kodi Whitfield and Dallas Lloyd take to playing defense?
How far along are the linebackers from Stanford's 2013 recruiting class - Kevin Palma, Mike Tyler and Peter Kalambayi - in their development?
Which members of Stanford's 2012 defensive line recruiting class separate from the pack?
It's not realistic to expect Kevin Anderson to immediately transform into the type of pass-rush threat that Trent Murphy was for Stanford last year. But will he continue to improve at a rapid pace like he did last season?
How does Stanford manage the coaching transition on the defensive side of the ball? (It's unlikely spring ball will shed any significant light on this topic, but the Cardinal does have a new defensive coordinator and will replace two of its four defensive position coaches from a year ago.)