The front seven: a cut above?

By September 15, all pieces should be in place for a titanic collision: USC's Matt Barkley on one side of the line of scrimmage; Stanford's Chase Thomas, Shayne Skov, James Vaughters, and Trent Murphy four abreast right across from him.

The discussion surrounding Stanford football last season began and ended with Andrew Luck. But this time around, the talk may well end with the Cardinal defensive front seven. Josh Nunes is the new quarterback, and his job is largely to position the defensive studs for the kill. Over the course of the past two weeks, The Bootleg has had the chance to gauge a unit that has bordered upon dominant for a large portion of spring and summer practices.

The aforementioned linebacking corps is vicious on its first level and deep beyond that, and nose guard Terrence Stephens is the bedrock of the operation up front. Already the author of a legendary moment in Stanford history (his forced fumble sealed last season's 56-48 triple overtime win at USC), Stephens has been sharing considerable time with former walk-on David Parry, who has muscled his way into Tyler Gaffney's vacated scholarship. The two combine for 605 pounds of double team-commanding meat in the middle.

"You can't stop either of them with one man," defensive end Ben Gardner said. "They eat up blockers."

So says a man who is no easy block on the perimeter, either, as he demonstrated in his 4.5-sack breakout 2011 campaign. After an offseason of hellish muscle-building slow-motion pull-up workouts, the former (barely) two-star linebacker recruit is confident that he can bring five-star pressure from the edge.

"I really think I'm ready to have a dominant year," Gardner said after practice last week. "[As a front seven], we think we can be the best in the country."

Linebacker Shayne Skov's return from a devastating knee injury certainly fuels much of that belief. Fellow defensive players have raved about the "missile's" ability to punish ballhandlers and extinguish openings with surreal quickness. What's most intriguing, though, is Skov's supporting cast on the second level. Vaughters, for one, has been practicing like the next star ‘backer in the conference. Murphy's size swallowed up even Stanford's large offensive line during the Spring Game. And for the first time, Skov will play alongside the bulked-up version of outside linebacker Chase Thomas, who skipped last season's NFL Draft to continue terrorizing college quarterbacks.

"The best is when you hear that little squeak or whimper when you hit him really good," Thomas, who added over 10 pounds of offseason muscle, recently told Sports Illustrated.

Sounds like a kind of guy opponents may want to double team.

One problem: that probably won't be possible with Skov, Vaughters, and Murphy also targeting the football. Used almost exclusively in nickel packages on the outside during his freshman 2011 campaign, the six-foot-two, 250-pound Vaughters has grown comfortable with the speed and nuances of college football. He's terrorized Stanford camp as a result, earning a starting spot back at inside linebacker for Stanford's season opener against San Jose State.

"James is a freight train out there," Shaw said. "Almost every day, he's gotten a new nickname. He's phenomenal."

"Juggernaut" has been another one of those monikers for Vaughters, that one coined by fellow truck Murphy - who is not built like an average human being, either. The six-foot-six, 261-pounder - massive and "country strong" - will line up on the outside opposite Thomas. Like Gardner, his 6.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss in 2011 highlighted a breakout campaign that may have foreshadowed absurd 2012 production.

"This is why I came to Stanford," Vaughters, a Georgia product, said. "To be able to play alongside all these guys, all this talent, under this coaching staff, it's a great opportunity for me."

The front seven is so loaded, in fact, that the two leading tacklers of last year's studly unit likely won't start once Skov's one-game DUI suspension is finished. Jarek Lancaster (a team-leading 70 stops) and A.J. Tarpley (56, plus the game-winning fumble recovery at USC) are fundamentally solid options that could top the lineup on most Pac-12 rosters. But at Stanford, they'll have to settle for providing immediate depth at linebacker. Toss speedy, smart Joe Hemschoot into the mix and serious reinforcements begin accumulating. On the outside, there is no shortage of bodies, either: Under Armour All-American true freshman Noor Davis complements fifth-year senior Alex Debniak and sophomore Kevin Anderson, both of whom aggressively rushed the quarterback in the offseason.

Last season, opposing backs barely scratched out 3.0 yards per carry on the ground against a unit that was Skov-less from week three onward. Nearly a third of opponents' yards gained rushing (1548) were negated by their yards lost rushing (451), thanks largely to the Cardinal's 39 sacks on the season. The ratio of yards giveth to yards taketh away could be lower this time around, given full health, extra muscle, and the addition of Vaughters to the consisent mix.

Still, some issues must be addressed before Stanford can coronate this front seven its best ever. Skov's return to 100 percent from last year's brutal ACL tear is never a guarantee, but he has impressed so far in practice. Shaw said that it'll probably take him a few contests to regain full game endurance, but he expects him to be playing most snaps as the season progresses.

Matt Masifilo's production (2.5 sacks, 8 TFL) at the defensive end spot opposite Gardner has graduated, and it'll have to be filled by two players with no prior starting experience. Both projected starter Henry Anderson and Josh Mauro have proven legitimate so far in practice. Anderson's six-foot-six, 278-pound frame is especially promising. His exciting fumble recovery and return in last season's opener against San Jose State was a tantalizing preview of the large man's athleticism. If he can burst onto the scene like Gardner did last season, the Cardinal have the tools to be unblockable up front. More than one defender will require a double team to be impeded, and there's a finite amount of double teams to go around.

Obviously, defensive coordinator Derek Mason's plan is for the expected pressure to set the table for a secondary that has yet to realize its potential. Last season, the Cardinal intercepted only seven passes. Four of those picks have graduated, three with Michael Thomas. With Andrew Luck gone and passing juggernauts like USC and, potentially, Marquess Wilson-fueled Washington State on the schedule, a ball-hawking secondary is mandatory.

"[The front seven is] good, and it makes things fun because they're so good against the run," freshman cornerback Alex Carter said. " That means we're going to get to defend a lot of pass opportunities. And then they rush the quarterback, and that means he'll be hurried to throw. That just means more opportunities for us defensive backs to make some plays on the ball."

As a secondary, playing bad balls is certainly easier than the alternative of trying to track premiere conference receivers like Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, and Wilson.

Thus, Stanford's touted front seven will go a long ways to determining the team's success. If the big boys up front can live up to their billing on paper, expect stifling run defense and improvement to last year's 39-sack tally. More importantly, expect a Thanksgiving feast for an athletic crop of defensive backs. The unit will feed off the front's success. It's a known football fact that time is a quarterback's best friend, but it's also been well-documented that Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas don't like letting throwers enjoy that luxury.

If pressure ends up ruling the day, let the big hits, mistakes, and wobbly passes begin. That'll be the only way to beat Barkley and return to the BCS for a third straight year. Stanford may just have the tools defensively to do it, though.

[Ed: Talk to people who really know college football, and they'll say that if the SEC is a cut above the rest of the nation, it starts and ends with defensive line play, defensive tackles in particular. I'm strangely bullish on Stanford's 2012 prospects, and a major reason why is a front seven that could go toe to toe with any unit in any league.]

David Lombardi, a TV and radio (95.7 The Game SF) personality in the Bay Area, is a Stanford and Pac-12 Conference enthusiast. He is KZSU's former lead football broadcaster. You can check out several of his Stanford calls and other writing at and follow him on Twitter @davidmlombardi.

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