Does the nod go to a front seven that set Stanford school records and led the nation by a wide margin in sacks (57) and tackles for loss (124)? Or does do the Farm Boys' six consecutive fourth quarter shutouts to end the season impress more? Of course, that effort at Autzen Stadium also makes a strong bid for the top spot: Stanford held Oregon over five touchdowns under the Ducks' 49.5-point season scoring average.
There's a strong chance that, one year from now, the 2013 version of this debate will be even tougher to decide. In classic "Party in the Backfield" style, Ben Garnder, Shayne Skov, and Trent Murphy all announced their Stanford returns Saturday via Twitter. No press conference, no band, no cheerleaders and no Christmas ornaments. Just a blue-collar announcement that the Cardinal veterans will be back, looking to attain national title glory next season.
While cornerback Terrence Brown later announced his departure, alongside tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, the cornerstones for one of the finest defenses in conference history are in place. Stanford will have to reload at three starting spots: outside linebacker Chase Thomas and defensive tackle Terrence Stephens will graduate this spring alongside Brown, but defensive coordinator Derek Mason is confident that his unit's recent recruiting and resulting depth leave it poised for a historic 2013.
In a series of late-season interviews with The Bootleg, Mason outlined the development of his defense. The defensive line, in particular, features a stockpile of players from the Cardinal's 2011 and 2012 recruiting classes who have seen zero to little playing time in their young careers on the Farm. Here's a look at the development of the interior line, the first in a serious of articles which will examine the detailed state of Stanford's defense.
Defensive Tackle Development: Hayes, Nwafor, Callihan
With Stephens leaving, former walk-on David Parry is the only player with significant game experience anchoring the critical middle of Stanford's 3-4 scheme. The Cardinal defense hums at full capacity when this position is strong enough to attract double teams in the way that No. 99, and Ekom Udofia before him, commonly did. If the center can handle the nose tackle by himself, offensive guards can get second-level blocks on linebackers and safeties, but if the nose tackle requires two blockers, Skov, Murphy and the gang will likely have free reign to make disruptive plays.
Anthony Hayes, who will enter his junior season in 2013, cracked the two-deep depth chart behind Parry in Stephens' Rose Bowl absence. Mason says that success has come as the six-foot-three, 300-pound Minnesotan learned how to truly "compete" this season.
"When you spend time with the scout team like Anthony has, what happens is sometimes you don't see the light at the end of the tunnel," Mason said. "Anthony's learned how to compete. Going against the David Yankeys and Andrus Peats has made him better. He sees young guys like Aziz [Shittu] playing, and he wants to play too."
Hayes says he's gotten considerably stronger while losing "a lot of fat", a hallmark of the Turley conditioning program, which aims to build leaner, more athletic linemen for the 3-4 scheme. Hayes credits his new athleticism for helping him better shed blocks. He's still working on keeping his pad level low while improving his hand positioning in the trenches.
Speaking of losing weight, freshman defensive tackle Ikenna Nwafor has dropped 40 pounds since arriving at Stanford. The six-foot-six, 308-pound Texan played his high school ball against overmatched small-school competition at Cistercian Preparatory School in the Dallas metroplex, so he wasn't touted as an elite-level recruit. But he has the necessary combination of size, speed and power to develop into the Cardinal's next middle bedrock.
"Ikenna may be the most improved defensive player in my mind," Mason said. "I thought he was going to be a long way away, and he's gone from a guy who's a long way away to a guy who has the opportunity to be impactful immediately."
Nwafor said that acclimating to the level of Stanford's competition has been the biggest force driving his improvement. He showed a meticulous attention to detail while discussing his offseason improvement goals, discussing his plans to better his toughness, agility, footwork, hand positioning, and pad level all while continuing to sculpt his physique into ideal Stanford playing shape.
"As soon as we get to spring ball, [Ikenna], David Parry and Hayes are going to go at it," Mason said of Stanford's 2013 starting defensive tackle position. "Let the best man win."
With his equally imposing six-foot-three, 300-pound frame, Baton Rouge, La. native Lance Callihan should also be in the mix at defensive tackle. Like Hayes, Callihan too has intensified his desire to compete for a position in the Cardinal's rotation up front, Mason said.
"It used to be that he did only what he was asked to do, no more, no less," Mason said of Callihan, who will be a junior next season. "He raised the bar with Hayes when he saw young guys playing. When you start seeing younger guys playing ahead of you, you realize, 'My hourglass is running. I may not get another opportunity. There is no tomorrow.'"
Callihan, meanwhile, made his offseason goals clear.
"I want to crack that rotation," he said.
Stanford is unlikely to sign another defensive tackle in its 2013 recruiting class. Stay tuned to The Bootleg for in-depth positional development looks. Next, we will examine the progress of the Cardinal's defensive ends and linebackers.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Football Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidMLombardi.
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