Nearly all preseason looks at the 2014 Stanford defense mention that the Cardinal have lost significant starpower to the NFL. Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, Ed Reynolds, Ben Gardner, and Josh Mauro are all gone.
But few -- if any (except for the podcast embedded above) -- have noted that the Stanford defense will actually get a huge boost entering this season: a healthy defensive line.
The Farm Boys were decimated along this line in 2013. Nose tackle David Parry labored through most of the season at far less than 100 percent because of a lower abdominal injury. Ikenna Nwafor, his immediate back-up, hurt his foot in week four and hasn't even seen the practice field since. Ben Gardner played much of his season with a significant arm injury before an unfortunate incident related to it led to a tear of his pectoral muscle and premature end of his college career. Henry Anderson injured his knee in week two and did not return to action until November. He did not regain full bounce in his step until the offseason.
Despite obvious struggles at certain points in the season (see the first half at Utah), Stanford eventually scrapped and found ways to make it work impressively up front. The table below shows that 2014's rush defense actually ended up being the best of the Harbaugh-Shaw era. Of course, the linebackers and secondary get credit for this, too; they'll be discussed in our next two preview pieces.
Stanford Pass Rush, Run Defense Through The Years
||DL Passes Defended
||Opponents' Yards Per Play
Reinforcements and Renewed Health
As the defensive line became precariously thin, Stanford made midseason moves of Blake Lueders (from outside linebacker) and Luke Kaumatule (from tight end) to the position. Despite still playing defensive end at a lighter outside linebacker's weight, Lueders provided a much-needed band-aid there. The defensive playbook was completely new to Kaumatule, so he spent most of his time on the sideline, but an offseason of adaptation has allowed him to enter the rotation entering 2014.
The Cardinal will at least start with a healthy, fresh unit up front this season, and this should provide the defense with a stable backbone that simply didn't exist for most of 2013. Parry and Anderson, the line's two studs, are both now at 100 percent. Parry says he'll undergo extra work in between games and practices this season to prevent last season's lower abdominal injury from flaring up again. Anderson has cut eight pounds and seemingly found his ideal playing weight. Players and coaches alike have raved about his dominant play in camp.
Lueders bulked up about 15 pounds over the offseason, and David Shaw says that he's now used to his new 274-pound weight, which is tailored for defensive end, but still on the lighter side for the position. The senior will split time with surging Aziz Shittu at the position, who turned in the offseason that Stanford coaches have been clamoring for ever since he stepped onto campus as part of the heralded 2012 recruiting class.
"He's realizing his potential," Shaw said.
The staff has indicated that the six-foot-seven, 276-pound Kaumatule (11 more pounds of bulk than last year) has earned his spot as the fifth member of the rotation. The consensus on the energetic Hawaiian: His size, strength, and motor give him real pro potential. If he can conquer the details of the defensive end position in his first full season on that side of the ball, Stanford will enjoy a massive boost up front.
Shaw and defensive line coach Randy Hart remember last year's injury and fatigue problems well, so they want a sixth body to emerge along the defensive front. Nate Lohn, Jordan Watkins, Anthony Hayes, and Lance Callihan are all candidates there. Shaw recently indicated Lohn might be the favorite, while Watkins -- a formerly touted recruit from Georgia -- has been dealing with an injury throughout training camp. Hayes and Callihan are both seniors, so this is their final chance to make an impact on game day.
Of course, any discussion of Stanford's defensive line depth would be incomplete without mentioning Alex Yazdi, the sturdy nose tackle who's known as the "Iranian Meatball." He's gotten some second-team snaps during practice, though Shaw has indicated that the Cardinal's first option when giving Parry a breather will be to slide Shittu over from defensive end. At six-foot-three, 275 pounds, Shittu is a bit shorter than the prototypically towering Stanford end, and the Cardinal feel comfortable enough about his versatility to have him alternate positions on the line this season.
For Stanford, the key up front this season is maintained health. If the line can avoid 2013's injury plague, a defense that's forced to replace a considerable amount of starpower will have the luxury of doing while benefiting from a very sturdy base. The entire unit can benefit from a healthy and effective defensive line.
Previous Installments of the 2014 Stanford Insider Preview
Episode 1: Quarterback
Episode 2: Wide Receivers
Episode 3: Running Backs
Episode 4: Offensive Line/Tight Ends
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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