As Trent Murphy finished his Stanford career, he was the NCAA's active leader in sacks. Shayne Skov also exited on a high note, timing snaps in epic fashion as he left the Farm with a 109-tackle season that consummated his arduous recovery from 2011's severe knee injury.
For Stanford, a challenging day is now here. The post-Murphy, post-Skov era has begun. The Cardinal's recruiting and development efforts on the defensive side of the ball are tasked with overcoming a sizable loss of big-time defensive star power.
There's at least one way to view the situation optimistically. While the Sports Illustrated cover page glamor may have graduated, Stanford is possibly deeper at linebacker than it ever has been, and that should be the unit's primary weapon in combating drop-off at the position in 2014. Inside 'backer A.J. Tarpley and his outside counterpart James Vaughers are the only two returning starters, but both of their positions are fortified with an unusually large regiment of capable bodies.
It should first be noted that Tarpley and Vaughters -- both seniors -- are no slouches themselves. The former trailed only Skov in the Stanford tackle department last year, racking up 93 stops in another fundamentally pristine campaign that again also featured a good job in pass coverage. Vaughters played well on the edge, delivering one of the Cardinal's biggest plays of the year when he sacked and forced a Marcus Mariota fumble late in the fourth quarter against Oregon.
Most indications point toward Blake Martinez starting at Skov's old inside linebacker spot opposite Tarpley, but Stanford has plenty of other viable options there. The versatile Joe Hemschoot (he'll play inside, outside, and at the big nickel spot again -- look out especially for that last specialty spot, a key specialty tool in combating run-based spread offenses), Noor Davis, and Kevin Palma are all legitimate contenders for playing time. Davis has blossomed into his comfort zone after moving inside from the last offseason, while the staff lauds Palma for operating his sturdy 250-pound frame with the speed of a 230-pounder.
On the outside, Kevin Anderson -- possibly Stanford's most improved player in 2013 -- takes Murphy's old spot. While it will be impossible to replicate No. 93's freakish wingspan and uncanny anticipatory skills, Anderson has remarkable strengths of his own that fans caught glimpses of last year. He owns elite burst and closing speed for a player of his six-foot-four height, and his Rose Bowl pick six was certainly among Stanford's top 2013 highlights.
The outside linebacker spots are also backed up by a crop of capable bodies. Sophomore Peter Kalambayi built a temporary home in the backfield during this past April's spring game, while his classmate Mike Tyler has developed a ready-to-play body as well (he's ready to hit, too, if the spring game was any indication). Walk-on Torsten Rotto provides ever-reliable second-level depth at outside linebacker.
Stanford Defensive Performance: Tackling Leaders
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The Cardinal's 3-4 scheme is designed to funnel the opposition toward the middle of the field, where inside linebackers are tasked with being the defense's tackling machines. Last season, the unit hummed along efficiently in this regard, and that's evidenced by the fact that Skov and Tarpley led the roster while accounting for 202 of Stanford's 999 tackles -- over 20 percent of the team total. A very similar formula will be in place this year under new defensive coordinator Lance Anderson, so the pressure will again be on Tarpley and his counterpart to execute consistently on the inside.
David Shaw has said that it's not fair to expect a player like Martinez to consistently replicate Skov's uncanny anticipatory abilities -- though No. 4 did perfectly time a goal line snap in Stanford's recent preseason scrimmage. It's also not reasonable to expect that the Cardinal will find a way to replicate Murphy's freakish pass rush versatility and death-grip control on passing lanes into the flat.
But the development of players like Kevin Anderson shows that there is rapidly blossoming talent eager to make its own mark on Stanford's defense. If the Cardinal can indeed flex their muscles beyond the starting group at the linebacker position, they'll be able to attack the opposition with waves of fresh legs this season, and that'll be a new, invaluable asset in its own right.
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
Episode 5: Defensive Line
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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