Linebacker U might be Stanford

Stanford has had many great linebackers in the past, but the current roster is filled with both talent and depth.

The Stanford football defense is off to a fantastic start in the 2014 season. A squad that was forced to replace five players that are in the NFL on active rosters, practice squads or the injured list, left many questions coming into the season. So far the answers have been an A-plus. The defense shutout  UC Davis before limiting a high powered Trojan offense to just 10 points and 291 total yards.

Despite the departures of Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, the argument could be made that the linebacking core is as strong as ever. A question mark coming into the season may just be a strength of the team now.

The unit has excelled not just because of the front line players, but there is depth at the position like maybe never before.

“It’s a talented group,” Cardinal defensive coordinator Lance Anderson said. “We were down a couple of guys because of injury last week, but we were still able to go three man rotations at outside linebacker and at inside linebacker.”

This week Stanford will add to their depth with the return of Kevin Palma in the middle who sat out the USC game. Joe Hemschoot is targeting the Washington game for his return.

Having this kind of depth has brought a lot of competition for snaps and that brings out the best of each linebacker.

“Competition has been great,” said junior linebacker Blake Martinez who has stepped into the starter role next to A.J. Tarpley in the middle. “Every day I come in here to work and give my 100% or it’s going to be the next guy. We always talk about the next guy up is the best guy up. Every single day I come in here I try to be the first guy in drills, the first guy in everything, just so they know how much I want it.”

Martinez and Tarpley lead the team with 14 tackles each. Kevin Anderson joins Jordan Richards with 12 tackles from his outside linebacker position.

“Blake has done a tremendous job,” Anderson said. “He has been one of our most productive football players out there the first two weeks of the season.  He is so strong, so physical, he is going to get better and better as he gets more reps. We are real pleased with him.”

AJ Tarpley is the fifth year senior who makes the engine work. Head coach David Shaw had high praise for his defensive leader. “AJ Tarpley is going to be one of the best in the nation this year. He plays so well.”

Depth has again been a key and one of the breakout performers of the season is Noor Davis. The redshirt sophomore has played two great games spelling the starters.

“He really stepped it up in the spring and that has continued in the fall camp,” Anderson said. “He is playing a lot more physical. He is playing faster. Now that he has been here a couple of years he has a good understanding of the defense and that has allowed him to play faster. He is a long athletic kid and it is fun to see him have some success out there.”

Davis says part of his play has just been opportunity. “I’ve finally been given an opportunity to go out and showcase my abilities. I’m playing with a high confidence level. It has been fun to finally be given the chance to show what I can do and I hope to continue to keep maximizing the most of my opportunities.”

Davis says while competition is fierce it brings out the best of each of them. “We are very supportive of one another. Everybody gets their chance to go in and play. We are always encouraging them and being very supportive when we aren’t in the game. That is huge. It is a great thing that we have so much depth across the board that we can rotate guys in and keep them fresh and give everyone an opportunity.”

On Tuesday during his media conference coach Shaw singled out the play of the front seven for Stanford the first two games. The next day he had even more to say about how his group of linebackers has really gelled early on.

“They are playing together as a unit and everybody is doing their job and it has been great to see. Kevin Anderson and James Vaughters have started off the season really well.  Peter Kalambayi has come in and spelled them and looked great in relieving them. Blake Martinez coming out and playing great football right off the bat and not really having that ramp up period where you are worried about him. Right from the jump He has been great. And Noor Davis rotating in and playing great every time we put him in. So for us to have multiple guys that can play those positions so they can rotate and stay fresh. And everybody just playing their responsibilities and not trying to do too much and not getting out of position. It has been great to see.”

With this talent, with this depth, will Stanford be known as linebacker U someday?

“I don’t know if we are quite there but we are sure happy with the group we got,” Anderson said after a chuckle.

Davis liked the sound of the idea.  “I hope so. We have had some great linebackers who have come before. It is something we hope to keep on doing. Our linebackers are very, very, good and we are pushing each other. I think we have a good future in front of us.”

That future will be on full display Saturday when Stanford battles Army and a triple option offense. Defending the triple option requires precision from linebackers in maintaining their responsibilities and disciplines.

While there is still a long way to go this season and as good as they have been there is always much that can be improved. For now though, the future certainly looks bright for Stanford’s defense when it comes to the linebackers.

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