Kirby Lee/USA Today

Previewing the Cardinal Defensive Line

A lack of depth helped contribute to a less effective run defense for the Cardinal. This season, the hope is that an infusion of reinforcements emerges to hold the line.

Stanford’s defensive line took a star-crossed turn in the very first game of the 2015 when Defensive Lineman Harrison Phillips was injured and lost for the season. The loss of Horrible Harry left the bulk of the workload in the defensive trenches up to departed Seniors Aziz Shittu, Brennan Scarlett, and then Sophomore Solomon Thomas.

The three of those players ended up with a staggering amount of snaps, all totalling over 600 for the season.  Their ability to simply survive the 2015 season played a huge role in Stanford’s 2015 Rose Bowl Championship season.  However, it came with a price.

The Cardinal run defense, for years one of the Pac-12 and nation’s most stout, has declined over the past three season.  It’s hard to lay that at the feet of Shittu, Scarlett, or Thomas, or Defensive Coordinator Lance  Anderson given the attrition of last season.  Regardless, the numbers don’t lie.

In 2013, Stanford’s run defense gave up 2.89 YPC (That’s overall, by the way.  Many of you know I prefer using conference stats only but in this case I am using overall stats because they include Notre Dame, which is a very relevant data point).  In 2014, that number rose slightly to 3.07.  Last season opponents rushed for 4.32 yards per carry against Stanford.

How about against elite rushing teams?  While that 4.32 YPC might not seem so terrible (it was 5th in the Pac-12), the Cardinal really struggled against the elite running teams. Here is what Stanford did in four games against USC (twice), Oregon, and Notre Dame:



SC Game 1

5.54 YPC

Oregon

6.42 YPC

Notre Dame

8.54 YPC

SC Game 2

5.31 YPC

 

These numbers are impressive, and not in a good way.  They also probably don’t come as too much of a shock given the eye test.  We can all flash back to images of Ronald Jones II, Royce Freeman, and literally everybody who crossed the line of scrimmage for Notre Dame galloping comfortably into the second and third levels of the Cardinal defense (and beyond) as if prancing through a field of daisies.

Now, some might be saying, “Of course your numbers are going to go up against elite running teams.  That’s why they are elite running teams.”  True, except Stanford in its better days as a run defense handled those teams. In 2013, Stanford held Notre Dame to 2.67 YPC and Oregon to 2.58. In 2014, that number against Oregon swelled to 5.8.

And that sets us up for this season. There are 10 defensive linemen on Stanford’s roster.  Four of them are True Freshmen.  The Cardinal has shown a willingness to play true Frosh more often in the past couple seasons, but for the moment let’s presume that none of the four pups are going to fill major roles. That leaves six guys to do the work that was largely up to three last season.

Thomas and Phillips are set to top the depth chart, and even though Stanford plays a base 3-4 defense, the changing nature of the game did mitigate the injury situation a bit.  Conventionally, teams going from base to nickel take a linebacker off the field.  Last year, Stanford instead simply kept four linebackers on the field and played with two down linemen, with outside backers often flanking them in a three-point stance.

That means that for the Cardinal to have reasonable depth along the D Line, the team is going to need two to three other players to step into regular rotation roles this year.  That’s presuming Stanford continues to face spread teams or teams that use three wide receivers or more, as the schedule strongly suggests they will.

That brings us to Eric Cotton and Luke Kaumatule. Cotton, of course, is the converted tight end, and Kaumatule has played every position but punter and quarterback it seems.  Solomon Thomas said that he was very impressed with how quickly Cotton had embraced to a defensive mindset, and he also expressed confidence that Kaumatule had finally found a positional home at defensive end.

Wesley Annan is the only non-freshman listed as a Defensive Lineman (as opposed to Defensive End, where Cotton and Kaumatule are listed. Now, positional listings don’t determine everything, but it seems clear that Stanford on the inside is still gonna be counting on Thomas and Phillips to do most of the work inside the tackles. Annan would seemingly have to get a look in the rotation.  After him, it’s into the Freshmen.  Jovan Swann, Michael Williams, and Bo Peek comprise the Stanford D-Line newcomers.  Thomas Schaffer is also part of this class, but he’s listed as a defensive end.

So when the Cardinal takes the field come September, take a look at the line.  If you see five or more players getting time inside the tackles (while the game is close), you can breathe easily about the depth of the line.  They are not solely responsible for the run defense of course, but it starts with them. For Stanford’s defense to return to its previous levels, depth is going to have to be a reality for the Cardinal in 2016.

 


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