Stanford’s linebacking core seemed an army of one in 2015. If there was a tackle to be made, the odds were pretty good that it was Blake Martinez who made it. With Martinez off among the Cheeseheads, the inside linebacking situation has been as open and competitive a position battle as the Cardinal has had so far.
If Stanford had a game today….that would be weird. But if they did, it’s highly likely that Jordan Perez and Kevin Palma would be starting on the inside in the Cardinal’s base 3-4 defense. However, Stanford has been rotating duos on the inside all year, and both Defensive Coordinator Lance Anderson and Head Coach David Shaw have been quick to point out that a number of players are pushing for regular playing time.
The first point to consider is that the naming of “starters” in this day and age is really only the beginning of establishing a legit defense. Coach Anderson said that he wants a solid 22 guys he feels good about rolling in and out over the course of a game. Whoever “starts” isn’t necessarily going to play the Lions’ share of downs that Martinez played. Also, with teams like Oregon on the schedule, teams need depth everywhere on defense if they have any hope of survival.
Based on their struggles at times as pass defenders, Palma and Perez are nowhere near cemented in at those inside spots. In fact, on the day he named Ryan Burns the starting quarterback, Shaw declined to declare any other starting positions one, specifically at inside linebacker. Bobby Okereke and Sean Barton are two players who have shown growth and promise this spring and summer.
Shaw and Anderson are both high on Barton, who plays with that maniacal edge that everybody loves in an inside linebacker. Noor Davis is also still around, and certain to get some run at the start of the season. 2016 is his last stand, so it will be interesting to see how much he is able to push Palma and Perez while fending off Barton and Okereke as well as Mustafa Branch, who has also been getting reps.
One thread that has run consistently through the defensive previews has been the fact that there’s no unit solely responsible for singular defensive responsibilities. Coach Anderson stressed this point when I talked to him about the slippage in the run defense in the past couple of seasons. Linebackers then, are responsible for a little bit of everything, as are DB’s and D linemen.
That being said, Anderson highlighted the importance of outside linebackers to set edges against the run game in the Cardinal scheme. That position group would seem to have more of a pecking order than the inside backers. Peter Kalambayi, one of Stanford’s five elected captains for 2016, will certainly be expected to set one of those edges on a regular basis. Joey Alfieri and Mike Tyler will work regularly opposite Captain K, but don’t forget about Casey Toohill. He’s made plays this spring and summer and has seen regular time on the field.
When looking at this group of players, the points Coaches Shaw and Anderson have been hitting about depth and the relative insignificance of designated starters regarding the ring most true. Stanford’s gonna need more than just two or four of these guys to be good if they are to rebound in 2016. The talent is certainly there. It’s quantity over quality, but the quality of the quantity that should give Cardinal fans hope that Cardinal Linebacking will be back on the beam this season.