Defensive uncertainty

Defensive recruiting isn't all the way there, and the staff will be the first people to admit that. Stanford's defensive depth chart has issues everywhere, so the challenge is steep. Let's take a closer look at four factors influencing contributing to Stanford's defensive uncertainty...

Admissions

Note that much of the uncertainty involving admissions is, alas, on the defensive side. We project Stanford looking to sign as many as 13 offensive players (though Dallas Lloyd would not count against this class as he will take a Mormon mission). Only two – Jarrod West and Ricky Seale – have yet to gain admittance. Plus, Stanford's last two recruiting classes are stocked at running back and the 2011 class is off to a solid start at receiver, having signed Ty Montgomery and Justin Scott.

On defense, meanwhile, only five of a potential 16 signees have gained admittance, and one of those admits is currently committed to another school! Plus, the most notable admissions casualty thus far this class came on the defensive side of the ball, further depressing the batting average to 5-of-17. Admittedly, the Admissions Office has been very fair to the football program this recruiting cycle and the football staff is only sweating the admissions status of a few of those defensive players. Still, 5-of-17 admitted defensive recruits versus 11-of-13 admitted offensive recruits is obviously a huge difference, and one that both parallels and is partially an effect of Stanford's larger struggles on the defensive side of the ball.

Staff

To those who watch Stanford football, it's no secret that should the Cardinal wish to win Pac-10 or national championships, their defense needs to improve drastically and immediately. And as closely as us fans watch Stanford football, no one watches closer, or feels more strongly about the need to upgrade the D than Jim Harbaugh himself. To that end, while some of the staff turnover this offseason was initially surprising (say, DJ Durkin's move to Florida), and some was understandable, yet disappointing nonetheless (like Willie Taggart's move to Western Kentucky), Stanford did need to get some new faces on its defensive staff, so if some old coaches weren't exactly shoved out the door, they weren't clung to with every last ounce of desperation either.

A key point to make on the staff hires is that Jim Harbaugh, a man known for quick decisions, is making sure to take his time here. He believes that he has helped build the program to a point where he can hire highly qualified coaches, and to that point, he has interviewed several prominent assistants over the last two weeks, including, as previously reported, Texas A&M DC Ruffin McNeil and Notre Dame assistant Corwin Brown. Harbaugh realizes the lack of a quick trigger may marginally hamper recruiting, but he wants to search through a wide pool of candidates, leverage the strong position Stanford finds itself in, and find some home-run hires.

Recruiting scope: numbers and cycling

Upgrading the coaching staff is only one half of the equation, however: to improve a defense, one must upgrade the talent as well. As such, all three levels of the defense have been priority areas for the staff, as evidenced by both by the sheer number of defensive recruits on the board at any one time, as well as the staff's energy in unearthing new recruits previously under the radar or committed elsewhere, should old recruits not pan out. Put simply, not only are there a large number of defensive recruits currently projected for this year's class, but the number of recruits the staff has cycled through on its board to arrive at their final 12-15 defensive signees is far higher than the comparable number on offense.

Attrition

One final reason for all this searching for defensive recruits from the staff (in addition to the poor on-field results of recent years) is that Stanford appears in greatest danger of losing defensive, not offensive, recruits to other schools or admissions. Admissions has already been discussed, but in terms of a last-minute steal, watch out as USC, now that a new staff is in place, figures to make a huge last-minute push for Jordan Zumwalt.

Conclusions

The four defensive issues discussed above are obviously interrelated: that a new staff isn't fully in place, for example, increases the chances of attrition, which in turn necessitates that the staff cycle through more prospects should they hope to ultimately sign 12-15. That defense has been Stanford's weakest link in recent years both contributes to staff turnover and has forced Coach Harbaugh to try to sign a larger class – which in turn necessitates casting a wider net in terms of academic profiles, increasing the odds of players getting dinged by Admissions. Similarly, fix one of the problems, and you're likely helping yourself in the other categories as well.

So while the above issues aren't as complex as they seem, they are real – and the staff is aware of them and wants to eliminate them. (Indeed, perhaps what I've been most impressed by these past few weeks is the degree of overlap between the staff's priorities and the fans' priorities. Sometimes, it's overwhelming evident to the fan base what needs to be done – fire this assistant, run the ball more, play this freshman – only a staff stubbornly sticks to its guns, often until the damage has been done. Right now, however, upgrading the D is priority No. 1 for the staff, just as it is for most of us fans.) In the next 15 days then, here are key storylines to think about as Stanford's class comes to fruition:

1. Priority recruiting areas, in approximate order:

a. Linebacker – Based on Landry Jones' showing in El Paso, you wouldn't be remiss for guessing the secondary would be priorities A, B and C, but look at the depth chart and you can see why it's linebacker that has Stanford most concerned. Play-by-play announcer Dave Flemming has posted on the boards that Jordan Zumwalt is perhaps the most important recruit in the class; I'd say that if Jim Harbaugh could choose to be guaranteed any one player's LOI today, he'd have to pick Zumwalt for his raw talent, his position at MLB, and the fight to hold onto him against USC and UCLA. If the staff can hang onto Zumwalt and add in Robinson and Hemschoot, that's a solid linebacking class. If Tarpley also clears admissions and joins the fray (and yes, the staff would take all four guys), that's a phenomenal haul.
b. Secondary – With Carrington, Nelson, Browning and Young, if he can clear admissions, this is another solid haul. It could go either way from this default assumption though. If the stealth DB on the board gets in, Stanford's sitting pretty. If Stanford loses Louis Young, who's probably Most Important Recruit 1A, however, the class is a little thin given the Card's needs. Young is the best pure lockdown corner Stanford's recruited in recent years, and as fans are painfully aware, lockdown corners don't exactly grow on trees here at the Farm. (Note: Chris Badger is off the board, as he has enrolled early at Notre Dame.)
c. Defensive line – Continuing on the theme of staff echoing fans' concerns, the staff is aware of the fact that they've mainly signed defensive end-types and need a true defensive tackle, and the presence of three potential stealths on the board could go a long way toward addressing that issue. All three stealth DLs won't be signed, but Stanford believes it is very much alive for all three, so keep your eyes peeled. There's a solid group of DLs already on board, so if Stanford can add in a difference-maker or two, this could end up the second strongest position in a top-15 class.
d. Offensive line – One of the unheralded stories of this class is offensive line recruiting. After nabbing Cameron Fleming from TCU, Stanford genuinely believes it got the four linemen it wanted, and that this OL class is the best the Cardinal has signed in recent memory, if not ever. Fans and the recruiting services aren't sky-high on Stanford's linemen, but if you trust in the staff's ability to evaluate talent, you should love these guys.
e. Receiver – If Jarrod West doesn't clear admissions, this position becomes more of a priority, but even so, the Card are already off to a great start in 2011, as previously mentioned. Losing Tai-ler Jones obviously hurts, but even if West doesn't end up a Cardinal, the staff is pretty confident in what they have already, not to mention what's coming in a year.
f. Fullback – Owen Marecic graduates in 16 months, but already the search is on to replace him. Thus far, Stanford has been unsuccessful and there won't be any help in 2010, though admittedly, Owen sets a high bar. Still, this is an area that becomes of greater import come 2011. Of course, you'd think that some of Stanford's tight ends and defensive ends could be converted should the need arise.

2. Alabama (and Georgia too) – Lance Anderson is Stanford's recruiter for Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Judging by distance, cultural differences, high schools' struggles in all three states, and the fact that perhaps no three states are so thoroughly combed over for football recruits by the dozens of nearby programs as these three, one could think Stanford would be more successful recruiting in Guam. Thus, a major story of this 2010 class (along with the aforementioned O-line class) is the Card's success in Alabama. Signing Darren Daniel and Davis Dudchock is a remarkable start for Anderson, and nabbing them bodes well for Stanford's success in the Cotton State in the days and years to come. Add in Stanford's previously chronicled success in Georgia, and the Southeast has proven surprisingly fertile under Jim Harbaugh.

3. Toe-to-toe – We've seen "We bow to no program" come true on the gridiron, where Stanford's three most notable victories this year came against the Pac-10's best team of the decade (USC), the 2009 Pac-10 Champions (Oregon) and Notre Dame, who apparently used to be very good at football as well. Throughout this recruiting cycle, Stanford has similarly gone toe-to-toe with some of the biggest names in football, and look for that trend to only accelerate in the next 15 days.

4. Closing – With so much up in the air on defense, these next two weeks could make or break the class. Some programs, like Florida State under Bobby Bowden, or USC under Pete Carroll, were renown for their ability to close, and it was that closing ability that helped them win national championships. Similarly, Stanford's ability to come through in the clutch these next two weeks could make all the difference years down the road.


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