Perhaps the biggest difference between the Stanford teams we've watched over the past few years as compared to what we had been used to during the previous decades has been that this team can play defense. In years past the offense took the field knowing it had to produce points each time it touched the ball, but that certainly wasn't the case in 2011, nor should it be in 2012.
The transformation has been dramatic. In 2006 the Stanford defense allowed 31.4 points per game, a number which dropped steadily until reaching a low of 17.4 per game in 2010. Although the defense regressed a bit last season, giving up 21.9 points per contest, the foundation is set for success, and it wouldn't be a surprise if this important statistic drops below twenty per game once again in 2012.
Even as Cardinal fans were dealing with Andrew Luck's imminent departure to the NFL, there was good news. All-Pac-12 outside linebacker Chase Thomas chose to return to Stanford for his senior year, a decision which created the potential for the Cardinal to elevate what would've been a great linebacking corps into an elite unit, possibly the best in the country.
In Thomas, the Cardinal retain the most productive defender from last season, but they'll also add Shayne Skov, a player who could be the most talented defender on the roster. Skov suffered a season-ending knee injury just three games into 2011, and he'll return in Week 2 against Duke after serving a one-game suspension as punishment for a DUI incident during the off-season. As a result of that arrest, Skov was immediately suspended from all team activities, but he took out his frustrations in the weight room, and he should return at 100% and even bigger than he was as a junior.
Joining Skov on the inside will be James Vaughters, the player I'm most looking forward to watching on the defensive side of the ball. When Jim Harbaugh left Stanford for the 49ers following the 2010 season, there was speculation that recruiting would fall off and the program would return to mediocrity. Vaughters was the marquee name in that recruiting class, and his continued commitment to the Cardinal signified that there would be no dropoff.
Vaughters contributed some as a freshman, but mostly in situations where his physical skills could mask an incomplete knowledge of the defensive schemes. He saw action mostly in passing situations when he could put his hand on the ground at the line of scrimmage and simply rush the quarterback. This year, though, we should see the entire package. Coaches have raved about his improvement, especially in the mental side of the game, and he'll be starting alongside Skov at inside linebacker. As big and strong as Skov is, Vaughters is bigger and stronger and has earned a variety of descriptive nicknames from his teammates. Most recently it's been reported that they've taken to calling him Jugger, short for juggernaut.
Senior Trent Murphy will start opposite Thomas at the other outside linebacker spot, but the true strength of this unit is revealed with the second wave of linebackers that will rotate through the game. Jarek Lancaster and A.J. Tarpley would start at almost any other school in the conference, and they were both hugely productive last season, but they've been pushed back to the bench by Skov and Vaughters. (Tarpley will start for the suspended Skov in the opener against San Jose State.) Also making a push for playing time is Kevin Anderson, a redshirt freshman from across the street at Palo Alto High School, and junior Joe Hemschoot. Beyond all those guys is true freshman Noor Davis, a name to remember down the road.
Playing up front will be a three-man line absorbing blocks and doing the dirty work so the linebackers can get the glory. Junior Henry Anderson and seniors Terrence Stephens and Ben Gardner (or The Mullet, as Coach Shaw has referred to him), will start, but we should also see contributions from senior Josh Mauro and 6'6" sophomore Charlie Hopkins. Looking deeper on the depth chart we find true freshman Aziz Shittu, the fickle five-star defensive end prospect who vascillated for weeks before finally committing to the Cardinal on National Signing Day last February. The word out of camp has been that Shittu has had trouble with the playbook, but I think he's big enough and talented enough to find his way into the rotation by the midway point of the season.
There are no question marks in the front seven, but there are plenty in the secondary. Free safety Ed Reynolds has surprised a lot of people by winning a starting spot after missing all of 2011 with an injury, and undersized sophomore Jordan Richards has a lot to prove at strong safety.
There's more uncertainty at cornerback, but there's also reason for optimism. Senior Terrence Brown starts at one side and junior Barry Browning at the other, but the backups are much more intriguing. Sophomore Wayne Lyons missed most of last season with a stress fracture in his foot, but before he was injured he was the one true freshman making a significant impact. Shaw claimed early on that Lyons would one day be the best defensive back in the nation, and he hasn't backed off that statement. The other backup is true freshman Alex Carter, a talented player who's drawn raves from the coaching staff and impressed observers two weeks ago with his performance in the open scrimmage. Shaw has suggested that Carter could be the freshman who plays the earliest and has the greatest impact.
Even if Lyons and Carter don't earn starting positions this year, they will be key parts of what promises to be an absolutely dominant defense in 2013 and '14. (I know this is a 2012 preview, but I can't resist.) Along with Aziz Shittu, Jordan Watkins, and Charlie Hopkins on the line, and James Vaughters, Noor Davis, and Kevin Anderson at linebacker (not to mention the elite high school recruits currently committed to the Cardinal), Lyons and Carter will help form a defense that could be the best unit in the Pac-12 and one of the best in the nation.
This year will tell us a lot about what we can expect in the future. After warm-ups against an overmatched San Jose State squad and the injury-riddle and jet-lagged Duke Blue Devils, the Cardinal will host Matt Barkley, Lane Kiffin, and the USC Trojans on September 15th. When we wake up on September 16th, we'll know a lot about how the rest of the season might go. If the front seven can eliminate the Trojan running game and the secondary can survive the air attack (the former is likely, the latter possible), the Cardinal just might upset USC and put the rest of the conference on notice.
This defense will be good in 2012, but it's only getting better.
[Photo Credit: Gerry Broome/AP Photo]