Jan. 3 was a great day for Stanford Football. It was an even better day for the Cardinal front seven.
The ACC’s highest-scoring team, Virginia Tech, was held to a dozen points. Flashy Hokie quarterback Tyrod Taylor was sacked eight times. A triple-threat, top-20 rushing attack gained just a third of its average yardage on the ground.
But since that 40-12 Orange Bowl victory, four members of Stanford’s dominant 3-4—along with its primary architect—have departed, leaving skeptics to wonder if one of the nation’s most improved defenses will be able to build on the progress it made last year. And with the Cardinal hoping to wrestle the inaugural Pac-12 title from the grasp of defending conference champion Oregon and the other potent offenses it will face, the questions surrounding the defensive line and linebackers are all the more pertinent.
A year ago, those questions were even stronger. To contend for the conference title, major improvements would be needed from a Cardinal defense that ranked in the bottom half of Division I in both points allowed and sacks per game.
The story of Stanford’s defensive turnaround in 2010 began in February, when 24-year NFL coaching veteran Vic Fangio was named the Cardinal’s new defensive coordinator. He quickly instituted a 3-4 defense to highlight the talents of linebackers, such as then-sophomore Shayne Skov, junior Chase Thomas and senior Owen Marecic.
“The 3-4 gave us a great opportunity to be more creative with our pressure schemes,” Skov said. “It just allowed us to attack offenses and dictate the tempo at times. It was a much more aggressive scheme, and we enjoyed that.”
The move soon paid dividends, converting a struggling defense into a unit that would give up the 10th-fewest points in the nation and rank 15th in sacks. In just the second game of the season, Stanford pitched a shutout on the road for the first time in 36 years, dominating UCLA 35-0. The feat would be pulled off twice more—once at home, once on the road—making for the first season since 1969 in which Stanford held three opponents scoreless. It’s an accomplishment that the Cardinal is looking to repeat.
“I won’t give any guarantees,” Skov said, “but hopefully we can get a few, and if not match that number, then get better.”
This time around, though, they won’t do it under the watchful eye of Fangio, who left with head coach Jim Harbaugh to the San Francisco 49ers. He has since been replaced by former 49ers outside linebackers coach Jason Tarver, who will share defensive coordinator duties with Derek Mason.
“[Fangio] did a great job installing the blueprints and the foundation of this defense that we want to build,” Thomas said. “But the coaches weren’t out there making the plays. The players were the ones out there making stops and coming up with big-time plays when they needed to. I feel like we have a great amount of talent coming back to build on that and even improve on last season.”
Although the defensive schemes aren’t expected to change heading into this year, the players themselves are another story. Holes remain at both outside and inside linebacker, as well as defensive end and nose tackle. All four starting spots are up for grabs.
Among the notable graduating seniors was Marecic, a two-way starter and eventual fourth-round draft pick by the Cleveland Browns. Despite the fatigue from the 110 snaps Marecic averaged per game, his fellow inside linebacker Skov doesn’t recall many mistakes.
“The great thing about [Marecic] was that he was consistent, play-in and play-out,” Skov said. “You never had to worry about where he was; he was always doing the right thing.
“Honestly, he was one of the hardest workers on the team. It’s huge, and it’s been showing for the past four years. It’s a great opportunity for someone to step up and take the spot,” Skov added.
Just as significant are the losses at outside linebacker and on the defensive line, which returns only senior defensive end Matt Masifilo.
Stanford does retain its top four tacklers—among them, Skov and Thomas, who tied for the team lead in sacks last year with 7.5 each. But the Cardinal loses a combined 94 career starts between Marecic, outside linebacker Thomas Keiser, defensive end Brian Bulcke and nose tackle Sione Fua. The experience could be sorely missed.
“A lot of leadership from this past year will have to step up, and hopefully be better than the year before,” Skov said. “[We need to] hold each other accountable and come out motivated and fired up.”
Both the returning starters and the players competing for spots do have one advantage over the graduated seniors: a year of the 3-4 under their belt.
“I think it’s going to be real beneficial,” Thomas said. “I noticed this past spring ball, I wasn’t thinking as much, I knew all of my assignments, knew the playbook. That just allowed me to play faster, react to what I saw and attack the ball more aggressively and with more confidence than a year ago.”
In fact, several non-starters have already had their fair share of playing time under the 3-4; fifth-year senior Max Bergen and senior Alex Debniak—both linebackers—each played in all 13 games last season, primarily as substitutes.
Once assembled, the new front seven will work to avoid repeating the lone defensive blemish on last year’s 12-1 season: the 52-31 loss at Oregon. The normally dominant Stanford run defense, which allowed fewer than 75 yards on the ground on five occasions, surrendered 388 rushing yards to the likes of LaMichael James and Darron Thomas in Eugene. It was also the Cardinal’s only game without a sack.
Even before fall practice gets into full swing, preparations have already begun in the weight room.
“I think it started this offseason, right now, getting into the condition you need to play against Oregon’s no-huddle, high-tempo offense,” Thomas said. “Our strength and conditioning staff has really gotten us in the right condition and state.”
“I just think we need to focus on our assignments and trust the guy next to you to do his job,” he added. “That will allow us to play faster and do what Auburn did [in the national championship game against Oregon] and just attack the quarterback and running back.”
Stanford won’t host the Ducks until Nov. 12 in what is sure to be the Pac-12 North’s marquee matchup. The late-season game, along with a schedule that many analysts consider backloaded, might just give the linebackers and defensive line the time they need to adjust to the new personnel.
And if that adjustment is smooth enough, the front seven may have another shot at big-stage heroics in early January.
Contact Joseph Beyda at jbeyda “at” stanford.edu.
This is part one of a four-part series previewing the 2011 Stanford football team. Stay tuned next week, as we take a closer look at the Cardinal secondary.