Everybody already knows that you can’t replace Andrew Luck. Your offense can’t lose a two-time Heisman runner-up and still put up more than 40 points per game the next season. So how exactly will the 2012 Stanford football team make up for it? With a defense that returns seven starters — and its best player.
The 2012 Stanford defense will lose three of its top six tacklers from 2011, but the Cardinal likely won’t experience much of a drop off from last season, when it finished as the second-best defense in the Pac-12 and the best against the run.
The Cardinal defense won’t experience the same kind of dramatic turnover that the offense will experience in 2012, but, like its counterpart on the other side of the ball, it will lose four crucial starters from last season — defensive tackle Matt Masifilo, cornerback Johnson Bademosi and safeties Michael Thomas and Delano Howell. But the defense does gain back two of its most disruptive defenders in linebackers Chase Thomas and Shane Skov, with Thomas electing to return to school for his redshirt senior season and Skov returning to the field after missing 2011 with a knee injury, leaving almost the entire front seven intact.
Thomas was the Cardinal’s most devastating defender in 2011, as he led the team in both tackles for loss, with 17.5, and sacks, with 8.5. Skov only tallied five tackles for loss and one-and-a-half sacks in the three games before his knee injury against Arizona, but should he stay healthy, he could have another season like 2010, where he had 84 tackles, 10 and a half tackles for loss and seven and a half sacks.
But the defense doesn’t begin and end with just Skov and Thomas. The Cardinal linebacker corps will probably be the best linebacker corps in the Pac-12 conference, and possibly the best in the nation. While Skov’s injury was indeed a devastating loss for the defense last season, the ripple effect of his injury paid great dividends by preparing AJ Tarpley and Jarek Lancaster to come in and contribute once again in 2012. The duo came in and played very well in Skov’s stead, combining for 122 total tackles and finishing with the third-most and the most tackles on the team, respectively.
In addition to those four, outside linebackers Trent Murphy, Alex Debniak and Blake Lueders and inside linebackers James Vaughters and Joe Hemschoot all return, making this far and away the deepest positional group on the team. As an added bonus, the Cardinal’s top recruiting prospect, linebacker Noor Davis, is ranked as the fourth-best linebacker prospect in the country, although he could be redshirted with so many talented players ahead of him.
On the defensive line, junior Terrence Stephens returns to his spot at defensive tackle, but the Cardinal will miss Matt Masifilo, who had eight tackles for loss from his spot along the line last season. Junior Josh Mauro and sophomores David Parry and Henry Anderson, who all logged time on the line last season, are possible replacements for Masafilo. The Cardinal also will add incoming freshman Jordan Watkins, a four-star defensive tackle from College Park, Ga.
On the ends of the line, Ben Gardner returns after an outstanding sophomore season where he had 10 tackles for loss and four and a half sacks, while Anderson could also compete for a spot on the outside as well. Junior Jacob Gowan and sophomore Eddie Plantaric are in the conversation after they notched a small amount of playing time last year. The Cardinal is also bringing in recruit Luke Kaumatule, a 6-foot-7, 268-pound end who is the No. 1 player in the state of Hawaii and the nation’s 15th-best defensive end. With his massive size, Kaumatule might figure into the defensive line right away next season.
All in all, the defensive line and linebackers can build on last year’s success, when the Cardinal was the best in the Pac-12 against the run, only giving up 84.4 yards per game on the ground. But as the defenders get further away from the line of scrimmage, the picture becomes less clear.
Stanford’s clear weakness on defense last season was against the pass — one only needed to look at Justin Blackmon’s performance in the Fiesta Bowl to see that. On the whole, opposing offenses threw for 278.8 yards per game against the Cardinal, the seventh-ranked pass defense in the conference, only ahead of Colorado, USC, Arizona State, Washington and Arizona. It’s not a stretch to think that this group could continue to struggle next season, when the Cardinal lose senior starters Michael Thomas, Delano Howell and Johnson Bademosi, as well as Corey Gatewood, who started several games near the end of the season.
The one redeeming quality for the defensive backfield, though, is that injuries in 2011 did help prepare the pass defenders for 2012. Howell missed several games with a hand injury, opening the way for junior Myles Muagututia and sophomore Devon Carrington to play some safety. It’s likely that the two of them could fill into the shoes of Thomas and Howell.
As a replacement for Bademosi on the outside, the job likely will fall to one of four players: sophomore Barry Browning, freshman Jordan Richards and juniors Terrence Brown and Usua Amanam. The one wild card that could make a big difference for the Cardinal’s pass defense is Wayne Lyons, who had to redshirt in 2011 after a foot injury. Lyons was recruited as a safety — he was the sixth-best safety in the 2011 recruiting class — and has received praise from all of the Cardinal defenders as one of the most dynamic players on the team, when healthy.
Altogether, the Cardinal defense certainly has the pieces in place to continue to be one of the best in the conference, especially because of the depth and talent of the linebackers. Perhaps the only thing that could hamper the Cardinal defense will be the fact that the Stanford offense will likely spend less time on the field than it did last season, when it had the highest time of possession in the conference. But the Stanford defense has made its goal clear for next season: “Party in the Backfield” (at least according to Ben Gardner’s Twitter account). And thanks to the return of Thomas and Skov, the Cardinal can already start sending out RSVPs.