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Football preview: With depth on defensive line, Cardinal looks to emulate last season’s stingy run defense

The Pac-12 is quickly becoming known as the conference of offenses. From Stanford’s methodically efficient march to Oregon’s dangerously explosive attack—both averaged over 40 points per game last season—it’s hardly deniable that the conference has emerged as an offensive juggernaut. But that doesn’t mean the Pac-12’s abilities on the other side of the ball should be sold short. While the SEC may still reign as the king of impenetrable defenses, the West Coast has produced its own share of stellar defensive units.

The Cardinal hopes to showcase one of those top-grade Pac-12 defenses this year, starting right up front with the defensive line. Last season’s defensive line played an integral role in stifling opponents at the line of scrimmage, part of a stingy Stanford run defense that was ranked fourth in the nation (88.4 yards per game). The team also finished sixth in defending third down conversions (31 percent) and 11th in sacks per game (3.00). With a pair of last year’s starters returning to the trenches, Stanford’s defensive line is primed to emulate, and perhaps even top, its recent success.

Redshirt junior defensive end Ben Gardner played a vital role in Stanford's stellar run defense that allowed less than 85 yard per game on the ground last season, good enough for fourth in the nation. Starting in 12 of 13 games, Gardner accounted for ten tackles for loss along with four sacks. (JOHN TODD/Stanfordphoto.com)

Leading the pack of Cardinal linemen is redshirt junior defensive end Ben Gardner, who is on the preseason watch list for the Lombardi Award, which recognizes the best lineman or linebacker in college football. Gardner started in 12 of 13 games last season, recording 35 tackles, of which 10 were for losses and four were for sacks. If his impressive performance last season serves as an accurate indicator of his rapid development, he is likely to punish opposing quarterbacks and running backs even more this year.

Explosiveness has been the main theme through preseason camp for the defensive line.

“It all starts with us up front getting off the ball as fast as we can,” Gardner said. “If we can get off the ball before the offensive line gets off the ball, then we give ourselves an advantage from the start.”

While coming off blocks seems to be one of the Cardinal’s strong suits, Gardner believes that there is still much room for improvement, particularly where tackling is concerned.

“We’ve been working a lot with our hands, getting rid of blockers and making more tackles,” he said. “We get all the credit for eating blocks, but we want to make more tackles as well and make more plays this season.”

Gardner won’t be the only experienced playmaker on the line. Among the returning starters, 305-pound senior nose tackle Terrence Stephens will be an imposing force for opposing offensive linemen. Starting in all 13 games last season, Stephens tallied 11 stops, four of which were for losses. Perhaps most memorably, he forced USC running back Curtis McNeal’s fumble that was recovered by inside linebacker A.J. Tarpley and allowed Stanford to escape with a 56-48 triple-overtime victory over the Trojans.

Defensive line coach Randy Hart, who is in his third season with the Cardinal, is pleased with how Stephens and Gardner have stepped into their leadership roles and commented that they’re both doing a “great job” with “getting the players through the practices.”

“I just try to lead by example,” Gardner said. “I try to come out here every day with a positive attitude and play my best football. I want to put the team in the position to win every game.”

Although Gardner and Stephens have been getting the most attention this preseason, there’s also something to be said for the tremendous depth that Stanford has on the defensive line. Redshirt junior Josh Mauro and redshirt sophomore Henry Anderson—two towering players who are both listed as 6-foot-6 and over 275 pounds—have been competing for the starting defensive end spot opposite Gardner. For the time being, the younger Anderson seems to have the slight edge, as head coach David Shaw announced that he will start in the first game over Mauro, who has been recovering from a hamstring injury.

“It’s nice to have some depth there,” Shaw said. “I think Josh was slowed down by the hamstring a bit; he’s just getting back into the flow. But he’s going to play and hopefully they’ll both play extremely well.”

Senior nose tackle Terrence Stephens looks to lead a deep Stanford defensive line along with Ben Gardner. In one of the most memorable moments last season, Stephens forced USC running back Curtis McNeal to fumble the ball, allowing the Cardinal to secure a 56-48 triple-overtime victory over the Trojans. (JOHN TODD/Stanfordphoto.com)

Further contributing to the depth at defensive end are redshirt freshmen J.B. Salem and Charlie Hopkins, while the tackle position will be bolstered by redshirt sophomore David Parry and redshirt freshman Anthony Hayes. All four players will likely see playing time this season.

The influx of the talented true freshman class at the defensive line positions can hardly be ignored, either. Out of the group, Aziz Shittu, a five-star prospect who was a one-man wrecking machine in high school, seems poised to make the largest impact, but neither Luke Kaumatule nor Jordan Watkins should be underestimated.

“[The freshmen] are all doing a good job right now,” Hart commented. “They’re getting used to college football. They come from good high school programs. I don’t know if any of them have played against the quality of the freshman offensive linemen that we have on our team, so it’s pretty exciting to watch the young freshman offensive linemen go against the young freshman defensive linemen in practice.”

The veterans on the defensive line have also been impressed with the freshmen’s work ethic and are excited to see how their potential will pan out.

“It’s been a good camp,” Gardner said. “The guys have come out every day and practiced hard. We’re ready to go out and play.”

The players aren’t the only ones who are excited for the season to start. Coach Hart, knowing that his players’ in-game performance is much more important than all the preseason hype, is also eager to see what his talented group can accomplish on the field.

“Right now [the defensive line] is working hard,” Hart said. “We’re in preparation obviously, so we’ll withhold all judgment until the San Jose State game.”

Hart might withhold judgment himself, but with Gardner and Stephens leading the way and the younger guys ready to contribute, it’s safe to say that right now the Cardinal defensive line looks scary good. Maybe scary good enough for people to think twice before labeling the Pac-12 the conference of offenses.

 

Previous installments in The Stanford Daily’s 2012 football preview series:

Aug. 2: For outside linebacker Kevin Anderson, reward for hard work is finally in sight

Aug. 16: Workload only increasing for versatile fullback Ryan Hewitt

Aug. 16: Nottingham, Nunes front-runners in tightly contested quarterback race

Aug. 22: Powerful offensive line anchored by freshman talent and veteran leadership

Aug. 23: With Nunes at the helm, Stanford passing game reloads for another big season

Aug. 24: Taylor, Wilkerson ready to lead Stanford’s high-powered running game

About George Chen

George Chen is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily who writes football, football and more football. Previously he worked at The Daily as the President and Editor in Chief, Executive Editor, Managing Editor of Sports, the football beat reporter and a sports desk editor. George also co-authored The Daily's recent book documenting the rise of Stanford football, "Rags to Roses." He is a senior from Painted Post, NY majoring in Biology. To contact him, please email at gchen15@stanford.edu.
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