By Joseph Beyda
Who knew that Shayne Skov’s ACL/MCL injury would prove so fruitful.
No question, the Cardinal suffered from the loss of its star linebacker last season. After Skov went down, three of Stanford’s four linebacker spots were occupied by first-year starters.
No question, the Cardinal’s linebackers were very good in 2011—just not good enough. Though that inexperienced group went on to allow 25 fewer rushing yards per game (84.4) than any other squad in the high-powered Pac-12—a figure that ranked nationally behind only Alabama and Florida State, two schools from offensively anemic conferences—Skov just might have turned the tide in Stanford’s two losses, to up-tempo Oregon and pass-happy Oklahoma State.
But no question, even if few teams could top Stanford’s linebacker corps last season, the 2012 Cardinal’s most talented position group is primed to one-up its own impressive accomplishments from a year ago—all because Skov’s absence threw fellow inside linebackers Jarek Lancaster and A.J. Tarpley into the fire.
Lancaster, a junior who had never recorded more than three tackles in a game, averaged almost twice that many over the season and went on to lead the Cardinal with 70 stops; Tarpley, an unheralded sophomore who had never played a collegiate snap, added 57 tackles of his own and pounced on the game-winning fumble in triple overtime at USC.
“[Skov’s injury] is not really how I wanted to get on the field, like I’ve always said, but they always told us to make sure we prepare like a starter,” Tarpley said. “Jarek started last year as the third inside linebacker. I was the fourth, and things happened. By the end of the year we were both starting and making plays out there.”
“It’s huge; this time, when we’re walking out against San Jose State, it’s not the first game we’re playing,” he added. “It’s huge as far as you know what to expect. You know what to do in the moment.”
Now, with a healthy Skov joining fifth-year senior Chase Thomas and four other potential starters who now have a full year of playing time after last year’s attrition, you may not encounter a better group of linebackers than Stanford’s in the nation, much less the conference.
“It would be tough to find a team with more depth and experience than us,” Thomas said.
Above all, the Cardinal is absolutely stacked on the inside. Skov will miss the season opener against San Jose State this Friday—he is serving a one-game suspension from his January DUI—and head coach David Shaw, easing him back from injury, won’t ask him to play the majority of every game until midseason. In the meantime, Lancaster and Tarpley will be joined by highly touted sophomore James Vaughters, transitioning from outside linebacker this year, to make up a two-deep utterly unmatched in the Pac-12.
Shaw insists that all four will play often this season, and that the ability to rotate players in consistently will pay dividends against hurry-up offenses like Oregon’s. That hasn’t stopped guys from competing for the starting job.
“I definitely think [the competition] has helped us so far,” Tarpley said. “If we see Jarek make a play that makes us want to go make another good play…it’s definitely competitive and we’re more than happy about it. ‘Iron sharpens iron,’ and it’s not breaking us apart.”
The talent is so widespread that Vaughters, who registered just 11 tackles despite appearing in every game last season, beat out Lancaster, the team’s reigning top tackler, for the start on Friday.
“James Vaughters has been a one-man wrecking crew,” Shaw said, “and the last three weeks he’s had so many nicknames I couldn’t tell you, because we can’t block him.”
Even with the Cardinal’s skill at inside linebacker, it’s Thomas on the outside who has been garnering the most attention this offseason. The first-team Pac-12 selection spurned the NFL Draft for another year on the Farm—“a gut decision,” he said recently—and looks to build on a 2011 that saw him record three more tackles for loss (17.5) than anyone else in the conference. Admitting that he’s always been “more the play-with-my-pads type of guy,” Thomas says he’s devoting his fifth season to backing up his on-field performance with vocal leadership.
Over the last four years, he has also perfected the art of preparing for the Pac-12’s eclectic offenses—Oregon’s hurry-up one week, USC’s pro-style the next—a talent that will only be more valuable this year with the arrival of coaching minds such as Mike Leach at Washington State and Rich Rodriguez at Arizona.
“As long as you know what you’re going against and you know your technique, your alignment and you execute that, you should be all right,” Thomas explained. “But it’s all about studying film and flipping that switch from one game to the next.”
Thomas will start alongside senior Trent Murphy for the second straight season, and the duo of outside linebackers is backed up by fifth-year senior Alex Debniak and a promising redshirt freshman, Kevin Anderson. After injuring his foot early in camp, top recruit Noor Davis is “close to 100 percent,” says Shaw, and should also be at the coaching staff’s disposal.
The only real discontinuity this season will be on the coaching staff. Inside linebackers coach David Kotulski may be a 3-4 guru with 31 years of experience everywhere from Utah to Lehigh, but he also represents the fourth position coach in as many years for some of Stanford’s elder statesmen.
“It’s not as hard as you’d think it would be, just because they’re all great coaches,” Tarpley said. “They all bring their own little quirks to the game and how they teach it.”
No question, they’ve taught it well.
Previous installments in The Stanford Daily’s 2012 football preview series: