By George Chen
The one question that gets thrown at Stanford football every year always revolves around the word “replacing.”
In 2010, those outside of the program wondered how the Cardinal could replace running back Toby Gerhart. Then came coach Jim Harbaugh’s turn, followed by quarterback Andrew Luck and eventually running back Stepfan Taylor in 2013. Each season the replacement question was asked, and each season the Cardinal unflinchingly answered on the field.
Old habits die hard, though, so it’s no surprise that as the Cardinal enters the 2014 season following the departure of key fifth-year seniors from one of the best defenses in school history, one of the key questions is a variation on that same old theme: Who’s going to replace linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov?
Stanford has always let its play do the talking, but things on the Farm are different than they were four years ago because, perhaps for the first time, the Cardinal roster can speak for itself. For the linebackers at least, the one-word answer is “depth.”
“We feel like we can be as good as ever, if not better than ever,” said fifth-year senior inside linebacker A.J. Tarpley.
Overshadowed by Skov for the last two seasons, Tarpley will finally step into the spotlight in 2014 as the leader of the Cardinal defense. Tarpley hasn’t tried to match Skov’s vocal personality; instead, he is continuing to lead by example like he’s been quietly doing for the last two seasons. When Tarpley has received attention, the praise has mainly bolstered his reputation as one of the nation’s best pass-coverage linebackers. But don’t be fooled into thinking that he’s one-dimensional.
“When you go back and watch the film, A.J. was extremely productive,” said head coach David Shaw. “And that’s what you’re looking for: a guy who makes the plays he’s supposed to make and who maybe makes the plays he’s not supposed to make.”
With Tarpley’s quality of play not in doubt, the overall success of the Cardinal linebackers may come down to the guy who will be playing next to Tarpley. The other starting inside linebacker has yet to be determined, mainly due to the depth that Shaw has at his disposal. Two leading candidates are junior Blake Martinez and sophomore Kevin Palma, with fifth-year senior Joe Hemschoot and junior Noor Davis also in the mix. And they’re not rookies. Even with Skov’s presence, two of those linebackers — Hemschoot and Martinez — saw action in at least nine games last season.
Martinez attempted his best Skov impersonation during last Saturday’s live scrimmage by timing the snap perfectly and bursting into the backfield before the offensive line could react. Though it was reminiscent of Skov’s heroics in the Pac-12 Title Game last season, head coach David Shaw was cautious in drawing comparisons.
“I don’t think it’s fair [to compare],” Shaw said of the linebackers’ instincts. “Shayne is as good as I’ve ever been around at any level. I think [Martinez is] aspiring to be [Skov], but he’s not there yet.”
It also won’t be fair to compare senior outside linebacker Kevin Anderson to Trent Murphy — just yet. An eventual second-round NFL draft pick, Murphy roamed freely in the backfield and terrorized Pac-12 quarterbacks as the nation’s sack-leader last year. But if Anderson continues to develop at the rate he’s improving, you might see more big game-changing plays from him like his pick-six in the Rose Bowl Game.
For Anderson, the key to seeing more playing time last season was thoroughly understanding not only what his role was on the field, but also what his teammates around him were responsible for at the same time in each defensive package.
“[Kevin] Anderson has improved every year since he was a true freshman,” said defensive coordinator Lance Anderson. “He’s one of the hardest workers and he’s a kid who’s improved his strength, his flexibility, his ability to play in space. He’s a real student of the game — a lot of football IQ. He’s had a phenomenal camp.”
Complementing Kevin Anderson on the opposite side will be outside linebacker James Vaughters, who enters his senior season with two years of starting experience. Vaughters’ production is nothing to laugh at — he recorded 36 tackles and six tackles for loss in 2013 — but the Cardinal will need a bigger year from him if they hope to take some of the many responsibilities off of Tarpley’s plate.
“James has been a solid contributor,” Anderson said. “But it’s time for him to really break out and become a playmaker for us, to also be more consistent in his performance and make those big plays when the situation warrants. We expect big things from him this year.”
Skov & Co. carried the Cardinal to two straight conference titles, but if the two senior outside linebackers can take the next leap, Tarpley & Co. might just be able to step out of their predecessors’ shadows.
Contact George Chen at gchen15 ‘at’ stanford.edu.
2014 Stanford Football Preview Series