The game of football is a constant, unsettling war; with every snap, chaos emerges as blood, sweat, power and raw adrenaline converge in a battle for every last inch.
Leadership matters in almost any endeavor, but in football, it remains nothing short of essential. To have a general on the field, someone who can transcend the cacophony of pads popping and crowds screaming — that is what makes a victorious campaign.
And leading the charge in many successful fights for Stanford is a player as steady as a giant Sequoia and yet somehow invisible to most of the football world, a player now finally earning the recognition for being a key cornerstone in the foundation of the new Linebacker U.
“The guy who’s always known the scheme best and always knows what we’re doing when the bullets start flying has always been A.J Tarpley,” said senior outside linebacker James Vaughters. “He’s really been doing the same thing for four years, but you really only notice now that we’ve lost some notable players.”
In his five years on the Farm, A.J. Tarpley has seen it all: four straight BCS Bowl appearances, back-to-back conference championships, the distinction of serving as a captain for one of the best defenses in the country. Along the way, Tarpley has been a part of some of the most memorable plays in an era of Stanford dominace: recovering Curtis McNeal’s fumble in triple overtime at the Coliseum in 2011 and intercepting Marcus Mariota in 2012 as Stanford pulled off a win for the ages at Autzen Stadium. As a battle-tested veteran, Tarpley’s play on the field has no doubt taken Stanford’s linebackers to another level, but his intangibles as a leader elevate his teammates as well.
“A.J. is the elder statesmen of the group,” noted inside linebackers coach Pete Hansen. “He’s not a big ‘rah-rah’ guy, but he’ll pull guys aside if he notices something to help them improve. He’s a little bit more of a quiet leader, but he has a lot of experience.”
In his first season as the inside linebackers coach, Hansen has been impressed with the performance of Stanford’s linebackers so far, adding that they have “exceeded expectations” in terms of where he thought they would be.
Tarpley added that the unit is even better than they were a season ago, but this performance falls right in line with his expectations:
“I think we’ve gotten better every year. I would say Blake Martinez and I are playing as well as any inside linebacker tandem in the nation, including any that I’ve seen here. It’s something that we take pride in,” Tarpley said. “We don’t downgrade our standards. I’m going to be gone after this year, but I expect Blake and whoever else is out there will want to be even better.”
To understand the culture of excellence amongst Stanford’s linebackers, look no further than the coaching staff. Hansen, the son of legendary Palo Alto High School football coach Earl Hansen, coached on the Farm from 2008-2010 before joining Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers as a defensive assistant, where he worked firsthand with one of the most fearsome linebacker units in the NFL. In 2014, Hansen returned to the Farm as the new inside linebackers coach and continues to bring a culture and expectation of excellence. Under his watch, Martinez has emerged as heir apparent to Shayne Skov, while junior Noor Davis has developed into a valuable contributor.
On the outside, look no further than current defensive coordinator Lance Anderson when examining the unit’s progress. Since taking over the outside linebackers in 2010, Anderson has helped groom NFL talents Thomas Keiser, Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy — the latter being the nation’s sack leader in 2013. In addition, he helped transform Vaughters from a struggling inside linebacker in danger of being lost in the shuffle to becoming a Butkus Award Finalist, honoring the nation’s top linebacker (Tarpley is also a finalist). Fellow senior Kevin Anderson has also turned a corner under Anderson’s watch, helping the Cardinal replace Murphy’s contributions in the aggregate.
“We’ve been playing three outside linebackers on a regular basis with Pete Kalambayi, James Vaughters, and Kevin Anderson,” Anderson said. “All three of those guys have performed at a very high level and have been very productive for us. They’ve all stepped in nicely [following the departure of Murphy].”
The stats back up Anderson’s claim: On the season, the Cardinal have averaged 2.8 sacks per game, just a shade under last season’s average of 3.1.
The emergence of Kalambayi, a sophomore who didn’t see the field at all last season, as the team’s current sack leader with 4.5, also suggests that Stanford reign as the new Linebacker U might be just beginning.
A highly coveted recruit out of Butler, North Carolina, Kalambayi received offers from over twenty schools before narrowing down his options to Stanford and Oregon. Ultimately, it was pull of Stanford’s academic opportunities, coupled with the success of the linebacker corps that sealed the deal:
“I knew that Stanford’s linebackers had been really good for the last four or five years, and I just couldn’t pass on the Stanford experience,” Kalambayi said.
With Kalambayi still improving with each passing game, along with other highly touted young linebackers waiting their turn to see action, including sophomore Mike Tyler and freshman Joey Alfieri, the future of Stanford’s linebackers looks very bright.
Tarpley, though, isn’t quite ready to reminisce on a Stanford career that has seen countless big games and over 200 tackles.
“Hopefully my favorite memory will be at the end of this year, whatever happens,” he said. “We want to go out on the highest note possible. The Pac-12 title is still out there and we’re just hoping to go 1-0 each week and leave a legacy behind.”
Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.