As part of The Daily’s preview coverage of Stanford football’s fast-approaching 2016 campaign, football analysts Andrew Mather, Vihan Lakshman and Nicky Sullivan got together to discuss some pressing questions regarding the Stanford defense.
This is the sixth of a 12-part preview of the 2016 football season. Part 1 focused on the running backs and fullbacks. Part 2 featured a roundtable on the offense. Part 3 focused on the tight ends and receivers. Part 4 focused on the offensive line. Part 5 focused on the quarterback.
As with the offense, the Stanford defense loses six starters heading into the 2016 season. Who amongst this group of departed contributors will the Cardinal miss the most?
Andrew Mather (AM): This isn’t the most obvious answer by any means, but I’m going with cornerback Ronnie Harris. Stanford’s secondary had a fairly good 2015 season, all things considered, but things fell apart a little when the Cardinal had to stare down top-level receivers. USC’s Juju Smith-Schuster and Notre Dame’s Will Fuller made the Stanford defensive backs look silly at times last year, and I’m not totally convinced that any of the Cardinal’s young starters have improved by enough to make up the difference. Harris was no All-American athlete or big-play wizard, but his experience and vision on the field seemed to help a lot of the other pieces of last year’s secondary fall into place. Even with Zach Hoffpauir returning to the roster, that level of leadership will be difficult for the secondary to replace – especially with Smith-Schuster coming up on the schedule again Week 3.
Vihan Lakshman (VL): Let’s flash back to last year’s Stanford-Arizona game for a moment. You might remember that contest for Christian McCaffrey slicing through yet another Pac-12 defense, Keller Chryst pancaking a defender or Rollins Stallworth’s leaping touchdown on an end zone fade. I also remember that night as our first glimpse at what a post-Blake Martinez Stanford defense might look like. After being blindsided by a blocker late in the first half, Martinez gingerly walked back to the locker room for further examination before later returning to the game. In the meantime, the Wildcats offense breathed new life while the Stanford defense looked almost unrecognizable without its leader in the middle. Martinez could not only play physical and cover in space with the best linebackers in the country, but he also had that sixth sense of knowing exactly where the ball was going on any given play. In his senior year, the current Green Bay Packer racked up 140 tackles — over 30 more than Shayne Skov or AJ Tarpley ever put up in a season. The Cardinal have a number of talented inside linebackers ready to fill the large shoe’s of No. 4, but none of them have proven that they can take over a game in the same way as Martinez. In that sense, he will certainly be missed.
Nicky Sullivan (NS): Aziz Shittu. Stanford’s biggest problem last year was probably the defensive line, as they struggled to get consistent pressure and had a problem with giving up big runs. The biggest issue was depth, as Stanford was forced to run out the same crop of linemen play after play, and it was clear that sometimes they simply got tired. Stanford is in a little better position this year, with Solomon Thomas poised to break out and Harrison Phillips back healthy, but outside of those two there are a lot of question marks. Adding Aziz Shittu to that line gives Stanford another known commodity as a starter, and allows them more flexibility if guys like converted tight ends Eric Cotton and Luke Kaumatule don’t pan out.
Which defensive unit (defensive line, linebackers or secondary) will be team’s strong suit this season?
AM: No insult intended to the secondary, but the linebackers have just earned this more. Year after year, this unit has lost big names, and year after year it has found a way to come back even stronger. The departures of Chase Thomas, Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy and AJ Tarpley barely made a dent in Stanford’s linebacker performance, and I don’t expect Blake Martinez’s recent signing with the Packers to be any different. It’s hard to know exactly which members of this year’s group will become its key playmakers this season, but with names like Peter Kalambayi, Kevin Palma, Joey Alfieri and Noor Davis all returning and stud freshman Curtis Robinson joining the ranks, I’d be surprised if “Linebacker U” isn’t back in action in a big way this season.
VL: When Stanford’s defense first rose to prominence in 2012 and 2013, it was largely on the basis of a historically good front seven. The secondary was also quite effective during those years, but it was clear that the Cardinal hung their hats on the #PartyInTheBackfield up front. Nowadays, the tables have turned. I expect the front seven to take care of business at a very high level once again, especially with the deepest defensive line rotation this team has had in years. But it will be the secondary that really turns heads. Alijah Holder and Quenton Meeks are stars in the making after their breakout 2014 campaigns, and the return of Zach Hoffpauir gives this unit an absurd number of options at safety and in nickel packages. Defensive backs coach Duane Akina has some tough decisions to make in sorting out who is going to play where, but it’s hard to bet against the DB Whisperer when it comes to getting his boys ready to play at an elite level. At this point, the secondary has more proven commodities than either of the other defensive units and looks ready to take another step forward behind some excellent coaching and veteran leadership.
NS: Picking the secondary is making a bet on potential, and with this group, that’s a bet I’m willing to take. They probably have a lower floor than the defensive line or linebackers, but I think their ceiling is also higher. Dallas Lloyd takes over the mantle as the veteran leader, and there’s massive amounts of talent around him. Quenton Meeks is a star in the making; he showed a knack for coming up big in the biggest moments last year, and with a little more consistency could be one of the best defensive backs in the Pac-12. Alijah Holder was solid last year as well, and Frank Buncom, Terrance Alexander and Alameen Murphy mean there’s a lot of skilled players providing depth at cornerback. The safety position might be even better, with Zach Hoffpauir returning and Justin Reid, Ben Edwards and Brandon Simmons all in the mix for playing time alongside Lloyd. That’s a lot of highly touted recruits who have had a year to learn under Stanford’s brilliant defensive coaching, and this year Stanford should begin to reap the fruits of their labor.
Take your pick: Stanford will allow over/under the 22.6 points per game given up last year.
AM: Over. I actually expect the defense to be a little bit better than last year in a pure sense, but in terms of points per game, it’s fighting up against two pretty significant confounding variables. One potential obstacle is the unit’s counterpart on the other side of the ball, which will have to break in a new quarterback and offensive line and could hand the ball over to the opponent a few more times per game. An even more difficult barrier, however, comes from the veritable murderer’s row that is the Pac-12 Conference this year. Aside from Oregon and maybe Cal, it’s hard to imagine that anybody on the Cardinal’s schedule won’t have a better offense this year than last, and at least a few teams should improve by significant margins. If Stanford’s talent comes together quickly I think it could counteract these changes and maintain or improve its numbers from last year, but it’s more likely that some drop-off will occur.
VL: I’m going to concur with Mather on this one and say slightly over. Stanford’s mark of 22.6 points per game given up last season was awfully impressive given that the Cardinal were essentially replacing their entire defensive line and secondary, and it sure seems logical to think that the defense is in line for an improvement with more continuity heading into 2016. However, let’s not forget that Stanford hit the lottery last season when it came to facing inexperienced quarterbacks. In total, Stanford faced a first-year starter or backup quarterback in seven of its 14 contests in 2015. The Cardinal likely won’t be so fortunate this time around and must confront the additional hurdle of meeting many of the most potent offenses on the schedule away from Stanford Stadium. And, as Mather astutely pointed out, the uncertainty on offense with a new quarterback and offensive line might make things even harder on the defense. In short, I expect the Cardinal defense to again contend for the title of best in the conference, but beating the points per game tally set by last year’s squad seems very tough.
NS: I agree with most of the points that you guys make, but I want to make a case for the under. One of the defense’s biggest problems last year was that they gave up a lot of quick scoring drives. The defense gave up 129 pass plays of 10+ yards last season, good for 107th in the country (out of 128 teams). The secondary should be much improved, which should limit those plays and force opposing teams to put together longer scoring drives. Stanford should be better at every level of the defense, and there are a number of games in which I wouldn’t be surprised to see them give up fewer points. They gave up 24 points to Oregon State last year and got absolutely destroyed by Notre Dame and Oregon. If they can limit those teams this year, they could easily give up fewer points per game. And in case you were wondering, the last time Stanford gave up more than 22.6 points per game? That would be 2009. I trust in Lance Anderson.
Contact Andrew Mather at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu and Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.