This is the seventh 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. Part 6 featured a roundtable on the defense.
In a nutshell
It’s no secret that most of us enjoy a good survival movie. From “Castaway”, to “127 hours” to “Into the Wild,” there’s something about the resilience of the human body in times of distress, ingenuity in the face of death and the sheer, uncompromising will to live that’s enormously captivating. And for admission into the canon of all-time great survival stories, I present for consideration the 2015 Stanford defensive line.
Playing with just three linemen for the entire season, the Cardinal had to summon every ounce of their creativity and strength to make it out of the Pac-12 alive. We saw defensive coordinator Lance Anderson dial up some exotic looks: a base nickel defense with just two down linemen, a three-safety scheme and bringing linebackers up to the line of scrimmage with their hands in the dirt. Above all, it took steely resolve from Stanford’s trio of starters, Solomon Thomas, Aziz Shittu and Brennan Scarlett, and a masterful coaching job by expert motivator Randy Hart to get this unit to the finish line.
This time around, the storyline couldn’t be more different: Stanford goes from scrambling to find ways of working around a lack of bodies up front to now boasting the deepest defensive line that David Shaw has ever coached.
“This was the most competitive camp [on the defensive line] that we’ve ever had,” Shaw said. “I’m not saying that it’s the best, but it’s being able to say that we have three positions where we’re two deep. It’s so exciting for us. Last year we didn’t get a chance to rotate those guys through.”
With six defensive linemen expected to see action on game days, look for Stanford to dial up the aggressiveness up front — throwing back to the #PartyInTheBackfield heydays of 2012 and 2013 — knowing that no D-lineman will have to go the full distance.
The #Rushmen also have a new leader in Diron Reynolds who took over for the newly retired Hart. Reynolds, who came over from Oklahoma, has plenty of familiarity with the Stanford program after working under Hart as a defensive assistant in 2014 but also brings his own approach that has quickly caught on with his players.
“Coach Hart taught us a lot about how to play hard and play with heart. He was a ‘grind every play’ kind of guy,” said fifth-year senior defensive end Luke Kaumatule. “Coach Diron talks more about taking care of your body and playing efficiently by relying on your technique.”
Under new leadership and with more depth than they’ve had in a long, long time, 2016 could be the year that the Stanford D-line reasserts itself as one of the premier units in the conference as optimism surrounding the unit continues to grow.
Solomon Thomas (DE/DT) – The lone returning starter on this year’s defensive line, Thomas earned that starting job in last year’s training camp and never looked back as he went the distance for a razor-thin defensive line rotation. Although the current junior was rock-solid all of last season while spending most of his snaps out of position at defensive tackle, his coming-out party to the rest of the country came in the Pac-12 Championship game with the “Scoop and Score Heard ‘Round the World.” Thomas enters this season stronger and more explosive than ever before and his high workload from 2015 has endowed him with experience beyond his years. Voted a captain by his teammates last week — a rarity for juniors in the Harbaugh-Shaw era — the Phil Steele All-Pac-12 preseason first team selection will be the lead dog for a large pack of hungry defensive linemen. Look for him to build on his 2015 stats of 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
Harrison Phillips (DE/DT) – Horrible Harry is back, and that’s good news for the Cardinal. On his one and only drive of last season against Northwestern, the then-sophomore terrorized interior linemen and exploded into the backfield to deflect a pass. Phillips, however, tore his ACL on that drive, and we were all left to wonder what Stanford’s defensive front might have looked like if he had been available for the long haul. Phillips is a gritty competitor who surpassed all expectations when he held his own as a 255-pound true freshman nose tackle in 2014 and, as a former national champion wrestler in high school, never fails to bring the physicality. The junior has been a full-go in training camp and will likely start the season as the first-team nose tackle, allowing Thomas to slide over and play defensive end.
Jordan Watkins (DE) – Watkins returns for his fifth year on The Farm and, according to Shaw, just put together his best fall camp to earn a spot in the defensive line rotation. Watkins played sparingly in 2015, appearing in eight games and recording three tackles, but Shaw and the coaching staff believed that the long, athletic 6-foot-5, 274-pounder could break out and decided to bring him back for his final year of eligibility. The decision seems to have worked out as Watkins will see his workload increase substantially in 2016 while Stanford adds another crucial piece of depth that was alarmingly lacking last year.
Newcomers to watch for
Luke Kaumatule (DE) – Strictly speaking, Kaumatule, entering his fifth season at Stanford, is the furthest thing from a “newcomer,” but after redshirting last season and switching positions, he will be bringing some much-needed fresh blood to the defensive line. Kaumatule’s Stanford journey has been the dizziest of whirlwinds. After starting off his career on offense and playing immediately as the heir apparent to Zach Ertz at tight end, Kaumatule switched over to the defensive line and then moved again to outside linebacker. In training camp last year, Kaumatule, the outside linebacker, excelled at pass-rushing and edge-setting but struggled with his coverage responsibilities, prompting outside linebackers coach and defensive coordinator Lance Anderson to propose redshirting the fourth-year senior to give him time to improve his coverage skills. Then, halfway through the 2015 season, the coaching staff decided to move Kaumatule again — this time back to the defensive line. In the subsequent 10 months, Stanford’s positional journeyman found a home and true stability for the first time in his college career.
“It was so huge to redshirt Luke last year. So huge,” Shaw said. “Luke just wasn’t ready to play for us and for us to give him a couple of plays a game last year, we would never really get a chance to see what he’s capable of. Now with a whole year on the defensive line…he’s so much more ready to play.”
Kaumatule concurred with his coach’s assessment: “Coach Anderson and Coach Shaw gave me the opportunity to redshirt last year which I’m really grateful for. I feel like I know the defensive playbook the best I’ve known it especially being able to just focus on one position and one technique. I’ve gained a lot of weight and lost a lot of weight in this time. Now, I’m just trying to get my body right and be explosive for the season.”
“I’ve never really had a season where I was able to play from the beginning to the end,” Kaumatule continued. “I’ve never had a season where I was able to start fast and finish. This is my last season at Stanford and I want to play every play and every game like it’s my last.”
Eric Cotton (DE) – When I asked Kaumatule which defensive lineman might surprise people this season, he replied, “Watch out for Eric Cotton.” After starting out his Stanford career at tight end, where he appeared in every game in 2014 and grabbed two touchdowns, Cotton made the move to the other side of the ball to bolster a perilously thin D-line corps. The 6-foot-6, 268-pounder, who has added nearly 30 pounds from his tight end days, did not see action at his new position for much of 2015 before making his debut in the second half of the Rose Bowl and recording a tackle. After another offseason at defensive end, Cotton looks primed for a larger role, a fact confirmed by Shaw when he announced that the Idaho native will be a part of the six-man rotation up front. With his length and extremely high motor, it’s clear what the Stanford coaching staff envisioned when switching Cotton over, and he looks poised to bring those tools into game action. In Kaumatule and Cotton, the Cardinal will rely on two converted tight ends to provide depth up front this season, a fact the two have discussed many times as they get ready for key roles in 2016.
Dylan Jackson (DE) – Jackson will also be a part of the Cardinal’s six-man rotation after redshirting last season. Under Shannon Turley’s strength program, Jackson has gained 13 pounds from the beginning of last season and looks absolutely menacing in person. His meteoric rise up the depth chart was another of many positive developments on the defensive line this summer and rounds out the two-deep rotation that Shaw, Anderson and Reynolds covet.
Bo Peek/Michael Williams (DT) – In addition to upperclassmen making strides, Stanford also brought in four highly touted defensive linemen in its 2016 recruiting class. While all signs point to the four freshmen redshirting in their first year, there’s plenty of excitement over what this group could do in the future, especially in bringing about the return of the true nose tackle. Both Bo Peek and Michael “Uncle Julio” Williams are bonafide all-beef, whole-wheat, space-gobbling presences in the middle — something Stanford hasn’t had since the days of Terrence Stephens and David Parry, when the Cardinal boasted some of the best front sevens in the nation.
Aziz Shittu (DE/DT) – A former 5-star recruit, Shittu blossomed late in his Stanford career to become a major disruptive force in the trenches. After a gruesome knee injury in practice derailed his 2014 season midway through, the current Philadelphia Eagle returned with a vengeance the following year, earning All-Pac-12 first team honors and closing out his career with a legendary Rose Bowl performance, recording 10 tackles, 3.5 for loss, to earn defensive MVP honors. His ability to play both defensive end and tackle also provided critical versatility to the Cardinal front line.
Brennan Scarlett (DE) – Can you imagine where Stanford would have been last season if Brennan Scarlett had not transferred into the program (from Cal, of all places)? Scarlett, the older brother of Cardinal running back Cameron, became a godsend to the defensive line, especially after Harrison Phillips’ injury thrust him into a starting role that required him to play a gargantuan number of snaps. Scarlett responded by not only filling a gaping void in the front line, but also thriving at it, finishing the year as Stanford’s sack leader with 5.5 QB takedowns. Like Shittu, Scarlett went undrafted but signed as a free agent with the Houston Texans where he is actively competing for a roster spot.
Projected Depth Chart
Eric Cotton OR Dylan Jackson
Others: Wesley Annan, Bo Peek, Michael Williams, Jovan Swann, Thomas Schaffer
Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.