This is the ninth 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. Part 7 discussed the defensive line. Part 8 focused on the linebackers.
Thirty-six touchdowns, 2,867 passing yards, 15 sacks and over 300 tackles. It’s safe to say that the Cardinal have lost a lot of production with the departure of key contributors all over the field. On other hand, the roster turnover also provides a golden opportunity for younger players to grab their own share of the spotlight. With that in mind, we asked football writers Do-Hyoung Park, Vihan Lakshman and Michael Peterson: Which player among the “next men up” is poised for a breakout season?
Do-Hyoung Park: With Aziz Shittu and Brennan Scarlett both lost to graduation, there’s a glaring vacancy alongside Solomon Thomas and Harrison Phillips on the defensive line, and I think five years into his Stanford career, it’s finally time for big Luke Kaumatule to have his coming-out party and take advantage of having one position to definitively call his own. After jumping around between tight end, outside linebacker and defensive end in a dizzying array of moves in his first three years at Stanford, Luke was granted a redshirt year in 2015 to focus on finally consolidating his talent on the defensive line, and this is the season in which the fruits of that labor are expected to blossom.
His talent was never in question — coming out of high school, he could have been elite at either tight end or defensive line — and his coaches and teammates have said that Kaumatule (a very happy guy off the field) has the perfect aggressive demeanor to play defensive line while on the field. With a year under his belt to bulk up for the position and study the necessary techniques under departed defensive line guru Randy Hart, I’m expecting big things from Kaumatule now that he finally has the chance to shine. The Cardinal offensive linemen have said that Kaumatule has been a nightmare to block during fall camp, and head coach David Shaw has added that Kaumatule certainly has the skill set to be a stellar lineman, but it’s up to him to realize that potential on the field. I’m confident he will.
Vihan Lakshman: Luke Kaumatule is one of the friendliest guys on the team, and I’m also very excited to see what he can do as a regular in the defensive line rotation, but I’m going to go in a different direction. Let me begin with some shameless Daily self-promotion: go read Do’s excellent preview piece on the wide receivers and then come back here so we can together salivate at how good Trenton Irwin might be this season. His numbers in limited action as a true freshman in 2015 — 12 receptions for 150 yards — are almost certainly primed for a massive uptick as Irwin assumes a featured receiver role in the offense alongside Michael Rector.
Irwin earned that immediate playing time as a freshman thanks to his highly-refined route-running abilities and feathery-soft hands — skills that got him that five-star rating coming out of high school. But, as he told me back at Rose Bowl media day, getting acclimated to Stanford’s complex playbook proved to be a steep learning curve. That’s probably why we didn’t see too much of Irwin last season beyond those select packages. Now, though, the training wheels are clearly off and Irwin very well could emerge as a favorite target of new quarterback Ryan Burns, especially since his blocking abilities should allow him to stay on the field regardless of the situation. With Devon Cajuste moving on to the NFL, there’s a lot of playing time at receiver up for grabs and, when it comes to making grabs, I find it very hard to bet against Irwin.
Michael Peterson: Both of my colleagues made excellent choices here, but another name to watch out for is a guy who was all set to have his breakout season in 2015 save for an ACL tear against Northwestern. Junior defensive lineman Harrison Phillips outperformed expectations playing as an undersized nose tackle when injuries struck in 2014 and appeared to be ready to be a stalwart in 2015 from the sound of his fall camp performance. Of course, the early injury against Northwestern delayed his arrival as a regular starter on the defensive line by a year, but now he’s poised to dominate after gaining over 30 pounds since that freshman season. Listed at 285 pounds, Phillips played defensive end until injuries and depth issues over the last two seasons forced a change to nose tackle. Though he’s yet to play in a game since the ACL injury, it sounds as if he has fully recovered and should be back at 100 percent for the game against Kansas State.
With his versatility and the additional versatility of other guys on the defensive line like Solomon Thomas, we should see Phillips line up at both positions on the line over the course of the season. Because of the increased attention Thomas is likely to see after his production in 2015, Phillips may be the beneficiary of playing alongside a player who is regularly double-teamed, allowing him to feast on the opponent’s run game and apply pressure up the middle. If he plays like he can, Phillips will soon be drawing increased attention as well from the opposing offensive line. David Parry, the last great Stanford nose tackle, made a habit of pressuring the quarterback up the middle, a tough task to do. Though still slightly undersized as a nose tackle, Phillips teams his size with good speed and quick movements, giving him a unique skillset that could allow him to follow in Parry’s footsteps. There will be plenty of opportunity for Phillips to shine in 2016 with Aziz Shittu and Brennan Scarlett gone, and I think he will prove himself to be a star.
Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu, Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu and Michael Peterson at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu.