This is the eighth 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.
In a nutshell
Compared to other positions, there are perhaps the most question marks surrounding the Cardinal’s linebacker unit going into the 2016 season. That being said, the linebackers have the potential to be a solid crew that helps this year’s Cardinal defense become one of the best in recent memory.
The unit, however, will undeniably look and work differently than it has over the past few years. For one, there will be no Blake Martinez, nor Kevin Anderson, two rocks of the defense who wrecked havoc on opposing offenses in seasons past. (Martinez’s production in particular will be very difficult to make up for; he alone had 140 tackles last season.) Along with these departures, the competition at both linebacker positions, particularly inside linebacker, has been pretty even.
The result: Linebackers will rotate through much more frequently than in recent years.
“Going in, I don’t know if we necessarily wanted that,” said defensive coordinator Lance Anderson. “At that position [inside linebacker], we hoped there would be a couple of guys that stepped forward and maybe one or two we roll in after that…But it’s been so competitive and so close that there’s about six guys right now who are all going to rotate through.
“At some point during the season, we may pare that down a little bit,” the coach added. “Right now, everything’s so close that we’re going to have to rotate guys through and see what they do in games.”
Kevin Palma and Jordan Perez, who split time with each other last season alongside Blake Martinez, are two of the more experienced returning inside linebackers and, if they progress as expected, could carve out prominent roles this season among the relatively inexperienced unit. They also could share time with Bobby Okereke who, after a quiet first year on the Farm, has markedly developed over the spring and summer to earn a spot in the rotation. Similar parity has left Noor Davis, Sean Barton and Craig Jones competing for playing time.
The outside linebacker situation is more settled, with senior captain Peter Kalambayi, the team’s leading returning tackler, and junior Joey Alfieri likely taking the top two spots. Behind those two guys will likely be senior Mike Tyler, who impressed on the limited reps he saw last season, and sophomore Casey Toohill, who redshirted his first year but has had a strong offseason and is expected to see the field this fall.
Having such a large rotation has its drawbacks, sure. More people rotating in means less reps for each individual and may prevent defenders from getting into a rhythm. At the very least, it does show the depth that Stanford has in the linebacker unit.
Peter Kalambayi (OLB) – While many aspects of the Cardinal’s linebacker usage remain in question, there is one certainty: Peter Kalambayi. Kalambayi started all of last season’s games and is the leading returning tackler from the linebacker corps (he had 52 in 2015). His leadership on the field is also of note, as he was named one of the team’s five captains for the upcoming season. The senior has already racked up a few preseason awards (he has spots on the Phil Steele All-Pac-12 preseason first team, Athlon All-Pac-12 preseason second team, and the Butkus Award watch list).
This season, however, the Cardinal defense may expect more from Kalambayi than in years past. His pass rush hasn’t been as much of a factor as it was for other Cardinal outside linebackers in recent years. (For example, Trent Murphy had 25 sacks in his final two years on the Farm, while Chase Thomas had 16 in his. Kalambayi, on the other hand, only notched 4.5 last season after a meager 6.5 in 2014.) With a more experienced secondary behind him, this year is as good as any for Kalambayi to help bring back Stanford’s aggressive pass rush that used to rank among one of the best in the nation.
Joey Alfieri (OLB) – Kalambayi won’t be completely alone in heading the outside linebacker unit. Junior Joey Alfieri returns for the 2016 with a year’s experience under his belt, during which he split time with Kevin Anderson and gained extra reps when the then-fifth-year senior went down with an injury. Lance Anderson seems pleased with Alfieri’s progress over the past year and his performance during training camp, progress that will be necessary to replace the instinctual run support of Kevin Anderson.
Mike Tyler (OLB) – Tyler’s stats might not pop out on paper (17 tackles in 12 games played last season) but he made sure to make his presence known when he did get on the field last season. He was second on the team in sacks with five despite seeing limited playing time, which, coupled with a strong offseason, suggests a promising year for the senior. Just take the word of the pulse of The Daily’s football coverage, Do-Hyoung Park: “He’s my second pick for breakout player on defense this year. He’s so good.”
Kevin Palma (ILB) – The Cardinal will look to Kevin Palma, the most experienced returning inside linebacker, to run a tight ship on the field in 2016. Hansen recently called Palma “one of our field generals,” and following the Spring Game David Shaw said he has “really stepped his game up.” Palma enters the season with 44 tackles in tow from 2015, including eight games with at least three tackles, after having split time with Perez last season.
Jordan Perez (ILB) – Whereas six-foot-two, 251-pound Palma has typically played with better gap integrity in run support, the lighter Jordan Perez did better last year against slot receivers and covering 4-WR and 5-WR sets. He’s also put on some weight during the offseason, which could make him a more versatile linebacker this fall.
Noor Davis (ILB) – Davis was sidelined for the first half of the 2015 season with a lower leg injury, but came back to appear in seven games. It was a sort of microcosm for his career: Despite high expectations that tagged Davis, a four-star recruit, as having the potential to become one of Stanford’s next great inside linebackers, he hasn’t been able to fulfill that dominant role due to injuries. This year, assuming he’s able to remain healthy and can stand out among the rest of the competition at the position, could be a step in the right direction for Davis. He’s one of the older ones in the linebacker unit (one of the few fifth-year seniors, and, if he can take advantage of his physicality and improve his on-field vision, could carve out a sizable roll on the defense.
Craig Jones (ILB) – What stands out about Jones is more than the way he plays the game. Coaches have cited him as someone they can just trust to have out on the field. Whether it be on the scout team or special teams, Jones, a former walk-on, has worked ferociously to earn playing time and the respect of his peers, leading Coach Shaw to reward him a scholarship last season. Along the way, he has become one of the team’s more reliable special teams players and could see time in the inside linebacker rotation this fall.
Newcomers to watch for:
Sean Barton (ILB) – Sure, Barton hasn’t seen a snap on the field in his Cardinal career (he redshirted this past season after he arrived back from his two-year LDS mission to Benin), but that hasn’t stopped the coaching staff from singing his praises. His instincts and physicality, along with a solid offseason (he impressed in the Spring Game with 7 tackles, second-best on the team), may help earn him some playing time this season. Once he sharpens his technique, he could eventually be part of the Cardinal’s answer to replace Blake Martinez’s production.
Mustafa Branch (ILB) – After seeing time on special teams (and offense!) last year as a true freshman, Branch is in the mix for playing time at inside linebacker. His greatest strength? Hansen has called him the “most instinctive of our inside backers.” That being said, his small stature (five-foot-11) could be a limiting factor in his progression.
Bobby Okereke (ILB) – Okereke’s 7 tackles in 11 games last season may not look too exciting, but what should speak louder than last year’s results is his progress report from the offseason. Although he was already one of the best athletes in the group, the coaching staff was looking for Okereke to learn the scheme in order for him to be featured in playing time discussions. And he did just that this offseason. Hansen said he “may have had the best spring of anybody,” as he not only developed physically but was also able to grasp the scheme, making him a much more consistent player on the field and someone the coaching staff can choose to rotate in with greater confidence.
Curtis Robinson (OLB) – While there will surely be some players who earn playing time in front of him this season, keep a look out for Robinson over the next few years. The freshman, a four-star recruit, was a consensus top-10 outside linebacker and, after some more time under Lance Anderson and Shannon Turley, could emerge as a strong edge rusher for the Cardinal.
Blake Martinez (ILB) – If there’s one player on defense who Stanford will miss the most this season, it very well may be Blake Martinez. The inside linebacker and 2015 captain has moved onto bigger and better things (i.e. smashing men on Sundays after he was picked in the fourth round by the Green Bay Packers), but it may take awhile for a linebacker as talented as Martinez to make his way into a Cardinal uniform. Martinez’s 140 tackles last season not only led the team, but were over 30 more than Shayne Skov and AJ Tarpley ever had in a season at Stanford, and were also fifth in the nation.
Kevin Anderson (OLB) – Another graduation loss the Cardinal were hit with was that of Palo Alto native and outside linebacker Kevin Anderson. The captain and two-time All-Pac-12 honorable mention played in every game sophomore, junior and senior years before being hindered by injuries in 2015, keeping him out of four of Stanford’s 14 games. Nonetheless, he proved to be a valuable part of the Cardinal’s pass rush unit and recorded 40 tackles in 10 games. After initially signing with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent, he was released and picked up (and then released) by the Steelers.
Depth chart for Kansas State (released Sunday, Aug. 28)
Contact Alexa Philippou at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu.