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Your Ultimate Guide to Stanford Football 2021: Part 2

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Welcome back! In the first part of our ultimate guide to Cardinal football, we took a closer look at the offensive side of the ball. Now, it’s time to break down the Stanford defense.

Defense 

Defensive Line 

This position group is the one the Cardinal must improve the most to have a shot at contending for the division title. The three Cardinal defensive linemen in Lance Anderson’s 3-4 scheme recorded only nine sacks in six games last year and struggled for large stretches of time to generate any sort of pressure on the quarterback. The run defense wasn’t any better, as the Cardinal gave up 222 yards per game — 10th in the Pac-12.

On the edge, senior Thomas Booker returns. He was on the All-Pac-12 2nd team a year ago and he’ll be the leader of this defense. He should be among the elite in the conference at his position.

With the departure of last year’s sack leader Thomas Schaffer ’20, who signed with the Chicago Bears, the favorite for the other edge spot is fifth-year Ryan Johnson, a former four-star recruit who played in all six games last year and registered four tackles. 6’4”, 330-pound fifth-year Dalyn Wade-Perry is slotted in at defensive tackle to complete the defensive line.

Depth is a significant concern here, and it is likely one of the reasons why the coaching staff has slated tight end Tucker Fisk to get some playing time as a defensive end. It’s unclear which others would be prepared to step up, and it might be a little early to see significant contributions from four-star freshman Aaron Armitage, Stanford’s second-highest-ranked commit of the 2021 class. Senior Tobe Umerah is not with the team, and Shaw has refused to comment on the situation regarding junior Josh Pakola, a former four-star recruit, at this time. Because of the lack of depth, Booker’s staying healthy is key to success.

Projected Starters: Thomas Booker (DE), Ryan Johnson (DE), Dalyn Wade-Perry (DT) 

Pac-12 Rating: 5

Confidence Level: 3

Linebacker 

One of the major storylines of Stanford’s training camp has been the linebacker room’s return to full health. Seniors Ricky Miezan, Jacob Mangum-Farrar and Tangaloa Kaufusi, among others, are finally available after missing most of the past two seasons due to various injuries. 

At the two inside spots, there is plenty of competition among Miezan, Mangum-Farrar, junior Levani Damuni and junior Tristan Sinclair. Damuni broke out during the 2020 season, finishing with 42 tackles and recording an interception and fumble recovery apiece. Neither Sinclair or Mangum-Farrar saw the field last season, but both will be called upon to produce this fall. Miezan, a former North Carolina lacrosse commit, only played in last year’s season opener against Oregon before suffering a season-ending injury. He has been on the brink of breaking out for some time now. 

At outside linebacker, the headliners include sixth-year Jordan Fox, junior Stephon Herron, fifth-year Thunder Keck and senior Andres Fox. Fifth-year Gabe Reid also should continue to be a key contributor. Herron had his coming-out party in the second half of last season, with a monster performance against UCLA in which he recorded two tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble. His continued improvement would be an immense help for the Cardinal and defensive coordinator Anderson. Keck, a former walk-on, made five starts a year ago while Jordan Fox was limited by injury. Highly-touted freshman Wilfredo Aybar could also play a role.

Projected Starters: Ricky Miezan (ILB), Jacob Mangum-Farrar (ILB), Jordan Fox (OLB), Stephon Herron (OLB) 

Pac-12 Rating: 6

Confidence Level: 6

Cornerback 

Stanford’s cornerback group is headlined by junior Kyu Blu Kelly, who was slotted in as the team’s No. 1 cornerback last season after New Orleans Saints draftee Paulson Adebo ‘21 opted out of the year. The staff has high hopes for Kelly, and Shaw believes he has a chance to be one of the better cornerbacks in college football.

Junior Salim Turner-Muhammad was expected to be the No. 2, but Shaw has revealed that STM will miss most of the season with an injury. The former four-star recruit out of New York played in five games last year and recorded 17 tackles.

Next in line are senior Ethan Bonner and junior Zahran Manley. Bonner started last season’s opener against Oregon, making five tackles, before dealing with an injury for the remainder of the year. Manley saw action in five contests last season, producing six tackles and a pass breakup.

Not much has changed with this group since last season, but with Turner-Muhammad set to miss significant time, it’s easy to take a quick glance at the defensive numbers from 2020 and become fearful about the secondary. There is little experienced depth, so it will be trial by fire for those who see the field beyond the trio of Kelly, Bonner and Manley.

Projected Starters: Kyu Blu Kelly, Salim Turner-Muhammad

Pac-12 Rating: 5

Confidence Level: 4

Safety 

Given safety is probably the position with the least depth on the roster, Coach Anderson will lean on two returners, senior Kendall Williamson and fifth-year Noah Williams, to patrol the defensive backfield. Williamson has made 16 starts in his Cardinal career thus far and, after Malik Antoine’s ’21 departure, is now the elder statesman in the secondary. Williams does not have the same level of playing experience, despite being a year older, but did play in all six games last season, finishing with 12 tackles. Junior Jonathan McGill was expected to start next to Williamson, after mostly playing nickel up to this point, but is out for the majority of the season with an injury.

Sophomores Alaka’i Gilman and cornerback-turned-safety Omari Porter are also in the mix. Gilman saw time only on special teams, but he could still see the field on defense this year. Porter made one tackle in five appearances in his debut season. Freshmen Mitch Leigber and Caleb Ellis should also have the chance to earn playing time.

Projected Starters: Kendall Williamson, Jonathan McGill 

Pac-12 Rating: 5

Confidence Level: 5

Bottom Line 

For this Stanford team to reach their goals and challenge for the Pac-12 North Division Title, the defense will have to make major strides from last season. Those strides start with staying healthy. Booker will have to set the tone for the entire unit through both his leadership and play on the field. The secondary has already been bitten by the injury bug, but still has the chance to be solid, given experienced players like Kelly and Williamson come back for another season. The linebacker group of Fox, Miezan, Mangum-Farrar, Damuni and Herron will need to reach the potential they have been flashing for some time now — the talent is there. If Coach Anderson can put it all together, the Cardinal can compete for the Pac-12 crown.

Special Teams

Kicker 

After four years of Jet Toner ’20, whose 280 career points are the third-most in program history, Stanford will break in a new kicker. The man is Joshua Karty, the No. 1 kicker from the 2020 recruiting class.

Backing him up are junior Diego Preciado and freshman Emmet Kenney, who was tabbed the No. 21 kicker in the 2021 class by Kohl’s Kicking.

We’d be more confident if Karty didn’t look shaky in the spring game, but his native talent should allow him thrive.

Projected Starter: Joshua Karty

Pac-12 Rating: 7

Confidence Level: 5

Punter

Ryan Sanborn is back, and he will have punting duties for the third-straight year. The junior averaged 40.5 and 39.0 yards per punt in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

Junior Alexander Thorpe and freshman Connor Weselman will back him up.

Sanborn is a preseason All-Pac-12 honorable mention, and there’s no reason to think he will perform otherwise.

Projected Starter: Ryan Sanborn

Pac-12 Rating: 8

Confidence Level: 9

Bottom Line 

The only question mark here is Karty, but there’s a high likelihood that he does well. Given his good performance, coordinator Pete Alamar’s group should be able to replicate last season’s impressive showing.  

Around the Pac-12

Let’s start things off with our Pac-12 power rankings. Throughout this section, ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) rankings through Week 0 for all 130 FBS programs are in parentheses.

Power Rankings

  1. Oregon (12)
  2. USC (19)
  3. Washington (21)
  4. Utah (27)
  5. Arizona State (30)
  6. Stanford (54)
  7. UCLA (29)
  8. California (70)
  9. Colorado (63)
  10. Oregon State (81)
  11. Washington State (72)
  12. Arizona (98)

Key Non-Conference Matchups

The Pac-12 will be given a litmus test this season: an early slate of non-conference matchups.

In Week 1, LSU (16) will visit the Rose Bowl to take on UCLA, and there will also be neutral-site clashes between Kansas State (69) and Stanford, as well as BYU (47) and Arizona.

But Week 1 just sets the table for the monumental Week 2 that will shape the national perception of the conference. That week’s slate is headlined by two matchups that were canceled due to COVID-19 last year: Oregon vs. Ohio State (4) and Washington vs. Michigan (28). The games were supposed to be on Pac-12 soil last year, and this year the teams are scheduled to travel to the Midwest. Utah will head to Provo to take on their bitter rival, BYU, in Week 2 as well, while Colorado will try to pull a stunner over Texas A&M (6) at a neutral site in Denver.

BYU features heavily in the Pac-12 non-conference schedule, as they are also set to visit USC on Nov. 27.

And don’t forget about Notre Dame (7). The Fighting Irish will host USC on Oct. 23 and visit Stanford on Nov. 27.

Thoughts on Division Races

Oregon is the clear favorite in the North, receiving 38 of 40 first-place votes in the preseason Pac-12 media poll. Washington has the best chance to challenge the Ducks. That chance was hurt substantially in the offseason after sophomore star outside linebacker Zion Tupuola-Fetui suffered an Achilles tear, but it now appears he will play at some point this season. Stanford and California should fight for the third spot and have the best chance at challenging the top two. Oregon State and Washington State are slated to finish in the bottom two in the North.

The South is one of the most interesting divisions in college football. USC is the slight favorite, but it’s easy to picture Utah or Arizona State taking the crown. And don’t forget about UCLA, who have the roster that finally produces the long-awaited breakout year under head coach Chip Kelly. Colorado was a surprise last year, but they aren’t likely to complete this year, and Arizona is in Year One of a rebuild under first-year head coach Jedd Fisch.

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Ells Boone is a desk editor for the sports section. He is a sophomore from Virginia Beach, Virginia, studying communication and economics. You can catch him waking up early on weekend mornings to watch his favorite Premier League team, Tottenham Hotspur, play. Contact him at eboone24 'at' stanforddaily.com.
The author's profile picture

Jibriel Taha is a staff writer for the sports section. He is from Malibu, California and studies economics and political science. He also co-hosts The Stanford Daily's men's basketball podcast series. Contact him at jtaha ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.