Fresh-faced Stanford defense looks to reestablish identity

Last month, Stanford found itself down at No. 112 in Phil Steele's national experience rankings. By those metrics, Stanford is considered the least-seasoned team in the Pac-12 -- despite projecting an offense loaded with returning starters.

That should give a solid indication of just how green the Cardinal's defense is entering the 2015 season.

For three years running, Stanford has featured the Pac-12's best defense. On their way to leading the conference in virtually every single statistical category last season, the Cardinal allowed only 16.4 points per game (the second-best team was over a touchdown worse at 23.6) and 4.2 yards per play (second place was a full yard behind at 5.2).

All of the 2014 defensive line is gone, the starting secondary has departed en masse, and half of the linebacking corps is also out the door. In short, Stanford's challenge of maintaining its spot at the top seems more daunting than it's ever been -- but an offseason of tangible progress has the Cardinal cautiously optimistic about their 2015 prospects.

"Our youth is significant -- it's there," coach David Shaw says. "But so is the talent."

Trips to four consecutive BCS bowls have a funny way of boosting recruiting efforts, and Stanford anticipates the fruits of its recent signing day hauls are maturing into effective replacement roles. In many ways, the program faces an intriguing departure from the birth of this era of success, when "diamond-in-the-rough" types such as Ben Gardner (a two-star recruit) and David Parry (a walk-on offensive lineman later converted to a dominant defensive tackle) formed the bedrock of the defense.

Virtually all of the players the Cardinal are counting on to step in now were touted talents coming out of high school. ESPN ranked defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, for example, as the nation's fourth-best recruit at his position. Outside linebacker Peter Kalambayi was one of the country's coveted pass-rushers during the recruiting process. Stanford has historically struggled to amass top-flight talent in the secondary, but many of the eight defensive backs signed during the past two years are considered high-caliber, immediate-impact players.

This new wave of talent is responsible for reestablishing the Cardinal's identity on defense.

"I really like the way the whole unit is coming together," Shaw said after a spring that saw the defense begin in a desperate situation yet finish with a dominant flurry. "I give a lot of credit to [defensive coordinator Lance Anderson] and the other coaches. They do a good job of changing from year to year and playing toward our guys' strengths."

The unit's strength this year, at least initially, would appear to reside at the linebacker position, where leading tackler Blake Martinez returns on the inside. He's joined by fellow senior Kevin Anderson, whose 6-foot-4 frame supplies the height the defense has utilized so effectively on the outside in the past (see Trent Murphy). Kalambayi racked up 6.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss in relatively limited action last season, so Stanford envisions him becoming their next pass-rushing force. Players such as outside 'backer Joey Alfieri have no actual game experience yet, but a hard-hitting spring has built anticipation for their September debuts.

"Coach Anderson has helped guide us young guys," Alfieri said. "Just because we lost a lot of guys, there are no excuses to not have the same performance or better than last year. He's not only maintaining expectations; he's raising them here."

Stanford does have reason to be confident in its reloading process: Last season, the defense's numbers actually improved despite losing the likes of Gardner, Murphy, Shayne Skov, Ed Reynolds, and Josh Mauro. But this 2015 challenge is shaping up to be a whole new animal, simply because of the sheer amount of talent lost on both the front and back ends.

It's typically most difficult to survive using youth in the trenches, where hand-to-hand combat makes the difference between a 19 and a 23 year-old the most pronounced. But Thomas and his sophomore counterpart Harrison Phillips are doing their darnedest to develop the "man strength" necessary to replace Parry and Henry Anderson: The former says he's packed on 31 pounds of "good weight" since arriving on campus, while the latter credits his mom's home cooking for also pushing him over 270 pounds. Stanford plans to fortify its defensive line with two veteran presences: Senior Aziz Shittu will be back from injury, while former Cal end Brennan Scarlett -- the Cardinal program's first graduate transfer -- also brings maturity.

The secondary recently lost Zach Hoffpauir to professional baseball, the latest in a string of departures that included Alex Carter (NFL draft), Wayne Lyons (transfer to Michigan), Jordan Richards (graduation), and Kyle Olugbode (graduation). The only returning upperclassman there is Ronnie Harris, so the room is essentially wide open for secondary coach Duane Akina to develop versatility in Stanford's touted group of young defensive backs.

"He's crazy," Terrence Alexander, one of the youngsters, said. "When I was being recruited, I got upset when [former defensive backs coach] Derek Mason left. But with Akina it couldn't have gotten any better. He's teaching me stuff -- angles, spacing, vision -- that I never would have thought about. That's how I know he's a great coach."

And perhaps that's the root of Stanford's optimism: The clay may be fresh, but the leadership molding it owns a compelling track record of building a grand product.

"We're getting better," Akina said. "We're growing up, slowly but surely."