Determined and Undaunted
IN 2020, the Stanford defense made plays that won games:
- A two-point conversion stop to beat UCLA in double overtime.
- A final-minute forced fumble to preserve a victory at Oregon State.
- A sack that stymied Cal's final drive in the Big Game.
The determination of a bend-but-don't-break defense was as much responsible for the Cardinal's four-game winning streak to close a 4-2 season as the play of quarterback Davis Mills and an improved running game. It made plays when it had to.
But that doesn't change the fact that the defense struggled. Victimized by injuries before the season even began, Lance Anderson, Stanford's Willie Shaw Director of Football, was forced to patch together a linebacker crew and start eight different players in the secondary in what would amount to half of a normal season. A thin defensive line had its own challenges.
The Cardinal was 93rd in the FBS in total defense, 112th against the run, and 122nd in third-down conversion defense.
"We've got to get better," Anderson said. "A big emphasis for us has been stopping the run. We really struggled there last year. We're trying to put an emphasis on everybody understanding their fits and gaps, and their jobs, and just getting better at those.
"Once we do that, then we have a chance to get after teams with blitzes, disguise coverages, and stunts and patterns. But until we can get the run stopped, those are hard things to do. That's been a real emphasis for us this spring."
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Ricky Miezan. Photo by Bob Drebin/ISIphotos.com.
THERE IS REASON for optimism this spring, particularly the presence of inside linebackers Ricky Miezan and Jacob Mangum-Farrar, even if they remain limited. Miezan was injured in his first start -- the opening loss at Oregon -- and Mangum-Farrar missed the season.
"These are big physical kids who can run and are very athletic," Anderson said. "If we get them on the field with guys like Levani Damuni (Stanford's leading tackler in 2020) and Gabe Reid, that's going to foster so much great competition and it will make all those guys better."
At outside linebacker, Tangaloa Kaufusi and Tobe Umerah finally are able to show what they can do. Those two, with Miezan and Mangum-Farrar, combined for one game appearance in 2020.
"Those are four guys that we think in some way, shape, or form, are going to impact this football team that we didn't have last year," said David Shaw, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football.
The late start to spring ball caused coaches to be even more cautious of injuries, given the short gap before fall camp starts. The spring game, for instance, will not be a traditional 60-minute battle of split squads, but rather reps of the offense against the defense, with an emphasis on specifics such as red-zone situations.
The feeling of the coaches is that a healthy defense is a strong Cardinal defense.
"I really like our group, I really like our roster," Anderson said. "The key thing is if we can get everybody healthy. From what I've seen and what I know we have, talent and ability wise, if we can get all those guys healthy and playing to their potential and their capability, we can be much better stopping the run and much better overall."
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The Cardinal defensive line. Photo by Bob Drebin/ISIphotos.com.
STANFORD WILL CONTINUE to employ the same style of defense that it's used since 2010, with a 3-4 base.
"Our philosophy is we play a lot of single-high coverages, things that go in the man or cover-3 family," Anderson said. "An emphasis for us has been to stop the run, and try to get teams to throw. That's when we can get a little bit creative, with blitzes and such. But that all starts with your ability to stop the run. Load the box, play single-high defense, stop the run, and get you into a throwing game."
A great starting point is nose tackle, where Dalyn Wade-Perry and Tobin Phillips should be mainstays if healthy. Thomas Booker, who is entering his second season as captain, can be effective at any position on the line, and is a returning starter at end.
"I'll tell you what, he has taken another step forward this spring," Anderson said of Booker. "He just seems to be more explosive, playing with more suddenness, playing faster. He's an improved pass rusher. As good a player as he was last year, if you can believe it, he's even better."
Other than the free safety spot occupied last season by graduated Malik Antoine, there is experience throughout the secondary, with Ethan Bonner, Kyu Blu Kelly, Zahran Manley, and Salim Turner-Muhammad at cornerback; Noah Williams and Kendall Williamson at strong safety; and Jonathan McGill at nickel.
"You see how those guys have benefited from those reps that they got," Anderson said.
Rather than necessarily trying to establish starters and backups at this point, and with contact limited by the NCAA and in the context of building a healthy squad for the fall, the staff placed an emphasis on fundamentals and technique this spring as well as learning the defense and scheme.
But hidden beneath the negatives of 2020 was a determination that made it all work. And the Cardinal, Anderson believes, can build on that in 2021.