Heading into the 2018 season, Stanford’s defense finds itself in a similar situation as the surviving Avengers at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. They watched Thanos (in this case, the high-powered offenses at USC, TCU, Washington State, etc.) rip their once-legendary team to pieces last season, gashing them for big plays on the ground and through the air. Opposing offenses, like Thanos in Infinity War, pretty much did whatever they wanted against the Cardinal defense. Still, both Stanford and the Avengers found themselves with a chance to win in the end. But Thor aimed for the heart and Stanford’s defense was brutalized by USC in the Pac-12 Championship and TCU in the Alamo Bowl. And then, just when they thought things couldn’t get any worse, some of their most important team members disappeared, seemingly ruining their chances for a better outcome in the sequel. Spiderman, Black Panther, and Doctor Strange vanished into thin air; Harrison Phillips, Justin Reid, and Quenton Meeks left for the greener pastures of the NFL. It looks like all hope is lost for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and the Pac-12’s Mightiest Defense.
But we all know the Avengers are going to beat Thanos and bring half the universe’s population back to life in the next movie. What we don’t know is whether Stanford’s defense can engineer a similar comeback and return to their dominant form of the early 2010’s, when they regularly finished as one of the Top 10 defenses in the country. The Cardinal offense should be fantastic this year, but for Stanford to make its first College Football Playoff appearance, the defense needs to be a lot better.
There’s plenty of reason to believe that the defense can take a big step forward despite losing five starters, beginning with coordinator Lance Anderson. In his four years as defensive coordinator (or “Willie Shaw Director of Defense” according to Stanford), Anderson has consistently produced top-20 defenses and has shown particular savvy with his stifling halftime adjustments. In his first year as coordinator, Stanford ranked third nationally in scoring defense and was far and away the most dominant unit in the Pac-12. Last season was the first time Stanford finished outside of the top-30 in scoring defense under Anderson, but he still managed to direct brilliant second half defensive performances in victories over Washington and Notre Dame (Editor’s note: Hi, Washington fan here. Can confirm.). Anderson gets the most out of his defensive talent, which will be paramount for the 2018 Stanford defense that doesn’t appear to be as loaded with future NFL draft picks as in years prior.
Anderson’s defense will get a significant boost from key contributors returning from injury. Cornerback Alijah Holder, who has the potential to be Stanford’s best defender, looks to be fully healthy after suffering a season-ending injury in the ugly victory over Oregon State. As a redshirt senior, he absolutely has the talent and experience to take over Quenton Meeks’ role as lockdown corner. Starting inside linebacker Sean Barton will also make his return after being knocked out for the season in the loss to San Diego State. He and Bobby Okereke should be one of the best inside linebacker units in the Pac-12.
Though the Cardinal defense lost a number of last year’s stars, it’s still one of the most experienced groups in the country. Every single projected starter on defense is a junior or senior. With multiple years under the famed player development of David Shaw and his staff, all of these upperclassmen should show significant improvement from the beginning of their careers. Plus, promising young talent like cornerback Paulson Adebo and linebacker Gabe Reid appear ready to take the next step and join their experienced teammates in turning heads this season.
Stanford’s defense is absolutely full of question marks. But, like the Avengers in the next Infinity War, they can turn it around and become one of the most formidable units in the Pac-12 once again. Going through the defense by position group, their potential should be clear. Whether or not they deliver on that potential could be the difference between a trip to the playoff or Rose Bowl versus another disappointing season by the standards they’ve set for themselves.
DL: Last year, Stanford’s defensive line was not its usual dominant self. The front seven in general was consistently victimized by the run game. The Cardinal defense gave up 4.6 yards per rush attempt last year, which put them at 78th nationally. The D-line also struggled to get pressure on the quarterback, finishing eighth in the Pac-12 with 2.3 sacks per game. And the vast majority of the production up front was generated by Harrison Phillips, now a member of the Buffalo Bills. Phillips led the team in sack and tackles-for-loss and led all FBS defensive linemen with 103 tackles. That kind of production is nearly impossible to replace, but Stanford does have some very promising, albeit inexperienced, defensive line talent that should be able to make the Cardinal front seven at least serviceable. Redshirt sophomore defensive end Jovan Swann showed considerable potential as a backup last year, generating 3.5 TFLs and a couple of takeaways. He’ll lock down one starting end spot. The other starting end will likely be senior Dylan Jackson, who had 36 tackles last year. That pair isn’t flashy but they should be steady. Anchoring the middle of Stanford’s 3-4 scheme is former four star recruit Michael Williams. The redshirt sophomore only made six tackles last year but, at 293 pounds, he has the talent and size to make up for some of Phillips’ production. Williams’ backup is another former four star, redshirt freshman Dalyn Wade-Perry. At 316 pounds, Wade-Perry also has the requisite size to man the middle of the Cardinal line, and his upside should land him considerable playing time. At defensive end, towering redshirt sophomore Thomas Schaffer (6’7”, 290 lbs) will also see plenty of time, as will former four stars redshirt freshman Ryan Johnson and true freshman Thomas Booker. All in all, the defensive line looks to be a weakness for Stanford this year. But by the end of the season, the combination of experience and young talent could make it a strength.
LB: Thanks to injuries and inexperience, the linebacking corps was almost certainly Stanford’s worst position group in 2017. But with a number of players returning from injury and considerably more experience across the board, they should be in line for Most Improved Position in 2018. Redshirt senior Bobby Okereke appears to be the leader of the defense. He had 96 tackles last year, including 7.5 TFLs and 4.0 sacks, and his pick six against Washington State was the defensive highlight play of the year for the Cardinal. After starting every game the last two years, Okereke should go from solid contributor to star in 2018. Redshirt junior Sean Barton returns to start at the other inside linebacker spot. Barton was off to a great start before his season was cut painfully short last year, and he and Okereke should make Stanford much stingier against the run this year. Redshirt senior Joey Alfieri will start at one outside linebacker position. He has 128 tackles and 21 TFLs over the last three years and should be able to make an even greater impact this season with his increased role. Redshirt junior Casey Toohill will also likely start at OLB. Toohill is another steady performer with the talent to make a bigger splash. Redshirt freshman OLB Gabe Reid was one of the stars of spring practice, and he should see the field plenty this fall. Then there’s former five star junior Curtis Robinson, who has never quite delivered on his potential, but if he can stay healthy this year, could end up starting at OLB later in the season. Redshirt sophomore Jordan Fox will also see time at the outside spot. Redshirt senior Jordan Perez, who made 66 tackles last year, will be a major part of the inside linebacker rotation, as will senior Mustafa Branch. Overall, the linebackers might have the most quality depth of any position group for Stanford in 2018, which should lead to a huge jump forward from last year’s disappointment.
CB: For all its struggles against the run last year, Stanford was even worse against the pass. The Cardinal gave up 7.6 yards per attempt, 88th nationally. With Quenton Meeks and Justin Reid off to the NFL, the secondary faces an uphill battle to improve. But there may be no defensive position group more positioned for success than the cornerbacks in 2018. Redshirt senior Alijah Holder returns after missing the final six games of last year. Holder has had his last two seasons cut short by injury but, when healthy, he’s been a shutdown corner with 18 passes defended and a couple interceptions. If he can avoid injury, Holder should be one of the best corners in the Pac-12 this year. At the other corner spot, redshirt senior Alameen Murphy and redshirt freshman Paulson Adebo will compete for the starting job. Murphy racked up 126 tackles and 11 passes defended over the last three years, and he filled in nicely for the injured Holder at the end of last season. Adebo was a top-100 recruit coming out of high school and starred in spring practice, as he was perhaps the best Stanford defender in the Cardinal and White spring game. Whoever ends up getting the start, Coach Shaw knows he has three really good cornerbacks. A pair of former four star recruits, redshirt sophomores Treyjohn Butler and Obi Eboh, provide great depth at corner. All things considered, cornerback should be the strongest position on Stanford’s defense in 2018.
S: Justin Reid was the first player off the board for Stanford in the 2018 NFL Draft, as he went 68th overall to the Houston Texans. His 99 tackles and five interceptions earned him second team All-American honors last year, and his production and presence on the back end will be sorely missed. Luckily, there are solid replacements. Redshirt junior Frank Buncom will once again start at free safety. He had 46 tackles and three interceptions last season and showed considerable improvement in his first year as a starter. He should be a reliable playmaker for the Cardinal secondary. Senior Ben Edwards will likely start at strong safety. He also had a productive year in 2017 with 39 tackles and two interceptions. Redshirt sophomore Malik Antoine should see time at free safety as well. Like Buncom, Antoine is a converted cornerback with tremendous ball skills. Behind Edwards, redshirt senior Brandon Simmons looks ready for a larger role. The former four star recruit has been primarily a special teams star in his Stanford career, including scoring a touchdown off a blocked punt against Oregon. But his dependable tackling ability makes him another good option on the back end. In a position where experience and reliability is critical, Stanford is well-positioned to be solid if not spectacular at safety
Like the Avengers, Stanford’s defense needs a comeback this year. They were a given a brutal reminder by their powerful opponents that times have changed. They’re no longer the scariest defense on the West Coast. But they don’t have to be because the offense might be the scariest in the country. The defense just needs to be steady and dependable, more Captain America than Iron Man. If they can limit big plays through the air and get off the field on third down (Stanford was 97th in opponent third down conversion percentage last year), Bryce Love and crew should be able to do the rest. The fate of the universe — or at least Stanford’s chance at a New Year’s Six bowl berth — hangs in the balance.