STANFORD, Calif. -- Stanford coach David Shaw loves to play the disrespect card. He frequently uses it as locker-room motivation. He grouses about it with the media. Still, after leading the Cardinal to consecutive Pac-12 championships and three of the program's four straight BCS bowl berths, one would think he'd be running out of fodder.
Nope. Shaw was characteristically chippy as he met with reporters following a public scrimmage last Saturday in which Stanford's defense held the offense scoreless on all 12 drives.
"Give a lot of credit to [new defensive coordinator] Lance [Anderson], give a lot of credit to our defensive guys," he told reporters. "Apparently we can play defense without Derek Mason, Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy."
It's unclear which detractors -- real or imagined -- actually suggested the Cardinal defense might fall apart without highly respected coordinator Mason (now Vanderbilt's head coach) or departed All-America linebackers Skov and Murphy. If anything, Stanford gained so much national respect for shutting down Oregon's perennially explosive attack over the past two seasons that the casual fan likely assumes 2014 will bring more of the same.
But the Cardinal have played the role of underdogs for so long that they've yet to shed that mindset, validity be damned.
"We always feel like we're kind of slighted in the conversation about the best defenses," said senior defensive end Henry Anderson. "We always feel like SEC teams kind of get the benefit of the doubt in that debate. I think we've shown it the past few years and we're trying to live up to that this year."
Stanford has undergone an interesting identity transformation over the past four seasons. Star quarterback Andrew Luck was the indisputable face of the program in 2010 and '11, leading the Cardinal to Orange and Fiesta Bowl appearances and twice finishing as the Heisman Trophy runner-up. Anyone who watched the future No. 1 NFL draft pick also likely noticed the team's standout offensive linemen (David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin) and tight ends (Coby Fleener and Zach Ertz). Stanford went 23-3 in those two years and was known primarily for its physical offense. Its defense was regarded an afterthought.
But something unexpected happened after Luck left for the pros. Stanford got better. It reached consecutive Rose Bowls, and while Shaw's ground-and-pound offense did its part, thanks largely to running backs Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney, the Cardinal's new identity became encapsulated by their defense. The team coined the hashtag #PartyInTheBackfield while leading the nation in sacks both in 2012 (57) and '13 (44) and ranking among the top five in the FBS in rushing defense.
Mason, who took over as the sole defensive coordinator in 2012, became one of the sport's hottest coaches thanks to a pair of jaw-dropping prime-time performances against Oregon: a 17-14 overtime win in Eugene in '12 and a 26-20 victory in Palo Alto last November. The Cardinal shut out quarterback Marcus Mariota and company for three quarters last fall in handing the Ducks their first loss.
When Vanderbilt hired Mason to succeed James Franklin in January, Shaw wasted no time in promoting outside linebackers coach Anderson to replace him. The lone remaining assistant from Jim Harbaugh's original 2007 Stanford staff (besides Shaw himself), Anderson worked under both Mason and current San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
"We don't want to take a step back. We want to keep getting better," said Anderson. "The transition's been smooth. A lot of kids are back. We've been running the same system here for three or four years. We're not changing a whole lot."
But there will be some new faces.
Gone are Skov, the fiery, tomahawked inside linebacker who served as the defense's most vocal leader, and Murphy, the outside linebacker with a mean streak who led the nation in sacks (15) in 2013. So, too, are defensive linemen Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro and safety Ed Reynolds, a third-team All-America selection.
Yet Stanford is more experienced up front than one might expect. Its new pass-rushing extraordinaire figures to be defensive end Henry Anderson, a fifth-year senior and third-year starter, who was named second-team All-Pac-12 in 2012 but missed five games last year after sustaining an early-season knee injury. In last Saturday's scrimmage, the 6-foot-6, 295-pounder notched a sack and batted down two Kevin Hogan passes.
"Henry has been borderline unblockable for us this spring," said Shaw. "Although we're not ready for the season, I really can't wait to turn him loose on someone else other than us."
Two other seniors, end Blake Lueders nose tackle David Parry, figure to hold down the other starting spots on the line, though junior Aziz Shittu, a former five-star recruit in the class of 2012, has seen action this spring at multiple positions.
At linebacker, junior Kevin Anderson (not to be confused with Lance or Henry) should move into Murphy's former starting spot. He returned an interception for a touchdown in the second quarter of the team's Rose Bowl loss to Michigan State. Meanwhile, fourth-year starter A.J. Tarpley returns at one of the inside spots. Junior Blake Martinez is the leading contender to step in for Skov.
"We're always trying to get more sacks and TFLs [tackles for loss] than the year before, and we've got the guys to do that again," said Henry Anderson. "I think our front seven is going to be as good if not better than last year."
The area of most uncertainty is the vacant safety spot opposite veteran Jordan Richards. The players vying for the job include a former (Kyle Olugbode) and current (John Flacco, younger brother of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe) walk-on, a guy playing baseball this spring (Zach Hoffpauir) and two recently converted offensive players. However, when the safeties return to the practice field later this month they'll have a new and distinguished mentor. On Monday, Stanford announced the hire of former Texas defensive backs coach Duane Akina, who during 13 seasons in Austin developed a long line of standouts including Quentin Jammer, Michael Huff and Earl Thomas. His first task at Stanford will be teaching the finer points of playing safety to a former wide receiver (Kodi Whitfield) and quarterback (Dallas Lloyd).
It says something about Stanford's depth chart that Shaw was comfortable moving Whitfield -- who made one of college football's most memorable catches last season, a leaping one-handed touchdown grab against UCLA -- to the secondary. Shaw believes the Cardinal, who bring back the elusive Ty Montgomery (958 receiving yards, 10 touchdowns) and big-play threats Devon Cajuste (22.9 yards per catch) and Michael Rector (30.8 ypc), will have no shortage of aerial weapons. "Maybe the most well-rounded, potentially best receiving corps in the nation," Shaw said. That's a bold statement for a program just two years removed from having no receiver finish with more than 463 yards. But with a third-year starting quarterback in Hogan, perhaps Stanford will finally air it out in 2014.
Truth be told, the Cardinal have far more questions on offense than they do on defense. They must replace workhorse running back Gaffney (1,709 rushing yards, 21 touchdowns), and none of the returnees at that position recorded more than 20 carries last season. There is also the matter of filling the slots of four departed starters on offensive line, including All-America guard David Yankey. Still, Stanford's use of the jumbo and "ogre" packages means several of the expected new starters (such as tackle Kyle Murphy and guard Joshua Garnett) have already seen extensive playing time.
Chances are the offense will take time to jell over the course of the season. But Stanford can't afford to wait. It will host USC on Sept. 6 and visit Washington (Sept. 27) and Notre Dame (Oct. 4) early in the year. To post another 11-win season, the Cardinal will need their #PartyInTheBackfield to keep raging. The planning is underway this spring.
"We don't look back necessarily to see what we've done in the past. We look forward and keep grinding," said Richards. "But we know the standard's been set [on defense] and we need to meet or exceed that standard. That's what we try to do every day."