Stanford's defense in early stages of major rebuilding job
STANFORD, Calif. (AP) It seems like every spring Stanford has to figure out how to replace several starters on defense, and it seems like every year the Cardinal come up with the answers.
Even by Stanford's standard, there are a ton of questions this offseason.
The defense is in the early stages of its biggest rebuilding job in David Shaw's four-plus years as coach. The Cardinal are practicing this spring with just one player - linebacker Blake Martinez - who has ever started a game, and the lack of depth and experience around him is a major concern for next season.
''It's definitely more challenging, but I think it's fun,'' defensive coordinator Lance Anderson said. ''We got a really good coaching staff. I think it's a challenge for us to see, how can we get these guys to step up? How can we get these guys to improve? If we can get that done, it's going to be really fun looking back.''
Stanford is trying to replace three starters on the defensive line, both cornerbacks and All-Pac-12 safety Jordan Richards. Shaw expects his other safety, Zach Hoffpauir, to return after baseball season ends. And linebacker Kevin Anderson, who has been limited in spring practices with a hand injury, will be at full strength for the start of fall camp.
While the task is greater than before, Stanford's defense has a recent record of successfully replacing key players.
Last season, the Cardinal overcame the losses of linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov and safety Ed Reynolds - among others - and actually got better. Stanford finished with the nation's second-stingiest defense, allowing just 16 points per game.
Martinez notes that he was an unknown name when he replaced Skov last season. Then he led the team with 102 tackles and three interceptions. He also forced two fumbles.
''It's a little different coming out to practice now,'' Martinez said. ''But you kind of just look back at how I came into this and had to mold myself into this great defense. I was kind of the only one. Now I have the opportunity to teach those guys what I had to learn. And since having that experience, now it's fun to see how they're molding each other to kind of bring it around to what we had last year and getting all that team chemistry going.''
Shaw said the offense and defense have taken turns standing out in practice, which is a change from the past few years, when the defense dominated -especially at the line of scrimmage.
Part of the role reversal this spring is because of the talent returning on offense, including fifth-year senior quarterback Kevin Hogan. But it's mostly because of all the new faces on defense or, in some cases, a lack of them.
At one point earlier this spring, the Cardinal fielded just three healthy defensive linemen for a scrimmage. Martinez guessed that he participated in about 30 snaps, while the linemen took about 80.
''It was insane to seem them every single play, every single snap,'' he said.
Anderson believes all the playing time for the defensive line this spring will bode well in the fall. He expects some growing pains early - which could prove problematic opening with games at Northwestern, home against Central Florida and at Southern California - but he's holding players to the same standard as those who came before them.
''We need to improve, but the expectation is that we're still going to be really good,'' he said.
Anderson is optimistic about the growth of several players to shore up holes, notably young defensive linemen Harrison Phillips and Solomon Thomas. Former wide receiver Kodi Whitfield and former quarterback Dallas Lloyd are in their second years trying to earn playing time at safety. And promising defensive end Aziz Shittu, who played well in five games last season before suffering an undisclosed injury, also should be a big contributor.
''We still have a ways to go,'' Anderson said. ''But I think we're getting there.''
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP