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Leland Stanford Junior University Football Defensive Preview
Stanford has the worst defense in the conference outside of Arizona and Colorado. Can the Cal offense, led by an interim offensive staff, take advantage?
Stanford, owner of the Pac-12’s 11th ranked offense, brings the 10th best defense in the conference to Berkeley on Saturday. (It sounds more impressive that way, when you leave off the fact that there’s only 12 such teams in the conference.)
I mentioned yesterday the challenges that the offense would pose.
Does the defense have what it takes to slow down a very mediocre Cal offense? I don’t know, probably. Let’s take a closer look.
Stanford’s best pass rusher this season is the defensive end Stephen Herron, who leads the team with 5.5 sacks. I think he’s also one of the defense’s most improved players this season, as I really did not think he’d be making the impact he’s had so far this season. Herron is a bit light for a defensive end, but he a variety of nice pass rush moves. Despite being a bit light, he still has enough power to maintain leverage against UCLA’s behemoth left tackle as he beats him with a dip and rip move:
Here Herron uses his speed and performs a nice chop and rip move to beat the tackle for a strip sack:
Knowing that the offensive lineman will be concerned with his speed to the outside, here he performs a nice hump move to work his way back inside for another forced fumble:
On the interior of the line is the defensive tackle Tobin Phillips. Phillips is more of a nose tackle type of gap filler, and at least a reliable tackler when he gets his hands on someone:
The other starting defensive tackle is Anthony Franklin, although he splits his snaps with a freshman I’ll cover in a little bit. Franklin is at least decent, but he hasn’t quite set the world on fire this year. Both DT Tobin Phillips and DT Anthony Franklin are new starters to the defensive line this year, as Stanford lost most of their defensive linemen to the NFL (Thomas Booker, Tucker Fisk) or to graduation last year.
Franklin hasn’t recorded a sack this year, but here he fights through a block for a tackle for loss on a short yardage situation:
The next two players really frustrate me, because they’re both true freshmen, and they’re both going to be really good. Even worse, one of them was a one-time Cal commit.
First, the defensive end, David Bailey. Bailey is a high 4-star recruit, the #3 edge rusher in the class of 2022. Like the other defensive end Stephone Herron, David Bailey is also a bit light, but he’s an explosive athlete with enough speed and power to rush the passer, even if his pass rushing moves are a bit raw. Here he uses his speed to the edge to get a hand on the pass and force an interception:
And again, using his speed to wrap up the elusive DTR for a sack:
More frustrating, though, is the one-time Cal commit Jaxson Moi, who is already having an impact on the defensive line.
Here’s an example from when everything was going right for Stanford; naturally, in their game against a
toothpaste company weak FCS school:
I don’t think the stat sheet accurately reflects the impact Moi is making. Here’s another such play, where he drives the offensive lineman back and gets a large piece of the ball to cause another one of Stanford’s interceptions:
Lastly, the backup defensive end Aeneas DiCosmo (ah-KNEE-iss di-COZ-mo), son of Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Anthony DiCosmo, is finally getting his first real playing time this season. Here he does a nice job of swimming past the offensive lineman for what should have been ruled a sack:
The defensive line is surprisingly competent this season, and one of the better parts of the defense.
Put simply, the Stanford linebackers are not very good, and the main reason is that they have not done a very good job tackling. For the most part, it feels like they take strange angles or avoid contact, but when they don’t avoid contact:
And middle linebacker Levani Damuni is probably their best linebacker, and their leading tackler.
Ricky Miezan, not an especially strong tackler (22.5% missed tackles per PFF) or pass defender, is at least a solid pass rusher on the blitz:
The following is probably a goof by the USC running back (Stanford transfer, Austin Jones), but here’s Miezan picking up the sack when the RB decides to pass protect:
Side note about Austin Jones: transferring from Stanford to USC? What’s his major, insufferability?
Lastly, there’s the weakside linebacker, Tristan Sinclair, who’s built more like a safety than a linebacker. I’m at least thankful Stanford didn’t invent a position name for a hybrid LB/S like most teams (KAT, STAR, JOKER, RUSH, STUD, HUSKY, VYPER, etc)— what would you even call it at Stanford, TREE? You can see Sinclair in the earlier DE David Bailey clip, where he looks to be lined up as an outside corner. Like Miezan, he’s also not a particularly strong tackler (also at 22.5% missed tackles per PFF), but I don’t really think he’s spectacular in coverage either.
This weakness in tackling (to be continued in the next section) is probably why Stanford sits at 11th in the conference in rush defense, allowing just 5.6 fewer rushing yards per game than last place Colorado.
Stanford has exactly one respectable corner, Kyu Blu Kelly, who figures to be a 2nd or 3rd round NFL Draft pick (like his predecessor, Paulson Adebo). Kelly is as good of a cover corner as there is in the Pac-12, with the ability to glue himself to pretty much any receiver:
Kelly has the large frame, height, and long arms to pose a difficult matchup for any receiver in coverage:
He’s a smart guy that reads and anticipates routes well, and does a good job communicating that to the rest of the defense. He’s a technician of the game and plays with really solid technique. Probably his best attribute is his ability to play the ball once it’s in the air, which makes him a dangerous corner to challenge. He had his best game last year covering the nigh-uncoverable Drake London at USC (London went on to be drafted in the first round with the 8th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft). In the interest of fairness, the reason that Kelly will likely be drafted in the 2nd or 3rd round of the NFL Draft (instead of the 1st round) is that despite his technical skills, he lacks the top-end speed to carry routes vertically against receivers with elite speed (which you’ll see a lot more often in the NFL), like another future 1st round pick in Jordan Addison:
The next best corner is probably Nicolas Toomer, who has made some notable improvements in coverage since last year. Here he is with a nice PBU against UCLA:
On the other hand, he’s still far from a cover corner:
Stanford is extremely thin at corner. Behind Kelly on the depth chart is CB Salim Turner-Muhammad, whose penchant for trash talk doesn’t quite align with his play:
The other backup cornerback is Ethan Bonner, a player that television announcer seem to love for some reason, but I don’t. I wasn’t a fan before, but now I can’t think of Bonner without thinking of the following play:
And while we’re on the topic of Patrick Fields, a grad transfer from Oklahoma (in case you need a counterexample for the “Stanford can’t use the transfer portal” line you’ll hear at some point). Also… grad transfer from Oklahoma? We’re talking about a premiere academic institution here. Why would anyone leave such an institution for Stanford?
There’s no nice way to put it; Fields is by far the biggest liability in the secondary. The following play is a bust even if he hadn’t slipped:
Once again proving that Stanford’s second best defender in the secondary is “the errant QB pass.” It’s like an act of psychological warfare: Stanford has so many busts that they don’t get punished for, because the opposing QB will completely miss a wide open receiver. It’s like they can’t believe how open a receiver is, and they second guess themselves mid-throw, completely altering their trajectory.
Patrick Fields was originally the nickelback, but in recent games he’s transitioned to the starting safety. Besides the unwarranted trash talk, there’s one main reason he rubs me the wrong way:
I alluded to this in the previous section, but the Stanford secondary has tackling issues. They’ll take poor angles and try to tackle while avoiding contact, and it usually results in complete whiffs:
In the following play, both safeties just embarrassingly miss on the tackle:
No disrespect to Utah RB Micah Bernard, but he made this look effortless. It looks like both safeties are aiming at Bernard’s ankle, which he easily sidesteps on his way into the endzone.
The backup safety, Alaka’i Gilman, is still developing his instincts:
PFF rates Gilman as a sure tackler, likely only because Gilman takes himself so far out of the play that he doesn’t have the opportunity to miss the tackle.
Stanford’s best safety (“best” is a relative term here) is Kendall Williamson. Here he takes himself out of the play by taking a poor angle on the Colgate running back:
However, I have to give Williamson credit for being less afraid to make contact than most of his fellow DBs. Here he forces a fumble with his helmet on the ball:
The previous safety—now nickelback, after swapping with Patrick Fields—is Jonathan McGill. McGill has better coverage and ball skills than Fields:
McGill is at least decent in man coverage at the slot corner or nickelback position. However, McGill at the nickel means that the Stanford safeties are an even bigger liability than usual.
Stanford’s defense falls into a familiar pattern for Cal, just a bit worse than their other opponents: that is, a defense with a decent defensive line (that will likely generate pressure on the Cal QB, because pretty much anyone can at this point), but one that struggles in coverage on the backend of the defense, outside of one lockdown corner.
As Kyu Blue Kelly said at Pac-12 Media Day, “It’s called the Stanford Axe for a reason”. Yes, it called that because Stanford lost the Axe, and let’s hope it stays that way.
You can find my full clips here.