Stanford Football Defensive Preview

After giving up 35 points to Oregon State last week, Stanford has surpassed Arizona as the worst defense in the Pac-12 (how many point Arizona gave up recently is not at all relevant, shhhh).

I think I vented most of my anti-Stanford rhetoric in yesterday’s offensive preview article, so if you haven’t seen that, please click here:

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Stanford Football Offensive Preview
Hoo boy. Every year I think about how I want to write the Stanford preview, but each time the game sneaks up on me and when the moment comes, I don’t know what to write. Do I want to give an honest evaluation of their team, or do I want to roast Stanford for an entire article? Do I even need to give any background on the opposing team? If you’re readin…
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Stanford is giving up an average of 30.3 points/game, which is good for last in the Pac-12. They have a decent pass rush and okay-enough corners, but they give up more points than anyone in the Pac-12 due to their atrocious run defense, which currently ranks last in the Pac-12 and 127th out of 130 FBS teams. In other words, this will be a fun preview.

Defensive line

The star of Stanford’s defense is 35 year old local area man, Thomas Booker:

Thomas Booker is one of Stanford’s defensive ends in their 3-4 defense, and he projects to be a mid-round NFL pick. Booker actually passed on leaving early for the NFL Draft last season and opted to return for his senior season in order to, and I quote, “compete for a Pac-12 Championship.” Well, I guess that was technically true.

Surprisingly, for a star player, he doesn’t have all that many defensive highlights. Booker has NFL size and strength, but he doesn’t really showcase a variety of pass-rushing moves other than the bull rush, as he looks to leverage his strength advantage against opposing linemen. I think part of the reason for the lack of highlights is that he understands his role in Stanford’s defense, which is to sometimes eat blocks, plug run gaps, and force running backs in a different direction where his teammates can clean up the play (which is honestly similar to what Cal asks of our defensive line as well).

Here, UCLA’s offensive line loses sight of Booker in the shuffle:

Here’s another typical Booker play: he’s the only Stanford player to get any type of push against the OSU offensive line, which is enough to affect the play, even though it won’t show up on the scoresheet:

In the following play, Booker knows that he can’t let RB Max Borghi break contain, which is where Borghi does the most damage. Here he manages to get a hold of the slippery Borghi for the tackle for loss:

Another big space-eater (and probably just big eater-eater in general) is the 6’4” 340 lbs. defensive tackle Dalyn Wade-Perry. A nose tackle probably isn’t going to light up the stat sheet, but he’s so big it’s always easy to see the impact he has on a play. Here’s two such plays in short succession:

If you see a 340-pound bowling ball of a man barreling towards you, you’re going to get rid of the ball:

He has surprising quickness for a man his size:

The other starting defensive end is Ryan Johnson, and his play is just as generic and forgettable as his name, Bryan Johnston. I have honestly never noticed him so I had to look this up: he has 0 sacks, 2 QB hits, and (allegedly) 4 QB hurries… which sounds okay, but he did that on 296 snaps, so the vast majority of the time he’s doing nothing. Well, he’s also credited with 6 solo tackles and 4 missed tackles in 8 games, so he’s got that going for him at least.

The backup defensive end, who plays roughly half the snaps, is two-way player Tucker Fisk. Fisk is primarily a blocking tight end, as he’s basically the size of an offensive lineman anyway, and Stanford loves having a stupid number of players out there to block. I didn’t mention him in yesterday’s offensive article because I didn’t have any highlights of him catching a pass or setting a really nice block this year, but that could also be due to the fact that he’s been playing part of the season with a club on his hand (remember, you need two clubbed hands to qualify as a receiver). However, he has shown up on defense:

Fisk isn’t a particularly great pass rusher, but he is a reliable tackler, something that Stanford is short on. Here he manages to get the sack on the incredibly elusive Jayden Daniels:

To fully understand Stanford’s decent pass rush but awful rush defense, we need to take a closer look at the linebackers.

Linebackers

Stanford’s most impactful pass rusher is probably the outside linebacker, Gabe Reid. Reid leads Stanford with 8.5 tackles for loss, as well as having one of Stanford’s four total interceptions. It should be noted that Stanford is not a defense that will generate a ton of turnovers; fumbles nor interceptions.

Here Reid beats the pulling tight end with a simple rush from the outside for a turnover on downs:

In the following play, Reid beats the backup right tackle for Washington to affect the throw, which is then defended by CB Kyu Blu Kelly for a turnover on downs:

Here Reid beats the third string tight end John Stivers for a tackle for loss on ASU RB Daniyel Ngata:

Are you seeing a pattern here? Stanford’s best pass rusher is an overall average athlete, but he tends to make plays when facing teams’ backups. Of course, Cal will be down two starting offensive linemen on Saturday, which bodes well for Reid.

Well, how good of a tackler is he in open space? Here, Reid gets juked by Oregon State QB Chance “Michael Vick” Nolan:

Of course, Nolan is nowhere near evasive enough to dodge Gabe Reid tackles that occur 5 yards out of bounds:

Stanford’s most experienced inside linebacker is Ricky Miezan, and he’s probably Stanford’s most visible box defender. There’s really not a whole lot to these pass rush moves:

Like Reid, Miezan is an average athlete who should definitely benefit from the defensive scheme— the defensive line eats blocks and expects him to plug those run gaps, but Miezan is far from a sure tackler.

The other starting inside linebacker is Levani Damuni, a younger but more talented linebacker than most of the others. At the very least, he shows promise, and he’s noticeably improved over the past two seasons. Damuni has quietly become Stanford’s leading tackler. You’ll hear a lot about Miezan, but probably not a whole lot about Damuni.

Stanford likes to use twists/stunts to free up their linebackers to pressure the quarterback. Damuni sacked Washington State QB Jayden de Laura via intentional grounding, and nearly did so again here:

LB Levani Damuni pressure forces QB Jayden deLaura to throw it away, almost another intentional grounding forced by Damuni. Also keep an eye out for #4, Thomas Booker, as he flattens a lineman.

Damuni is just a very physical player. I don’t even think he was trying to stop the run here, he was just trying to blow up the offensive lineman lead blocking for the runner, and the run stop was just an inadvertent side effect of his physical play:

The other outside linebacker opposite of Reid is Stephen Herron. Herron is a good pass rusher, but like most of the Stanford linebackers, a weak tackler and a liability in run defense.

Here’s Herron with a nice inside move to get the sack:

This next clip is from special teams, but I selected it to showcase how quick Herron’s first step off the line is:

So quick, in fact, it’s about 2 seconds before anyone else.

Herron was also involved in my favorite Stanford pass rushing play, one that I like to call, “Who put that banana peel there?”:

I know these aren’t very expansive blurbs, but… I don’t have much to write home about here. Regarding the Stanford linebackers—and you can quote me on this one—”Meh.” They’re not good in pass coverage, they’re not good in run fits, and they’re not good tacklers. They’re a big part of the reason that Stanford is last in the conference in rushing defense despite a talented defensive line. And it’s not something you can chalk up to inexperience, so there’s really not much reason to believe (other than Damuni) that they’ll get much better.

Secondary

Here comes the fun section. Stanford has exactly one defensive back with NFL talent: Kyu Blu Kelly. Kelly’s father is 11-year NFL veteran Brian Kelly, the starting cornerback of the Super Bowl-winning Buccaneers in 2003. The freshman nickelback Jimmy Wyrick is okay, he’s young and improving. Everyone else—to put it politely—is hot garbage.

Let’s start with the positives. Kyu Blu Kelly, like Paulson Adebo before him, is a tall and rangy defender. He has the speed and length to quickly close on receivers:

No corner that covered USC’s future NFL receiver Drake London for more than 2 targets was graded higher by PFF than Kelly. Stanford had Kelly shadow London the entire game, as the only Stanford cornerback even remotely qualified for the job:

As good as his coverage skills are, want to guess what he struggles with?

Freshman NB Jimmy Wyrick (yet another child of a former NFL player, also named Jimmy Wyrick) has been coming on strong in recent games. Wyrick also has good coverage skills:

But to Wyrick’s credit, he’s less obviously bad in run support than the rest of Stanford’s defensive backs, which is not something I’d normally mention, but have to do so here.

Stanford’s top two defensive backs obviously have great communication between them:

Another liability in run defense is third-string cornerback Zahren Manley, but at least I have a highlight of him in pass coverage, which is more than I can say about the rest of Stanford’s corners:

CB Zahren Manley with the tight coverage on WR Chris Pierce, although this is dangerously close to PI if you don’t turn your head, but SEC refs like to “let ‘em play”

When I watch games, I am genuinely trying to find highlights of the teams. This is really all I have.

So now, the rest.

In the next play, both of the safeties bite on the run fake while OSU WR Champ Flemings goes deep. Cornerback Nicolas Toomer uses his Stanford education to deduce, “Eh, he’s probably not going to catch that, I’m fine”:

In fact, I saw a lot of this. Where are the safeties, and why do they think it’s a good idea to leave these corners on an island? I understand biting on the run fakes against OSU (who probably could have ran it against a stacked Stanford box and plowed through the safeties for a first down anyway), but all Washington State does is throw the dang ball:

Clearly, the next best defensive back after Kelly is the overthrow.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s article, I have no idea why Stanford was getting so chippy with teams like Utah, but Stanford doesn’t let anybody push them around:

Well, except that guy. He got pushed around.

Here’s a typical play by Stanford defensive backs. I’ll just let this one speak for itself:

Okay, well that was most of the corners, but how are the safeties in run support?

Safety Noah Williams leads the entire team with 14 missed tackles. Safety Kendall Williamson is in his fourth year and still routinely makes mistakes in coverages. I occasionally make the mistake of betting on Stanford, and there’s no player singularly more frustrating on the team than Williamson.

I don’t understand how any player with four seasons of experience can still be involved in so many busted coverages. Unsurprisingly, Williamson has exactly zero interceptions in four seasons, a fact I am sure I won’t regret pointing out now and potentially jinxing.

So while the linebackers are not very good defending the run, the secondary is actively harmful. It feels like watching a Sonny Dykes’ Cal team try to tackle.

Conclusion

Although Stanford’s poor offensive output in recent games could be attributed to injuries, the defense does not deserve the same leeway. Teams with strong rushing attacks — OSU, ASU, UCLA, etc. typically beat Stanford, with only Oregon being the notable exception. Kansas State ran for 200 yards against Stanford, and you know what team sits exactly 0.4 rushing yards/game above KSU? You guessed it, us. So we’ll probably throw it the whole game.

Go Bears.