If Stanford is to live up to the enormous expectations surrounding the program in David Shaw's first year at the helm, it will take more than strong individual performances by the Cardinal's established stars. We know what to expect from the likes of Andrew Luck, Jonathan Martin, David DeCastro, Stepfan Taylor, a healthy Chris Owusu, Shayne Skov, and Delano Howell. (Namely, greatness.)
Over the next 11 days, I'll profile 11 less heralded players whose ability to adjust to larger roles will help make or break the Cardinal's season.
Today: Terrence Stephens.
Stephens, a junior, takes over the starting nose tackle position vacated by Sione Fua, who is expected to open the season as a starter on the Carolina Panthers' defensive line. The 6-foot-2, 295-pound Stephens, the first member of Stanford's 2009 freshman class to fax his letter of intent on National Signing Day, appeared in 18 games and registered seven tackles while backing up Fua the past two years.
After Stephens committed to Stanford, he told Stanford Magazine, "I'd much rather be in a program that's going to the top than one that's used to being at the top." Entering his third season on the Farm, Stanford has arrived at the top, but the Cardinal is hardly used to the view. Even with Luck returning, some pundits expect Stanford to take a step back in 2011, at least in part due to its inexperienced defensive line.
According to a recent interview with the Examiner's Dave Fowkes, Stephens and his fellow defensive linemen, including first-year starter Ben Gardner, are feeding off the comments from those who question their ability.
"I think there are so many expectations for us to do poorly. Out in the college football world they are saying we lost Fua, Brian Bulcke, Thomas Keiser. That is what is driving us. We use that as motivation because everyone expects us to perform subpar. But with that, you can only use that as some type of juice to keep it going and push each other every day. I think we are moving along extremely well."
Gardner, a sophomore who replaces Brian Bulcke, and veteran Matt Masifilo will flank Stephens as the starting defensive ends in Stanford's 3-4 scheme. The Cardinal's defensive line was quietly effective last season with Fua as the anchor and its success this season will depend most heavily on Stephens. He won't be expected to rack up a lot of sacks (Fua had 4.5 in 2010), but Big No. 99 's ability to occupy offensive linemen and stuff the run will enable the Cardinal's linebackers to get into the backfield. While Stanford was only tied for 68th in the nation with 71 tackles for loss, the unit helped limit opponents to 3.87 yards per rush (43rd-best in the nation and a far cry from the whopping 4.87 yards per rush the team allowed in 2006).
Stanford's Orange Bowl berth last season afforded reserves such as Stephens an extra month of practice to prove themselves. "I think I've gotten better this month alone than I have all season," Stephens said. That hard work carried over to the spring, as Stephens impressed co-defensive coordinator Derek Mason, maintained the inside track for the starting nose tackle position, and played well in the Cardinal's Spring Game at Kezar Stadium.
I've been rooting for Stephens, who starred at Quince Orchard HS in Gaithersburg, Md., since I met him at an end-of-summer send-off party for incoming Stanford freshmen from the DC area. As Mason said in the spring, "it's his time." I'm also excited to see what he shaves into his dome this year. This might look cool.