We've been here before.
In fact, we were here last offseason, wondering how the Cardinal would reload the defensive line after losing Henry Anderson and David Parry to the pros. We expected 2015 to be a down year for the unit, and, considering the high standard set by recent squads, it was, but not nearly to the extent some feared. Aziz Shittu finally realized his full potential, Brennan Scarlett proved to be a godsend after Stanford rescued him from Cal, and Solomon Thomas flashed often enough to complete a starting unit that, by the time of the Rose Bowl, looked like the strongest part of the defense.
So, here we are again.
Replacing stars with unproven starters is an inescapable part of college sports. The best way to predict success in this effort is to look at recent recruiting, which is why teams like Alabama and Ohio State get ranked in the preseason top 5 even when they need to replace half of their production from the previous season.
In this respect, Stanford's prospects seem strong. Thomas and Jordan Watkins were both five star players. Luke Kaumatule, who has flipped between offense and defense twice now to account for the needs of the roster, was a 4 star. The lowest-rated player who has played or is expected to play significant snaps is Harrison Phillips, who missed 2015 with a torn ACL but is expected to return and play a critical role in the success of the unit in 2016. With his reach and power, Phillips is well suited to the nose tackle position.
The lack of a true nose limited the defense in 2015, largely because it forced Shittu and Thomas to play out of position, reducing their production. Two-gap assignments on the interior line are not ideal for a player like Thomas. His explosive athleticism is most disruptive when attacking a single gap assignment, and this is where he made most of his best plays last season. Solomon's usage greatly affects his performance, as illustrated by the following two plays.
In the first, we see Thomas' inability to anchor while playing the nose. No player is ever really expected to beat a double team, but an effective nose tackle plays with enough strength and leverage to hold his ground and keep his linebackers free to make plays on the ball. (Check out this heroic example from the Seattle Seahawks) Few players have that skillset and Thomas is not one of them.
He does, however, win when he is given the green light to attack a single gap.
This is where the explosiveness that made him a five star recruit becomes evident, but when I watch Thomas I also see an adroit defender with a nice set of pass rushing moves, in this instance the classic "dip and rip."
The return of Phillips should allow Thomas to play a role that maximizes his talent. If the spring game is any indication, he will see more one-gap assignments in 2016, which means he's going to be in the backfield an awful lot. It is true that we don't have many snaps with which to judge the players behind those two. The depth in 2016 will depend heavily on the development of players like Kaumatule and Eric Cotton. The unit as a whole lacks experience but the talent is undeniable, and I, for one, am optimistic about Lance Anderson's ability to convert that talent into production.