Randy Hart has coached college football for 45 years, at eight schools and in nine Rose Bowls.
But as far as he’s concerned, a few guys in their early 20s are the ones in charge of the Cardinal’s defensive line.
“They better run the show,” Hart said.
He’s talking about Henry Anderson, David Parry and Blake Lueders, the three fifth-year seniors expected to start up front for Stanford this season — and help bring along the backup defensive linemen the Cardinal sorely need after an injury-riddled 2013.
The trio arrived on the Farm in 2010, the same year Hart did, and they have taken three very different paths to get to this point. Lueders spent most of his career at linebacker before making the gradual transition to defensive end last year. Parry walked on, earned a scholarship as a junior and stepped into the starting nose tackle spot late that season. The 6-foot-6 Anderson, meanwhile, developed into one of Stanford’s most imposing defenders so quickly that he has been drawing public J.J. Watt comparisons from his coaches for well over a year.
Anderson ditched eight pounds this offseason to help him keep up with the spread offenses he’ll face week in and week out in the Pac-12. (“295 — after a while, it starts wearing on you,” he said of his old weight.) Even before that, Anderson was probably athletic enough to be an early pick if he had decided to enter last year’s NFL Draft.
“He’s long and big and powerful. He’s quick,” Lueders said of Anderson. “You can get ready for his speed, but then if you do that, you’re not ready for the power. If you’re ready for the power, you’re not ready for the speed. So it’s a deadly combo.”
This offseason has also brought another change for Anderson: his teammates have found a new favorite nickname. Long known as “The Goose” for an unfortunate Madden loss, Anderson is now being called “Big Compass,” and though he won’t say where that one came from, classmate A.J. Tarpley provided a pretty effective cover.
“He never knows where he is,” Tarpley said, “but always knows where he’s going.”
Even with Anderson’s athletic abilities, don’t underestimate the mental aspect of his game. It seems that the last four years have made him somewhat of a guru of the defensive end position. After practice on Monday, he recounted moves mastered by recent Cardinal pass rushers Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy — moves that Anderson himself can use only sparingly in Stanford’s 3-4 scheme.
That all-around knowledge also makes him a natural mentor for the Cardinal’s younger defensive linemen. Anderson’s description of junior Luke Kaumatule reads as if it came straight out of Hart’s mouth.
“He makes some incredible moves in the pass rush,” Anderson said. “Still trying to get him down and get his pads down and get him knocking back in the run, but he’s been playing well.”
Despite the experience held by Anderson, Parry and Lueders, all eyes inside the program are on depth linemen like Kaumatule this offseason because of the string of injuries that plagued Stanford’s defensive line last year. Anderson hurt his knee in the second week of the season, missed six games as a result and now says he played “rusty and timid” at times after his return. Then-sophomore Ikenna Nwafor was sidelined for the year after a foot injury one week later, and stud fifth-year senior Ben Gardner’s collegiate career was cut six games short with a torn pectoral. All the while, Parry played through an abdominal strain.
Bad news has struck again in training camp, with Nwafor likely taking a medical retirement and junior defensive end Jordan Watkins, a potential backup, possibly missing the season opener after sustaining a minor injury this month. Evidently, the Cardinal defensive line’s depth will be tested once again in 2014.
“It’s definitely a violent position, and it’s a position where we rotate a lot,” Lueders said. “Depth is crucial, especially with three fifth-year seniors. We’ve been through a lot, so our bodies aren’t as fresh as they used to be. But the big thing is rotation, and hopefully we’ll find some young guys.”
A fourth core lineman has emerged in junior defensive end Aziz Shittu, a former five-star recruit who finally broke through in the spring. He could easily challenge Lueders for a starting job, and at the very least, he should see extensive playing time.
“He’s got to continue his trek, and certainly be ready to play,” Hart said of Shittu. “We’re going to need everybody we have, certainly with the hurry-up offenses and the people we see.”
Kaumatule will be the next player to rotate in, though he’s still reacclimating himself to defensive end after switching to tight end for two seasons. Hart admitted that Kaumatule’s muscle memory suffered over that period, and Shaw said that he still needs to work on his hand placement, alignments and other technical details.
“With Luke, it’s the little things,” Shaw said. “Because one thing’s for sure about Luke: Luke is going to go 100 miles per hour on every play.”
That makes five defensive linemen, but Shaw said that the coaching staff is still one short, since it’s counting on a two-deep rotation. Names that have been thrown around include junior Nate Lohn and freshmen Harrison Phillips and Solomon Thomas, who was the most highly touted Stanford recruit in his class.
“Fans should really be excited about [both freshmen],” Lueders said. “I’ve got very high expectations for both of them. As far as how good they get when, it’s hard to say, as freshmen. They’re still picking up the defense. But they definitely have the tools and the desire to be great.”
Spoken like a true coach.
Contact Joseph Beyda at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu.
2014 Stanford Football Preview Series