Stanford football’s new look defense ready to show improvement in 2022

Aug. 30, 2022, 3:11 p.m.

Your Ultimate Guide to Stanford Football 2022: Part 2 – Defense

Welcome back to our mega-preview of 2022 Stanford Football. We took a look at the offense in part one, so now it’s time to break down the defensive side of the ball (and throw in some special teams at the end).

To put it lightly, Stanford’s defense struggled a year ago. Despite some strong performances by the secondary, the Cardinal front seven struggled to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and also could not stop the run. This was shown in lopsided losses down the stretch last season to Utah, Oregon State, Cal and Notre Dame. There is nowhere to go but up, and thanks to a scheme change that was made midway through last season, there are reasons to be optimistic about this new edition of Stanford’s defense. 

Roster Breakdown

That scheme change is a switch from a 3-4 base set to a 4-3. In layman’s terms, Stanford will now line up four players on the defensive line, instead of the previous three, in addition to now having just three linebackers when before it was four. Here is how that will work. Willie Shaw Director of Defense Lance Anderson did away with the outside linebacker position, replacing it with the EDGE spot. The two EDGE defenders will line up on either side of the two interior defensive lineman. Whereas before, only two inside linebackers played on the field at one time, there now will be three. 

This change in defensive scheme should be beneficial for the Cardinal as their personnel fits a 4-3 defense better than the 3-4 did. The weakest position group on Stanford’s roster is the defensive line, while the most talent-rich (albeit young and unproven) unit on the defense is the EDGE position. Only having to play two defensive linemen will help mitigate Stanford’s weaknesses. 

The defensive line has a severe lack of experience, thanks in part to the departures of Thomas Booker, Dalyn Wade-Perry, Ryan Johnson and Tucker Fisk. Booker, Wade-Perry and Fisk are currently trying to catch on in the NFL while Johnson grad transferred to Northwestern. The elder statesman of the unit now is junior Tobin Phillips. The former four star recruit has only made one career start and recorded five tackles, and yet has the most experience of anyone on the Cardinal defensive line. He will almost surely slot in as one of the two starters. Sophomore Anthony Franklin made four tackles in four games as a freshman a year ago, and will also be relied on to contribute more this season. Those two are the only Stanford defensive linemen who have previously seen the field, so defensive line coach Diron Reynolds has a number of players to break in. 

One of the major stories of Fall Camp has been a move to the defensive side of the ball for former offensive guard Austin Uke. The sophomore has the size and athleticism to be successful at his new position on the defensive line, so we will see how fast the Texas native can adapt. Three freshmen — Jaxson Moi, Zach Rowell and Pat Caughey — add to the position group’s numbers, and Moi and Rowell in particular should see the field. Junior Zephron Lester and sophomore Zach Buckey also figure to compete for playing time.  

At the EDGE spot, the Cardinal have to replace a pair of longtime contributors in Jordan Fox and Gabe Reid, in addition to Tangaloa Kaufusi and Andres Fox. Reid is using his final year of eligibility at Utah this season, reuniting with his younger brother, while Andres Fox grad transferred to Fresno State. Former Stanford defensive lineman Joshua Pakola will also suit up for the Bulldogs this Fall. Jordan Fox and Kaufusi both graduated and ended their collegiate careers. 

To replace this group of four, Lance Anderson has seniors Stephen Herron and Aeneas DiCosmo, as well as a string of former blue chip recruits to call on. Herron started four games a season ago, leading the team in sacks with three. As the leader of the Cardinal’s pass rush, he will be relied upon to increase his production. The flashes have been there, but it is now time to be more consistent. DiCosmo saw only 26 snaps on defense last year, but he graded well on those he did play according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). The New Jersey native has switched positions a few times now within Stanford’s defense, and hopefully he has settled in at EDGE and is ready to be a big contributor. The other upper-classmen are sixth-year Thunder Keck and junior Lance Keneley. A former walk-on, Keck started five of the six games in the pandemic shortened 2020 season, but played only sparingly last year. With so much talent surrounding him at the position, we expect it will be the same result this time around. Keneley, though, had a huge jump in playing time last season, playing in 10 games and making one start. 

Among the underclassmen, there are five former four star recruits that have both Stanford coaches and fans excited. Sophomores Aaron Armitage and Wilfredo Aybar did not play much last year, both only seeing 30 snaps, but were able to redshirt and retain a year of eligibility. Aybar was injured early on this Fall Camp and it is unclear how long he will be out for. Armitage was a defensive end last year, but the move to EDGE fits him more. An athletic 6-foot-5 260-pounder, he has the tools needed to develop into a prolific pass rusher. 

The three freshmen to look out for are David Bailey, Ernest Cooper and Tevarua Tafiti. Bailey enrolled early this past January after finishing his high school career at national powerhouse Mater Dei. With spring ball and summer and winter training under his belt, he is right there in the mix to start at one of the two EDGE spots. Cooper and Tafiti may take a bit longer to see the field, but rest assured that they have the potential to become mainstays at the EDGE spot as well. 

Of the front seven, the inside linebackers are the most experienced unit. Fifth years Ricky Miezan and Jacob Mangum-Ferrar return, as well as seniors Levani Damuni, Tristan Sinclair and Spencer Jorgensen. Damuni started all 12 games last season, leading the team in tackles with 88 and recording two sacks and five tackles for loss. A Phil Steele Preseason All-Pac-12 second team member, he will start at one of the three linebacker spots. Another one of the slots belongs to Miezan. The former North Carolina lacrosse commit was able to stay healthy last season for the first time in his Stanford career, finishing second on the team with 68 tackles. 

The third inside linebacker starter figures to either be Mangum-Ferrar or Sinclair. Mangum-Ferrar had his healthiest season to date in 2021, making four starts in 11 games and finishing with 41 tackles and a sack. Sinclair had his breakout season last Fall, ending the year with 31 tackles. Sinclair is smaller than the triumvirate of Damuni, Miezan and JMF, but just too big to be a safety, and thus is deployed a lot in pass coverage by Lance Anderson. That versatility has and will help him see the field. 

Beyond those four, Jorgensen — a former walk-on — saw action in 11 games last year, mostly on special teams. Sophomore Ese Dubre redshirted and will provide depth as he looks to take a step forward. The two freshmen — Matt Rose and Benjamin Hudson — will likely follow the same developmental path as Dubre. Rose’s older brother, Mike, was a four year starter at the same position at Iowa State, garnering Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors his junior season. 

But the strength of the Stanford defense is undoubtedly the secondary, with senior cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly being the headliner. Kelly was a Pac-12 Second Team selection last season, and he finds himself on the Preseason First Team in 2022. His 72.2 coverage grade in 2021 leads all returning Cardinal, and the 6’1’’, 188-pounder will look to live up to his Day 2 NFL Draft projections. We also have our eye on senior Salim Turner-Muhammad, who we think has the highest ceiling of the rest of the group but was only able to appear in four games last season. He did not look like himself, posting a 43.6 PFF grade — a large drop from his promising sophomore campaign in 2020. If he is fully healthy, there’s reason for optimism that the former four-star recruit will realize his potential. We initially slotted him in as CB2, but recent comments by Coach Shaw indicate that fifth year Ethan Bonner will be inserted there. Bonner also dealt with injuries last season, playing in only five games. Other names to know in the cornerback room are senior Nicolas Toomer and sophomore Jaden Slocum, both of whom saw significant playing time last year with the injuries the unit faced. Also of note is senior Zahran Manley’s departure from the team — he was slated to be a depth piece in the cornerback room.

The safety unit is full of proven, experienced guys. Two names are well-known by the Cardinal faithful: fifth year Kendall Williamson and senior Jonathan McGill. While Williamson led the entire roster in snaps last season and looked solid, McGill only appeared in two games. However, McGill was a difference-maker in that small sample size — recording 13 tackles and two interceptions — and now he’s healthy to start the season. But the biggest boost is an unexpected one: the transfer of Patrick Fields. The fifth year safety was a three-year starter at Oklahoma, second on the team in tackles in 2021 and the Defensive MVP of their Alamo Bowl win over Oregon. While that experience of beating Oregon adds nothing to the Stanford program, he should immediately be one of the best players on the field for the Cardinal. We like to think of the safety group as a trio: Williamson, Fields, and McGill. It’s very difficult to keep any of those three off the field, and Fields is listed first as the nickel in this defense on the depth chart. Noah Williams, who saw over 500 snaps last year, is gone, so we expect the depth to come from sophomore Jimmy Wyrick along with juniors Alaka’i Gilman and Omari Porter. Wyrick played a bunch at nickel last season and had a solid freshman showing, posting a 64.4 PFF grade and earning Stanford’s Outstanding Freshman award.

Projected Starters

Defensive Tackle: Tobin Phillips (JR), Anthony Franklin (SO)

EDGE: Stephen Herron (SR), David Bailey (FR)

Inside Linebacker: Levani Damuni (SR), Jacob Mangum-Farrar (5th Year), Ricky Miezan (5th Year)

Cornerback: Kyu Blu Kelly (SR), Ethan Bonner (5th Year)

Safety: Kendall Williamson (5th Year), Jonathan McGill (SR)

Nickel: Patrick Fields (5th Year) 

Position Grades

Defensive Tackle: D


Inside Linebacker: B

Cornerback: B

Safety: A-

Bottom Line

The defensive unit will only be successful this season if it can improve upon the abysmal run defense we saw in 2021. Hopefully the switch to a 4-3 will help, as well as the continuity at inside linebacker. If the EDGE guys can get to the quarterback with any consistency and serve as disruptors, the unit will already be much-improved from a year ago. Kyu Blu Kelly has the potential to be one of the best corners in America this season, and with Patrick Fields, Kendall Williamson and Jonathan McGill patrolling the field behind him, the sky’s the limit for this secondary. Similar to what we said about the offense, there is substantial talent, and for this defense it is the defensive line that will determine whether this talent goes to waste.

Special Teams

Before moving on to part three, we must complete our roster breakdown by taking a quick look at the Cardinal special teams. Junior Joshua Karty has kickoff and field goal duties once again, and he was steady last year. Karty was perfect on extra points, and the 10-for-15 on field goals is somewhat deceptive, as four of those misses were from over 50 yards. Karty’s immense leg strength showed on kickoffs, with 33-of-44 going for touchbacks. 

While return coverage was inconsistent last year, senior punter Ryan Sanborn did his job, posting a 83.7 PFF ranking — good for top 15 in the country. Sanborn enters his senior season as a preseason Pac-12 Honorable Mention

Kickoff and punt return are where things get murky. Gone is Stanford’s kickoff return man of the past few seasons, Nathaniel Peat. Junior Casey Filkins had punt return duty last season, but with the running back still working his way back from injury, it is unclear if the coaching staff will take the risk of throwing him out for kick and punt returns. Filkins was named a preseason Pac-12 Honorable Mention as a return specialist. It remains to be seen who else could step up to be an option as a returner, as the depth chart lists guys like E.J. Smith, Bryce Farrell, and Michael Wilson in the return spots as well.

Projected Starters

Kicker: Joshua Karty 

Punter: Ryan Sanborn

Return Specialist: Casey Filkins

Position Grades (Confidence in Our Grades)

Kicker: A-

Punter: A-

Return Specialist: B

Jibriel Taha is a senior staff writer for the sports section. He is from Los Angeles and studies economics. Contact him at jtaha ‘at’ Boone is the former managing editor for the sports section, serving for Volumes 262 and 263. He is a senior from Virginia Beach, Virginia, studying communication. You can usually find him chasing after rebounds in Maples Pavilion or recording a podcast with Jibriel Taha. Contact him at eboone24 'at'

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