If Stanford wants to build on their Rose Bowl winning season from a year ago a lot of pressure will be on a defense to improve and help out the offense.
Starters Returning: 6/11
Key Losses: DE Aziz Shittu, DE Brennan Scarlett, NG Nate Lohn, LB Kevin Anderson, LB Blake Martinez, CB Ronnie Harris, S Kodi Whitfield
Key Returnees: NG Solomon Thomas, LB Joey Alfieri, LB Kevin Palma, LB Peter Kalambayi, CB Alijah Holder, CB Quenton Meeks, CB Alameen Murphy, CB Terrence Alexander, S Dallas Lloyd
FEI Defense Rank: 60
S&P Defense Rank: 41
S&P Rush Rank: 65
S&P Pass Rank: 57
There's some good news and bad news for Stanford up front. The bad news is that they have perhaps the worst defensive line situation among any pre-season Top 25 type of team. The good news is that their situation last year was pretty similar and they still figured out how to win the Rose Bowl and have a very successful season.
The Cardinal were perilously thin in their 3-4 scheme last year, and although there should be more depth in terms of bodies, there is precious little experience going into 2016. Former 5-star Solomon Thomas has bulked up and returns as a tackle/nose guard but he's the only impact player.
On the interior redshirt sophomore Harrison Phillips returns after tearing his ACL while 4 more freshmen enter the mix.
Both starters are gone at end where Stanford could turn to a pair of 5th-year seniors in Jordan Watkins and Luke Kaumatule. The former has largely been ineffective throughout his career while Kaumatule has been converted from tight end to linebacker and now defensive end. Following spring his progress was really mixed.
Stanford can turn to 3 freshmen at defensive end unless they convert more players from other positions.
Moving on Without Martinez
There will be a hole in the Stanford defense without Blake Martinez who was recently taken int he 4th round of the NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers. Martinez finished 2015 as a first-team All-Pac 12 linebacker and even garnered some All-American honors. His 140 tackles were the most on the team by a wide margin.
Stanford also loses Kevin Anderson who, although banged up last year and missed some time, had a long and productive career on the Farm.
The Cardinal always seem to re-load at linebacker and they should be fine in 2016. A trio of players in redshirt sophomore Joey Alfieri, redshirt junior Kevin Palma, and redshirt junior Peter Kalambayi all made at least 40 tackles last year and combined for 14 tackles for loss. They'll also look to re-start 5th-year senior Noor Davis' career which has stalled after the former highly touted recruit had a a lot of hype early on, plus redshirt junior Mike Tyler played well in spot duty last season, too.
Youth Movement in the Secondary
Notre Dame and Stanford have famously gone toe-to-toe in recent years while recruiting the same players for the secondary. The Cardinal have won the majority of those battles and now said players are about to make a huge impact.
At safety both freshmen Justin Reid and Ben Edwards got some experience last year. At corner Terrence Alexander is entering his junior year and made a couple starts in 2015. Also, Frank Buncom enters the mix after taking a redshirt last year.
Lloyd, Holder, and Meeks return as the main starters in the secondary, the latter player coming off an impressive true freshman season. Stanford also has redshirt sophomore Alameen Murphy with plenty experience following a 44-tackle season.
Stanford's defense was quietly (I say this because they ended up winning so many games regardless) kind of bad last year, especially for their standards.
They did pretty well notching 34 sacks (tied 24th nationally) but do have to replace half that production with tons of questions marks at defensive end.
In other areas they were pretty average. Tackles for loss finished tied for 54th nationally (nearly 54% of that production gone), they gave up 5.57 yards per play (tied for 64th), and they only caused 14 turnovers (tied for 110th nationally).
I can see the defense improving though because the secondary was so young in 2015 and Stanford was legitimately playing only 3 linemen for long stretches of the season. Still, they're going to turn to some really young players up front and will the unit as a whole improve enough to off-set what should be a decline from the offensive side of the ball?