- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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With the announcement over the weekend that outside linebacker Chase Thomas is coming back for another season, it's worth taking a quick look at what Stanford's front seven will look like next season -- because the Cardinal are loaded.
With six of the starting seven returning (plus a seventh, Shayne Skov returning from injury), the Cardinal figure to be even better than this year's group, which finished with the No. 4 rush defense in the country (88.3 yards per game), 11th in sacks (3 per game) and 28th in tackles for a loss (6.8 per game).
Here's a look at the starters coming back and the one guy leaving.
CHASE THOMAS, OLB, 6-4, 240
2011 highlights: He led the Cardinal in sacks and tackles for a loss, and was first-team All-Pac-12 and Sporting News First Team All-American. A ferocious pass-rusher who skipped on the NFL for another season to gain size and put together a more consistent résumé on film. He should be one of the top outside linebackers in the nation again next season.
TRENT MURPHY, OLB, 6-6. 242
2011 highlights: He quietly put together a strong season opposite Thomas, though didn't get as much publicity. Murphy started all 12 games and finished with 40 tackles, 10 for a loss and was second on the team with 6.5 sacks. He had a career high 10 stops against Oregon. Murphy is very good at setting the edges and his size and reach make him a difficult player to block.
JAREK LANCASTER, ILB, 6-1, 226
2011 highlights: One of the marquee special teams players forced into immediate action after the injury to Skov. He ended up leading the team in tackles with 70, including 3.5 sacks and seven tackles for a loss. Lancaster will likely add more size in the offseason. He has good speed and very good at shedding blocks. His open field tackling improved each week and he was stellar in the Fiesta Bowl loss.
A.J. TARPLEY, ILB, 6-2, 231
2011 highlights: Like Lancaster, split time until finally earning a starting role. A very instinctive linebacker who prefers to go through blocks rather than around them. He should also pack on a little more size in the off season. He finished third on the team with 57 tackles and had 1.5 sacks and four tackles for a loss. A very bright player who should have a fantastic career. His interception against USC was one of season's defensive highlights.
TERRENCE STEPHENS, NT, 6-2, 287
2011 highlights: He's understated for what he does, but also very good at it. He eats up blockers for the linebackers to do their thing. Stephens finished with 11 tackles, including four for a loss, and forced the fumble against USC in triple overtime that Tarpley recovered to close out the game. A vocal player who should grow into a leadership role on the defense.
BEN GARDNER, DE, 6-4, 263
2011 highlights: An outstanding season that earned him second-team All-Pac-12 honors. He finished with 35 tackles -- including 10 for a loss, adding 4.5 sacks and six quarterback hits. A high-motor player who earned the team's outstanding sophomore award. And, according to his Twitter account, the mullet will return in 2012. Phew.
SHAYNE SKOV, ILB, 6-3, 244
2011 highlights: He was the team's leading tackler with 19 in two and a half games until a knee injury in the third game of the season caused him to miss the rest of the year. The question mark is whether or not he'll return at 100 percent. And if he does, whose reps get reduced, Tarpley or Lancaster? Either way, the Cardinal should be deep at linebacker and if Skov can return healthy, he'll be one of the premier inside linebackers in college football.
MATT MASIFILO, DE, 6-3, 278
2011 highlights: The Cardinal are going to miss this guy more than most probably realize. He committed to the team in the midst of a 1-11 season and saw the rebuilding process all the way through. He was the only returning starter on the line this season and had 34 tackles, eight for a loss and 2.5 sacks. His possible replacements are Henry Anderson and Josh Mauro.
And this just covers the starters. Players like Anderson and Mauro saw playing time this season, along with nose tackle David Parry, outside linebackers Alex Debniak and Blake Lueders and inside linebackers James Vaughters and Joe Hemschoot.
The Cardinal are in fantastic shape if everyone stays healthy. And if they encounter another situation like they did this past year with a season-ending injury, they should be deep enough and experienced enough to absorb the blow. Plus, we'll see how head coach David Shaw and his staff treat some of the incoming freshman, like standout outside linebacker Noor Davis.