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Stanford defense believes it will remain 'force to be reckoned with'

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This offseason, Stanford defensive lineman Harrison Phillips watched 2014 game tapes of his overmatched true freshman self.

"It was humiliating watching that film," Phillips said.

Phillips was undersized for the nose tackle position to begin with -- he was an emergency substitute for 305-pound senior David Parry -- but he was even lighter after games, when the exertion associated with being physically beaten dragged him down to 248 pounds.

"The film doesn't lie," Phillips said. "I fought as hard as a I could, but when there were two 330-pounders blocking me, it didn't really matter. I kept watching myself getting ejected out of there."

It's film that, when viewed in a vacuum, doesn't bode well for Stanford's 2015 chances. Phillips, after all, is now a centerpiece of a rebuilt defense.

One caveat: After packing on weight like a steer this offseason, he doesn't weigh 248 pounds anymore. Phillips has used bad memories (and "mom's home cooking") to fuel him; he now checks in at 276 pounds.

"Even though I don't have the beach body I want anymore, football is my main priority," Phillips said. "It's my teammates I care most about. I want to help my best friend [senior Blake Martinez] win a Pac-12 title, and as a 250-pound nose guard I wouldn't have been able to anchor my position to free him up as a linebacker."

Fellow lineman Solomon Thomas (plus 31 pounds) has undergone a similar weight increase, and -- like Phillips -- he's actually bettered his vertical jump in the process. These types of physical transformations, combined with the addition of graduate transfer Brennan Scarlett (the guy from Cal, of all places, whom Phillips called "the missing piece of the puzzle") and a bevy of touted defensive backs, have Stanford believing it can absorb graduation's stomach punch and maintain stout defensive play.

The standard is lofty: The Cardinal have led the Pac-12 in defense by wide statistical margins in each of the past three seasons. Last year, the defense was near the top of many national rankings.

But losing nine starters, including the entirety of the defensive line and all but one piece of the secondary, is no joke. Defensive coordinator Lance Anderson scrambled this offseason. He trusted sports performance director Shannon Turley to physically transform the Cardinal's pieces into readiness, but his main job was to instill the program's disciplined, team-defense fundamentals into the new crew.

"We've had incredible mentors," safety Dallas Lloyd says. "The bar is high. I saw the way guys like Jordan Richards worked, studied, and communicated, and I tried to emulate them."

Lloyd cites a play in practice where running back Christian McCaffrey sprints out on a wheel route but is merely a decoy. He discusses the discipline required to cover it (there's a temptation for multiple players to follow McCaffrey) as a hallmark of recent Stanford defenses -- "you have to do your part and trust the other guys to do theirs," Lloyd said. There's a sense that the Cardinal's new starters are developing the angular pursuit abilities of their predecessors, the ones that would funnel opposing ballcarriers into a hoard of teammates.

“We’re playing great team defense," David Shaw said. "We don’t have guys breaking rules just to make more individual plays.”

Secondary coach Duane Akina says it's not easy to ingrain team concepts into a young crew of defensive backs. But despite an abundance of youth on the back end, the Cardinal may be deeper than they've ever been there. (That's handy, considering Anderson estimates Pac-12 offenses put Stanford in a nickel-like package on 70 percent of snaps.)

"I've got some tough playing time decisions," Akina said.

Lloyd and Kodi Whitfield have grabbed safety spots, while senior Ronnie Harris has firmly entrenched himself as Stanford's best cornerback. Beyond him, the pecking order looks something like this: Alameen Murphy, Alijah Holder, Terrence Alexander, Ra'Chard Pippens, and Taijuan Thomas. It's a jumble that'll likely rotate.

"We're all hungry," Thomas said. "We all want to play."

Along with Harris, linebackers Martinez and Kevin Anderson are Stanford's official defensive leaders now -- teammates voted them team captains this week -- but another centerpiece has emerged in lineman Aziz Shittu.

The versatile senior may ultimately be the Cardinal's most important player this year. Shittu's teammates and coaches believe he's primed for an all-conference season, provided he stays healthy. He's launched team group text message chains this offseason, using them to organize bonding activities and encourage teammates to reach physical goals.

Shittu admits Stanford will suffer through growing pains, but there's zeal in his eyes when he speaks of links to past success reappearing in this Cardinal defense. Phillips no longer weighs 248 pounds, and the unit as a whole is no longer an unformed blob of clay.

"We're not a finished product by any means, but we'll get into our flow," Shittu said. "We'll be a force to be reckoned with."