- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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If 2011 was the season of learning for Stanford linebacker Jarek Lancaster, then the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State was graduation. And the first-year starter walked away with defensive valedictorian honors. In a game that wasn't exactly overflowing with defensive bright spots -- for either team for that matter -- Lancaster was one of the few defenders who stood out.
"He made a lot of plays," said head coach David Shaw. "He was physical. In a game where we missed some tackles on defense, he was as sure a tackler as there was in space. He made big-time stops at big times. It's how the season went for him. We ask him to do more and he steps up and does more."
And more is on the way, both in the production and expectation departments. The third-year sophomore admits that when he first stepped in to the starting inside linebacker spot following Shayne Skov's injury, there were plenty of jitters. But he also knew that in time, they would pass.
"When you first get thrust into a starting position, you want to think you'll get better and believe you have the potential to get to another level," Lancaster said. "When I first got in there, the game seemed really fast and I wasn't as comfortable as I am now. It's been real nice to see the game slow down in front of my eyes and be able to feel more confident when I'm in there."
And confidence wasn't a problem in the Fiesta Bowl, where he matched senior safety Delano Howell for the team high in tackles with seven.
"I felt like I played pretty well with the open-field tackles, because they are a speed team," Lancaster said. "They didn't really run the ball, which is something you want to do -- make them one-dimensional. They were the better team that night, but overall I thought I played pretty well."
So next season, there won't be any excuses. No first-year starter excuses to fall back on. Not that Lancaster did anyway. But the better he plays, the better he will be expected to play.
"His open-field tackling was outstanding," said co-defensive coordinator Jason Tarver. "They were big-time drive-stoppers for us. I was really excited about that. I was happy to see him do that. After a long season and starting on two special teams and playing almost every snap on defense, he worked through everything in his first year starting and his production per play was very good.
"I can't wait to see him progress. We were already talking about certain areas where he needs to grow right after the game and on the way home. He put a lot of good things on film. Jarek's a pretty amazing kid and he has a great ability to stay in the moment."
Despite leading the Cardinal with 70 tackles this season, Lancaster had just one sack on the year. That's something he said will be a major point of emphasis in the offseason.
"I need to get better at my pass rush," Lancaster said. "Maybe I can get some hands, too, so I can get a pick next season."
Is A.J. Tarpley, the other starting inside linebacker, giving him a hard time because he has a pick?
"Yeah, a little bit," Lancaster joked. "I need to fix that."
If 2011 was the season of learning for Stanford linebacker Jarek Lancaster, then the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State was graduation. And the first-year starter walked away with defensive valedictorian honors.