Stanford Football: Jason Tarver

Headed into his fifth year at Stanford this past season, Josh Mauro's future as a football player was unclear. The defensive end had never been a starter, wasn't slated to become one and largely represented depth on one of the nation's best defenses.

While not exactly the profile of a future NFL player, Mauro still had hope.

[+] EnlargeJosh Mauro
George Frey/Getty ImagesFormer Stanford DE Josh Mauro had a breakout season for the Cardinal in 2013.
"After my redshirt junior year, I heard from different people that I'd have a chance [at the NFL]," he said. "I was told I had the body for the NFL and put some good stuff on film, but just wasn't consistent at times."

While consistency showed up as a potential flaw, it had more to do with opportunity than ability. He was stuck behind Henry Anderson and Ben Gardner -- two players with NFL futures of their own -- and so long as his playing time came intermittently, consistency was a tough fix.

That changed following the third game of the 2013 season, when Anderson went down with a knee injury that cost him the next five games. It was a minor setback for Anderson's career but provided a major opportunity for Mauro.

He took advantage.

"Once he got more playing time, he actually got better playing in games to the point where I told multiple people in the NFL, 'He's going to play and he's going to be on somebody's team,'" Stanford coach David Shaw said. "He's got the ability to do it, he's got the physical nature to do it. Especially for a lot of these 3-4 teams in the NFL, he's a good fit for those guys."

Mauro's impact was noticeable even before Anderson went down, but when he saw regular playing time, those consistency issues went away. Anderson's return against Oregon on Nov. 7 coincided with a season-ending injury to Gardner, which kept Mauro in the starting lineup the rest of the season.

The Texas native finished the year with 51 total tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and four sacks and was a midseason add to the watch list for the Bednarik Award, given to the best defensive player in college football.

"I would describe Josh as the anchor of our defense. So much of what guys like [linebacker] Trent Murphy and I were able to do was a result of Josh being so disruptive on the line of scrimmage," linebacker Shayne Skov said. "He was able to hold the edge and keep guys off of us so we could run free and make plays. On top of that, he made a ton of impact plays himself, especially in big games."

Mauro's season earned him an NFL combine invite, but he left Indianapolis with mixed feelings about his performance. He was happy with his performances in the vertical jump (32 inches), broad jump (116 inches) and three-cone drill (7.43 seconds) but fell short of his goals in the 40-yard dash (5.21) and bench press (21 reps).

The 40-yard dash time and bench press will be two of his priorities at Stanford's pro day on March 20, but the big change will be his weight. Mauro dropped 10 to 15 pounds from his playing weight and tipped the scales at 271 in Indianapolis, but he plans on adding that weight back with a more regular diet. He said he doesn't think it will affect his explosiveness and will feel more comfortable.

Among the coaches Mauro met with at the combine were Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, who served as the Cardinal's co-defensive coordinator in 2011, and former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers.
Get this. Stanford’s Lance Anderson actually wanted to be a defensive coordinator in the Pac-12. Crazy, right? Biletnikoff winners to lose sleep over; Doak Walker finalists dashing and gashing for 20 yards a pop; and All-American offensive linemen that must be displaced. Oh, the humanity.

“There are some pretty good quarterbacks, too,” says Anderson.

Oh yeah, the quarterbacks.

[+] EnlargeLance Anderson
Peyton Williams/Getty ImagesLance Anderson, who has been on Stanford's staff since 2007, will have to replace some big names on the Cardinal's 2014 defense.
Anderson has his wish. With the departure of Derek Mason, who was named the head coach of Vanderbilt last month, Anderson takes over one of the most respected defensive outfits in all of college football. The Cardinal have led the conference in scoring defense and been ranked in the top 15 nationally in three of the last four years. They live by the mantra #partyinthebackfield and have put the brakes on some of the nation’s top offenses.

Now it’s Anderson’s turn to add his own flavor to the scheme -- however minor it might be.

“Every year we tweak a little bit no matter what,” said Anderson, who first came to Stanford in 2007 with Jim Harbaugh. “We go back and watch film and do all of our self-scouting and analysis. We try to find places where we can get better and improve and that’s naturally going to lead to tweaking. I think every coordinator has a different feel and some stuff you might like a little better than the other guy.

“We’ve been in a system for a few years now and I think the kids are really comfortable with that. They like it. And I think the systems we’re in on both sides of the ball suit our personnel really well. Vic Fangio came in in 2010, installed the system at that point and we’ve kept it pretty similar ever since.”

That includes transitions from Fangio to the co-defensive coordinator team of Jason Tarver and Mason to just Mason and now to Anderson, who will continue to work with the outside linebackers after coaching the defensive tackles his first two seasons on The Farm.

Equally known as a top-flight recruiter, Anderson must now help the Cardinal transition to life without some of their marquee players. Gone next year are linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, defensive end Ben Gardner and safety Ed Reynolds. All were major contributors in one form or another to Stanford’s appearances in four straight BCS bowl games.

Despite those losses, Anderson is confident the Cardinal have the depth -- both in and out of the locker room -- to stay atop the defensive standings.

“I look at guys like A.J. Tarpley and Jordan Richards who have played a lot of football and they really stand out,” Anderson said. “Both guys display some natural leadership and they are well-respected by their teammates. Henry Anderson and David Parry are a couple of other guys who are really looked up to among the defensive players. I think we’ll be OK.”

Interestingly enough, the Pac-12 has seen the defensive coordinators from the top five scoring defenses move on after the 2013 season. Mason went to Vanderbilt, Nick Aliotti retired at Oregon, Justin Wilcox moved to USC with Steve Sarkisian, Lou Spanos returned to the NFL and Clancy Pendergast was not retained with the Trojans after Sarkisian came in. Three of those were replaced internally, with Anderson, Don Pellum (Oregon) and Jeff Ulbrich (UCLA) all being promoted. Pete Kwiatkowski joins Chris Petersen in Washington by way of Boise State and Wilcox followed Sark. So despite the transitions, the continuity among coaching staffs remains relatively unscathed.

However, that combination of coordinator shuffling, along with some A-list offensive players returning in 2014, makes for an interesting setup. The Pac-12 is known for its offensive diversity, and when you factor in the possibility of nine teams returning their starting quarterback, the dice seem loaded to the offensive side of the ball.

“There is a lot of offensive talent in this league and it doesn’t look like that’s going to slow down,” Anderson said. “The quarterbacks all have experience. It’s not going to be easy.

“We know that every week we are going to be tested. All we can do is try to go out and learn the techniques and the fundamentals and get the physical and mental mastery of the position. Once we get that in spring ball and the preseason, it’s just matter of going out and applying what we’ve learned during the season. Every week is going to be different. All we can do is prepare the best we can, master the position and try to apply it on Saturdays in the fall.”
Stanford coach David Shaw's decision to promote Lance Anderson to defensive coordinator should come as a surprise to exactly no one.

If there is anything Shaw has shown in his previous hires, it's that he likes to promote from within and strives to have continuity within the program. Choosing Anderson to replace Derek Mason, who left last week to become the head coach at Vanderbilt, fits the mold established with his initial coordinator hires of Pep Hamilton and Mason and last year's promotion of Mike Bloomgren.

The only coordinator hire that came from outside the program in Shaw's tenure was when he named current Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver the co-coordinator with Mason in 2011. Tarver was at Stanford for just that season, in which Mason still served as the play caller.

Shaw and Anderson are the only coaches who remain from Jim Harbaugh's initial staff at Stanford in 2007. Both made the jump with Harbaugh from the University of San Diego.

In all likelihood, this move was at least a year in the making. Anderson reportedly turned down the chance to become the defensive coordinator at South Florida a year ago under Willie Taggart, another former Harbaugh staff member, to remain at Stanford. It was clear then that Mason would land a head-coaching gig sooner rather than later, which makes it reasonable to assume Shaw and Anderson discussed the possibility that he'd be the eventual replacement.

That's roughly how it played out when Bloomgren was elevated from offensive line coach/run game coordinator when Hamilton took the offensive coordinator job with the Colts. In fact, Shaw and Bloomgren discussed the potential for that to eventually happen before he hired him in 2011.

With Anderson's promotion official, Stanford still has three spots to fill on its staff.

In addition to Mason, Shaw needs to replace Mike Sanford, who left to become Boise State's offensive coordinator, and inside linebackers coach David Kotulski, who will serve as Mason's defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt.

Tavita Pritchard shifted from running backs coach to quarterbacks coach immediately after Sanford left, which means the Cardinal is currently without coaches for its running backs, inside linebackers, defensive backs and does not have an official recruiting coordinator.

Even at the top, Mason still scrapping

December, 31, 2013
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Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason played cornerback at Northern Arizona, and he'd rate as short for the position even at an FCS school. He's compact and powerfully built, but you'd suspect that more than a few receivers took one look at his 5-foot-8 frame and thought, "I am going to steal his lunch money and send him home to his mommy in tears."

Some of those guys got the best of him, no doubt. The Lumberjacks never posted a winning record while Mason, a two-year starter, was on the team. But Mason made sure their afternoon wasn't easy, and that they'd remember him the next morning when they crawled out of bed and needed an aspirin or four.

"I felt like I was tough. I felt like I was physical. I felt like I competed all the time," he said. "I felt like because of my size I played [with] a big chip on my shoulder, mad all the time, mad at everybody. Mad at receivers, tight ends. So I played angry."

[+] EnlargeDerek Mason
AP Photo/Damian DovarganesDefensive coordinator Derek Mason has helped Stanford become one of the top defenses in the nation by, as his players say, doing a "tremendous job of explaining what we do and why we're doing it."
Mason's description of himself as a player surely will make those around the Stanford program smile, particularly those who play defense for him. Mason, 43, is a ball of compressed energy, a demanding guy who sees the entire field in a way that allows him to rapidly process both imperfections that mattered on a specific play and imperfections that didn't matter but might next time. He's not the sort who lets things slide, even when the ultimate result suggests proper execution to the casual observer.

"I think the best thing he does is he helps us stay motivated to show up every day for work," Cardinal All-American outside linebacker Trent Murphy said. "He never lets us get complacent or lets us get content. Some of our best games, as far as score-wise, our win margin, some of those games he gets furious. You would think we lost the game by the way he rips us apart after the game. He's always hungry and keeps us hungry, calls great plays and puts us in a great position to be successful, so you can't ask for anything more from a coach."

The ability to scheme, motivate and teach has made Mason into one of the nation's hottest defensive coordinators, yet his route to success at Stanford has been twisting. This is his 10th coaching stop since 1994. Stanford is the first time he has coached four consecutive seasons in the same place. With five of those coaching jobs, Mason was on the offensive side of the ball. A wide receivers coach at Ohio in 2005 and 2006, he jumped to the Minnesota Vikings to become an assistant defensive backs coach. It looked like the NFL was his future, but then Jim Harbaugh came calling in 2010.

"Anybody who has been around Jim Harbaugh knows he can sell anything," Mason said.

It proved an inspired decision to come West with Harbaugh, who had just hired Vic Fangio to switch Stanford from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4. Mason preferred a 3-4 himself -- the Vikings were using a 4-3 -- and Fangio helped him earn his Ph.D. in the scheme.

Of course, Stanford would go 12-1 that season, blowing out Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, and Harbaugh and Fangio would jump to the San Francisco 49ers. When David Shaw was promoted to head coach, he made Mason co-coordinator with Jason Tarver in 2011.

When Tarver left of the Oakland Raiders, Mason took sole control of the defense in 2012. It was Mason who solved Stanford's "Oregon Problem," not Fangio or Tarver. In 2010 and 2011, Stanford surrendered 105 points in losses to the Ducks. In 2012 and 2013, the Cardinal yielded 34 in victories.

"I think the sign of any good football coach at any position is the ability to have a philosophy and have a general scheme that you believe in," Shaw said. "But more importantly, to be able to teach that scheme and then fit the scheme around the players that you have and their talents. I think Derek has done that, and you've seen him do things for Shayne Skov, you've seen him do things for Trent Murphy, do things for Chase Thomas, do things to help Ed Reynolds shine. You put guys in positions to do things that they're good at."

Said Skov: "He does a tremendous job of explaining what we do and why we're doing it."

Stanford has led the Pac-12 in both scoring and rushing defense the past two seasons. Its 97 sacks over the past two seasons is five more than any other conference team. The Cardinal have held opponents to 20 or fewer points in 20 of their last 25 games, and have not allowed a foe to reach 30 points in their past 21 games. Rose Bowl foe Michigan State is the only team with a longer streak (26).

Mason's defense has a massive inventory -- at least for a college team -- of fronts, stunts and blitzes that makes it difficult for offenses to know what they are getting before the snap. The Cardinal's defense is big, athletic and physical at all three levels, but Mason's scheme also takes advantage of the intellect of football recruits who can get into Stanford. They simply can handle more information than a collection of players at just about every other FBS school. Michigan State's offensive players repeatedly talked about how Stanford's defense thrives on keep opponents off-balance.

"They do a great job of trying to confuse the offense," Spartans quarterback Connor Cook said. "They do a lot of different fronts and a lot of movements and stuff like that to try and confuse you."

Seven years ago, Mason was a receivers coach at Ohio. Now he's one of the nation's top defensive coordinators in the country.

The reason he jumped from point A to point B probably has a lot to do with him coaching the same way he played cornerback at Northern Arizona. He still sees that 6-4 receiver grinning at him, thinking he's about to grab some extra lunch money.

"I absolutely coach with a chip on my shoulder," Mason said. "I want these guys to be the best. There's not a day that goes by that my head hits the pillow that I'm not thinking of how we can get better, how these guys can get better, because that's what they came here to do."

Mason builds defensive power at Stanford

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Stanford's defensive performance against Oregon on Nov. 17 was a thing of beauty.

In a 17-14 overtime victory, the Cardinal held the Ducks 157.6 yards below their season average, 127 yards below their season rushing average and, most important, 40.5 points below their season scoring average.

The Cardinal was disruptive. It didn't let Oregon's speed get around the edges. It controlled and filled gaps. It forced the zone-blocking Ducks' offensive line backwards. It tackled well, not allowing yards after contact or catch. It didn't let up for 60 minutes, as so many seemingly strong defensive performances against Oregon tend to. And when Oregon busted its one explosion play on the evening, backup safety Devon Carrington made sure it was a 77-yard Marcus Mariota run to the Stanford 15-yard line and not a 92-yard TD scamper that might have changed the game.

[+] EnlargeDerek Mason
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinStanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason is a finalist for the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach.
The man behind that defense is Stanford coordinator Derek Mason, a finalist for the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach, and a guy who's name is bouncing around as a budding head coaching candidate.

What was the secret to the Cardinal solving the Ducks?

"We worked extremely hard at making sure we were going to be who we were," Mason said.

That's not as simple as it sounds, particularly against the Ducks, but it's something the Stanford players cited after the game as well.

"We took a greater focus on ourselves this time," linebacker Shayne Skov said after the Oregon game. "We didn't try to make too many adaptations to our own system. We were going to do what we do."

Yet what Stanford does has changed through the years. Significantly.

In 2009 -- Jim Harbaugh's third season -- the Cardinal was a plodding unit that ran a 4-3 and gave up 27 points a game. Enter Vic Fangio, who installed a 3-4. That same year, Mason took over the Cardinal secondary.

When Harbaugh and Fangio bolted for the San Francisco 49ers, new coach David Shaw handed the defense to Mason, who shared coordinator duties in 2011 with Jason Tarver, who is now running the Oakland Raiders' defense.

Let's just say Stanford's defense now looks sort of like its own thing, Mason's thing.

Explained Mason, "It's sort of morphed into something that is a little more …" Mason didn't finish the thought -- he started talking about defending spread offenses -- but we will: Funky, unorthodox, flexible. And effective.

Stanford's defense is talented, particularly its front seven, where a handful of guys have a chance to play on Sundays. It's notoriously physical, certainly the Pac-12's most smashmouth unit. And it's sound and disciplined. It doesn't blow a lot of assignments. That's very Stanford-y.

Yet Mason also hasn't been afraid to show some "what the heck is that?" looks to an offense, looks that seem to befuddle even experienced quarterbacks such as USC's Matt Barkley.

The results is this: Stanford is No. 1 in the nation in run defense (71.3 yards per game), sacks (4.42 yards per game) and tackles for a loss (9.25 yards per game). It's also 11th in the nation in scoring defense (16.92 ppg), despite playing a number of the nation's best offenses, something that can't be said for a number of other highly rated defenses. It's eighth in third down defense (29.53 percent).

"It's a containment run defense predicated on making offenses left handed and earning the right to rush the passer," Mason said.

In other words, the Cardinal stops the run, sacks your quarterback and gets off the field.

That's what happened last weekend against UCLA in Stanford's 35-17 win. The Cardinal held the Bruins to 73 yards rushing and recorded seven sacks and nine tackles for a loss.

It was textbook Stanford, which has held eight of 12 opponents below 100 yards rushing this season.

Yet Mason isn't completely believing what he saw in Game 1 with the Bruins. He said he thinks Game 2 on Friday in the Pac-12 championship game will feature a lot more offensive wrinkles from UCLA coordinator Noel Mazzone.

"There are some things they didn't show," Mason said. "It was obvious. I see it as a totally different game."

Mason specifically cited the quarterback run. Redshirt freshman Brett Hundley has rushed for 282 yards and eight TDs this season. His legs are weapons, and the Bruins didn't showcase them last weekend.

While UCLA and Stanford's potential first Rose Bowl since after the 1999 season are the immediate motivations and goals, Mason is aware that his name is bouncing around as a potential head coach. While it's clearly a future goal, he doesn't seem to be in too much of a hurry to race out of Palo Alto in order to chase the first opportunity that comes his way.

"I'm so in love with what is happening here with our players," he said. "I truly believe I am where I'm supposed to be."

Mason seems to like things on the Farm, where he's been growing a West Coast defensive power.
Stanford middle linebacker Jarek Lancaster led the Cardinal in tackles last year and is one of six returning starters to the front seven. Here are his thoughts on the loss of co-defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, Stanford's defense and why he opted to shave his shoulder-length hair.

How different is the defense going to be with just one coordinator running the show?

Jarek Lancaster: It's not going to be that different. Coach [Derek] Mason and Tarver were really good at picking each other's brains. But I think coach Mason still talks a bunch with coach Tarver (now defensive coordinator for the Oakland Raiders) so I think he's going to keep a lot of the stuff from last year. It shouldn't be that different -- or at least drastically different.

With coach Tarver leaving, you lose not only a co-defensive coordinator, but your position coach. How has it been working with a more veteran coach like [David] Kotulski?

[+] EnlargeJarek Lancaster
Jason O. Watson/US PRESSWIRELinebacker Jarek Lancaster thinks Stanford has "one of the greatest front sevens in the nation."
JL: There is definitely more knowledge. He has so much wisdom to impart on us. You could just see from the first day, he was fixing stances and it's nice to be under his wing and learning because he's been in the game for so long.

Let's talk about the inside linebackers. You, A.J. Tarpley, Shayne Skov, James Vaughters. Is there enough defensive reps to go around?

JL: I think so. I think there will be plenty. If you're good enough to play, they are going to find ways to get you on the field. There might not be as many reps as we'd all like, but that doesn't mean we won't get a lot of work each game.

You are in a much different position now than where you were at this time last year when you were a backup. Now you're a proven commodity. Are you feeling the pressure behind you?

JL: We always say iron hardens iron. Spring ball was amazing in terms of competition. We made great gains as inside backers. You could see young guys like James Vaughters and A.J. Tarpley and Joe Hemschoot getting so much better over this four-week period. Anytime you can have that competition and look over your shoulder, it helps you elevate your game.

There is so much talk about how Stanford will drop off with Andrew Luck leaving. Has that permeated to the defense? Do you hear the chatter and do you even care?

JL: Yeah, we hear it. Naturally, you are going to hear the talk and the chatter. But if that means we have to be on the field a little more, that means we'll have better stats. It doesn't affect our play at all.

You guys have so much coming back in the front seven. Many have projected you to be the best front seven in the conference. Do you think you are?

JL: I feel like we have one of the greatest front sevens in the nation. We have two pass rushers that are unbelievable. If you watch film, you see Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy on the quarterback every time. Then you've got the stout Terrence Stephens in the middle that is wrecking shop with Benny Gardner and Josh Mauro. Then you have our inside backers that last year got a ton of experience, which helps us this year. If Shayne had stayed healthy, we wouldn't have that experience. We're ready to go.

In terms of expectations for the defense, is there more pressure on you this year because of all of the changes on offense?

JL: There's a long time to go till the season and we can definitely get better. But if we're going to be a successful team this year, we're going to need to handle the pressure. We expect it. Anytime you come out and you're a successful unit and you have a ton of returning starters, of course there is going to be added pressure. If you've shown you can play at that high level, it's expected that you do it all the time. We're excited for it.

Last question. What's up with Stanford guys dumping the hair? First Ben Gardner goes and dumps the mullet before the Fiesta Bowl and then you shave yours? What's the deal?

JL: I think it was having a new position coach coming in. I wanted a fresh start. It was symbolic. But on the flip side, Benny G is growing the mullet back so it should be pretty sweet come season. [Ryan] Hewitt still has the great, flowing blond locks.
Stanford head coach David Shaw rounded out his staff by naming David Kotulski his new inside linebackers coach.

Kotulski spent the past six seasons as the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Lehigh University of the Patriot League. He replaces Jason Tarver, who left last month to be the defensive coordinator for the Oakland Raiders.

"David Kotulski is a veteran in 3-4 defense and has a very positive history with both [defensive coordinator] Derek Mason and [OLB coach] Lance Anderson,” Shaw said in a statement. "He has demonstrated through the years that he is an outstanding teacher, great motivator and a very good recruiter -- especially in the Northeast. Our entire staff will benefit from his experience and expertise."

During his 31-year career, Kotulski has worked at Holy Cross, Utah State, Bucknell, Saint Mary's and Utah. It was at Bucknell that he crossed paths with Mason and Anderson, and again with Anderson at Utah State. He started his career in 1978 at Utah.

Kotulski, 59, isn't a big name on the West Coast, and he doesn't have the NFL coaching pedigree that Tarver had -- which included 10 years with the San Francisco 49ers. But he seems to know the 3-4 scheme and how to create pressure, and that's what Stanford's defense is all about. Last year, Lehigh's defense ranked in the top three in six defensive categories, including first in pass efficiency defense, sacks and third-down defense.

As noted earlier in the week, the Cardinal have two budding stars at inside linebackers in Jarek Lancaster and A.J. Tarpley -- who flourished under Tarver's tutelage. Both have shown good ball instincts and Lancaster's open-field tackling was spectacular toward the end of the season. The Cardinal also hope to have Shayne Skov back and healthy after a season-ending knee injury last year. He still has to serve some sort of punishment -- likely a suspension -- stemming from his DUI arrest last month and his rehab will keep him from participating in spring drills. But if he's back at 100 percent, he'll be one of the top inside linebackers in the country.

Worth noting also in Shaw's released statement is the recruiting factor. Stanford is one of the few true national recruiters and having a known presence in the Northeast can't hurt.

You can see the full release with Kotulski's complete bio here.
Stanford head coach David Shaw is going to spend this week looking.

  • Looking for a new quarterback.
  • Looking to fill holes on his offensive line.
  • Looking for a couple of new safeties.
  • Looking to fill out his coaching staff with a linebackers coach.
[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Kyle Terada/US PresswireCoach David Shaw says Stanford enters its upcoming practices with several unanswered questions.
But he's also looking for something that trumps all of the above: Stanford's identity.

"I need to see what we're becoming," Shaw said. "I need to see what Stanford football in 2012 is going to look like. We're not going to have all of the answers. But hopefully we'll have a better idea of where we're headed on both sides of the ball."

The Cardinal kick off the first of two spring sessions today, and Shaw said he hopes that by the end of the week he'll be able to make an announcement on a new inside linebackers coach. Last week, he named Pete Alamar the new special teams coordinator. Alamar replaces Brian Polian, who left for Texas A&M last month. The new linebackers coach will replace Jason Tarver, who also served as co-defensive coordinator before leaving this month to be defensive coordinator of the Oakland Raiders.

Shaw said that Derek Mason -- who was co-defensive coordinator with Tarver -- will oversee the defense as the sole coordinator next season. While he'd like to have a linebackers coach in place this week, he said it's not an immediate priority.

"I'm in no hurry," Shaw said. "We have seven practices this session, and if we get it filled, great. If not, I'm fine. The most important thing is that I get the right guy that fits us and fits what we want to do."

Naturally, quarterback will be hot debate throughout the offseason as the Cardinal take the field for the first time in three years without Andrew Luck leading the offense. This first session of practices will focus mainly on the base offense and defense, and third downs. The second session will involve more situational practice.

Shaw said he expects all of the position battles to be hotly contested. The practices will be high-energy, full contact (though the NCAA limits how many days you can go in full pads during the spring) and he wants to see which players are going to separate themselves. Only then will he have a better idea of what his team is going to look like next season.

"Where are we at the safety positions could dictate what we do coverage-wise," Shaw said. "What we do on the offensive line will dictate what we do in protection and the running game. Who has the edge at QB leaving spring? It won't be decided, but whoever has the edge, we might know a little bit more what we want to do scheme-wise. They won't be final answers. But they'll be clues as to where Stanford football in 2012 is going to go."

Shaw picks Alamar to run special teams

February, 24, 2012
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On Thursday, Stanford head coach David Shaw said he would name his new special teams coach on Monday. Apparently, the news couldn't wait.

Shaw annouced Friday that Pete Alamar, a Pac-12 veteran of Cal and Arizona, would be Stanford's new special teams coordinator.

"Pete came highly recommended by people who I respect in the coaching profession," Shaw said in a statement. "He is one of those rare coaches who can coach not only scheme, but also the technique of snapping, punting and kicking."

Alamar replaces Brian Polian, who left Stanford last month to join Kevin Sumlin's staff at Texas A&M.

Alamar was the special teams coach at Cal from 2003-09. He was on staff at Arizona in 1993 and again from 1995-99. He spent the past two years coordinating special teams and coaching the tight ends at Fresno State. He has also worked as a running backs coach, on the offensive line and was the offensive coordinator at Eastern Michigan from 2000-02.

Stanford was neither bad nor great at special teams last year. Within the Pac-12, the Cardinal ranked 10th in punting, fourth in kickoff coverage, third in punt returns, fifth in field goals and seventh in PAT kicking.

There are some holes on the special teams units to fill. Punter David Green is gone, as is long-snapper Andrew Fowler. Kicker Jordan Williamson was second-team All-Pac-12 as a freshman. Ty Montgomery emerged as a solid kick returner and Drew Terrell, who was All-Pac-12 honorable mention, will likely continue punt return duties.

The hiring leaves Shaw with one vacancy on the staff. He said yesterday that he expects to name an inside linebackers coach sometime next week. He added that the new coach would not serve as co-defensive coordinator, as was the case with former coach Jason Tarver, who left earlier this month to be the defensive coordinator for the Oakland Raiders. Derek Mason will have full defensive coordinator responsibilities next season.

The Cardinal open the first of two spring football sessions on Monday.
Stanford head coach David Shaw announced that running backs coach Mike Sanford will take over the recruiting coordinator responsibilities for the Cardinal.

Sanford, now in his second season with the program, fills the void left by special teams coach/recruiting coordinator Brian Polian, who left last month to take a similar position on Kevin Sumlin’s staff at Texas A&M.

Sanford’s new role takes effect immediately.

“Mike Sanford is a proven recruiter who truly loves and understands Stanford University,” Shaw said in a statement. “He works extremely hard and develops great relationships.”

Sanford played an instrumental role in Stanford landing one of the top recruiting classes Insider in the country, which included six players on the 2012 ESPNU 150 list.

In his first year as the Cardinal’s running backs coach in 2011, Sanford oversaw a rushing attack that ranked 18th nationally with an average of 210.6 yards per game.

The move comes on the heels of running game coordinator/offensive line coach Mike Bloomgren being named one of the top recruiters in the country and the No. 1 recruiter in the Pac-12. Insider To round out his staff, Shaw still has to find a special teams replacement for Polian and someone to replace co-defensive coordinator/inside linebackers coach Jason Tarver, who was hired earlier this month as the defensive coordinator of the Oakland Raiders.

Sanford, a 2005 graduate of Boise State, began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at UNLV. He served at Stanford as an offensive assistant from 2007-2008 before moving to Yale in 2009 (tight ends, fullbacks, recruiting coordinator) and Western Kentucky in 2010 (passing game coordinator, running backs).

Stanford mailbag

February, 17, 2012
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Scott in Redwood City, Calif., writes: Stanford's high admissions standards for the footballers is under-appreciated, I don't think you'll dispute. Especially remarkable to me is the fact that Stanford imposes the exact same labor-intensive admissions process (essays, recommendations, etc.) on football players as any other applicant. Comparing any school in D-I to Stanford in regards to academics is laughable, in my opinion. This used to be merely an interesting side-note (and a handy explanation/excuse). But now, with all this program is accomplishing, I find it remarkable that this topic doesn't get more "run." What gives?

Kevin Gemmell: No doubt, the admissions process is brutal. Just ask some of the commits who didn't end up gaining admission and were left scrambling to find a spot days before signing day. I asked head coach David Shaw about that specifically in our post-recruiting day Q&A and he gave, I thought, was a pretty candid answer. But I'm not sure how much more "run" you can give it. Stanford is a great academic institution. It's tough to get into. Now the Cardinal play good football to boot. What more is there to say?


Jorge in San Francisco writes: With the hoopla and depth surrounding next season's crew of Tunnel Workers O-lineman, could Stanford be a better running team than last year? We lose top talent in Moose [Jonathan Martin] and [David] DeCastro, but perhaps we may be able to run 7 or even 8 (!) lineman formations? The RBs are probably improved too. Going out on a limb, we may even match up better with Oregon next year with an increased focus on the running game. On the other hand, the O-line will be young and we lose Andrew Luck's pre-snap run-audibles and passing threat.

KG: First, great question. Second, I think you answered it with the last sentence. No matter how much Shaw tried to stress how important Luck was to the running game, I don't think it was ever really appreciated outside of the Pac-12. Now, that's not to say that Shaw and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton can't call plays -- because they can and they're very good at it. When you look at the line, you love having Sam Schwartzstein back at center. No one understands the offense better than him -- except for Luck. And now he's gone. Cameron Fleming and David Yankey should be even better next year. I'd imagine we'll see more of Kevin Danser on the line and I'm really curious to see which of the new linemen can contribute right away. Guards traditionally see playing time sooner than tackles, but there is nothing traditional about this group coming in. I think we'll continue to see Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney get better. You lose the goal-line back in Jeremy Stewart, though fullback Ryan Hewitt was equally effective in short-yardage situations last year. And then there's the question of Barry Sanders and whether he sees time. As for the Oregon question, hang on, because you're about to fall off that limb. No matter how you slice it, losing Andrew Luck never helps you match up better against anyone.


Amber in Saratoga, Calif., writes: I was shocked at your statement: "Skov has neither the history nor the offense to warrant that severe of a punishment." How could you consider a DUI not that serious of an offense?

KG: Amber, first, I was in no way was downplaying the severity of a DUI. The point was that Shayne Skov didn't have a history of misconduct and that as far as we know this was his first slip-up. And I still don't think he should be kicked off the team, as opposed to Washington State linebacker C.J. Mizell, which is where the comparison came from. I certainly don't condone his actions and clearly neither does Shaw. Punishment is warranted. But blackballing him from the team would be too severe. Others disagree and think he should be booted. I don't buy that. And neither do I buy the "it could have been worse" argument. Of course it could have been worse. But it wasn't. So let this be a lesson to Skov, his teammates and valuable teaching moment for Shaw. I expect Skov to be a model citizen for the rest of his days at Stanford and Shaw to handle the situation justly and without prejudice.


Tony in Fresno, Calif., writes: Does David Shaw hire someone to be another co-defensive coordinator, or does Derek Mason take the job all to himself?

KG: Personally, I like the idea of one coordinator handling the pass defense and another handling the front end -- which was Jason Tarver's job. It probably happens more than we think on other teams, it's just that one guy usually gets the title. Whether the new coach gets the title or not, it was clear that Stanford's weekly defensive scheme was built on a collaborative effort and that won't change. More important I think is finding a coach well-versed in the 3-4. Tarver's knowledge was beyond vast. That's why he's now an NFL coordinator.
This is what happens. You get good, and then the getting gets good for other teams to come in and start picking off assistant coaches.

Stanford is no exception. It happened last year with the head coach. And another successful season means another round of the coaching carousel.

The fact that co-defensive coordinator Jason Tarver left the Cardinal after just one year to return to the NFL is no real shock. He's one of the brightest defensive minds in football and his star is on the rise. There are only 32 defensive coordinator gigs in the NFL -- and when one of them opens up, you have to take it. If it were a lateral move to another college team, you might scratch your head. But none of that is needed with Tarver. Great move for him and a validation for David Shaw for hiring him in the first place.

So where does this leave the Cardinal -- specifically that monster front seven we've been chatting about since the end of the season? Tarver's is a beautiful mind -- and not just in the football sense. The guy is smart. There probably aren't a lot of other NFL defensive coordinators who have masters degrees in molecular biology and biochemistry from UCLA hanging on their office wall.

What he brought to Stanford was an unbelievable understanding of the 3-4 defense. In the decade prior to his time on The Farm, Tarver learned every strand, strain, wrinkle and wiggle there is to know about the scheme from some of the best defensive minds in the NFL.

At Stanford, he worked directly with the inside linebackers and deserves a ton of credit for the rapid development of Jarek Lancaster and A.J. Tarpley from good prospects to legitimate Pac-12 starters.

Without a doubt, losing Tarver is a blow. But if Stanford is anything, it's resilient. Wasn't the team supposed to lose its swagger once Jim Harbaugh left? Remember how the run defense was shot after Shayne Skov went down? Wasn't recruiting going to decline once Andrew Luck was gone?

From a game-planning perspective, little will change with Tarver's departure. Co-defensive coordinator Derek Mason (who we can only assume is running the show solo until otherwise told), will continue to install the game plan with the direct input from Lance Anderson, Randy Hart and an inside linebackers coach to be named later. (And don't be surprised either to see Mason's name popping up for head-coaching gigs either in the future).

In extensive conversations with Tarver during the season, one of the things he always made clear was that every week it was a collaborative effort, and every week there was something in the defensive game plan from each contributing coach.

Mason is not a micro-manager, and that's why he works so well with Anderson, Hart and Tarver. Now a quarter of that brain trust will be missing, but it will be replaced.

Where the real impact will be felt is teaching technique and installing the front seven's schemes. Tarver was very good at implementing the same blitz or stunt out of several different looks in the front seven -- and then tweaking it each week based on the opponent. As he often said, it allowed the defense to play faster without having to think slower.

Mason, Hart and Anderson are all fantastic coaches in their own right with an unquestioned wealth of knowledge. But none has the next-level experience of 10 years in the The League that Tarver brought -- the last five specifically working with linebackers in an NFL 3-4 scheme.

Because of who remains on staff, Tarver's departure doesn't make or break the Stanford defense. But whoever comes in has some big brains to fill.

Jason Tarver headed back to NFL

February, 6, 2012
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Stanford co-defensive coordinator Jason Tarver is headed back to the NFL after one season with the Cardinal. Here's an excerpt from the news story on ESPN.com:
Tarver had spent the previous decade as a 49ers assistant, including the final six seasons (2005-2010) coaching the outside linebackers. After the 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh, Tarver went back to the college ranks to team with co-defensive coordinator Derek Mason at Stanford.

Tarver returns to the NFL with an even more monumental task.

Despite having many high-priced players on that side of the ball, the Raiders struggled mightily on defense last season. Oakland had franchise worsts in touchdown passes allowed (31), yards per carry (5.1), yards passing (4,262) and total yards (6,201) while giving up the third-most points (433) in team history.

For the full story, click here.

Linebackers aplenty for Stanford

January, 26, 2012
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Has there ever been a 3-8 defense? Three linemen, eight linebackers?

"Uh, I don't think so," laughed Stanford linebacker Jarek Lancaster. "But who knows. I'm sure the coaches will find a way to figure it out. There are far too many talented guys to just leave them on the bench."

It's the proverbial great problem for Stanford to have — too many good players for only four linebacker spots.

All four of Stanford's starting linebackers return next season — Lancaster and A.J. Tarpley on the inside and Trent Murphy and Chase Thomas on the outside. Not to mention that two of the three starting defensive linemen — Ben Gardner and Terrence Stephens — are also back.

Then, you factor in that Shayne Skov will be returning from a knee injury, Joe Hemschoot picked up good playing time, James Vaughters is chomping at the bit and incoming freshman Noor Davis — the No. 1 outside linebacker recruit in the nation — may fight for snaps.

Co-defensive coordinator Jason Tarver said the key to rotating so many players is making sure the snaps they get are about quality, not quantity.

"We'll use them for what they do well," Tarver said. "We're excited about the depth and they are good young men. There are also a lot of young guys out there who are excited about playing and taking the baton and taking what we started to another level."

The unit obviously got a huge boost when Thomas opted to return to Stanford for his senior year. After going through the NFL projections, he decided his NFL future would still be too hazy to leave early.

"It was probably the hardest decision I've ever had to make," Thomas told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Each day I woke up and I'd be changing my mind ... I just had to go with my gut instinct."

ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. projects Thomas to be the No. 1 senior outside linebacker in the country next season.
Chase Thomas had a chance to crack the second round, but in going back to Palo Alto for another year, I think he has the chance to improve his stock a bit.

The biggest question mark will be Skov -- who went down with a season-ending knee injury in the third game of the season. He was the team's leading tackler and probably would have left for the NFL had he stayed healthy. Kiper rates him as the No. 3 senior inside linebacker.
Skov is an interesting prospect, and if he's fully healthy the Stanford defense is going to be quite good.

While head coach David Shaw's expertise is on the offensive side of the ball, he knows his linebacker cup runneth over with talent. And it's not something he can ignore.

"We'll find a way to get them all involved. We have to," Shaw said. "With Ben and Terrence Stephens, A.J. and Lancaster — the experience those guys got this year — and Shayne hopefully coming back to form and both outside linebackers, it's an exciting group when you look at it on paper."
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."

[+] EnlargeJarek Lancaster
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsJarek Lancaster, right, had seven tackles in Stanford's Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State.
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."

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