Defensive End: Shittu, Watkins, Hopkins
Of the youngsters to be discussed, true freshman defensive end Aziz Shittu saw the most significant defensive action for the Cardinal this season. The six-foot-3, 264-pound Central Valley native played in five games, most notably providing trench depth during Stanford's exhausting 54-48 overtime victory over Arizona, and recorded one tackle.
"Aziz has always had gifts. His size was outstanding for his position as a freshman," defensive coordinator Derek Mason said of the prized Parade All-American recruit who turned down USC, UCLA, and Cal to attend The Farm. "What he was developing was his full football IQ, and now more opportunities are coming."
Shittu is a product of the same stocked recruiting class as fellow defensive end Jordan Watkins, a six-foot-five, 267-pound Georgia stud who Stanford poached from SEC territory.
"There were times during the year that we thought about taking [Watkins] out of his redshirt because of his football IQ, his attention to detail," Mason praised. "Physically, his gifts are beginning to show. His nickname is 'Big Fella' for a reason. He can run, he's athletic, and more than that, he loves to play football."
For Watkins, playing football has gotten easier as his body has acclimated to the college game. Strength and condition coach Shannon Turley's regimen has led him to drop over five percent of his body fat.
"I know I'm definitely getting stronger," he said. "Because early on, working on scout team against David Yankey and all those guys, I was just trying not to get jerked back 10-15 yards into the linebackers. Now, I'm used to the college game."
Competition at the end positions will certainly remain stiff with stalwarts Ben Gardner, Henry Anderson, and Josh Mauro returning their combined 17.5 sacks and 33 tackles for loss. But Mason and line coach Randy Hart are shooting for their unit to be two-deep on both ends so that it can continue to rotate for freshness against fast-paced Pac-12 offenses. That means at least one young player has an excellent shot of earning extensive playing time, while 6-foot-6, 274-pound rising junior Charlie Hopkins, physically imposing and highly regarded out of high school in his own right, will also be in the thick of the offseason competition.
Outside Linebacker Development: Anderson, Davis, Martinez
Chase Thomas' departure may leave the most gaping vacancy in the Stanford defense entering the 2013 season. The outside linebacker's decision to return for a fifth year likely was the winning difference in at least a pair of the Cardinal's close 2012 games. The Farm Boys played a remarkable 10 contests decided by seven points or less, finishing 8-2 in those games.
Stanford Hospital-born Kevin Anderson (Palo Alto High School) saw back-up action at outside linebacker and is expected to be a strong candidate for increased playing time on the edge next year.
"I really benefited from being behind Trent Murphy, Thomas, and Debniak," he said. "I learned a lot about positioning and body movement. [Murphy] has really good footwork, so I've improved there and learned how to take on blocks."
Anderson will be a junior in 2013, but Stanford hopes he'll be pushed by talented youngster Noor Davis, who is coming off a tough acclimatization to college ball.
"Noor came into the season a little out of shape and had to work extremely hard to get in shape," Mason said. "Chase leaves, now Noor Davis steps in. He's got big shoes to fill, but he can. Physically he can, athletically he can, mentally he can. It'll be his time. Spring ball will be huge for him."
Like Watkins, Davis was recruited by the SEC's heavyweights. The six-foot-four, 235-pound Floridian won the Butkus Award, given annually to high school football's best linebacker, and is the nephew of New England Patriots Hall of Fame linebacker Andre Tippett.
But perhaps the strongest candidate to replace Thomas in the first string is a player who didn't see a full practice all season. At six-foot-five and 256 pounds, Blake Lueders missed all of 2012 because of shoulder surgery. He performed well as Thomas' back-up in 2011, racking up a pair of sacks while effectively pressuring opposing quarterbacks. Lueders has not been officially cleared to resume full football activities yet, but he's expected to be 100 percent involved soon.
"It was hard to stand on the sidelines this year," he said. "But my shoulders are feeling as strong as ever. I'm almost ready to come back."
Inside 'Backers: Martinez, Vaughters
On the inside, true freshman Blake Martinez looks to crack into the mix after seeing sparing playing time during his first campaign. Mason certainly thinks he's ready.
"Undoubtedly, [Martinez stands out.] He is a silent assassin," Mason said. "He will be the next Shayne, the next Chase."
With Skov returning to play alongside A.J. Tarpley, and with fellow veteran Joe Hemschoot waiting to see more extended action behind those two and stalwart Jarek Lancaster, there appears to be an overload of talent at the inside linebacker, despite the Cardinal's propensity to employ a healthy rotation of troops. It's entirely possible that "freight train" James Vaughters, who opened eyes with his physically dominant play in summer camp, will at least occasionally move back to the outside in 2013 to help assuage the loss of Thomas. Vaughters saw pass-rushing action on the outside during his true freshman campaign in 2011.
Regardless of possible position shifts, Stanford's defenders are working to embrace the same blue-collar mentality that created this whole talent crunch.
"All the coaches preach great things about high intensity and high effort," Anderson said. "So this offseason, I'm going to work on everything I can: getting stronger, faster, leaner, and eating well."
For a look at Stanford's progress at the defensive tackle position, check out Part I.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Football Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidMLombardi.
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