The Stanford Cardinal have won back-to-back Pac-12 Championships thanks in large part to the physical style of defense they’ve been able to run for the last several years. Some of the major pieces of that defense, Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, will be moving on to the NFL in 2014, leaving a void of leadership on defense. Luckily for David Shaw and the Cardinal, A.J. Tarpley will be there to step in and lead the way next fall.
Tarpley announced via his Twitter that he would be coming back to Palo Alto for a fifth year. He came into his own in 2013 after going under the radar the two seasons prior and developed into an elite interior linebacker to pair with Skov in the Stanford front seven. He finished the year second on the team to Skov in tackles with 93, including five tackles for loss, a sack, an interception, and a forced fumble. He was named All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention this season as a key part of the Cardinal’s conference title run.
His return is huge for 2014 as the Stanford defense goes through the inevitable turnover of college football. In addition to Skov and Murphy, Stanford might lose safety Ed Reynolds who has yet to decide on his NFL future. That is a lot of defensive firepower that potentially won’t be available for Stanford next season, which really amps up the pressure on Tarpley to take his game to the next level. He’s quietly produced at a high level in the shadow of Stanford’s more prominent defensive standouts, but 2014 will be his year to step into the spotlight and shine.
The only question for Tarpley next season is whether he can handle the added responsibility of being a leader on defense. There’s nothing in his game that suggests that will slow him down one bit in 2014, meaning that Tarpley is in store for a huge breakout campaign next fall. Can he assume the mantle of Stanford’s defensive leader and take the Cardinal back to the top of the Pac-12?