2023 football off-season preview: State of the defensive and special teams roster

In the accompanying piece, we went over the state of the offensive roster and how the Stanford coaching staff will address key concerns at certain position groups. This piece will now look at the defensive side of the roster, along with special teams. We will delve into what the snap distribution will look like for next season and how the coaching staff will address positional weaknesses. 

It’s important to remind readers that the transfer portal officially opened on Dec. 4 and Stanford’s roster can, and will, change daily. As it currently stands, Stanford has 100 scholarship players slated for its 2024 roster — this total includes the incoming recruiting class. The NCAA allows a maximum of 85 scholarship players so 15 athletes will have to either transfer out of the program or drop from the recruiting class. So expect to see more departures within the next few weeks. 

Defensive line

Tobin Phillips deciding to come back for a fifth year is a huge boon to this room. Junior Anthony Franklin can hold his own as well, and the Cardinal will hope for a jump from sophomore Jaxson Moi. Junior Zach Buckey, sophomore Zach Rowell and sophomore Pat Caughey should also be a part of the rotation.

The most fascinating aspect of this group is incoming freshman Benedict Umeh, who held offers from Michigan, Notre Dame and USC and is the second highest rated recruit in Stanford’s incoming class.

Outside linebacker 

The OLB room is, without a doubt, Stanford’s most talented position group on the roster in terms of recruiting ranking, boasting five former 4-star recruits with a sixth, incoming freshman Dylan Stephenson from Miami, on the way.

The headliner is sophomore David Bailey, but the Mater Dei product took a step back in his second season on the Farm. Coach Bobby April will be tasked this offseason with finding ways to have Bailey be productive game in and game out. Senior Lance Keneley saw the most time opposite Bailey, but it remains to be seen if he will return for a fifth year given the scholarship crunch.

Ready to step up are sophomores Tevarua Tafiti and Ernest Cooper, along with juniors Wilfredo Aybar and Aaron Armitage. Each of these players came into college with great expectations and will now be relied upon to turn their potential into production. Tafiti showed signs that he is ready for the step-up this season, totaling 46 tackles, a forced fumble and 2.5 sacks. 

Inside linebacker

Tristan Sinclair opting to come back for a sixth year is yet another decision that has gone in Stanford’s favor so far. Sinclair and junior Gaethan Bernadel are locked into the two starting roles, as they were the Cardinal’s top two leading tacklers this season.

However, the depth in this room is a major question mark. Spencer Jorgenson is gone, which leaves room for sophomore Matt Rose and junior Ese Dubre to get more playing time. The competition for those depth spots should be pretty open, and the staff’s recent offer to Teddye Buchanan (who has since committed to Cal), indicates they are looking to fill this void.

Cornerback 

The Stanford secondary was a mixed bag in 2023, but the good news is that the cornerbacks room is young and should improve. Sophomore Collin Wright became arguably the most important player on the Cardinal defense. The Texan finished the year with 66 tackles, an interception and six pass breakups. Fifth-year Zahran Manley started opposite him and announced he will return in 2024 for a sixth season. Highly-touted freshman Jshawn Frausto-Ramos played in all 12 games and will compete to start opposite Wright next fall. Junior Jaden Slocum and freshman Aaron Morris will also be in the mix for snaps. 

Safety

Senior and All Pac-12 Honorable Mention Alaka’i Gilman and senior Omari Porter are likely gone, meaning that sophomore Scotty Edwards, along with juniors Mitch Leigber and Jimmy Wyrick, takes command of this group. Freshman Ché Ojarikre got playing time this year, and could work his way into the rotation a bit more if he takes a sophomore jump. A transfer or two here would help shore up the backend of a defense that has been poor the last few years.

Special teams 

You cannot talk about Stanford’s special teams without mentioning senior kicker Joshua Karty. He will likely declare for the NFL Draft after a four-year Stanford career, in which he made 51 of 60 field goals with a career long of 61 yards. Perhaps the highlight of his Cardinal career was his junior season, in which he was a perfect 18 of 18 on the year.

Junior Emmet Kenney is the only other kicker on the roster. Freshman Aidan Flintoft beat out junior Connor Weselman for the starting punting position midway through the 2023 season and will likely retain the title next year. At long snapper, senior Bailey Parsons has already announced that he is done with football, freeing up a scholarship. The good news is that sophomore Peyton Warford — a transfer from Northwestern — saw plenty of the time at that spot this fall as well. 

After the roster was decimated by transfers and NFL decisions last offseason, this year should bring much more stability as Taylor continues to rebuild. There’s still a ways to go for the on-field results to show, but 2023 was always about culture-building and recruiting a good incoming class.

The real work begins now. It’s time to solidify the 2024 class, start building a strong 2025 class and pick up a few impact transfers to plug holes for the 2024 season. It’s time to win more than three games for the first time since 2020. And it’s time to go bowling in 2025.