STANFORD — Stanford started this season with all kinds of questions about how it would replace a respected coordinator and a star-laden lineup on defense.
Nobody is wondering anymore.
The 16th-ranked Cardinal (2-1) have two shutouts already entering Saturday's game at Washington (4-0). Stanford leads the country in scoring defense (4.3 points), total defense (204.3 yards) and passing defense (66 yards) per game, and it's doing it the same way it has in recent seasons: with a physical and disciplined approach.
“We had high expectations for this year, and we have a high standard. Guys take a lot of pride in making sure those things don't change,” said new defensive coordinator Lance Anderson, who was promoted from outside linebackers coach after Derek Mason left for Vanderbilt in January.
It might have been understandable if Stanford's defense had struggled early this season.
Besides Mason, the Cardinal also lost linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, free safety Ed Reynolds and defensive end Ben Gardner â€” all leaders of a class that won back-to-back Pac-12 championships and reached four consecutive BCS bowls.
Left behind were talented players, albeit many of them unproven, and a long-time position coach who had never been a defensive coordinator.
Anderson began by meticulously watching every Stanford game from last season and looking for ways the unit could improve. He noticed that the defense had a lot of audibles at the line of scrimmage, which often led to mistakes and complicated assignments.
With so many new starters, Anderson decided to eliminate some of those last-second changes from the playbook. He said the moves have simplified information for players to process and streamlined communication between those on the sideline and the field, allowing everybody to focus and execute better.
“It's still a complex system and still gives us multiple looks. The idea was to just make it easier for everybody,” Anderson said.
Just as Anderson is thriving in a position where Mason and Vic Fangio excelled before him, players have proven to be quick studies in leadership roles.
Inside linebackers A.J. Tarpley and Blake Martinez, defensive end Henry Anderson and strong safety Jordan Richards have been key cogs in the transition. Three-year starting cornerbacks Wayne Lyons and Alex Carter also have led the way, turning positions that used to be weaknesses into strengths.
“It's fun to prove people wrong,” Tarpley said. “The guys in the locker room, we know we have all the guys we need to be successful. Whether or not people on the outside want to challenge us or question us, every year I've been here we seem to have gotten better on defense no matter who we lost.”
Stanford coach David Shaw credits the defense's smooth transitions to how many players the staff rotates.
The philosophy started under Shaw's predecessor, Jim Harbaugh, who placed an importance on depth and competition throughout the roster, and it has helped players gain experience before becoming starters.
The proof has played out on the field, especially this season, where just about everybody on the defense's two-deep roster has had a hand in the strong start.
The Cardinal crushed lower-tier UC Davis and its traditional-style offense 45-0. They lost 13-10 to a fast-paced Southern California team in a game the defense dominated and where the offense struggled to score. And they overwhelmed Army's triple-option run game in a 35-0 win before a bye last weekend.
“The best thing about this defense, to me, is that it's hard to say who the best player on the defense is,” Shaw said.
If there's one area the defense wants to improve, it's creating more turnovers.
Stanford has five takeaways â€” three interceptions and two fumble recoveries â€” through the first three games, which is tied for 62nd in the nation. But the defense had none in the loss to USC.
Considering the Cardinal have forced at least one turnover in 40 of their last 42 games, they believe it's just a small sample size this season and they're pleased with the progress they've made.
“I feel we're in a great spot right now,” Martinez said. “We're jelling pretty well.”
NOTES: Shaw said Tuesday that senior RB Remound Wright will play against Washington after sitting out against Army with an undisclosed injury. … Backup LB Joe Hemschoot (undisclosed injury) is questionable.