He heard how the departures of defensive coordinator Derek Mason and inside linebackers coach David Kotulski to Vanderbilt could complicate the Cardinal’s transition. And he heard how the linebackers left behind, most notably himself, could be set up for a major setback this season.
Tarpley’s response? He has heard this all before.
“Look at coach Shaw. When everyone said, ‘Coach [Jim] Harbaugh’s leaving, how are you going to replace his excitement, his determination for the game?’ He just said he’s David Shaw. He has his way of doing things,” Tarpley said. “To me, that’s worked out pretty well.”
Tarpley is at the forefront of Stanford’s latest leadership shift.
With Skov and Murphy in NFL training camps, the fifth-year senior middle linebacker is the most experienced and decorated player on defense. He has led the team with 216 tackles over the last three seasons, though his success has often been overlooked because of those playing next to him.
“I think Shayne’s personality and Shayne’s big plays that he made maybe put A.J. in the shadow a little bit,” Shaw said. “But when you go back and watch the film, A.J. was extremely productive. And that’s what you’re looking for, a guy that makes the plays he’s supposed to make and that maybe makes the plays he’s not supposed to make.”
Tarpley is expected to become a more proactive leader and public face of Stanford’s defense this season, especially with the mohawk-sporting, eye-black-wearing Skov fighting for a spot on the 49ers now. Tarpley said he’s ready to take on whatever role is needed to help the two-time defending Pac-12 champions to another title.
But he won’t be somebody that he’s not.
Instead, Tarpley intends to lead teammates by the way he plays and the way he works. He admits there are roles that will have to be filled, such as leading the breakdowns after practices and games, but he believes that’s just part of the natural evolution of any Stanford player.
“You become a leader through your whole career here,” Tarpley said. “It’s not something that you’re automatically respected when you’re a senior. You’re respected because of what you’ve done, how you’ve carried yourself through the years.”
Tarpley began to emerge after Skov’s season-ending knee injury in 2011 — wearing a liberal display of eye black to honor his injured teammate — and has remained a constant contributor since. He finished that season with 57 tackles, had 66 in 2012 and 93 last season.
Shaw said Tarpley started to make an impression on the coaching staff in his redshirt freshman season in 2010 during the team’s scrimmages. But there were All-Americans and all-conference performers in front of him, so the former Minnesota Gatorade Football Player of the Year would have to wait his turn to shine on Saturdays.
“It is not surprising at all to see A.J. Tarpley be successful on the field. That dude works just as hard as anybody on this team, if not harder,” senior safety Jordan Richards said. “He’s kind of been outshined by some guys that have a little more media personality, but that’s a darn good football player.”
Tarpley came through in some of the biggest moments for Stanford last year.
He had four solo tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and one pass breakup to help Stanford beat North Division rival Oregon. He finished with seven tackles against Arizona State in the Pac-12 title game, and he had a crucial interception in the win over Washington.
With rigorous road games at Oregon, UCLA, Arizona State and Notre Dame this season, Stanford might tap Tarpley’s talents more than it ever has before. Just don’t expect him to embrace the cameras the way Skov so often did.
“The culture on this team, we almost make fun of each other the more media attention we get,” Tarpley said. “Because that’s something we can’t control. I can’t control if I don’t get the same attention for doing the same thing other guys do, but I’m going to carry myself the same way. I’ve actually never done well with taking compliments. So it’s fine with me if nobody wants to talk to me.”