STANFORD -- Linebacker A.J. Tarpley takes exception to the notion that he began preparing for his expanded leadership role last winter, after attrition pummeled Stanford's defense. That line of thinking, he said, misses the mark by about four years.

The senior has been girding for this moment since the minute he set foot on campus.

"You have to earn leadership," he said. "It's how you carry yourself from the moment you arrive on campus -- something you enact throughout your career.

"If you wait until training camp to start, it's too late."

Tarpley is one of several veterans attempting to fill the leadership void on defense created by the departure of a handful of players who performed at an all-conference level and knew just what to say off the field.

Arizona’s Johnny Jackson (30) is brought down by Stanford’s A.J.Tarpley (17) and Usua Amanam (15) in the 3rd quarter as Stanford plays the
Arizona's Johnny Jackson (30) is brought down by Stanford's A.J.Tarpley (17) and Usua Amanam (15) in the 3rd quarter as Stanford plays the University of Arizona in a Pac-12 football game Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012 at Stanford Stadium in Stanford, Calif. Stanford won in overtime 54-48. (Patrick Tehan/Staff)

No one commanded the locker room like inside linebacker Shayne Skov, who served as the eye-black-wearing, fire-breathing passion of one of the nation's top defenses.

Part preacher, part psychologist, Skov would stand before his teammates and unleash a pregame speech that gave his teammates chills.

"There isn't anybody with Shayne's personality, but the guys we have will lead in their own way," defensive coordinator Lance Anderson said. "Leadership is a big part of what we do. Every year we ask that question, and every year leaders emerge.

"A.J. has done a great job making calls, getting us lined up and communicating what's coming."


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Tarpley started alongside Skov for 21/2 years, watching carefully as his running mate emerged as the heart and soul of the Cardinal's rugged defense. But Tarpley has no plans to duplicate Skov's weekly call-to-arms.

"The most dangerous thing about leadership is when you try to force it," said Tarpley, who's from Plymouth, Minnesota.

"A.J. is quieter than Shayne, but he says what needs to be said," nose tackle David Parry said.

Playing in the shadow of more celebrated veterans such as Skov, Trent Murphy and Chase Thomas, Tarpley has quietly become one of the best big-game defensive players in the Pac-12 Conference.

As a redshirt freshman, he intercepted USC quarterback Matt Barkley and recovered the game-ending fumble in Stanford's triple-overtime victory in the Los Angeles Coliseum.

As a sophomore, he intercepted a pass by Marcus Mariota in Stanford's upset of top-ranked Oregon.

As a junior, he snared a throw by Washington's Keith Price in the red zone, forced a fumble by Oregon and had seven tackles against Arizona State in the Pac-12 title game.

"You watch the film, even the NFL scouts, and (Tarpley) stands out," Cardinal coach David Shaw said. "In a lot of big games, he's played his best."

But Tarpley believes the foundation for his leadership role this fall was laid during his rookie season, when he was named Scout Team defensive player of the year.

"I didn't have a great chance to play, but I tried to practice hard and keep my head down and my mouth shut," he said. "I looked for good examples to follow and tried to earn everything. The award doesn't mean much materially, but it shows how you carry yourself."

Tarpley won't be leading alone. Parry and Henry Anderson are powerful voices for the defensive line. And safety Jordan Richards has seamlessly taken over for Ed Reynolds as the quarterback of the secondary, organizing offseason workouts and encouraging underclassmen to ask questions in the meeting room.

Like Tarpley, Richards picks his spots to be assertive.

"We all know it's our time," Richards said. "Shayne did his thing. He's gone. ... Now we have to figure out a way to make sure we play our best."

STANFORDPHOTO.COM

Linebacker A.J. Tarpley leads the Stanford football team onto the field during a home game against Washington last season.

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