Scrimmage report pt. 2: defense

Stanford's defense dominated April's Spring Game, almost to a worrisome extent. A beastly front seven suffocated the offense, playing without Stepfan Taylor. Positive yardage through the air was also hard to come by. Many times, Josh Nunes and Brett Nottingham seemed to close their eyes, chuck the ball downfield, and hope for the best, not exactly a comforting formula.

The unit wasn't quite as overpowering four months later in Sunday's scrimmage, but it's still considered the bedrock of this Stanford team. Here's a position-by-position breakdown of the defense and special teams on a sun-splashed Farm afternoon.

Defensive line
On the defensive side, it's again a waiting game for a chance to see the action on film. Ben Gardner's strength and aggression jumped out, though. With such a star-studded linebacker corps diverting attention behind him, I fully expect Gardner to post a spectacular season. He played motivated and hungry. True freshman Aziz Shittu was also an intriguing watch, simply because of his performance-ready size and strength. His success this year will depend on how quickly he learns with the playbook. I'll focus more on the defensive line when I have a chance to talk to the unit's players and coaches this week.

Linebackers
Shayne Skov and his intensity are back with a vengeance. He only played two series, but flew to the football at every opportunity and even vehemently expressed his displeasure with officials after not being credited with what should have been a late sack of Nunes. To me, it appears that almost all of the Stanford linebackers have put on muscle. Skov looks bigger than his pre-injury self (he impressively dragged Remound Wright down with only one arm), Chase Thomas (who sacked Nottingham early) is an absolute monster layered with a confirmed 10-15 pounds of additional muscle, and Trent Murphy's size is more imposing yet. He added a sack. James Vaughters, dubbed a "freight train" by his coach, is no longer a freshman. He is seeing significant time because of newfound comfort with the playbook. A.J. Tarpley seemed to be moving well laterally, particularly on the quick screen passes outside to Patterson, which he helped bottle up effectively. Kevin Anderson also recorded a sack.

The linebackers, who have been downright dominant throughout large parts of practice, can't be ecstatic about their Sunday performance that saw them surrender a few big plays, some of which came on the ground. Still, this is the unit that the Cardinal are least worried about.

Secondary
Terrence Brown and Barry Browning started at cornerback alongside first-team safeties Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards. Wayne Lyons, Devon Carrington, and freshman Alex Carter also saw significant time with top units, with Lyons playing well early (he was beaten by Montgomery down the sideline later on) and Carter bringing a promising physicality (especially for a youngster) to the position. After the scrimmage, Carter said that the unit's main point of emphasis at this point is tackling, a definite requirement following last season's debacles against Oregon and Oklahoma State. This was a problem again on Remound Wright's 60-yard catch-and-run and Jackson Cummings' 33-yard touchdown scamper.

Further down the depth chart, senior safety Brent Seals jumped a Hogan out pattern and dropped what would have been a nearly certain pick six. Pippens committed the aforementioned pass interference on the go route intended for Kelsey Young. Stanford fans will love freshman safety Zach Hoffpauir, who won himself a few friends on the Farm by reneging on his commitment to Cal to play for David Shaw. Hoffpauir may not see significant action this year, but the kid brings a reputation of 'feeling' the field. He demonstrated his touted hard-nosed presence when he plugged a hole and destroyed Sanders on a third-down run late in the scrimmage. Usua Amanam played with the third team at cornerback.

The secondary remains a question mark for Stanford, but there are plentiful bodies and athletes there to work with. Carter in particular looks like he belongs after Sunday's scrimmage. Shaw has touted the work of Brown and Browning in camp. As Lyons continues to work back toward peak speed, the Cardinal have the potential to boast four dependable cornerbacks. Assuming all four can register productive years and Reynolds can lead the safeties to solid play, there are plenty of reasons to believe this unit can provide a nice complement to a spectacular front seven.

Special teams
Jordan Williamson's kickoffs from the 35-yard line were all impressive boots that went considerably deep into the end zone. His field goal kicking wasn't bad, either, although one missed wide left. Freshman Conrad Ukropina missed wide right a couple of times and showed a considerably weaker leg on kickoffs, failing to reach the end zone. This is clearly Williamson's job with Shaw praying that the sophomore doesn't get hurt again this year.

Daniel Zychlinski was solid as first-team punter, while backup Ben Ryhne's boots weren't impressive. Austin Tubbs handled long snapping.

Shaw has affirmed that Terrell, who led the Pac-12 with 12.0 yards per return last year, will be running back punts again this season. Montgomery was initially back as the primary kick returner, despite rumblings that he may be spared that role to conserve for his primary job on offense. A rotating group of running backs including Remound Wright and Jackson Cummings also practiced returning kicks. Alex Carter expressed his desire to return kicks to me after scrimmage, and he was back there briefly as well.

David Lombardi, a TV and radio (95.7 The Game SF) personality in the Bay Area, is a Stanford and Pac-12 Conference enthusiast. He has broadcast the Cardinal on KZSU for several years. You can check out several of his Stanford calls and other writing at www.davidlombardisports.com.


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