In case you missed it, here's The Bootleg's comprehensive Stanford spring offensive report.
A General Look: Physical Superiority in the Trenches
There are legitimate concerns surrounding this football team on both sides of the line of scrimmage. All-timer Stepfan Taylor is gone, as is 82.5 percent of 2012's receiving production, thanks largely to Zach Ertz. Terrence Stephens, Chase Thomas, Alex Debniak, and Terrence Brown mark notable departures on the other side.
Nonetheless, there's a certain sense of comfort surrounding the prospects of this 2013 team, owing to its strength and depth along both trenches.
An experienced, athletic offensive line figures to power the offense, while a versatile stable of horses stocks a defensive front seven that helps David Shaw breathe easier on the opposite end.
If worst comes to worst, no matter how poorly matters go elsewhere, Stanford has the horses up front to muscle with any of its regular season opponents at the line of scrimmage. And in the inherently violent game that is football, powerful play at the point of attack can conceal many shortcomings and mistakes elsewhere on the field.
Spring Defense Report: The Established Guys
Spring practice allowed a defensive corps that has already proven itself to shake off any residual post-Rose Bowl rust and flex its muscles once again. Trent Murphy, Ben Gardner, Shayne Skov, Josh Mauro, and Jarek Lancaster -- the elder statesmen of the house that Derek Mason built -- are all known commodities by now, and they each delivered their expected combinations of speed and raw physicality.
Lancaster led the way with eight tackles Saturday, while Mauro enjoyed some extra opportunities in the spring game because fellow defensive end Henry Anderson missed the contest due to a disciplinary issue. Mason calls Mauro a "bull in a china shop," and linebacker A.J. Tarpley, who enjoyed a close view of the fifth-year senior, agrees.
"He's reckless out there," Tarpley said of Mauro. "But he definitely still plays within the scheme."
That scheme is based on Mason's healthy dose of "organized chaos." Its goal involves establishing a delicate balance between two seemingly contrasting forces: absolute mayhem and coordinated precision.
"With the way we play, we can't take days off. We have to go as hard as we can, right at each other, every day, just because of our style of physicality," Tarpley explained. "I'd say that is different from other teams. That's just our formula."
Rising Depth on the Defensive Line
To commit to constant physicality at nonstop intensity requires a stockpile of capable depth. As a result, rising sophomores Aziz Shittu, Ikenna Nwafor, and Jordan Watkins have extensive opportunities in front of them. Saturday, they factored in immediate defensive line depth and impressively held their own at the line of scrimmage. (Shittu also saw some action with the first string.)
Now the long conditioning period, which belongs exclusively to strength and conditioning coordinator Shannon Turley, has begun. Its goal is to layer flexible muscle onto these young bodies so that they're all physically capable of seamlessly rotating with the stalwarts Stanford fans already know well.
"With our defense and the mentality that the coaches set, no matter who's in there, you want everybody to play the same way," Tarpley said. "You want everyone to do their job and do it as fast as they can. We expect the same out of our 'twos' and out of our 'ones.' We feel that we have a good 20 guys at the starter level."
Position Battles and Tackling: From the Linebackers to the Secondary
Sloppy tackling might have cost Stanford in 2011, but the Cardinal wrapped up at an elite level last season. Admittedly, Washington's Kasen Williams scored the winning touchdown in Seattle after the Farm Boys did not swarm to the football, but the Cardinal rarely repeated that mistake in 2012. Pad-popping hits and fundamentally sound wrap-ups remained a hallmark during both spring practice sessions.
Blake Lueders and James Vaughters were both solid in respective action Saturday, leading The Bootleg to believe that the battle for Chase Thomas' vacated outside linebacker spot will last deep into August training camp. Remember too that Lueders, coming off surgeries on both of his shoulders, should benefit immensely from Turley's upcoming conditioning period. It'll be his first prolonged muscle-building opportunity since being fully cleared to play.
On the inside, Lancaster joins a lighter, chiseled, 235-pound Skov, whom Shaw called a "human spark plug". Rising sophomore Blake Martinez watched the game in a sling after getting hurt during spring break. His legs looked conditioned and powerful, lending credence to Mason's assertion that he will be a serious contender for playing time come September. Rising senior Joe Hemschoot and rising sophomore walk-on Craig Jones saw second-team action in Martinez's place.
Meanwhile, think back to tackling. The Stanford secondary popped off its share of audible physicality Saturday. We already knew that Jordan Richards is able to lay wood. Cornerback Alex Carter has developed a reputation for making big contact as well. But the rising sophomore's presence in the open field has further improved since his fine freshman campaign. Indeed, Carter's takedowns in space were fundamentally perfect.
"We have a lot of good defensive backs who can tackle," Tarpley said. "They'll never get the credit that they deserve for how well they help us in run defense."
Cornerback Wayne Lyons also demonstrated an improved nose for the football at the spring game when he snuffed out a backfield screen pass to Kodi Whitfield. Fullback Lee Ward motioned to the slot to block for the play, but Lyons blazed around him and into the backfield to obliterate Whitfield several yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Meanwhile, Ronnie Harris, who's competing with Lyons for the spot opposite Carter, delivered impressive drive of his own from his 5-foot-10, 170-pound frame when he stonewalled Tyler Gaffney with a collision that reverberated all the way up to the press box. Reserve safety Kyle Olugbode had a moment too, with a missile-like takedown of Barry Sanders in the backfield.
Neither of those two plays brought the day's biggest collision, though. Ricky Seale and Richards earned that distinction during one of Seale's impressive runs. Seale won that battle, bouncing off the muscle-laden safety to finish an 11-yard gain.
As expected, Barry Browning missed the spring game (shoulder). He's expected to give Lyons (the current leader) and Harris a good push for the second starting cornerback spot. As with the outside linebacker competition, the winner of this fight won't be determined until late summer. We do know that deep coverage and a few soft cushions have created some problems for Stanford cornerbacks this spring, but Saturday's activity came from the most vanilla page of the playbook. It's impossible to read much into anything besides the day's physicality, and that much certainly carried over from 2012.
More Secondary Depth
Stanford safeties Drew Madhu (minor injury) and Zach Hoffpauir (baseball), expected by many to be the Cardinal's future Ed Reynolds/Richards tandem in the middle of the secondary, missed the spring game. But fans had the opportunity to enjoy the play of another young defensive back. Sophomore cornerback Ra'Chard Pippens, a product of Stanford's flowing Georgia pipeline, deflected two consecutive slant patterns with excellent timing. Though Jordan Pratt's impressive double-move downfield catch would later best him, Pippens' 6-foot-2 frame remains intriguing future material at the cornerback position.
"He's still battling for playing time, and he's not in it yet, but he's going to get a lot of opportunity," Shaw said before noting that Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, the man who drafted 6-foot-2 Richard Sherman, told him that the NFL needs "long, physical corners."
"That's what Ra'Chard is," Shaw continued. "And when he gets it, he has a chance to be good."
Jordan Williamson has a stranglehold on the kicking position after booting 42- and 45-yarders with plenty of room to spare. The longer kick came after a bad snap, which holder Ben Rhyne quickly fixed before the attempt. Williamson nailed over 90 percent of his field goal attempts over the course of spring practice, so it's safe to say that he's kicking with the most confidence of his career.
Shaw said there's "still a bit of a battle going on" between Rhyne and Conrad Ukropina for the punter's spot, though Rhyne clearly leads after averaging nearly 43 yards per punt Saturday. He pinned a kick inside the 10 yard line.
Drew Terrell's steadiness at punt returner was a quiet secret behind Stanford's 2012 success. The competition is still wide open at his vacated spot, with plenty of players auditioning: Ty Montgomery, Alex Carter, Barry Sanders, Tyler Gaffney, and Kodi Whitfield were among those who took turns catching some punts. Sanders fumbled a try, but Whitfield and Gaffney both drew praise from their coach.
"Gaffney is an outfielder, baseball-wise, so he's just like Drew," Shaw said. "He sees it off the foot and gets it."
Stay tuned for The Bootleg's next big Stanford football spring piece, which will focus on the next phase for the 2013 team: Turley's conditioning camp.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com.
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