A Blow to Depth: Palma, Hemschoot Out
Stanford linebackers Kevin Palma and Joe Hemschoot suffered injuries against UC Davis that have ruled them out of Saturday's showdown versus USC. David Shaw says he hopes to have both players back for the September 27 game at Washington, which comes after the Cardinal's first bye week.
The two losses force Stanford to combat USC's uptempo attack without the robust depth at linebacker anticipated at the start of the season. Neither Palma nor Hemschoot is a starter, but both players rotated in frequently before getting hurt last week. Noor Davis now occupies both back-up inside linebacker spots on the two-deep, while Peter Kalambayi (interview embedded below) takes up both reserve outside linebacker positions.
"We're trained to know [the playbook and techniques] on both sides," Kalambayi said. "So when it comes to depth, we should be able to rotate and be OK."
Meanwhile, Stanford received some good news on the defensive front on Wednesday: Versatile lineman Aziz Shittu, who missed the season opener with a toe injury, was back at practice. If Shittu's toe doesn't swell tonight, he'll practice again Thursday and be cleared to play against USC.
State of the Defense: Anderson on a Potential USC Vulnerability
Stanford's defense is still confident that it can exploit USC inexperience along the offensive line. Though the Trojans do feature returning veterans at the critical center (Max Tuerk) and left tackle (Chad Wheeler) positions, new starters populate the rest of the offensive line. The Cardinal sense particular vulnerability on the right side of the unit, where sophomore tackle Zach Banner (6-foot-9, 350 pounds) and true freshman guard Damien Mama (6-foot-5, 370 pounds) form an inexperienced and humongous -- tremendously heavy -- duo.
"They play a little bit high and I think we can find holes in their game the more we watch film," Stanford defensive end Henry Anderson said. "If you're 370, I don't know if you'll be able to move laterally as well as some smaller guys. If we work edges on the big guys, I think we'll be able to do damage there."
Since USC has shifted to a hurry-up scheme under its new staff this year, Stanford has been preparing by primarily watching film of last year's game against Steve Sarkisian's Washington team. The Huskies enjoyed significant offensive success against the Cardinal in that one, racking up 489 yards of total offense behind a balanced attack featuring three impressive receivers, stud running back Bishop Sankey, and gigantic tight end Austin-Seferian Jenkins.
"I don't know if [USC] has the tight end depth that Sarkisian had in the past, so that may change some things," Anderson said.
There's one thing Anderson believes will remain constant, though: He believes that Trojans' tailback Javorius Allen may be the best back Stanford will face in 2014, and that means USC may have a horse capable of replicating Sankey's impressive performance against the Cardinal last year. Sankey ripped off 125 yards on 27 carries at Stanford Stadium, and that success helped neutralize the Cardinal's pass rush.
Stanford held USC to only 23 yards rushing last year while Allen averaged a measly 1.6 yards per carry. That raises one of Saturday's critical questions: Will Allen rush like he did versus the Cardinal last year, or will his performance more closely resemble the success Sankey enjoyed in Sarkisian's system?
If the former holds true, Anderson and the rest of the Stanford defensive line will have their chance to get after USC quarterback Cody Kessler.
"[Mama] still moves pretty well for a guy that size," Anderson said. "I can't even imagine moving around at 370 pounds. I think there are some things we can do to get into the backfield there."
Stanford Offense: Wrinkles Promised
Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren and quarterback Kevin Hogan both hinted that their Cardinal attack has some wrinkles up its sleeve for this showdown against USC.
"I know [the coaches] wanted to save some stuff for this week," Hogan smiled.
He hinted that Stanford may allow him to keep the ball and run on read plays more liberally than they did early last season.
"[Those quarterback running plays are] something that we've been working on all camp," Hogan said. "So I think we're going to use them."
Bloomgren focused on one of the benefits of facing a talented defense so early in the season. He noted that Stanford has had a chance to integrate new plays on offense without putting them on tape yet. In the Pac-12 opener last season, for example, the Cardinal clearly caught Arizona State by surprise with early running plays designed to stretch the field laterally.
"We do have a few things that will be exciting to see on the football field," Bloomgren said.
The new wrinkles, though, will not include the offensive linemen's top choice for running back.
"If they had their druthers, they'd put one of their fellow linemates back at tailback and just run 6-Power all day long," Bloomgren (interviewed below) laughed. "But obviously, we're too talented all over the offense to do just that."
Ironing Out Issues Up Front
Following a performance marred by a trio of penalties, it's been a solemn week in the offensive line room. It's apparent that Stanford's new group of starters up front has been peeved by Saturday's sloppiness. There's also a sense that this coming match-up with USC's studly front, anchored by projected first round NFL Draft pick Leonard Williams, is an excellent chance to right the ship.
"They took the criticism in the meeting -- which there was plenty of Monday -- and they took it the right way," Bloomgren said.
Joshua Garnett committed a holding penalty and a block in the back. Graham Shuler was also flagged for a hold, giving the Cardinal linemen two of those flags on the afternoon after they only committed two all of last season.
As a result, Shuler said that the line has gone back to emphasizing one of the basics this week: position.
"We train so hard; we have so many goals and high expectations," he said. "When we don't match those right away, we're disappointed. We're a bit frustrated, but I think we're way more interested in moving forward and improving."
Shuler noted that the unit has been inspired by new starting right guard Johnny Caspers' intensity. Stories of him yelling and banging his helmet after messing up a minor drill in spring practice have surfaced.
"You should see Johnny Caspers pregame, man," Shuler said. "There's something special about playing with a guy who cares that much."
Zach Hoffpauir will start at safety instead of Kyle Olugbode Saturday, and that's an indication that Stanford is planning on being very physical with USC's explosive but relatively young receiving corps.
"In the second half of camp, [Hoffpauir] has just been so dynamic," Shaw said. "His speed and his physical nature are extremely impressive."
The staff said that Olugbode will still receive plenty of playing time. He'll likely man the safety position on certain passing downs when Hoffpauir assumes his role as the Cardinal's primary nickel back -- the spot where his notable physicality is on best display.
There's one more change in the secondary from week one: Alex Carter will now start at cornerback opposite Wayne Lyons, though Ronnie Harris will rotate in plentifully.
- Shaw again lauded Ty Montgomery. He talked about his strategy of conserving Stanford's most versatile weapon over the course of a game. "I wouldn't say there is a play count," he said. "When his tongue is dragging, that's when he comes out. If his tongue's not dragging, he is in, and he understands that."
- Shaw says there's no remaining bad blood between him and Sarkisian following last season's fake injury accusations and sharp rebuke. "We've both moved on," he said before noting that the two talked extensively at the Pac-12 meetings this offseason.
- USC led the nation in red zone defense last season while Stanford ranked No. 83 in red zone offense. That was on painful display for the Cardinal when they scored only 10 points on four trips to the red zone in last November's 20-17 loss at the Coliseum, so Stanford hopes that the re-introduction of the tight end position can assuage last year's red zone problems against the Trojans. Austin Hooper caught four balls and a touchdown last Saturday. He joined The Bootleg Radio in the interview embedded below.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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