Keep the Defense

I normally don't stick my nose into the personnel decisions for Stanford Football, but there is a great question in front of new head coach <b>Walt Harris</b> that must be addressed and discussed. For all the talk of his offense, he will need the best defense he can get to win in the potent Pac-10. The best way for him to do that in 2005 and for years to come is to keep the current Stanford defense intact.

Stanford Athletic Director Ted Leland made the statement two weeks ago when he fired Buddy Teevens that his next Cardinal head coach would have a strong offensive background.  After three years of offensive offense on The Farm, Leland was anxious to return the program to its roots.  Without exception, Stanford has had great offense in each and every one of its best seasons in modern history.  Perhaps just once has the defense outperformed the offense in a bowl-bound year, that coming in 1992 when Bill Walsh won with Dennis Green's players in a still-beloved 10-3 season that ended in a Top 10 national ranking.  But it is expected that, on average, Stanford will be able to put together better offenses than defenses.  When you consider the talent you can bring to The Farm, top-flight quarterbacks and offensive linemen will most consistently be able to gain admission to the school.

In contrast, two of the most critical positions on defense are the time-tested two most difficult for Stanford to get admitted and successfully recruit: cornerback and defensive tackle.  There is no good way to circumvent the need for cornerbacks in your defense - not while the game of football legally allows the forward pass.  But Stanford's difficulty in finding defensive tackles is a problem mirrored in the professional ranks, where NFL clubs have found top defensive tackles to be the most expensive pieces in their defensive puzzle.  The NFL salary cap is somewhat analogous to Stanford's admissions standards (and restrictions).  And when you operate under a low ceiling, you may need to innovate ways to stretch the talent you can accrue.  Bill Walsh did this better than anyone else we have seen in decades when he built the West Coast Offense in his first tenure at Stanford.  The WCO is a system that leverages intelligent playmakers via schemes that (when executed well) are geometrically very difficult to defend.  Simply stated, it can give you reproducible advantages when you have athletic disadvantages on the field.  In the world of free agency and salary caps in the NFL, it was no surprise to see pro clubs snatch up Walsh and a long line of his coaching descendents to bring those advantages to their playing field.

Today, we are seeing a new but similar wave on defense.  This time, it is the NFL leading the way.  With top defensive tackles simply too expensive for many clubs to afford, there is a growing trend toward the 3-4 defense that puts more linebackers on the field and less defensive linemen than in a conventional 4-3 front.  The Baltimore Ravens won a Super Bowl with arguably the best defense in modern NFL history and the weakest quarterback and offense in of any world champion.  They have rotated through more weak quarterbacks but consistently won games with their 3-4 defense.  Each year, more teams in the League are adapting it, and there is no question it is the most powerful wave currently sweeping through pro football.

Stanford defensive coordinator A.J. Christoff spent last winter learning the Ravens defense, including time spent in Baltimore.  He installed a 3-4 defense with more emphasis on zone coverages in the spring and reaped the rewards right away this fall.  For such a dramatic change in formations and scheme, the play of the Stanford Defense was nothing short of awesome this past fall.  Though plagued by a defense that struggled to find the move the chains and find the endzone, the 2004 defense allowed 21.2 points per game (#33 in the nation) while recording 30 sacks and 16 interceptions.  In 2003, the defense had a woeful pass rush despite an NFL Draft early entrant (Amon Gordon) with just 22 sacks.  They allowed 29.5 points per game and snared only nine interceptions.

At the most superficial level, the 3-4 scheme put Stanford's best available playmakers on the field.  Much like the NFL, the Cardinal are strapped for defensive linemen.  When injuries strike, the discouraging can turn to bleak in a hurry.  For the first two games of the 2004 season, Stanford had to employ a five-man DL rotation at the three positions while Will Svitek recovered from a knee operation.  They played six bodies for a stretch (though Svitek was never himself until possibly the last few games of the year), but dropped to five again when Casey Carroll tore his MCL and was lost in November.  It is difficult to imagine a world where Stanford would have played a base four-man defensive line.

In contrast, the four-man linebacker set employed this year allowed Stanford to put its strength on the field.  Even with four spots in the lineup, Stanford fans were earnestly debating much of the season who was left on the sideline and needed to get on the field.  The cries for Michael Okwo and Michael Craven were persistent, and other able and exciting LBs saw even less time this year behind the depth of veteran talent: Timi Wusu, Emmanuel Awofadeju, Mike Silva and Landon Johnson.

The outlook for the depth and talent of linebackers versus defensive linemen will remain unchanged in 2005.  Seniors Will Svitek and Scott Scharff graduate up front, while David Bergeron and Jared Newberry graduate from the second level.  Ignoring any freshmen who might matriculate in the fall - yet to sign Letters of Intent - I offer the following as probable personnel for the '05 season:

Starting defensive line
Babatunde Oshinowo (senior)
Julian Jenkins (senior)
Casey Carroll (senior)

Rotating defensive line
Nick Frank (junior)
Matt McClernan (junior)
Gustav Rydstedt (frosh)

I should add that David Jackson, Chris Horn and Pannel Egboh will fight to get in that rotating second group.  Egboh, by the way, has taken to the food and weight training at Stanford like a man to water in the desert.  He is up to 260 pounds and will make a big splash in the next 12 months as he moves from OLB to DE.

The linebacking corps does not necessarily need true two-man depth, as a starting LB can play easily 85% of the snaps in a game.  But take a look at the depth at all four positions ready for next fall, without playing any (redshirt) freshmen:

Sam OLB Mike ILB Will ILB Rush OLB
Michael Lovelady Michael Craven Kevin Schimmelmann Jon Alston
Udeme Udofia Mike Silva Michael Okwo Timi Wusu
Emmanuel Awofadeju Landon Johnson    

The balance of talent for the defensive line and the linebackers remains an excellent fit for the 3-4 defense, and you would run into some real problems if you tried to mold them into a 4-3 set.  There is hardly enough playing time for the wealth of linebackers on this depth chart, and we will have full-blown controversies on our hands if you are forced to squeeze these players into three positions.  The outlook in 2006 will not change substantially, as exactly three senior DL and four senior LBs will graduate in the preceding spring.

The defensive staff of Christoff (secondary), Tom Williams (inside linebackers), Tom Quinn (outside linebackers) and Dave Tipton (defensive line) put forth great gameplanning and preparation this year, and they made skillful adjustments in many games.  The offenses of BYU, USC, Oregon and Arizona State all came out of the shoot with their guns firing and looked to have a chance to rout Stanford.  But adjustments and scouting in each game settled the ship and gave the Cardinal offense great chances to stay in and win the ballgame.  The reason this season had so many close ballgames, despite offensive ineptitude, was the defense.  Behind that defense was, in my opinion, an excellent defensive staff.

As you look at the above lists of players, you can easily see a starting defense next fall that could put eight seniors in the starting lineup:  T.J. Rushing in the secondary plus Oshinowo, Jenkins, Carroll, Craven, Schimmelmann, Alston and Lovelady.  Even if Lovelady does not return to the team after his 2004 fall suspension (and my suspicion is that he will return), this still will be a veteran-led defense.  They know this scheme and will execute it better in '05 than in their first year learning it in '04.  The leadership lost from the current senior class on defense is tremendous, but there are an exciting group of emerging leaders in the following class.

Continuity on defense for these players, in both scheme and coaching, would be a great boon to Walt Harris' chances for success right away in 2005.  He is clearly a man with the highest reputation for his offensive acumen, despite his background playing and coaching in his early years on defense.  Several trusted sources in Pittsburgh have told me in unison the importance of Harris hiring and maintaining a strong defensive staff.  Holding on to at least two of these four Cardinal coaches on the defensive side of the ball would go a long way toward a truly excellent 2005 defense for him.  Though many Stanford fans have gravitated toward the two Cardinal alumni on the staff in Williams and Tipton, and though Quinn has grabbed their hearts with the play of his OLBs and special teams, probably the most helpful holdover for Harris would be Christoff.  Christoff was the man who drew up and implemented this defensive scheme, and he handled the playcalling and led the in-game adjustments.

If Harris polls the top playmakers who will make or break his defense this fall, he will find much support for retaining that staff and scheme.

"I'd love to keep a lot of the guys on the staff if I could," offers Alston.  "Unfortunately, coaching is a good old boy system that does not lend itself to that."

"We've talked about it and we feel like we've played as a defense for the first time this year," Oshinowo opines.  "This was the first time I've known what everybody is doing.  We want this going as much as we can."

Another voice Harris might want to heed is that of the top recruits he finds in his lap.  There are tremendous needs at every single defensive position this year.  Failing to close on any defensive tackles, ends, linebackers, safeties or cornerbacks will come back to haunt Harris in as soon as two or three years.  The defense he inherits at Stanford is heavy with seniors and juniors.  When you look to the (redshirt) sophomore and (redshirt) freshman ranks next fall for the Cardinal on defense, it is difficult to piece together an imposing defense.  At the very least, there are frighfully thin numbers at positions where Stanford has either missed in their recruiting efforts or intentionally delayed.  This 2005 recruiting class is one where the Card have to hit home runs with linebackers and defensive linemen.

Several of those top prospects have openly told me and other reporters of their concerns with Stanford if the staff or scheme is changed.  Despite the failings of the 2004 season in the win-loss column, those recruits have been successfully sold on the performances and opportunities within this defense.  Defensive tackle Ekom Udofia is a full believer in the unique advantages he could gain from this defense.  Matt Kopa, who committed first in this class last March and was recently admitted, is a phenomenal athletic talent but could very well bolt to another school if he sees changes on defense.  "Tweener" recruits who might project two or three years away from being defensive linemen at other schools could play early as outside linebackers in the Stanford scheme, and that is what has players like Clinton Snyder and Will Powers looking so hard at Stanford.  From what these and other kids have told me, I would believe that Walt Harris could pull in a substantially better class if he retains at least half of these defensive coaches and keeps the 3-4 scheme.

Harris will be introduced today to the Stanford Football family as their new head coach, but we are told that it will not be until tomorrow that he interviews the remaining coaches for possible holdovers.  We believe that Harris has probably already been advised by Ted Leland, Bill Walsh and Darin Nelson of the strengths of these coaches, which helps get the new head man up to speed before he has his first conversation with any of the assistants.  The news of who he keeps, as well as who Harris brings from his Pittsburgh staff, will be the biggest news of the week and in some ways more important that Harris' hire itself for the immediate future of Stanford Football success.  We will be watching and listening for the news as it develops and make sure to keep you abreast of all the breaking scoop with this and all the many developments in this exciting and important time for the Cardinal.


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