Spring Preview: Defense Part I

Before you spin out of control in contemplating all of the issues for Stanford on offense this spring, take a good long look at the myriad of questions surrounding the defense. After all, it is the defense that has to replace five starters - plus another suspended for the spring. Moreover, there are a number of injury issues hanging over this side of the ball. The overarching question, of course, is the scheme employed for the front seven.

The talk naturally gravitates toward offense when Cardinalmaniacs™ chatter during the off-season, and Stanford Football certainly has a lot to discuss on that side of the ball.  While the offensive line, running game, receiver depth and tight end competition each individually could be the subject of a captivating in-depth article today, the first story that has to be told for spring football on The Farm is that of the defense.  There was perilous little playing depth at almost all defensive positions last year, and no fewer than five of the starters from that group are currently gunning for NFL Draft delight.  Walt Harris has said numerous times this off-season that the two biggest concerns and stories for Stanford Football are the offensive line and replacing the defensive starters lost to graduation.

Jon Alston (outside linebacker), Babatunde Oshinowo (nose tackle) and Julian Jenkins (defensive end) were the core of Stanford's playmaking capability on defense in 2005, and all three are headed to probable first-day draft selections.  Also add Kevin Schimmelmann (inside linebacker) and T.J. Rushing (cornerback) as valuable and productive playmakers, and you see the huge holes left by graduation on the 2006 Stanford defense.

But before we dive into the position-by-position prognosis, let us get out of the way a story that unnecessarily manifest in recent weeks.  The official spring roster and depth chart released by Stanford substantially changed the language we use to describe the Cardinal's front seven.  Gone, apparently, was the 3-4 front of three defensive linemen and four linebackers that Stanford alone ran in the Pac-10 the last two years.  The extra outside linebacker position supposedly scrapped and changed back to a fourth defensive lineman.  The old "Will" inside linebacker position was rewritten as the weakside outside linebacker position.

In response to all of that, Walt Harris Wednesday said, "I think that is probably a misprint."  The rumored death of Stanford's unique defensive front has not come to pass.

"We will start off in a 3-4 configuration," Harris pronounces.  He adds that there will be some looks given to the 4-3 during the spring, as well.  If that proves to be a superior fit for Stanford's personnel through the course of the spring, there could be a change.  But for now, Harris is firmly committed to the 3-4 defense for Stanford.

Why?  It is not out of stubbornness, that is for sure.  Too easily fans look at the roster or depth chart and see a number of defensive linemen as a blind justification for a four-man front.  The fundamental difference between the defensive line and the linebackers is that a linebacker could and should be able to play an entire game, if not for a moment of injury.  Stanford had as good a pair of defensive linemen in 2005 as they have put on the field together in several years, yet they struggled playing an entire game.  Either they needed substitution, at which point Stanford took a hit on the defensive line, or they tried to play all/most of the game, at which point they faded in the fourth quarter and Stanford lost the game.  That is not a knock on Oshinowo or Jenkins.  The Cardinal would kill to have them back again.  The point is that the physical demands and the body type of a defensive lineman today combined require a regular substitution.  It does not take three good defensive linemen to man a 3-4 for Stanford; it takes six good defensive linemen.  After graduating Stanford's two best (and only proven) defensive linemen, it would be difficult to stomach expanding to eight defensive linemen upon which the Cardinal can count.

When Harris was asked the question in December if he would change to a 4-3 defense for 2006, he laughed and then said:

"All I can say is when you have lack of depth in a three-man line, you would be crazy to try to go to a four-man line because that means you have to play one more," the Cardinal coach commented.  "If you have a shortage of linemen in a three-man line, that means you'll have a greater shortage in a four-man line."

"It's going to be a challenge for our defense, which is why we have to find more healthy bodies," Harris added.  "A guy playing 90 plays is not as good as a guy playing 70 plays.  We have a guy who has ‘A-Z' ability.  When he has to play 90 plays, he's going to be down toward ‘Z' at 80, 81 or 82 [plays].  Whereas if he only has to play 70, he's going to be a lot better player.  Or 60.  Or 50.  That's what we have to push toward: trying to get more depth and more substitution, especially on the defensive line and even on the offensive line."

Since Harris made those statements, he has experienced a change in his coaching staff with a new defensive coordinator coming on board.  The "new" man is actually the old hand who installed the 3-4 defense at Stanford in 2004.  The fact that A.J. Christoff is back from the San Francisco 49ers, where a 3-4 defense was also run last year, would lend even greater probability to continuing the 3-4 on The Farm.

"One of the determinations initially, way back when, was the ability to recruit defensive linemen versus the ability to recruit linebacker-type people," Harris says.  "We felt - and I'm putting words in the mouth of Coach [Buddy] Teevens and A.J. - that we have a better chance to recruit linebacker types than defensive line types.  We have graduated two starters on our defensive line...  Now we have to replace three guys of the front seven.  Who knows how it could change?  We try to recruit to play a 3-4, so I would hope that we could play that."

With that all said, we return to the initial question: How can Stanford replace and reload after its major losses to starting talent on defense?  Before diving into the details, there is an overriding concern.  Stanford has a number of its returning players who figure to compete in the two-deep on defense questionable for the spring.  The following is not suitable for Booties with heart conditions or high blood pressure.  Mothers who are pregnant should close this window immediately...

  • Stanford's most talented returning defensive lineman, redshirt sophomore Pannel Egboh, is expected to miss all contact drills during spring practices as he recovers from a broken leg suffered in the final moments of the win at Washington State last October.  While his recovery is progressing well, the break was a "serious injury" as described by Walt Harris.  Egboh is expected to return to full form for the fall, but he misses a critical spring where he would learn the new responsibilities of his defensive end position under a new defensive coordinator.
  • Stanford's most experienced returning defensive lineman, redshirt sophomore Gustav Rydstedt, suffered not only from shin splints last season but also a knee injury which required off-season surgery.  His status is questionable heading into spring practices.  Punctuating the uncertainty and lack of experience among Stanford's defensive linemen, he leads the position group with eight career starts.  Next best is a two-game starter.
  • Stanford's expected top two nose tackles both suffered injuries during the winter.  Redshirt freshman Ekom Udofia broke his hand, while redshirt freshman James McGillicuddy broke his pubic bone.  Both are questionable as we arrive at the start of spring practices.  Either could miss all or part of the practices, or be limited in his work.  At best, one or both could participate but be disadvantaged in practices due to limited conditioning during the winter.  McGillicuddy was unable to run or do lower body strength training for most of the winter, while Udofia was limited in his upper body lifting.
  • Stanford's most experienced returning inside linebacker, fifth-year senior Mike Silva, has been suffering from migraines and could miss spring practices.  Silva started eight games in 2005 and was the team's fourth leading tackler (57 total, 29 solo).
  • One of Stanford's promising young inside linebackers needed to provide depth and competition, redshirt freshman Fred Campbell, is still working his way back after a horrific spiral facture in his lower leg suffered shortly before he arrived at Stanford late last spring.  The extent to which he can practice this spring is uncertain, as is his level of conditioning.
  • Stanford's most promising young safety, redshirt freshman Bo McNally, is expected to miss all contact drills this spring as he recovers from a broken leg suffered during fall practices in November.  His absence combined with the spring suspension of Stanford's most experienced safety, 22-game starter and senior Brandon Harrison, leaves the safety corps devastated.  Only three players start the spring on the depth chart to man the two safety positions.

Does that leave some concern and questions on the defense?  You bet.  Next are our position-by-position looks at what we are watching this spring...

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