Spring Preview: Defense Part III

Our final look at the Stanford defense as we start 2006 spring practices examines the inside linebackers and the defensive backfield. The former group has two solid starters but one who could be questionable this spring, and nobody of experience behind the pair. The cornerback questions were obvious, but the latest news at safety makes that an unsafe and uncertain group.

Inside Linebackers

This might be the most exciting position group of Stanford's 2006 defense.  Two seniors return with a load of ability and a respectable amount of experience on both defense and special teams.  The only problem is that half the expected starting duo may be out for the spring, with fifth-year senior Mike Silva plagued by migraines.  There is no telling how this could affect him in the fall, but it has ruined him the last few months.  Avoiding any forecast into his future, you can see a silver lining in the time he may miss this spring.  There is almost no experience on defense for the inside linebackers behind Silva and senior Michael Okwo.  If Silva sits out, one or more of those reserves will have the chance to step into big shoes.  One candidate who is heading into his fourth year but has yet to make an impact on the field is redshirt junior Landon Johnson.  There is no shame playing behind the likes of David Bergeron and Kevin Schimmelmann the last couple years, but this spring is his time when he has to shine - or else younger players will pass him by.  One such youngster is redshirt sophomore Pat Maynor, who had shoulder injury problems his first year and played on special teams this past fall.  He needs to go through the spring and show that he can be durable, while also bringing his flashes of playmaking strike capability into a more consistent production.  Maynor has that "wild" in how he plays that could be a real asset if applied properly.

Okwo should have a lock on the other inside ("Mike") position, and there is the highest of expectations in this his fourth and final year.  He has an explosiveness and closing speed that can destroy a ballcarrier in the blink of an eye.  2005 was slated to be his breakout year, but an ankle injury derailed much of his season.  Though he has just five career starts, there are few questions surrounding Okwo.  Our eyes, instead, will look at those players competing behind him.  Redshirt junior Peter Griffin has been a player we have liked since he set foot on The Farm as a recruited walk-on in 2003.  He was a quiet contributor at safety this past fall, and now he is making the move to inside linebacker where the coaching staff thinks he has great possibilities.  Griffin has a frame much like Okwo's, with good athleticism.  If Griffin is not called back to safety, where Stanford has a crisis on its hands, he will be a player we watch closely this spring.  Another great hope is redshirt freshman Fred Campbell.  He was a sleeper recruit who Stanford loved at their summer camp after his junior year, but they have yet to enjoy him in pads.  The hope is that he is now healed from his spiral fracture and can start to show his talent.  We think Campbell is one of the hidden talents on this team - will that come to light this spring?

Defensive Backs

Though there are questions a-plenty in the defensive front for Stanford, it is the back end that has us on the edge of our seats in 2006.  The Cardinal had breakdowns that cost them dearly last fall.  How much of that was personnel and how much was scheme and coaching?  Both have changed, with the graduation of four-year cornerback T.J. Rushing and departure of defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator Tom Hayes.  We thought the safety spots would be solid, though maybe not spectacular, this year with the return of all scholarship players at the position.  But the suspension for this spring (and possibly the fall) of senior and 22-game starter Brandon Harrison suddenly throws the group into chaos.  Also lost are two other players you previously penciled into this spring's depth chart: redshirt freshman Bo McNally is still out after breaking his leg in October, and redshirt junior Peter Griffin has been moved to inside linebacker.  Harrison, McNally and Griffin were the three strong safeties for Stanford in 2005, with the former two the only ones listed on the depth chart coming into the spring.  Harrison is the four-year veteran expected to lead the position, while McNally was a wonderful surprise in the fall among the redshirt class, but neither will be on the field this spring.

"We have three guys to play two positions, and that's not good," says Walt Harris of his spring safety depth chart.  "We probably will have to move somebody else who is playing some other position to either spell or play that position full-time.  But we will see.  We at least have to be two-deep in order to be safe health-wise, and not overwork somebody."

We will watch right away to see who is moved to safety this weekend, either temporarily or on a more permanent basis.  But those already on the safety depth chart have a heavy load to carry.

"A couple guys are going to get a lot of work," Harris proclaims.

Fifth-year senior Trevor Hooper was already expected to be a workhorse as the returning starter at free safety.  He started six games in 2005, interrupted by a shoulder dislocation suffered in the season opener at Navy.  The best coverage man in Stanford's safety corps, Hooper wants to stay healthy in 2006 and is counted as the leader for the defensive backs.  It will be interesting to see, however, how Hooper operates with the return of A.J. Christoff as his coach.  Hooper was an 11-game starter as a redshirt freshman in 2003 but took a step back into a reserve role in 2004, his star apparently faded with Christoff.  It is a new time for both the player and the coach, and both can hopefully grow together this spring.

The other fifth-year senior is David Lofton, who came to The Farm with attention and expectations as the son of famed Stanford wide receiver and NFL Hall of Famer James Lofton.  The younger Lofton bounced between quarterback and wide receiver before finally settling into a defensive role in 2004.  Hooper's dislocated shoulder opened an opportunity for Lofton to take his biggest playing role in college, starting five games.  Lofton is a big and rangy athlete, but he has not demonstrated the quick-reaction skills of Hooper or Harrison.  As such, we expected Lofton to be a primary backup at one or both of the safety positions in 2006, but Harrison's suspension likely catapults Lofton to the head of the strong safety depth chart to start the spring.  Lofton needs to rise to the occasion and surprise all of us this month.  The third and final safety on the depth chart to start the spring is redshirt sophomore Aaron Smith.  A walk-on and afterthought to most fans, Smith was best known last fall for his scout team offense stint as an option quarterback for the Navy game.  Now Smith is suddenly front and center in the Stanford defense.  And even if Harrison returns to the team for the fall, Smith may be auditioning this spring for the primary backup job behind Hooper.

Safety play dropped off in 2005 after a string of very strong years from the likes of Tank Williams, Oshiomogho Atogwe and Colin Branch, but returning starters made it far less of a concern for '06 than the cornerback position(s).  The graduation of T.J. Rushing takes away the last of the vaunted trio of Rushing, Stanley Wilson and Leigh Torrence that buoyed the traditionally tenuous position for Stanford.  Now the Cardinal are backed into a corner at cornerback once again.

"I think the three hardest positions to play are quarterback, offensive line and cornerback.  When they screw up, everybody knows at cornerback," Walt Harris says.  "When they are not playing well, everybody knows.  We have some challenges there.  That was an area where we really struggled at times last year, and in some of the heartbreaking losses we had, I think in that area we struggled."

Redshirt junior Nick Sanchez is back after starting all 11 games in 2005, and he was certainly a pleasant surprise.  The ball hawk made several big plays early in the year, and he did a good job keeping himself out of the play-by-play call when opposing offenses made big strikes.  Sanchez came out of nowhere, in a sense, last year.  He now carries the mantle of a returning starter and Stanford's top cornerback.  That's a big target on his chest, and he will now be expected to defend the Pac-10's best receivers.  Does Sanchez surprise again by rising to the challenge, or is he in over his head as Stanford's #1 cover corner?  This spring will give us clues.

Who will push Sanchez this spring?  Who will compete for the opposite corner spot?  Who will emerge as the third cornerback for nickel situations?  Those are important questions without easy answers, as Stanford's remaining cornerback corps has almost zero college experience.  The only other corner on the roster with any playing experience at all is redshirt junior Tim Sims, who was Stanford's nickel back but after being torched in the Oregon game was passed by unheralded Calvin Armstrong and sat on the bench the rest of the year.  The Cardinal coaches have to hope that Sims can revive his career this spring.  Finding ample cornerback depth on this roster without a solid Sims in the picture is difficult to imagine.  Another hopeful whose star has dimmed is redshirt sophomore Carlos McFall.  He looked so good in during training camp before the 2004 season as a true frosh that we thought he could play that fall, but he separated his shoulder and took a medical redshirt.  McFall's shoulder has plagued him since, and he has been a non-factor in practices.  His athletic ability and smooth hips were valued by Christoff two years ago and could be appreciated again, if McFall can find a way to keep that shoulder from sidelining him when he makes hits.  Another redshirt sophomore to watch is Thaddeus Chase.  Though a walk-on, he was moved to cornerback during the winter because of his speed.  There is some real hope that he can surprise and make a dent in the defensive backfield in his first action this spring.  Chase certainly has the opportunity, with a dearth of incumbents at his new position.

The remainder of the cornerback corps is manned by redshirt freshmen.  Kris Evans, Blaise Johnson, Chris Hobbs and C.J. Easter have all been invisible to Stanford fans thus far, but somebody has to step up from this group in their first spring.  Hobbs and Johnson missed a lot of the fall with injuries, so we know little of what we can expect from them in the spring.  Hobbs is the smallest of all Stanford's defensive backs, and he spent the entire fall in street clothes.  He is in danger of being written off soon if he does can not get onto the field this spring and make some plays.  Johnson is bigger but needs to prove that he can be physical this spring.  If he can stay healthy, it will be interesting to see if he sticks at corner or if he is a prime candidate to move to the struggling safety group.

Evans is the most promising player in the group, and he made more plays than any of the young defensive backs on the scout team defense as well as the "Pup Bowl" scrimmages held on Thursdays.  He has size, athleticism and a natural playmaking knack.  His maturity was a concern last fall, and that has to rapidly improve if he might be counted upon as one of Stanford's top two or three corners this year.  We have our eye on him more than maybe any cornerback this spring.  The dark horse is Easter, who is literally unrecognizable.  When we spotted him at Stanford's recent "Pro Day" for senior player auditioning for NFL scouts, it took a double-take before we could identify who he was.  You can see it in his neck and face, as much as any part of his body, how much he changed and improved his rail-thin body.

"I'll tell you what - he does not look like the same guy as when he came here," Harris praises of Easter.  "It's amazing what he has done for himself physically.  Now, hopefully it has helped to run faster and play better.  But he has really developed himself.  He doesn't look like the same person.  I would guess he has gained 20 pounds...  Which is a great credit for his hard work, and the work that Ron Forbes and his staff have done."

Just like Harris, we are very anxious to see if the new-look Easter is as much an improved playmaker as he has an improved body.

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