Spring Ball: Day Four

The fourth day of spring practices was the worst to take in, and perhaps that was why so few faces showed. The constant rain was coupled with a howling wind that turned my unbrella inside-out more times than I could count. But we were fixated by the action on the field on this most eventful day of Stanford's spring. There was a big depth chart move, a new experiment on defense, plus the first live full-tackle scrimmage action of 2006.

On a day when Stanford practiced for the first time this spring in full pads, it was not a collision or full-contact drill that caught our eye.  It was a set of faces on the first team defense.  Soon afterward, it was a new look from the defense.

On Day Four of 2006 spring football on The Farm, we saw our first significant depth chart movement.  At first, it appeared to be a pair of players moving up at their position, with redshirt freshmen Clinton Snyder and Will Powers both lining up with the first team defense after spending the prior three practices running with the second unit.  Both first-year players are outside linebackers, with Snyder playing the "rush" position that Jon Alston made famous in Stanford's 3-4 defense the last two years.  Powers mans the "Sam" position on the strong side of the field, typically playing head-up on the tight end.

We soon noticed that the nominal starter at the "Sam" position, redshirt junior Udeme Udofia, was out of action with an unknown injury for this practice.  Powers apparent ascension may have been instead his filing the void created by Udofia's injury.  But the "rush" position undoubtedly saw a depth chart shuffle, with redshirt junior and incumbent Emmanuel Awofadeju moving to the second team at his position.  Second string at the "Sam" outside linebacker was manned by redshirt sophomore Austin Gunder, incidentally.

Snyder was probably the most active player and biggest playmaker last fall for the scout defense, and he has carried his energy and speed to the Stanford defense this spring.  He is a throwback to some of Stanford's most prolific and beloved linebackers from the last 30 years in his motor, ferocity and velocity.  Snyder was known coming out of high school as a defensive end just far too skinny to be ready to play the position - several years away from college action.  It should first be noted that he has filled out nicely and looks more than capable of banging helmets with Pac-10 players.  Moreover, his opportunity in the fourth linebacker position in Stanford's unusual defense gets him on the field in a way that might not happen in a more conventional 4-3 front.

The youth movement is underway for Stanford's defense.  Not only did Snyder and Powers run with the first team, but also classmate Ekom Udofia continues to lock down the nose tackle position.  There was also a stretch where the left defensive end experienced a change, with redshirt sophomore Gustav Rydstedt out with a back injury he suffered in a one-on-one OL vs. DL battle against big Jon Cochran.  Rydstedt somehow went low, and Cochran went right over the top, driving Rydstedt into the ground - where he stayed for a good while, writhing in pain.  To add yet another injury and ailment to Rydstedt's beleaguered body is more than unfair, but it brought smiles to our faces to see him return later in practice.  While he was out, however, redshirt junior Chris Horn moved from right defensive end to the left position, with redshirt freshman Tom McAndrew moving up to the first team at right end.  That put four first-year players on the field in the front seven of the first team defense.  Two of those spots were injury-induced, but injuries can and will happen during the fall.  That scene reinforces for us how young this defense is for Stanford, while also reminding the great talent that lies in the redshirt freshman class.

Another surprise on Day Four saw Stanford change something beyond the depth chart on defense.  Defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach A.J. Christoff is back for his third tour of duty on The Farm, and he returns to his position at the helm of the defense just one year removed from his last stay.  Christoff coached in the NFL in 2005 as the defensive backs coach for the San Francisco 49ers.  He appears to have drawn some new ideas from that experience, translating into new drills, emphasis and formations.  While the 3-4 defense under Christoff appears to be similar to what he installed and ran two years ago at Stanford (which is different from the 3-4 that Tom Hayes ran last year), he experimented with a new look on this fourth practice that raised eyebrows.  We had noted in the previous practice that Christoff and the defense had yet to put any nickel defense onto the field, despite the fact that the offense was running three-wide receiver formations.  Against "trips" on this day, however, he put Aaron Smith and Carlos McFall onto the field in what looked almost like a dime defense.

A "dime" defense, so named for the presence of two "nickel backs", is typically employed against a spread offense of four or five wide receivers or as part of a prevent defense.  To see this defense against just three wideouts was unexpected and confusing.  A couple of cursory observations, however: 1) Though nominally a passive defense because of its many coverage personnel and weak pass rushing capability, this formation looked like it had an attacking characteristic to it.  2) The flip side of adding extra defensive backs is the linebackers that are lost.  The roles of the inside and outside 'backers in Stanford's base four-linebacker formation are relatively well defined, but a great deal of responsibility and pressure is placed upon Snyder and Michael Okwo in this formation to cover ground from sideline to sideline.  Both Okwo and Snyder, of course, run very well.  They can rise to the challenge and do things rarely capable for a pair of Stanford linebackers in this look.  Snyder almost resembles a rover, by the way, which you see from an athletic linebacker/safety in the base defense for several college football teams.

In other news, it was good to see fifth-year senior guard Ismail Simpson return to practice.  The competition needs to heat up at a number of offensive line positions, and he has the experience and athleticism to push a starter or win a starting job if he stays healthy and takes to his coaching.  Simpson started the spring at right guard but did play some left guard in this practice...  At one point, redshirt sophomore left tackle Allen Smith pulled out of practice with an injury.  While he was out, it was notable that fifth-year senior Jeff Edwards moved from right tackle to the left side in the first team offense, while classmate Jon Cochran moved up from his second-string position at right tackle...  It was another excellent day for Ekom Udofia.  Though a first-year player, his playmaking ability in no way resembles a rookie's.  He is so strong and yet also able to make moves via his quickness.  Also encouraging is his ability to stay healthy through these practices thus far.  At the end of practice, Udofia had a smiling A.J. Christoff walking off the field with his arm around the young nose tackle...  Udofia's success also means that the offense is being beaten, and fifth-year senior Tim Mattran is the man feeling the brunt of this bruising uncaged animal.  Mattran has been the most consistent of the linemen and was the only member of the front five to be named a starter coming into the spring.  It is worth noting two reasons how Mattran is challenged by Udofia that may not be replicated often during the regular season.  The first is that Udofia in Stanford's defense plays head-up on the center as a "zero technique", whereas a nose tackle in most defenses plays off the center and thus would give Mattran more help from a guard.  Taking on a Udofia bull rush after recovering from snapping the football is a unique challenge.  Furthermore, Mattran as a 6'5" center can have a challenge in the leverage battle against Udofia - who lives somewhere between 6'1" and 6'2".  Many Pac-10 interior defensive linemen present a different frame than Udofia's...

And now, for your daily taste of some of the 11-on-11 play-by-play we took in:

In a mild surprise, we saw the first live action of the spring with full-tackle 11-on-11 scrimmage competition.  NCAA rules keep players out of full pads until the fourth day of spring practices, so Walt Harris wasted no time in testing his players with some full-contact action late in the practice.  In contrast to the 11-on-11 competitions we had seen previously, a true down-and-distance was kept.  Also, the full first team offense played together for several consecutive plays against the first team defense.  In other 11-on-11 action, such as that chronicled above, Trent Edwards typically takes two snaps followed by two snaps for T.C. Ostrander, followed immediately by one or maybe two snaps each for Tavita Pritchard and Garrett Moore.  For this live full-tackle scrimmage, Edwards went under center for all five plays with the first team offense.  Ostrander went under center for all five plays for the second team offense.

As you can see, both offensive units picked up a first down.  Both offensive units suffered setbacks or unproductive plays.  And both units showed the ability to pick up a big chunk of yardage... running the football.

1st team offense (Trent Edwards) vs. 1st team defense

1st & 10 @ own 9:  Run by Anthony Kimble to the left side for 21 yards
1st & 10 @ 30:  Run by Ray Jones for loss of four yards (Jones fell down)
2nd & 14 @ 26:  Run by Ray Jones for loss of five yards (Ekom Udofia blew him up)
3rd & 19 @ 21:  Trent Edwards pass complete to Evan Moore for 13 yards
4th & 6 @ 34:  Edwards quarterback scramble for six yards (Clinton Snyder tackle)

2nd team offense (T.C. Ostrander) vs. 2nd team defense

1st & 10 @ own 17:  Run by Jason Evans for one yard
2nd & 9 @ 18:  Run by Evans to the left side for 13 yards
1st & 10 @ 31:  T.C. Ostrander pass incomplete, intended for Mike Miller (Kris Evans coverage)
2nd & 10 @ 31:  Ostrander screen pass complete to Evans for eight yards (Aaron Smith solo stick)
3rd & 2 @ 39:  Ostrander play-action pass incomplete, intended for Patrick Danahy 15 yards downfield (thrown behind)

This brief but exciting 10 plays of live scrimmage would have been an excellent high note to end practice, but instead a new drill was introduced to close out the day.  Three interior offensive linemen lined up in a mini-field of play, 10 yards long and roughly three yards (or less) wide, against three defensive linemen.  A quarterback goes under center with three running backs behind him - one to the left, one to the right and one directly behind him.  The goal is for the offense to move the ball 10 yards in four downs; the goal for the defense is to stop the offense.  Only one running back carries the ball on a given play, and which back will carry the ball is unknown to the defense prior to the play.

This competition distills football to its very essence.  The defense knows that the offense is running the ball, and the offense has only tight quarters in which to operate.  Though each play has just seven players in action colliding at a time, the entire offense and entire defense crowded around the "sidelines" with as much hollering, barking and cheering as you could imagine in the final minutes of a fourth quarter on a November Saturday.  Though the drill focuses on the running game, it is more about competition.  Take away the rest of the offense and defense, and take away the rest of the football field, to focus on just a few men defending or attacking just a few square yards of grass.  It was easily the most electric and animated few minutes of the entire spring to date.  Despite the driving rain and whipping wind, the action was red-hot.

I took in the atmosphere and feel for this new drill without recording a play-by-play, but the final tally through five series was defense on top of the offense by a score of 3-2.  Part of the fun of this drill is that it expanded beyond the initial center and two guards versus three defensive linemen.  Offensive tackles took part soon thereafter.  The final two iterations pitted tight ends blocking against outside linebackers, and then Evan Moore, Mark Bradford and Marcus McCutcheon blocking against David Lofton, Trevor Hooper and Nick Sanchez.  The defensive play of the drill saw Ekom Udofia fight his way into the backfield for a magnificent solo tackle behind the line of scrimmage.  One of the best offensive gains picked up a good seven or so yards when Anthony Kimble ran behind the tight ends against the linebackers.


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