A.J. Christoff Interview

The man tackling Stanford's defensive challenges today is A.J. Christoff, who is back on The Farm after coaching with the San Francisco 49ers. The Cardinal's secondary coach and defensive coordinator sat down with us this week to talk about his players and the spring. Christoff commented on the look for the front seven, the promise of some young players, leadership in the secondary, the trend of big wide receivers, and more...

What was coaching in the NFL like, on a personal note?  How was the experience with the Niners, on all its different levels?

I think it was a very good experience for me.  It reassured me that where I need to be is in college.

Was there anything you felt was enriching from the experience which you have brought back with you this year at Stanford?

I think that college and the NFL are two different venues.  I think that there are some things that mix and match.  The fundamentals of football are in place at both places.  It really is a matter of how much time you have to spend with the athlete in the NFL, as compared to college.  That's where the pull comes, as far as what you can do and what you can't do.  In the NFL, you have them all day to prepare them for practice.  Where as here, we have a minimized number of hours that we can work with the players.  I don't know when you compare the two that they can be equitable because of the time constraints.

You installed the 3-4 defense here two years ago.  That defense really got its start in the NFL, so how did the experience with the Niners' 3-4 and seeing it around the NFL reinforce your belief in why that defense can be successful here at Stanford?

Having coached in the NFL, I think that the combination of the 3-4 defense with a 4-3 defense makes a good mix between the two.

When you moved to the 3-4 defense here two years ago, that was personnel driven - based on the players Stanford had and what you believed Stanford could recruit.  The roster has changed.  How do you feel now about how the current defensive personnel suits the 3-4?

What we're doing right now is running some 3-4 and some 4-3.  And we're trying to determine what our strengths and weaknesses are.  Will we be a 3-4 team complemented by a 4-3?  Or will we be a 4-3 team complemented by a 3-4?  We don't know yet.

Do you give the 3-4 more of a look early in this spring for the sake of continuity?

I think you just have a starting point on your installation.  You start with either one or the other and build in with what you have of the other.

I know you have limited observations in full pads so far, but what do you think of your players' effectiveness in the various defenses so far?

We really don't have a good idea yet.  We are trying to find out who can do what.  Udeme Udofia is out right now.  James McGillicuddy is out.  Pannel Egboh is out.  And we have no Mike Silva.  It's really hard to evaluate.  We won't really know the emphasis of what we're trying to do until the fall.  We're going to try to do both, and then over the summer we will try to evaluate what will really be the lead defense that we run.

A lot of those players who led for you in the front seven two years ago graduated either at the end of that year or this last year.  You have a lot of new players, some of which are in this redshirt freshman class that you helped recruit in right before you went to San Francisco.  Any thoughts on the likes of Ekom Udofia, Clinton Snyder, Tom McAndrew?  The challenge of coaching really young guys but the excitement you think they possess?

I think you hit it on the head.  It's exciting having the young talent that we have.  It's going to be a real learning curve, no matter what defense we're in, for these young players to play.  I would just say this: I really applaud Coach [Walt] Harris for redshirting the entire freshman class that year.  With their development, they are going to be in a position where they can help us this year.

Ekom Udofia has to fill the big shoes of Babatunde Oshinowo, literally and figuratively.  Whether you play the odd or even front, he is important to what you do in the middle.  What do you think of him so far?

I am extremely happy with him so far.

What does he bring that is similar or different from what Babatunde gave you?

He brings the size that Babatunde had.  I think he probably has more quickness than Babatunde and lacks in the strength area right now.  Part of that reason is that he was injured in the off-season with his wrist and wasn't able to lift.  We'll see how he develops in the strength area as we go through the summer program.

Clinton Snyder is a guy who looks like he is now getting some good opportunities on the field.  What have you and Coach [Jeff] Hammerschmidt liked from him so far to give him those opportunities?

The intensity.  The willingness to learn and the intensity.  And the fact that he knows only one speed: full-speed.

He was this skinny kid when you guys recruited him out of high school.  Do you feel that he has developed into enough physically that he could play this year?

We think he can, yes.

When you were here two years ago, you had Leigh Torrence, Stanley Wilson and T.J. Rushing at the cornerback positions.  Plus you had Oshiomogho Atogwe at safety.  It's a very different defensive back group today.  What is the challenge of having a lot of guys without a lot of experience, who you are having to coach up in a hurry?

The real challenge for us this year in the secondary is reliability and consistency, just because of the lack of consistency.

How do you as a coach try to make up for that?

We try to put them into as many game situations as we can, to try to put the pressure on them to be able to perform at a high level of consistency and reliability in a pressure situation.

Consistency and reliability - is that more mental than it is about physical capabilities?


Would you rather be in the situation of having to remedy players on the mental side, rather than work with guys who don't have the physical tools?

Both sides have their pluses and their minuses.  If you have somebody who runs 4.2 and he makes a mistake, he can turn around and catch up.  If you have somebody who is always doing what they're supposed to do and they run 4.6, then you don't ever have to worry about them being out of position.  There's both.

The guy on paper who has the most cover corner experience is Nick Sanchez, with what he did last year.  With what you have seen so far, how much progress has he made since the last time you saw him two years ago?

He has made great strides.  I think that this game experiences have allowed him to really develop his football sense - to read and diagnose and react to plays.  When I had him, he was a redshirt freshman.  He was young and didn't have much game experience at the college level, and he was feeling his way.  Now he is really playing with a lot of confidence.

A lot of times, when you have so many guys who lack experience, the leadership from the players suffers...

Trevor Hooper has done a great job with the leadership this spring.

So a safety can provide leadership to the corners.  It's not necessary to come from one of their own group?

Because everything in the secondary is based on communication.  The safeties have to communicate with the safeties and the corners.  Hooper has been able to to instill that communication work ethic, and he's done a great job with that.

Outside the leadership, how do you feel Trevor has progressed now heading into his fifth year?

I think the thing that has been really hard on Hooper has been his injuries.  If he stays healthy, I think he will have an excellent year.

Aaron Smith is now getting more opportunities, particularly this spring.  What chance does he have to help you in that group?

I think that his skills are improving every day.  I can't really answer what contribution he will make until after fall camp.  But I can say that I am very happy with his progress.  He was 165 pounds when I was here before, and he's 185 pounds now.

With Nick Sanchez having the experience, there is still the hunt for a second and a third corner.  What do you think of the other guys competing there?

I think Carlos McFall and Tim Sims are neck and neck right now, just competing for the other position.  Tim has been much more reliable, when we talk about reliability.  He is much more reliable than he was in the fall.  I would say McFall is another one of those injured players like Hooper.  I think his growth is really going to jump by leaps and bounds when he can get in and get a lot of repetitions without missing them because of injury.

From my vantage point, Tim looks like a guy who has suffered at times from confidence.  Has he matured there?  And how do you as a coach handle a guy who has had confidence problems?

I think more than a lack of confidence, I think it's more of a maturity issue with him.  I really do.  He knows that this is a year he has to play.  As I have observed him through the off-season, his work ethic is better.  And his focus is much better.  I think a lot of that has come with the maturity of realizing 'I am at the end.  What am I going to do?'  I think all those things combined together are adding to his maturity and reliability.

Younger than those guys, Kris Evans is looking to do something after his redshirt year and get into the mix.  What are the pluses and minuses he has going for him?

Athletic ability is a huge plus for him.  What he will have to adjust to is the techniques that will be necessary for him to play at this level.

As Pac-10 quarterbacks go, what do you get coaching against Trent Edwards in practice every day?

As a secondary and as a defensive coach, it is a great advantage being able to coach against a great quarterback like Trent Edwards because he will challenge you both with the pass and the run because he is so mobile.  That will prepare us for a team like Oregon who has a mobile quarterback.  Those are real positive factors.

You also probably can't ask for more than to have your guys try to defend Evan Moore and Mark Bradford...

Yes, as big receivers.  I know when I was here two years ago, Evan was just a young player.  Our receivers were not as big and physical as they are now.  When we got into a game and had to play against big and physical receivers, I think that we were intimidated sometimes by their size.

Is that just a feature now in the Pac-10, or is that a trend that you have to deal with going forward?

I think that's a trend that we have to deal with, not only in college but also in the NFL.  I think the NFL is leaning toward bigger receivers because there is so much equality.  And the difference between fighting for the football and winning is not so much about the coverage you run or the scheme that you run.  It's just a match-up of one being more physical than the other one.  In every venue, you have real fast corners and real fast receivers.  Sometimes you have real fast corners and they're small corners.  When they have to go up against the big receiver, there is a huge advantage no matter what scheme you run or no matter what coverage you are in.  It doesn't matter because the guy is so big.  It's just like Seattle's big receivers, T.O. [Terrell Owens] - those are the ones people want.  T.O. - he is explosive and can do all those things, but he is also huge and has all the yards after the catch.

From your corners, have you seen anybody yet who you are pleased with their response to the physical nature of these receivers?

I think they all are.  I think it's great to be able to coach against it.

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