Spring Ball Primer

The Stanford Football roster has undergone a myriad of changes before spring practices start next Wednesday. Walk through the new-look defensive front seven, now that the Cardinal are running a 4-3 defense. Also who is out injured for the spring, who is making position switches and which man is slated to play both ways. It's a can't miss cornucopia of Cardinal notes before Spring Ball begins.

There are a number of changes throughout the Stanford roster with new head coach Jim Harbaugh and a complete turnover in the coaching staff, but the most pronounced moves are in the defensive front seven.  The Cardinal employed a 3-4 defense the last three years, but now they are returning to a more traditional 4-3 base defense.  Everything you previously knew about the positions in the linebacker corps and on the defensive line are out the window, as Stanford starts anew.

We start first at the "Sam" outside linebacker position, which plays on the strong side of the field, typically lined up over the tight end.  Some of the depth previously playing at the old "Sam" position has now moved to the four-man front on the defensive line, which brings some newcomers to this position.  Now playing at outside linebacker are fifth-year senior Landon Johnson and redshirt sophomore Fred Campbell, who both manned inside linebacker positions last year.  Both players are looking to break out this year.  Johnson was a disfavored linebacker under his previous coach and hopes in his fifth year to prove himself, though an off-season illness has cost him strength and weight, from which he has to recover.  Campbell started the 2006 season still not fully recovered and conditioned from a horrific spiral fracture in his ankle a year earlier, so the Cardinal hope the real Campbell can take the field this spring and fall.  The most experienced player in this "Sam" group is redshirt sophomore Will Powers, who started four games last fall though largely played second string at the position.  He will be challenged and he expects to win this job.

In the new 4-3 defense, there is just one inside linebacker who plays in the middle at the "Mike" position.  An eclectic trio man this position to start the spring.  Two jumbo athletes in redshirt sophomore Tom McAndrew and sophomore Brian Bulcke tip the scales.  Both projected out of high school as defensive linemen.  Bulcke started his college career with his hand on the ground before a rash of linebacker injuries compelled him to play in the second level of the defense - as a true freshman no less.  McAndrew was initially a linebacker during his redshirt year, but he played as a defensive end for the scout team and moved full-time to that position last season.  He did not start any games but was a regular in the playing rotation.  Conventional wisdom would say that some linebackers move to the defensive line when a team shifts from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme, but Stanford is going against the grain with these two moves.  The third member of the middle linebacker group is redshirt junior Pat Maynor, who played as an inside linebacker last fall and started nine games, though as a "Will" on the weakside.  Maynor is stepping up in weight class, so to speak, while McAndrew and Campbell are moving in the other direction.  This all-important position controls the middle of the defense and typically makes pre-snap calls for defense, so much attention will be paid to this bizarre battle.

The "Rush" linebacker position in the old 3-4 defense is gone, but some familiar faces are moving to the "Will" outside 'backer position.  The frontrunner has to be redshirt sophomore Clinton Snyder, who started 11 games last fall in his first year playing.  The 6'4" defender was briefly switched to safety this winter before new defensive coordinator Scott Shafer was hired and returned Snyder to outside linebacker.  Pushing him will be a mix of youth and experience.  Fifth-year senior Peter Griffin played behind Snyder last fall, starting one game, but he is a valued athlete.  The former walk-on is moving onto scholarship and will be counted by the coaches for serious contributions on defense and special teams in 2007.  Redshirt freshman Nick Macaluso is the least experienced and most unknown of Stanford's returning linebackers, after taking a redshirt last fall and playing on the scout defense.  His fall camp showed surprising talent in pass coverage but holes in his responsibilities against the run.  The first spring is a valuable time of learning for a player like Macaluso, who will be a player for the Cardinal.

To summarize:

"Sam" OLB
Fred Campbell - SO*
Landon Johnson - SR*
Will Powers - SO*

"Mike" MLB
Brian Bulcke - SO
Pat Maynor - JR*
Tom McAndrew - SO*

"Will" OLB
Peter Griffin - SR*
Nick Macaluso - FR*
Clinton Snyder - SO*

While the linebackers go three-deep at all positions to start the spring, the defensive line is frighteningly thin.  Two players have moved to the offensive line, and another is out for the spring.  Yet another is healthy but likely to be missing in the fall.  The theme of this spring on the defensive line will be keeping every player healthy, with only two-deep personnel available at three of the four positions.

The new position in 2007 as Stanford transforms from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 front is the weakside defensive end.  Granted, all four defensive line positions will have brand new roles and responsibilities, but the defensive end with his hand on the ground playing as a seven-technique is most changed.  This is commonly known as the "rush" end because he plays often without a tight end in front of him and has space in which to rush the passer.  Typically a team plays its best speed rushers of the front four here, and indeed the two men manning the position were outside linebackers last year.  Fifth-year seniors Udeme Udofia and Emmanuel Awofadeju are where Stanford's defensive staff has their hopes pinned to generate a pass rush this year, with a scheme reportedly designed for them to make plays.  Udofia has a whopping edge in experience, with 22 starts the past two seasons.  Awofadeju had much more fanfare as a recruit coming out of high school, and some observers ask why he has not made an impact.  Now playing with his hand on the ground at the position where he was recruited, and a mature 250 pounds, the Georgia product is ready to answer the critics.

At the opposite defensive end position, playing the strong side of the field, are three exciting and intriguing athletes.  The most experienced is redshirt junior Pannel Egboh, who numerous times last fall delivered on the promise we have held for him.  He started 12 games, despite starting fall camp with pain and conditioning woes from a broken leg during the 2005 season, and he tied for the team lead with 5.5 tackles for loss.  The new coaching staff right away challenged Egboh this off-season to be a better player than he believes he can be - they know his ceiling is sky high.  Equal anticipation is held for redshirt sophomore Erik Lorig, who played last year at tight end and was an exceptional run blocker.  Lorig may the team's best athlete, and it is imperative to get him on the field.  Defensive end may be a more natural position than tight end, and the entire Cardinal community is hoping the move sticks this spring.  Finally, sophomore Levirt Griffin looks to build upon his fall playing as a true freshman.

We have also heard that the defensive ends may play as "left" and "right" this year, rather than shifting with the strength of the offensive formation.  That would be interesting and is something we will watch during spring practices.

The return of a four-man defensive front means Stanford for the first time since 2003 will play two interior defensive linemen.  We don't yet know who will be a nose tackle versus a three technique (defensive tackle), however.  Players will practice at both positions, and at the end of the spring, the DTs versus NTs will be clearer.  We do know that the group is scary thin, with just four healthy bodies this spring.  Out is redshirt sophomore Ekom Udofia, who finished the 2006 season with a flurry.  Against Oregon State he recorded a career-high nine tackles, which is exceptional for a rotating nose tackle in the middle of a three-man front.  At Cal, against one of the best offensive lines in the West, Udofia recorded his first two tackles for loss of the season.  He is out this spring following winter shoulder surgery.

Still in tact for the spring in the defensive interior are fifth-year senior Chris Horn, redshirt sophomore Matt Kopa, sophomore Sione Fua and redshirt freshman Derek Hall.  Horn and Kopa both played last fall as defensive ends, so they will be making adjustments playing inside.  Horn has the most starts on the defensive line of any Stanford player, in the playing rotation two years ago and starting all 12 games last fall.  He has been a quietly valuable and underrated player for the Cardinal.  Kopa is on the other end of the experience spectrum, playing occasionally last fall in his first season, partially due to an injury problem.  Stanford has played with smaller, stockier interior defensive linemen in recent years, but these two both offer great size and reach.  Hall also has size and long arms, and this spring will baptize him in the Stanford defense after manning the scout team during his redshirt season.  With the Cardinal's thin numbers inside, he needs to learn and mature quickly.  Fua is a classmate of Hall's, but he played in 2006 as a true freshman.  Fua was more ready, but he also had little incentive to redshirt with the plan of taking his LDS mission after his freshman academic year.  In a surprise twist, the Mormon man has been recently contemplating the question of taking his service mission after the coming fall rather than leaving this summer.  That decision is expected soon and could have a great impact on Stanford's defensive line, should he stay and play as a sophomore.  One more unknown is Mike Macellari, who was not given a fifth year by the previous coaching staff but was told he could compete for that opportunity this off-season.  The 6'6" two-sport athlete gave much of his time during the winter to track & field, which makes questionable if he will come out for spring ball or how much of a chance he has to earn a scholarship for the fall.

To summarize:

Weakside DE:
Emmanuel Awofadeju - SR*
Udeme Udofia - SR*

Strongside DE:
Pannel Egboh - JR*
Levirt Griffin - SO
Erik Lorig - SO*

Sione Fua - SO
Derek Hall - FR*
Chris Horn - SR*
Matt Kopa - SO*
Ekom Udofia - SO* (out)

The offensive line has some similar stories to the defensive line, with position switches, injuries and thin depth.  The biggest news is that two offensive tackles are out for the spring.  Redshirt freshman Joe Dembesky had surgeries on both shoulders during the fall, leaving us no opportunity to yet see any glimpse of the type of player he will be for Stanford.  Redshirt sophomore Chris Marinelli had off-season shoulder surgery this winter, which will keep him out as well.  Given the Cardinal's depth at tackle this year, both players will be needed back in playing shape by the end of the summer and start of fall camp.  Marinelli, in particular, projects as a likely starting tackle opposite redshirt junior Allen Smith.  Marinelli started five games in his first season last fall.

Two new faces to the offensive line came from the defensive line, as the new coaching staff shuffled the roster this winter.  Redshirt sophomore James McGillicuddy moves to offensive guard, which is the position where some schools and recruiting services projected him out of high school.  McGillicuddy unfortunately has endured an unending string of injuries at Stanford and has been a missing man.  He is expected to still be out this spring, which makes his move less immediately material to the offensive line.  More germane today is redshirt junior Gustav Rydstedt, also moved from the defensive line to offensive guard.  Rydstedt started eight games in the 2005 season and rotated regularly throughout the 12-game season last fall.  The offensive line transition will be interesting to watch, as he came to Stanford from Sweden green with football playing experience, and now he is being asked to learn a new side of the ball.

We expect that Rydstedt will compete at left guard with fifth-year senior Mikal Brewer, who is the projected starter.  Right guard looks to be held down by redshirt junior Alex Fletcher, with redshirt freshman Andrew Phillips behind him.  Fifth-year senior Preston Clover could play and compete at both guard positions.  Center for now belongs to sixth-year senior Tim Mattran, who is hoping for better health in 2007.  Redshirt freshman Bert McBride will back him up, though several of Stanford's guards have experience and ability also to play center.

Absent Marinelli and Stanford's graduated seniors, the offensive tackles are in trouble for depth.  Redshirt junior Allen Smith has started the last 20 games for Stanford and leads the pack.  Classmate Ben Muth has yet to earn a start and played in a limited reserve role.  The only other returning tackle healthy for the spring is redshirt freshman John Kyed, who lost much of his redshirt season last fall after an early MCL tear.  To bolster the thin tackle ranks, redshirt junior Bobby Dockter is moving outside after his previous seasons of reserve duty at guard.  Dockter projected at tackle coming out of high school, due to his footwork and technique in pass protection.  His transition will be an interesting one to watch this spring.

Two other offensive players at new positions this spring are redshirt freshman Sam Weinberger and redshirt sophomore Ben Ladner.  Ladner is trying his hand at tight end after spending the last two seasons as a scout team fullback.  Due to his speed, hands and strength, Ladner was projected at tight end by many people coming out of high school, but Stanford played him at defensive line initially.  With Lorig's move to defensive end, there is a need at tight end, and Ladner already for the second time in his college career is answering the Cardinal's call.  Weinberger is similarly filling a vacuum, but there is a little more to his move.  The former linebacker is being brought into the offensive backfield as a deliberate ploy.  Supposedly, the coaching staff is not pleased with what Emeka Nnoli and Josh Catron showed on film last fall, lacking the nastiness and physical approach wanted at fullback, and formerly supplied by Nick Frank.  Weinberger has a little bit of that wild-eyed attitude and approach to football, and the coaches are bringing him to compete at fullback as a challenge specifically to Nnoli.

The defensive backfield also has a pair of new faces.  Redshirt junior Thaddeus Chase is back at safety after being moved last year to the "Rush" outside linebacker position.  With that position now gone, and a dire need present at safety, the speedster is returning to the defensive backfield.  He has also played cornerback and wide receiver at Stanford.  The walk-on has great speed and hopefully in 2007 will find a home where he can contribute.  Joining him at safety is sophomore Austin Yancy, who played last fall as a true freshman at wide receiver and started six games.  Yancy's might be one of the most intriguing moves this off-season, given the wealth of playing time he accrued as a true freshman on offense.  Position switches more often transpire for players who are unable to break through on the depth chart, but this underscores how calamitously undermanned Stanford is at safety after graduating three seniors with a massive amount of starts the last several seasons.

One more new face in the defensive backfield was a position mate of Yancy's... and he will remain there this year.  Sophomore Richard Sherman is staying at wide receiver, but he also will be allowed some repetitions at cornerback this spring.  As if that is not enough, Sherman is also running track.  Sound like way too much to put on the plate of a first-year player?  The coaches are being careful about this, and Sherman is supposedly not being asked to learn the defensive playbook.  He has more than enough to digest with the new offensive playbook of Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw.  Sherman will practice strictly man coverage that allows him a single focus of shutting down the receiver in front of him.  His defensive nickname is high school was "Lock Down," appropriately enough.  We'll wait to see how well he backpedals against college wide receivers, as well as how he handles the physical and mental demands of working both ways, before we allow too much excitement in looking ahead.  But it should be noted that Sherman had success in winter workouts when he took repetitions at cornerback.  His 6'3" size would give the Cardinal unique help in defending against the new breed of tall and fast wideouts.

Finally, we note that most of the offense/defense position switches across the line of scrimmage are not yet etched in stone.  Lorig, Yancy, Rydstedt and McGillicuddy could move back to their old positions after the spring if they do not show particular promise on the other side of the ball.  Write them down in pencil rather than pen today, and we'll revisit the moves in May.

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