And Then There Were Five

Stanford finished Day Three of its 2007 spring practices with five players on the four-man defensive line. Jim Harbaugh says he is not panicked - these things can be stomached in April better than October. Despite the depth concerns, a pair of defensive linemen are standing out. The offense also had its victory, moving 70 yards in the two-minute drill at the end of the first day in full pads.

It began with former Stanford All-American and NFL Hall of Famer John Elway addressing the team, and it finished with a standout touchdown reception at the goalline.

Saturday was a good day for Stanford Football.

The first full-pads practice of the spring concluded with a two-minute drill, pitting the first team offense versus the first team defense.  It was the first mini-scrimmage of the spring, with downs and distance.  The offense was given 2:00 on the clock and two timeouts, starting from their own 30-yardline.  Though they used both timeouts (at 1:15 and 0:38), they generally had little difficulty in the battle against the clock.  Fifth-year senior quarterback T.C. Ostrander never looked hurried, and he never had to spike the ball to kill the clock.  He threw 9-of-13 for 69 yards and a touchdown on the drive.

Ostrander completed his first five passes, totaling 36 yards, and moved the offense with control and relative ease down the field.  After the fifth completion, the first team wide receivers in the three-wide hurry-up offensive set (Mark Bradford, Kelton Lynn, Mike Miller) were substituted by a second team trio (Stephen Carr, Marcus Rance and Nate Wilcox-Fogel.  Wilcox-Fogel, a hard-working redshirt junior, dropped the ball on the first play.  Next snap, on 3rd & 4, he had the ball again come his way and could not come up with it - this time redshirt sophomore middle linebacker Tom McAndrew was the reason with a nice breakup.

On fourth down, Ostrander calmly hit Carr for a big nine-yard pickup that moved the chains and kept the drive alive.  The next two plays, however, were again incompletions, before Bradford saved the day with a reception of nine-plus yards.  With inches to go, the offense ran the ball for the only ground attempt of the drive, which redshirt junior Anthony Kimble converted for a short gain and first down.

Two plays later, it was Ostrander hooking up with Lynn at the goalline for a two-yard touchdown against redshirt junior safety Carlos McFall.  The offense mobbed Lynn in the endzone after the first score of the spring.  Lynn caught three balls on the drive for 21 yards.  Miller matched with three receptions for 21 yards, as well.  Redshirt sophomore tight end James Dray also picked up a reception for nine yards on the drive's second play.

There was one moment of mild controversy, on a second-down incompletion where McAndrew broke through on a blitz and hurried Ostrander.  The play looked like a sack, and the chanting calls for it on the defensive sideline argued their case.  Jim Harbaugh called it an incompletion, and play continued with 3rd & 10, which was the Bradford connection.

The drive was halting in its progress after the first string wideouts first left the field, but the overall efficiency of the two-minute drill was the best success of this spring for the offense.

"T.C. was impressive again today," Harbaugh praises.  "He has shown some signs of really having a handle on the offense.  One example, our receivers were split too wide in the slot formation.  He caught it and brought them into the right alignment, which is really encouraging.  Our bootleg game has been outstanding.  We can't stop our bootleg right now."

The rollouts continue to be a big part of Ostrander's and Stanford's success in the passing game.  The running game in this first day of pads had less fortune, with the defense making many stops on Saturday.

"That was the best thing they did today - hit, run and find their run fits," says Harbaugh of the defense.  "They knew their fits, and I really liked the way that Bo McNally and the safeties were getting involved in the run.  They got the better of the running game today."

There was a particular stretch in the middle of practice where redshirt sophomore defensive end Erik Lorig was absolutely terrorizing the offense.  He was sniffing out plays routinely at or behind the line of scrimmage, and making big stuffs.  It was one of the most impressive strings of play by a single defender I have seen in a long time during a Stanford practice.

His playmaking was undeniably impressive, but watching his athleticism on the edge in a three-point stance is eye-popping.  He drops back in coverage with cat-like quickness.  When he rushes the backfield, he can in a split second slide down in his stance and then explode - in a way that no Stanford end has shown these eyeballs in a decade.  Just three days into his new position, Lorig is making a believer out of anybody and everybody.

"He might be our best defensive end right now," Harbaugh opines.  "He's been really impressive.  We noticed that from Day One, but to see it in pads too was impressive."

One specific offensive play was several times sniffed out and demolished by Lorig on Saturday.

"It was really one particular play - this '96 Release' play that we run," Harbaugh details.  "Our tackle was not getting any movement on Erik Lorig at all.  Every time we ran the darn thing, it was a one- or two-yard loss."

That reserve tackle is young on experience, and in his third day of the spring not a great concern for Stanford, though there was something Harbaugh saw on Saturday across the breadth of the front five which disquieted him.

"We're still worried about our offensive line getting off with the snap," the head coach explains.  About midway through practice, I addressed it with them.  It seemed like the second half of practice, they focused on that.  They need to get off the ball and anticipate the snap count."

Something we did notice was a slowing of the tempo of Saturday's practice, which was due in part to the increased teaching that needs to take place as more is installed for the offense and defense.  The primary cause, however, was the perilously thin depth of the defensive line.  Stanford started the day with six total defensive linemen healthy enough to go, and that number trimmed to five when recently switched defensive tackle Levirt Griffin left with a hamstring injury.  His return timeframe is uncertain.

That left five defensive linemen to play the four positions on the line of scrimmage, which meant a mammoth amount of work for the quintet.  Lorig was joined by fifth-year seniors Udeme Udofia and Emmanuel Awofadeju at the defensive end positions, while fifth-year senior Chris Horn and redshirt junior Pannel Egboh took every snap at the defensive tackle spots.  Egboh was the second player in the last two practices to move from end to tackle.

"I was encouraged by watching him there today," Harbaugh says of Egboh playing in the interior.  "We really now have to do double-teaching, where the ends and tackles are coached together.  We just have to do that.  We're thin right now.  I'm not panicked, but we only have two guys out there to practice.  We have to slow some of the tempo down and do some more teaching between reps."

"Eventually, we're going to be more solid there than we are.  We just need to get healthy," the coach continues.  "That's a premium where we have to recruit to at Stanford.  Make defensive tackle a premium year after year because we're seeing that we can get thin at that area."

"I'm up to the challenge," says Egboh of his new position.  "I hope to gain a little weight as the spring goes by, so that I can work inside and outside in case a situation like that were to happen in a game."

The 6'6" defensive athlete had formerly played at end in Stanford's 3-4 defense and hovered around 280 pounds.  Now playing out in space in the new 4-3 defense, he had slimmed down and upgraded his quickness, starting this spring at 265 pounds.  Egboh has to make yet another adjustment after being thrust into the interior of the defensive line late last week, and he is aiming to grow his body to 280-285 pounds by the end of the spring.  He wants to have the body that can play tackle or end in Stanford's defense, which is sorely needed.

"I'm just going to chow down and eat as many meals as I can.  Eat protein shakes.  Just fill up as much as I can, and hopefully I can gain weight," Egboh says.  He was aiming to take a big bite out of that goal with Easter dinner.

Gustatory pursuits aside, Egboh has enough on his plate this spring already.  He is learning a new defense and still suffering pains from the surgery of his broken leg two seasons ago.  Those screws were finally removed a few weeks ago at the end of winter quarter, allowing him to conduct the full breadth of Stanford's strength & conditioning program in the winter.  He had three weeks to rest and recover from the minor surgery before returning to the field last week.

"It's still a little painful.  I'm going to get with Dr. [Gary] Fanton pretty soon here to talk about other options to help it out," Egboh offers.  "I just did play probably close to 100 plays, so that probably can contribute to it.  But I'll be alright...  I feel like I can definitely fight through it."

The 6'6" pass rusher played with worse pain all of last fall, so this is nothing novel.  His greater adjustment is playing in the new four-man front of Stanford's defense, installed by new defensive coordinator Scott Shafer.

"We are trying to stop the run," Egboh explains.  "That is our first objective.  Stop the run and eliminate that from our opponent's gameplan.  We do a lot of blitzes and different stuff to fight the run.  Second we have to get more pressure on the quarterback, and having four guys on the line will definitely help.  We're down to two DTs right now, but I just have to fight through it and continue to get better."

"It's actually a lot easier than the 3-4 scheme because we're tilted off the edge and just coming off," he adds.  "I've been banging with the [offensive] tackles all last year, and now we get to go against tight ends.  I love going against tight ends.  I'm one of the bigger D-ends.  When I'm playing inside, it's going to be tough at first because I don't feel that I have the weight to sustain double-teams.  As the spring goes by, I'll get used to the weight and get used to banging.  This was my first day at D-tackle.  As I get used to it, I think I can get pretty good at it."

Egboh is also playing with a new position coach, D.J. Durkin, who is joined by the rest of the Stanford staff in pushing Egboh to believe himself and become a dominant football player - not just a promising prospect with "upside."

"In the past, I've had a problem with going hard all of the time," Egboh admits.  "My coach stressed that to me earlier in the winter, and he's been on me about it.  I've definitely been getting better about playing hard all the time.  It's all about my mind right now.  Get into the mode that I can be as good as anybody in the country, and I'm limiting myself by not getting my mind ready and playing hard all of the time.  That's one thing I really need to work on."

With the current state of the Stanford defensive line, Egboh will have to push himself.  There is literally no depth to push him through external competition.  Other positions for the Cardinal are in the thick of battles which are already heating up in these earliest stages of spring ball.

One is fullback, where a new face took the lead with the first team offense on Saturday.  Redshirt freshman Sam Weinberger switched just weeks ago to fullback from linebacker, and he already is making a dent in that position battle.  There was no fullback in Stanford's no-huddle offense for the two-minute drill, but the other times that the Cardinal conducted "team" sessions with 11-on-11 work, it was Weinberger who lined up in the backfield with the rest of the first team offense.

"He's a good straightline physical guy," Harbaugh comments.  "We want our fullback to be the physical presence of our football team."

Weinberger was moved to fullback as a non-subtle challenge to incumbent starter, Emeka Nnoli.  The fifth-year senior did not impress the new Cardinal coaches in their film review of the 2006 season, with the quality of physical play and the nastiness he was bringing to the fullback position.  Weinberger brings those qualities, and he has already started to steal snaps from Nnoli.

Harbaugh watched Saturday to see how the fifth-year senior would respond to the challenge, and he was pleased.

"Emeka Nnoli is stepping up as well," the coach critiques.  "He had a stretch of four straight plays where I was watching him.  He was getting his face on people.  He and [Pat] Maynor locked up one time, and it looked like Emeka really got in there.  It might have been a stalemate, but that's good enough because the [running] back was able to get by him.  I'm pleased with the fullbacks right now.  I was worried before, but now I'm seeing some signs of life."

Another area that looked to our eyes to have an uptick on Saturday was the placekicing game.  Fifth-year senior Derek Belch again competed against redshirt junior Aaron Zagory, along with the rest of the first and second team field goal/PAT units.  Belch was the clear winner, hitting from 41 yards, 37 yards, 33 yards and 29 yards.  He missed just one field goal attempt.

The first team PAT unit we saw take the field, from right to left was Austin Gunder, Tom McAndrew, Allen Smith, Mikal Brewer, Bobby Dockter (snapper), Alex Fletcher, Ben Muth, James Dray and Erik Lorig.  Jay Ottovegio was holding, with Belch kicking.  The second team PAT was (right to left) Sam Weinberger, Patrick Bowe, John Kyed, Gustav Rydstedt, Brent Newhouse (snapper), Preston Clover, Andrew Phillips, Levirt Griffin and Ben Ladner.

The kicking operation looked much improved, with Belch enjoying one of his better days in memory.  The one visible snafu was a botched hold by Ottovegio, which had him swiftly replaced by Bo McNally.  That aside, Saturday appeared to be a successful stint for the kicking game.

"Yeah, but I'm not pleased.  I told the snappers, the kickers and the holders that we need improvement there.  The snaps aren't coming back there quite quick enough.  There's just too much inconsistency right now.  But I told them to keep their dobbers up.  We'll get it."

We also saw Stanford conduct its first drills this spring where special teams involved a returner.  A wealth of players, drawing from both offense and defense, took turns running in the role of kickoff returner: Mark Bradford, Stephen Carr, Thaddeus Chase, C.J. Easter, Jason Evans, Chris Hobbs, Anthony Kimble, Kelton Lynn, Carlos McFall, Wopamo Osaisai, Marcus Rance, Nick Sanchez and Austin Yancy.  They did not field an actual kickoff, however.  Nor did they run against more than a single opponent in coverage, who battled against a single blocker.  It was a simple drill with a wide cast of contestants, with much more work and a more focused crew of returners, still to come this spring.


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