The New Middle: Part II

First we looked through the eyes of new linebackers coach Andy Buh. Next is the perspective of the players, with the story of Tom McAndrew. He is going through the greatest physical and mental transition of any of Stanford's linebackers this spring, yet he is running with the first team and quarterbacking the defense. McAndrew also adds perspective for how the players are receiving Buh's coaching.

The story of practice for Stanford on Monday was the explosion of redshirt junior running back Anthony Kimble, and the overall success the offense engendered running the football.  Fifth-year senior fullback Emeka Nnoli had perhaps his best practice of the spring blowing open holes, and the offensive line was surging forward to move defenders.  Kimble was chewing up the defense, playing fast and with such vision that prompted head coach Jim Harbaugh to call him later the best offensive player this spring on the Cardinal roster.

Balancing the battle between the offense and the defense was a good deal of pressure against fifth-year senior quarterback T.C. Ostrander, which kept the passing game from gaining much traction.  Both sides of the ball had their victory and their defeat.  Typical spring football, we thought, with ebb and flow from day to day.

The defensive coaches and players did not evaluation the day's performance with quite the casual manner we took.  The pass rush success could not excuse the sieve rush defense in their eyes.

"Monday we didn't have a very good defensive practice, and I think that the middle linebackers wear a little bit of that on our shoulders because we have to make sure that everybody knows what to do.  That's our job.  That's what we do," explains redshirt sophomore middle linebacker Tom McAndrew.  "I didn't know too much about the inside linebacker position in the last defense, as to what their instructions specifically were.  Here, it's a big job of ours to get everybody else lined up, ready to go and focused.  That's the number one thing they are asking of us, to get everyone else going."

"The pass rush is just a testament to our ends and Coach [D.J.] Durkin because there aren't many of them right now," the linebacker praises of his teammates.  "They're working their butts off and doing a great job of it.  Obviously they are improving.  As we put in more during the spring, we are putting in more blitzes.  That also helps us out.  But the defense struggled in the run game.  For sure, the offense did a great job, and give them a lot of credit for that.  Defensively, I don't think we were aggressive enough."

McAndrew on Monday sprinted off the practice field.  So fast, in fact, that we had to catch him later in the week to talk for this story.  The 6'5" defender was not shirking an interview after a practice he felt to be a failure.  Rather, he had to rush to drive a friend to the airport.  But that errand proved no escape from what transpired on the practice field that afternoon.

"On the way back, I was just so frustrated by it all.  I came back about a half hour later and sat in the film room until about 10:30 trying to figure out where it all went wrong.  As inside linebackers, we have that responsibility," McAndrew maintains.  "To go and watch the film really shows where the weaknesses were and where they broke us down on a more consistent basis.  You can see one play here and one play there, where you're on the field and remember selectively what you want to remember."

"When you watch on film, you notice, 'Oh man, they really ran through the backside A-gap a lot when they went strong.  Or, 'Our steps were lateral a lot, so we got swallowed up by offensive linemen because we weren't coming down hill and attacking them.'  You notice those general trends," he explains.  "I think a lot of it had to do with the inside linebackers setting the tone, and it didn't seem like our linebacking corps didn't come downhill very well.  By that, I mean that just attacking the offensive linemen with a sense of urgency."

The reports you read on Stanford Football in The Bootleg and in other media covering other college and pro football, the tales are innumerable of quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs and offensive linemen obsessing with film study.  But McAndrew proves that defenders can be film rats as well.  He takes that responsibility as the quarterback in the middle of the defense, both literally and by coaching design.  The middle linebacker is asked to make the calls and line up the defense - the front seven in particular - before each snap.

For McAndrew, it is an extra heavy load to take on that role with the first team defense this spring.  Just a few months ago, he was playing with his hand on the ground as a hulking defensive end in Stanford's three-man front.  Now he is facing a completely new view of the field mentally, which goes along with the considerable athletic challenge in his transition.

It was a change McAndrew wanted to make, however.  In fact, he engineered the switch himself on New Year's Day.

"I called Coach Harbaugh over Christmas break and talked to him about how we were excited that he was coming in," McAndrew begins.  "Guys were really enthusiastic about getting back, getting into practice and meeting him.  He said, 'Tom, what position do you play?'  He doesn't know any of the guys on the team almost because he's working so hard on recruiting.  I was playing D-End still, and I kind of paused - 'I play linebacker.'  I just told it to him like that, and he said, 'Okay.'  He didn't ask me any other question on that."

"At the time I was 278 pounds," he continues.  "January 3, I'm thinking I better start losing weight if I want to play linebacker.  There are not too many Pac-10 linebackers at 278.  I was 248 on January 30, so in 27 days I lost about 30 pounds.  That was another big thing for me to lose that weight.  It wasn't necessarily too difficult, though obviously I put some serious stresses on my body by doing it.  I think this is probably a healthier weight for me to be at, and I'm just happy to be at linebacker, where you can run around and be a field general out there."

In Part I of our look at the second level of Stanford's new defense, linebackers coach Andy Buh praised the physical condition of McAndrew, his new lean middle linebacker machine at just 10 percent body fat.  But the success McAndrew has displayed for his new coach has been as much mental as physical this spring.

"I always felt that playing linebacker was a much more natural position for me," McAndrew admits.  "When I made the move to the defensive line, a lot of the game sort of disappeared.  You don't know a lot of what is going on from that position.  You understand the formations and plays, but on so much more of a basic level.  I felt the mental game at linebacker was a lot more intense, and that's where I feel I offer the most - being mentally prepared."

The fact that Stanford was moving from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense made McAndrew's move somewhat unexpected, though as a redshirt his freshman year in 2005, he was the scout team defensive player of the year at middle linebacker.  Still, Stanford has taken a big body who played in a three-man front and moving him to linebacker in a defense trying to convert players in the opposite direction.

What appears to be a position switch that is swimming upstream is in McAndrew's eyes has actually benefited him this spring.

"I think that's a definite advantage for me at my position," he offers.  "Having all of the linebackers needing to learn new techniques and a new defense helps me because that doesn't put me behind them.  This change in the defense balances it all out.  What Coach Buh is looking for in a linebacker, he always talks about a little list of things you need to go through: alignment, assignment, technique, execution.  That is a huge job of the inside linebacker."

All of the linebackers on the roster are learning new positions in the 4-3 defense, and Buh is teaching a new way for each of them to play the game.

"He talks about how your eyes move first, and then your feet and then your hands.  That's his teaching," McAndrew says.  "I think whether all of us do it yet or not is one thing, but the linebackers definitely believe in what he's saying.  I remember before we even started spring ball, we talked a lot about eye progression.  How to watch a play and how to see where they are going to be going.  It makes a lot of sense, and it's very possible to do.  I think it's going to make us play a lot faster as a linebacking group.  It's just one thing to write it down on the blackboard and watch it; it's another thing to do it."

"Obviously the coaches defensively weren't very happy about Monday's practice.  I don't think the players were either, which is a good sign," he comments.  "We have definitely had a lot of success this spring as a defense and been excited about certain things.  But if it were easy every day, then you would kind of look around and say, 'What's wrong?'  Something has to be wrong because we're putting in all new stuff, and it should be hard to learn, I think.  If it's going to work, it should be hard to learn no matter how basic it is.  Our eye progressions are basic, but you have to train yourself to play that way.  It's going to help us to play faster, and I think the linebackers have really bought in to what Coach Buh emphasizes so much.  It's definitely going to work."

The confidence inspired by Buh and the entire Stanford defensive coaching staff is a welcome and needed sign.  The Cardinal spent most of last fall as the defensive laughing stock of Division I-A football, ranking dead last for weeks in rushing defense and tallying unholy numbers of total yardage and points allowed.  It is prudent after watching two-plus months of that turnstile defense to lower expectations for the coming fall, though McAndrew asserts that the changes in place will turn the results around.

"I think that Coach Buh is going to be the difference in several different ways," he begins.  "One, just bringing back the love for the game.  Coach Buh just has a love for the game.  I know so many times we're sitting there in meetings and he says, 'Man, just go out there and have fun today.  We're going to mess some stuff up and mess it up bad, but go have fun out there.  Play hard and play fast.'"

"Also, his teaching makes sense to us all," McAndrew continues.  "There hasn't been many if any moments where the nine of us go back into the locker room, sit down at our lockers and say, 'What did he just say?  What is he teaching?'  When he tells us about our eye progressions, it makes sense.  When he tells us, 'This is where I want your hand placement to be when you strike an offensive lineman,' it makes sense.  When he talks about hitting linemen in transition and being faster to the point of contact, it makes sense."

"Not only does it make sense, but it seems possible," he states.  "A lot of coaches, I think, become idealists instead of realists sometimes when they coach.  They come up with these ideas where you think, 'Man, I don't really know if that's going to work.  I don't really know if that's possible.'  They're not asking anything of us that we can't do, so I think that's what the difference is going to be."

"We're still learning everything and still trying to put it into action, but overall there is a simplicity to our defense this year that I think is going to make the difference," McAndrew adds.  "We can adjust to a lot of situations very easily because we're all on the same page with simple concepts.  It may not all look simple.  To us, certainly right now at the beginning of spring, it may not seem simple.  But when you sit down with a pen and paper, when you sit down and watch film, when you're walking through and eventually when we're playing, it is a simple defense.  That's going to be the biggest difference - how well our coaches can translate to us and how well we can accept the concepts."

Today's scrimmage will be a big test to see if the simplicity and concepts are instilled and successfull against Kimble and the running game.  Then we will have a clearer picture of whether McAndrew's optimism is as much cause for excitement in the Cardinal community as he and his linebacker mates have been displaying so far this spring.

McAndrew on linebacker teammates:

Pat Maynor - "Pat to me is all about respect.  A ton of guys on this team, if you went top to bottom and asked them, have a ton of respect for Pat Maynor - as an athlete mostly because he's not a very vocal guy.  But that's enough and speaks for itself for him because of what he can do out there on the field physically and because of how hard he goes.  Also really how athletically gifted he is.  When we were running in the winter, Pat was in the first speed group.  Clinton Snyder may have also been in the first speed group, but I think Pat may have been the only linebacker in there at certain times.  He was even competing against Anthony Kimble for one of the fastest guys on the team.  He was up front in that group.  I'm not necessarily saying that he had a chance to beat out Anthony [laughs].  But his athletic gifts, speed and what he has done in the past really speak for Pat."

Brian Bulcke - "The word that comes to mind for Brian is 'intense.'...  Regardless of where you put him on the field or what situation you put him - in the weight room, in film room study or at breakfast when you're talking to him - wherever it is, Brian is really intense.  I think guys like that out there.  They need that out there, getting everybody else excited when things go well, and mad when things don't go right.  Brian is that guy."

Note: Bulcke on Friday morning asked the defensive coaches and Jim Harbaugh to move to defensive end, where he played in high school and started at Stanford last August before being moved in an emergency to inside linebacker and playing as a true freshman.

Nick Macaluso - "Nick just has a strong desire to learn the game.  There's definitely something to be said for that.  We were doing a walk-through before practice, and Coach is trying to give you extreme situations or new situations you're not used to adjusting to you yet.  At one point Nick said, "Hey, Tom, whenever you know where I'm supposed to be or if my alignment is off just a little bit, let me know, let me know, let me know.'  A guy who is that eager to learn is going to learn.  I know that Nick had a great practice on Saturday and not as good of a practice on Monday, but that desire to learn is going to carry him when we go into the film session and when we go back onto the field.  I expect him to come back and play really well.  We are excited about all of our linebackers.  I really like our group, top to bottom."

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