Earlier this spring, there was a Cardinal crisis on the defensive line. Stanford was working with just five or six bodies to cover four positions on the first and second unit defenses. Some improved health has alleviated the defensive front, but the third level of the Stanford defense has now picked up the mantle as the "walking wounded" position group.
At cornerback, two critical players have been out the entire spring with respective hamstring injuries. Fifth-year senior Tim Sims, who started six games for Stanford last season and improved greatly the second half of the season, has been a big loss. Redshirt sophomore Kris Evans, who was expected to compete for playing time or a starting position as the "next" cornerback behind Stanford's experienced veterans, has missed valuable growth and instruction. Redshirt sophomore Blaise Johnson also was out the first three weeks of the spring. These absences promoted redshirt freshman Tyler Porras and redshirt sophomore walk-on C.J. Easter into heavy duty as the Cardinal's lone second-team cornerbacks. This week, Porras has been added to the injury list, while Johnson has taken the field for the first time.
At safety, Stanford has been just as thin, though due more to roster numbers after three seniors have graduated who manned the middle of the defensive backfield the last three-plus seasons. The Cardinal took another hit over the weekend when redshirt junior Carlos McFall suffered a shoulder separation in Stanford's live scrimmage. McFall has already had well beyond his share of shoulder problems on The Farm, which obliterated the entirety of his 2005. The only good news is that his previous woes have been with his left shoulder, and this slight separation is his right shoulder. Regardless, he is done finished for spring practices, which forced the Cardinal to rotate three safeties across the two positions of the first and second unit defenses to finish the Saturday scrimmage. The scholarship numbers are frightful at safety, even after sophomore Austin Yancy's move from wide receiver, but the situation this spring has been exacerbated by injuries to a pair of walk-ons: redshirt sophomore Kenny Long and redshirt freshman Jerome Jackson.
Answering the call for help from the Stanford secondary, Jim Harbaugh made a dramatic move earlier this week by switching three of his wide receivers to defensive backs. On Monday we saw the debut of redshirt freshman Marcus Rance at safety, redshirt sophomore Chris Hobbs at cornerback and redshirt junior Nate Wilcox-Fogel at cornerback. Wilcox-Fogel has spent the past three years exclusively at wide receiver for Stanford, and he donned a new jersey number (18) to go with his new position Monday. Hobbs had worked at cornerback his first year and a half at Stanford before a switch this off-season brought him to offense, so he has ample experience and familiarity with defense. Rance is the youngest and least experienced of the trio, having missed action most of his first fall last season while still recovering from an ACL tear his senior year of high school.
All three of these players had delivered significant improvement and surprises this spring at wide receiver, which made Monday's move all the more unexpected.
"I see potential in all three of those guys," Harbaugh explains. "Rance caught five balls in the scrimmage. Hobbs has tremendously quick feet. Fogel has done a lot of good things and has good ball skills."
"We're really trying to see if we can get the best guys playing, and we have quite a few receivers," the head coach continues. I just want to make sure that we're not 11 deep at wide receiver. Mainly it's because how well those three guys have been doing. I want to give them a shot."
Making these position switches the final week of spring practices makes sense in a couple of dimensions. It so happens that the practice schedule puts five practices into this final week, which represents a full third of spring ball. Moreover, Harbaugh says that the moves are on something of a trial basis. He is throwing these three against the wall and seeing if anything sticks before the spring is done. After this Saturday, players cannot be coached in a practice again until August, and if there is a promising defensive back somewhere in this trio, it is best to identify that now. Then the player(s) can learn the playbook and take repetitions at their new position in unofficial team workouts May through July.
"They're not permanent. I just want to see if they can do something," Harbaugh offers. "It's for the next four or five days. I feel like if I don't do it now, then we won't do it when training camp comes. This is just to see if there is any aptitude there."
"We're just trying to get more bodies and more guys to evaluate, so that these guys can have a great summer," adds defensive backs coach Clayton White. "We brought a whole new technique, and these guys have a chance to still learn stuff. These guys I was impressed with their footwork, so they have a chance to really help us out."
Both White and Harbaugh downplay these position moves as responses to the play by the Stanford defensive backfield, which was largely poor in Saturday's scrimmage and has been a work in progress this spring. These new three bodies are not explicitly being moved in the search for secondary answers.
"The thing about answering is that we have to make sure that we're asking the right questions," White explains. "Why are we getting beat? Why are we missing tackles? We have to make sure we're asking the right questions before we start looking for answers. As long as they're playing hard right now, I can take it. The main thing is that we're trying to help them get their assignments down. When you go full press, people are going to throw deep balls, but that doesn't mean they have to complete them. We almost want them to throw deep balls so that we can get interceptions, once they get used to the technique over the summer and the rest of this spring. They just have to keep working one day at a time, one drill at a time, one rep at a time."
"They played harder," White says of his secondary on Saturday. "The first scrimmage, the effort was horrible. But this last scrimmage, the effort was almost half as better. That's a positive for the way I like to coach. As long as I know a kid is playing hard, I can coach him. If the kid is not giving me everything, it's tough to coach him. It was great to see those guys play harder. They didn't play any better. They played harder, and that's the first thing. They're trying to get it. The 'it' factor - that's what we call it."
|Defensive coordinator Scott Shafer instructs his new safety|
Among the three wideouts newly moved to defense, the one who has seen the most repetitions this week is Rance. He ironically also enjoyed his best day in a Cardinal uniform on Saturday, hauling in five catches including a touchdown.
"It kind of caught me off guard a little bit because of what I did on Saturday," Rance allows. "I understand it, though. We have a lot of people hurt on defense, so I'll do anything to help the team out. Coach Harbaugh knows what he's doing. If he wants me to go defense, then that's what I'll do."
"He has great ball skills, and I was impressed with that," says White of his new safety. "He seems like a kid who wants to learn something and work hard. He seems like a bright-eyed kid. I love those kinds of kids. He has a good chance to help us out back there with some depth. When we get into our nickel substitution package, he could help us out. I like the kid. He has natural instincts, and that's what I'm looking for in a safety."
Instincts help a little, but Rance admits that his head is swimming in his new position.
"It's different. It's like going back to high school again and starting over. It's a new challenge, but I'm trying to take it in stride," he says. "It's a lot to take in, definitely - especially at the Division I level trying to learn a whole new system. For the most part, they're helping me out pretty well and keeping it pretty basic for me right now. As long as they keep doing that and add things little by little, I think I'll be alright."
Rance says the toughest part of the new position is the offensive playmakers he has to face every snap, though he became markedly more comfortable Tuesday than in his Monday debut. There is also the physical adjustment to a new set of movements he has to make at safety.
"Your body has to get used to doing this again," he laughs. "After Monday's practice, my hamstring was feeling a little different because I was doing all that backpedaling instead of moving straight ahead."
For Rance, as well as Hobbs and Wilcox-Fogel, the question the remainder of this week is how far they move ahead in their new defensive positions. The Cardinal practice today, tomorrow and Saturday - three straight days. The ultimate proving ground will be the Spring Game on Saturday in Stanford Stadium. Their performances in a live scrimmage will go a long way to determining how temporary or permanent these position switches are heading into the summer and fall, as Stanford searches for balance and depth on its roster for the 2007 season.
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