Last month when we constructed our fabulous 48-page "Football Preview" issue of The Bootleg Magazine (coming soon to newsstands and subscribers' mailboxes), we outlined the top questions on the roster for Stanford in this 2007 season. There was no hesitation in naming our #1 concern: middle linebacker.
In exploring the possible answers to that question, we discussed the possible answers. Moreover, how the "Mike" linebacker position is answered spills over to the question of the outside linebacker position opposite Clinton Snyder. The redshirt sophomore finished the spring the only sure starter at Stanford's three linebacker spots. In a nutshell, if somebody other than redshirt junior Pat Maynor could rise up at middle linebacker, that would allow the 6'2" 218-pounder to move to that outside linebacker position where he better belongs.
So we eagerly turned our eyes Monday night to the second level of the Stanford defense. With a firm handle on the puzzle pieces, we were anxious to watch them fit together.
Instead, a new puzzle was spilled onto the field before our eyes. The defensive coaches on the eve of training camp transacted a host of position switches that shuffled half a dozen players at different positions in the front seven. The big one was preemptively moving Maynor to the "Will" outside linebacker position on the weak side of the field. He and the other players learned of the moves on Sunday, right after reporting for camp.
"I kind of got acclimated at 'Mike' during the spring, but when you look at me, I'm not a true middle linebacker," Maynor admits. "I'm not a big guy. Speed is my main attribute. They now have me outside the box, where I can run all over the field. Inside, I'm taking on centers and guards - big linemen like that. I think it's a good move for me. I just have to get acclimated to it, know my assignments and execute."
As a fourth-year player with extensive playing (he started nine games in 2006), Maynor probably needs to be on the field for Stanford somewhere in the linebacking corps this fall. Had he stayed inside at the "Mike" position, he would have upgraded the overall speed of the defense. But Maynor is also a fourth-year player who struggles on a good day to reach 220 pounds. He is a lean 218 pounds today, though he eats five times a day.
"I still have to gain weight," Maynor says. "I've been trying to gain weight my whole life. A lot of people told me I was too small to play linebacker in high school, but luckily Stanford gave me a chance."
Ultimately, the defensive coaching staff has made the move with Maynor that realistically reflects what he can best do for the Cardinal. And everybody can be glad that the trigger was pulled Sunday, rather than later in training camp this month.
"The sooner I can know this stuff, the better I will play the game on September 1," Maynor opines. "I think it's a good move. This is my natural position and what I wanted to play since I came here... I think 'Will' is a good fit for me, and I think Coach [Andy] Buh made the right changes."
Go ahead and write Maynor in at the "Will" outside linebacker in pen. Now the linebacker questions for the Cardinal have been cut in half. What remains is still the monolithic matter of finding a middle linebacker. To answer that question, Stanford trotted out three choices - none of whom played middle linebacker to start the spring.
Redshirt sophomore Fred Campbell, redshirt sophomore Will Powers and redshirt freshman Nick Macaluso have all been moved from the respective outside linebacker spots to audition this fall camp at the "Mike" position. Powers was moved a few months ago and practiced all summer inside, but Campbell and Macaluso were brand new switches made on Sunday. The latter two both were candidates to win the vacant outside linebacker job, but now that Maynor has moved into that spot, they are shuffling inside and remain in the hunt for a starting job on the defense.
Campbell took lead in the first practice of the fall Monday night, running with the first team defense alongside Maynor and Snyder. The 6'2" 229-pounder was a reserve inside linebacker in Stanford's 3-4 scheme last year, starting once against USC.
"Fred is a guy I look up to," offers Maynor. "He's younger than me, but his work ethic is unparalleled. He works really hard, and he's been through a lot of adversity. I give him a lot of credit. He's a really tough kid, and he'll get the job done and hustle on every play."
Making way for the new middle linebackers is redshirt sophomore Tom McAndrew, who has now moved to defensive end. McAndrew has been tossed around the roster like a rag doll since he arrived at Stanford, shuffling back and forth between the first and second levels of the defense. He was given a chance in the spring to win the "Mike" job in this new defense, and he had some moments at the beginning. But he hit a ceiling and could go no further.
Parallel to the decision to put Maynor in his more natural position, McAndrew should now be more at home playing with his hand on the ground. And this should be a better position than his defensive end duties in 2006, when he had to play more inside as part of the three-man defensive line. With two defensive tackles manning the inside of this year's front, McAndrew can play outside and operate in a little more space.
The final defensive domino to fall? Sophomore Brian Bulcke has slid inside to defensive tackle after spending the end of the spring and the summer at defensive end. With McAndrew added to an already solid defensive end rotation, Bulcke can help the depth inside. Like McAndrew, Bulcke has been batted back and forth between the defensive line and linebacking corps like a ping pong ball the past two years. Hopefully both can settle into their positions for the long haul.
Other News & Notes
* While the shuffle of bodies gripped our attention on defense, what impressed on offense was how crisply players ran practice for the first day of camp. The variety of formations and personnel can be dizzying in this offense, but there were surprisingly few whistles blown before the snap for coaches to realign the players. More impressive still was the sharp execution of the pre-snap motion. This looked like the first day of the second week of camp (absent pads). Head coach Jim Harbaugh attributes the performance to the summer practices run by the players, which we witnessed and felt were the most crisp, structured and efficient players-only workouts ever seen during the summer at Stanford.
"It was good retention by everybody from the spring," praises Harbaugh. "What they did on their own in the summer really showed.
* The strength & conditioning workouts led by new coach Shannon Turley also were a big part of the summer. After the woes of 2006, many eyes are on that aspect of the new Stanford program. Nearly 12 hours before Monday night's practice, there was a conditioning test conducted early in the morning to measure how much the players improved since the coaches last saw them in the spring. Harbaugh was demonstrably pleased.
"This is a much better conditioned team than what you saw in the spring," he maintains. "They really knocked out the conditioning test today."
* The top three quarterbacks remain unchanged, with fifth-year senior T.C. Ostrander fully in command of the starting job and the first team offense. Redshirt sophomore Tavita Pritchard and redshirt freshman Alex Loukas are engaged in a fight for the backup job. But what commanded our attention on Monday night was transfer and redshirt sophomore Jason Forcier. In his first official activity as a Cardinal after transferring from Michigan, the fleet-footed signal caller was eye-opening. In one of this first team repetitions, we saw him on a designed rollout that could not have been written up better. He's fast, smooth on the run and can sling it. Forcier is the one player on the roster not eligible to play this year, so Cardinalmaniacs™ will have to wait until 2008 to see him on the field. But in just his first day on The Farm, Forcier made a big splash and thrust his name into the mix for the question of who quarterbacks the Cardinal after Ostrander graduates. Forcier also brings an unusual amount of experience to Stanford's scout offense this fall.
* Speaking of newcomers, the first-day surprise of the new freshman class is... the wide receivers. We watched Sean Wiser impress and see a lot of work during summer practices, so he wasn't so much of a surprise. It was the additional performances by Ryan Whalen and Doug Baldwin that caught us a little by surprise. Baldwin is the smallest of the group, and in a practices out of pads like Monday's, he is not much to look at. But he showed quick feet and was explosive out of his cuts and attacking the ball. Whalen comes to the Cardinal as a walk-on, but you wouldn't know that watching him on Monday. He has Wiser's size and showed a lot of ability catching the ball. It's too early on the first day, and with no pads or contact, to make big proclamations. But we're liking the wideouts in this class a lot, right out of the gate. Collectively, they were the most impressive frosh position group on the field.
* Of the defensive freshmen, several saw a good number of repetitions Monday. Max Bergen and Johnathan Frink both had a lot of work at outside linebacker, and both were active. Matthew Masifilo (defensive tackle) and Thomas Keiser (defensive end) rotated on the defensive line, and both favorably impressed. In the back end, safeties Kellen Kiilsgaard and Taylor Skaufel saw less work. Cornerback Corey Gatewood saw the heaviest work of the frosh, rotating regularly on the second team defense. He is strong, quick, aggressive and a playmaker. That picks up right where Gatewood left off during summer practices, where he impressed us mightily. Ironically, there is some good depth at cornerback this year. Watching him, it is hard to imagine keeping this freshman off the field, though on paper it's a deep position to crack.
* With fifth-year senior fullback Emeka Nnoli held out of team drills, that left the first-team duties to redshirt freshman Sam Weinberger... Redshirt sophomore nose tackle Ekom Udofia's absence (hamstring) left fifth-year senior Chris Horn and sophomore Levirt Griffin as the first-team defensive tackles... As we had reported beforehand, redshirt junior Carlos McFall has moved from free to strong safety following the broken hand injury of starter and redshirt sophomore Bo McNally. Sophomore Austin Yancy is leading the free safety position.
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