A Cardinal Conversation w/ Andy Buh - Pt. I

We had a chance to sit down for a lengthy chat with Stanford's Co-Defensive Coordinator and third-year Assistant Coach for Linebackers, Andy Buh, whose re-stocked unit is expected to be critical to the Card's success in 2009. Here's Part I of an interview that is sure to add to fans' high expectations for the 2009 defense and clarify the current state of the Cardinal's deepening linebacker corps.

"A Cardinal Conversation with Andy Buh" - Part I


On Wednesday, August 5, 2009, Bootleg Co-Founder and Editor Jim "Emeritus" Rutter had a chance to sit down with Stanford Football's Co-Defensive Coordinator & third-year Assistant Coach for Linebackers, Andy Buh. The following is Part I of a multi-part interview.


The Bootleg: Andy, it is now "Year Three" for you. How are things different for you than they were when you arrived back in 2007? How have the primary challenges changed?


Andy Buh: Well, I think every year we've been here, things have gotten better. The number one challenge we faced when we arrived was our "depth". Back then, one injury meant reshuffling the deck, but now, as we come into our third year, our depth has come under control.


TB: Instead of being one-and-a-half deep, you are what, two-and-a-deep at each position?


AB: Yes, two-and-a-half deep. Better yet, we have more depth of scholarship players. In 2007 some walk-ons had to play for us in certain situations, in certain games. That is one challenge that has been overcome.


TB: Is it fair to say that at the time the "walk-ons" did not have perhaps the same credentials that our current crop of walk-ons possesses? You now have kids coming in who had multiple Division-I offers…


AB: Right, yeah. In fact that is another thing – we have improved our ‘stock' every year that we've been here. Going into this year we have a good mix of veteran guys with some younger guys that can and probably will help us at some point this season.


TB: You lost a scrappy veteran in Pat Maynor, but you get everyone else back and Maynor had missed some time with injury…


AB: Yeah, he missed the USC game and really we played him in the Cal game and he was just coming off his injury. Those are things that we had to deal with and this is predominantly the reason why we moved Clinton (Snyder) over to "Mike" when that happened – that was a situation where really had to reshuffle some guys.


TB: Clearly that move the yardage we yielded in that last three games, giving up an average of nearly 200 yards per game on the ground, that shouldn't be attributed just to our reshuffling, but perhaps to the fact that Oregon, USC and Cal can run the ball against anyone.


AB: Yes, no question, those were some really good football teams. We still think that because of their talent, but obviously we wanted to play better and we did have some injuries.


TB: Not to throw the offense under the bus, but does it not put pressure on the defense when we fail to sustain drives and score points? Doesn't that play a big role in the resulting defensive statistics?


AB: We don't really talk in those terms. We are defensive coaches and defensive players. Our job is to go out and stop the opposing offense. Our job description doesn't change, whether that involves being on the field for a long time or being on the field in more optimal circumstance. Our job description doesn't change.  Really, we look at the yardage statistically, but we don't talk in those terms. The only statistic we really care about is the winning.


TB: Your first year here in 2007, when (former defensive coordinator) Scott Shafer was still here, you were known for being an attacking defense, trying to create turnovers and we had some of the same things last year – is there going to be any change in the philosophy or the personality of your defense this season?


AB: We are always going to be known as an "attack defense". We are always going to try and cause turnovers and win the turnover margin. Now, we are trying to do that in the best way possible.


TB: Is it fair to say your recent focus has been on trying to bring pressure from the ‘edge' rather than featuring our linebackers to bring pressure?


AB: That might be what it looks like from the outside, but really we are attacking protections. A lot of offenses are zone protecting or slide-protecting which means we can attack on the ‘edge'. We are blitzing more against certain attacking protections than in a certain area of the field or area of the formation.


TB: We have stuck with our 4-3 and yet there has been a bit of a switch going on between 2007 and 2008. For the average fan, can you explain the "over" versus "under" fronts in layman terms and talk about whose responsibilities change and in what ways?


AB: We run three different fronts. In our first-down package, first- and second-down package, we train our guys to stop the run. We are predominantly and "under" front, basically a 5-2. The philosophy behind the 5-2 is to squeeze and constrict gaps.


TB: And who become that "fifth" player at the front?


AB: That would be our strong-side linebacker.


TB: So your "Sam", how does that change his start position, he comes all the way up to the line of scrimmage?


AB: Yes, the "Sam" linebacker in our defense has to be what I call a "freak". He's got to be strong enough to hold up on the edge against big tight ends, sometimes against tackles in the Pac-10 and also be able to run with the fastest backs there are in the flat. We have those types of players, we have a few on our roster that enable us to get into a 5-2 front. It is what I believe to be one of the best run-stopping fronts in all of college football.


 But we also use an "over" front. An "over" front in our system, gets all three linebackers off the ball and now we feel like we have some speed and run an attack from off the line of scrimmage. It is just another ‘look' for the offense to have to deal with in terms of the run game. Now, versus the pass, we use our 3-4. That's what we have done since we have been here.


TB: So down and distance really drives those defense and personnel packages.


AB: It can, yes. Without telling you exactly how we are calling things…(smiling). The whole philosophy is to stop the run so we can get into a nickel package that can attack from all different angles. I wouldn't say all we are doing is attacking. Our philosophy is to stop the run on first- and second-down and then "attack" the pass on passing downs.


TB:  Help our audience understand the difference in "Will" vs. "Sam" vs. "Mike" backers, in terms of responsibility, optimal size and preferred characteristics? Which particular qualities or abilities do you want/need to have at each position?


AB: You're going to see our "Sam" or strong-side linebacker position, a bigger, longer defender, a guy that probably has the longer levers and is up in weight. Take for example Will Powers – he is all of six-foot four, 245 pounds and has the ability to cover in some zone packages from the line of scrimmage. Alex Debniak as well. They are "brute-strong", can handle things on the line of scrimmage, they are quick-reactors.


The "Willie" linebacker is on the opposite side, he is the weak-side linebacker, and that is predominantly where we put our speed. In the "Eagle" ("under") front, we can cover him up and let him run. You will see our shorter, quicker, lighter guys at that position. Max Bergen, for example. Chike Amajoyi and Bergen. That's why you will see those guys at the "Willie" position.


TB: Chike, is he now playing at the same weight as last year, well up from his first year?


AB: Yeah, he is adjusting to his weight, learning to use all that power that he has been able to generate since he has been here.


TB: Seeing him the other day, he certainly doesn't look smaller! The guy is jacked.


AB: Yeah, he looks great! Chike is weighing in at about 230 pounds. He'll play between 225 and 230.


TB: Chike came in as a freshman listed at 230 or so, but he couldn't have even been 220, right?


AB: Oh, he was even lighter than that. He has put on 15-20 pounds easily. In fact, he made such a big jump, we played him some at "Mike" a year ago. And then Bergen, he came in a year ago at 205 pounds and he is now at about 228 now.


…and then at the middle linebacker position, obviously you've got to talk about "20" [#20, senior leader Clinton Snyder]  Really, in this defense, we'd like to put our biggest playmaker there, right there in the middle so he can run sideline to sideline and be involved in most of the plays. That's what Clint will do for us this year. We have been able to move him there even though he does have a "Sam", a strong-side linebacker body type. Because of the emergence of Debniak, we were able to move him to that position.


TB: Is it a bit of a luxury to get him off the line, avoid having him grapple with big tackles?


AB: When we had him down at the "Sam" position, he did that role for us because we needed him there. At no time did we think he was getting overpowered, but the nature of the position stabilizes him to one side of the field. With the emergence of a guy like Alex Debniak, now going into his sophomore year, it has allowed us to move our playmaker (Snyder) back off the ball and into the middle of the defense.


TB: How much does Clint's leadership role tie into being in the middle? He is such a "warrior", he commands such respect from his teammates…


AB: And that's never left – it doesn't matter what position he has been at, he was still in a leadership role at the strong-side linebacker position.


TB: But again, that was driven by "need" rather than having it be an "optimal" position for Clint.


AB: Yes, we want to get him off the ball and see him play the way we have all seen Clint play. And then we also have Nick Macaluso, also competing at that position, a solid playmaker and we've won some games with him, starting at that position.


TB: And Nick broke his hand last season, but still had quite a number of starts. Between Macaluso, Amajoyi, Snyder, Maynor all getting banged up – experience would seem to indicate you still need a solid rotation of six or seven guys ready to go at any time, right?


AB: Yeah, you'd like a strong three-deep at each position. But our philosophy here is that we're going to play the best guys out there, as opposed to playing a guy at his position because he is "second guy". We are going to play the next-best linebacker and shuffle some guys if we need to.


TB: So, in terms of the "Sam" linebacker... in the current constitution of your defense, he will be less of a safety-style,"space"guy now. You want him to be big on run support.

AB: He, the "Sam", is a big-time run support guy. He is going to "harden the edges" of our run defense. Basically play "force" for us and he has to be able to "squeeze" tight ends.


TB: In your evaluation of recruits and young players, do you get an immediate sense of where a particular guy ought to be positioned? Do you know after watching him for ten minutes or do you get a sense over the course of the first year that he would be better on the strong- or weak-side?


AB: We can determine that pretty quickly. Of course there are a lot of factors – one being the player's body type. You can figure that out just by looking at a guy on where you would like him to play. You have to take into account his strength and his speed. And how fast he learns.


TB: Since you mention it, who within the linebacker unit has been learning and has made the most dramatic progress in the offseason?


AB: Alex Debniak, Alex Debniak, Alex Debniak.


TB: A real "workout warrior", is he?


AB: There's no question – he'll win that across the board every time.


TB: How does Debniak's work ethic differentiate itself from the rest?


AB: You just can't get him out of the office. He's in here watching film and seeking coaching. Any hour of the day – he'll come in on a Saturday, peek inside the office to see if I'm here. He went on a trip to Italy and he texted me "where are you? I have been looking for you this summer!" Those are the kind of guys we want!


TB: And Willie (Coach Taggart) isn't trying to snake him from you after what we saw from him at running back in the spring game?


AB: Yeah, he looked pretty good, huh? I told him to watch out or he might end up a full-time offensive player!


TB: Well, with Coach Harbaugh being as flexible as he is, he may see some time there. Now. you got a chance to see starting fullback Owen Marecic take snaps at middle linebacker in the spring. It seemed to be a fairly successful experiment. Is the lack of his prominence in the plans for the "Mike" because other options came together? We thought he looked pretty good.


AB: Yeah, that is what he proved to us in the spring. He is still very much part of the plans – that is what he has and we have already discussed how we are going to use Owen. You will definitely see him at linebacker. He'll be rep-ing at a linebacker position and he will be competing for a job there.


TB: And Debniak will do the same, seeing some time at fullback?


AB: Debniak will be doing the same thing. Those two guys I can say will be [Coach Buh hesitates here, considering how much he should divulge, even to the Cardinal Faithful].... Let's just say ‘there is a distinct possibility". (Big smile!)


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