You could argue that the single most compelling factor that induced A.J. Christoff to change Stanford to a 3-4 defense in the winter of 2004 was Jon Alston. The then-redshirt junior was the odd man out as the fourth linebacker for the Cardinal, but his explosive speed and athleticism were screaming to get onto the field. Alston unfortunately was a smaller athlete, built more like a safety than a college linebacker. With a dearth of depth on the defensive line, Christoff transformed the Cardinal such that Alston was always on the field at a fourth new "rush" outside linebacker position in place of what used to be a fourth defensive lineman. The "rush" position in Stanford's defense plays on the weak side of the field, away from the tight end. Operating in space, Alston was able to terrorize quarterbacks and run to the ball. Despite some injury and a transition to a new defensive coordinator and altered scheme in 2005, Alston racked up 16.5 sacks and 24 tackles for loss in his two years with the 3-4 defense.
Christoff has returned, and the Cardinal are hoping to reclaim the playmaking pop at Alston's position of 2004, when he notched 10 sacks and took the Pac-10 by storm. Alston is gone, leveraging his athleticism now for the St. Louis Rams. Stanford has to find new fireballs for the "rush" outside linebacker position, and the top two on the depth chart are brand new faces. Last fall, Clinton Snyder was playing on the scout defense for the Cardinal. Peter Griffin was a strong safety and special teams contributor. Without apologies, these two have to fill Alston's shoes and take hold of a position imperative to the success of this Stanford defense.
"They have to be the playmakers of the defense," explains outside linebackers coach Jeff Hammerschmidt. "They have to be the guys where you're confident saying, 'Let's bring them off the edge, turn them loose and sack the quarterback.' But also be skilled enough and drop in coverage."
"If we keep coming along with Clinton, he's close to what we're talking about," the coach continues. "With Griff, we're hoping that he's that solid backup who can get in there and keep doing that stuff we want to do. That will help us."
Though just a redshirt freshman, Snyder has a lock on the position. As we have talked to numerous players this summer and training camp, we ask the question of what will happen when several young players like Snyder fill so many spots on Stanford's defense. Consistently the answer we heard was that Snyder should not be viewed as any kind of freshman. 'He's ready.' 'He plays like a veteran.' 'We have all the confidence in the world in him.'
"Even though he's younger, he plays like an upperclassman. He doesn't play like a freshman," Griffin echoes. "He has really been great at showing me some things and giving me some tips, like the 'Snyder spin move' he likes to use... I haven't mastered it yet, but it's his signature move."
"Both guys are very talented I think," Hammerschmidt says. "Clinton is a very special player. He's one of those kids who plays like a veteran. His energy level and his motor are unbelievable. He's real young, so for the teaching part of it, everything is new to him. But he's one of those guys who whenever you tell him one thing, you never have to tell him again. It's fun to work with him."
Through more than one week of fall camp thus far this month, Snyder is proving his teammates and coaches correct. The 6'4" bullet is a terror in the offensive backfield and he breaks quickly on the ball. One question for the Spring Valley (Calif.) Monte Vista High School standout while being recruited was his size. Snyder was a skinny kid who somehow made armloads of plays and flashed terrific speed and explosiveness, ultimately earning him Player of the Year honors as a senior by the San Diego Union-Tribune. But could he transition physically into a player who could tackle Pac-10 running backs and fight through the towering tackles and tight ends? Though just starting his second year at Stanford, Snyder has already ably answered the question. At 233 pounds, he looks the part of a college linebacker and has the strength to couple with his speed.
His physical abilities are apparent, but Snyder also offers a playmaking knack and surprising consistency for an inexperienced college player. So much so that the defensive coaches are already entrusting him as an every-down player, before he has yet to play a single college game.
"I think with Clinton, he's a guy you don't want off the field," Hammerschmidt offers. "When we do a different package and if we do different stuff and take a guy out, he's not a guy we take out of the defense. We let him do something else. He's one of the three or four guys, I believe we think, who needs to be on the field all the time. With his energy level and conditioning level, he's going to be fine to stay in the whole time."
That is a rousing vote of confidence for the youngster from the Cardinal coaches, but the reality is that a starter in the "rush" position in Stanford's defense is likely to break down at times. Snyder, much like Alston, plays with an incredibly high motor - running hard and fast to every play. It is not reasonable to expect a player in today's game, with opponents boasting ever-increasing size and speed, to handle 80 plays each through 12 or 13 games. Set your expectations today for the occasional ankle or knee injury.
When Snyder has to come off the field, his replacement is slated to be redshirt junior Peter Griffin, who is in some ways an even more interesting study. The Memphis (Tenn.) Central High School man came to The Farm as a walk-on who escaped much of the public recruiting radar. Quietly in the spring of his senior year, Griffin had a slug-fest recruiting battle between Stanford and Notre Dame for his services. Though most of the faces on the Cardinal coaching staff have changed four years later, Griffin has consistently been praised as a promising playmaker and hardworker.
The challenge has been finding a place on the field for him. The 6'0" athlete made his defensive debut as a reserve strong safety last fall and proudly earned his first letter at Stanford. Shallow depth at several linebacker positions compelled the coaches to move him to the weakside inside 'backer during the off-season, where he worked on the second team through spring practices. Newer developments and an assessment of his fit have moved Griffin once again. On the eve of training camp, Griffin was switched to the "rush" outside linebacker position.
"I've had my ups and downs definitely, but I ended last year with a positive note. I lettered and got in on defense," Griffin says. "Now I'm just trying to improve from that. I'm definitely happy where I am now, and the coaches are really working on me. I think that this will be a great move for me."
"Peter is older and a guy who has been moved around to a couple different positions," Hammerschmidt states. "Sometimes guys react differently to different positions, and I think he's more of what we take at the 'rush.' He's more of a Jon Alston type - not quite yet, obviously - but he's more of a skilled 'rush' player, which is our open side guy, who has a chance to drop and be athlete and rush and do some different things. He brings that to the table."
Like Alston, Griffin is not a big guy. But he has athleticism and promise playing in open space. The hope for both him and the staff is that this spot will be his last.
"Outside linebacker is more similar to safety than inside linebacker was. I'm still kind of in the open field on a side of the ball and don't have to worry too much about what's going on the inside. It's a lot similar to safety," Griffin offers. "I'm on the edge, just set to rush the quarterback, to contain the edge and be physical and play ball. That's what I like to do."
"He was a physical safety, so we thought he could be an inside linebacker," Hammerschmidt details. He was a little bit out of place being a 'plugger' type of guy. It's a different view of the offense when you're back, an 'alley runner' and used to running inside-out on toss sweeps and all that. We made him an inside linebacker, where now you're a 'gap make it spill out to the alley' and it's a little bit different."
"You take a guy like that and move him to the outside 'backer," the coach continues. "Now he's more in the alley. He's more of that type of player again. I think that helps him. With the physical part, obviously people are going to line up with big tight ends, and he might not be in that game. But when people line up and we do what we do against personnel in this conference, I think you have a chance to have a guy like that be real successful."
At the same time, this is a dramatic set of moves that Griffin has made in the last eight months. He went from playing in the third level of the Stanford defense at safety to the second level as an inside linebacker. The "rush" outside linebacker plays much of the time hovering close to the line of scrimmage as the first level of the defense. The reaction time required for Griffin today as compared to where he operated his first three years on The Farm is night and day.
"I'm gradually moving forward in the defense. I'm just trying to get so that as quick as the ball is snapped, I know exactly what's going on. There is a lot less time," Griffin allows. "They understand that I've been playing this position for eight days, but I'm studying film trying to be the best that I can be."
Practices the last several days have given Griffin a lot of repetitions with both the first and second team defense. Late in Sunday's scrimmage, Snyder also was banged up and played limited snaps on Monday. That gave us a glimpse at what happens to the "rush" depth chart when Snyder is subtracted. Griffin played first team at the position, and newly converted safety Thaddeus Chase saw a few plays on the second unit. But on more plays, we saw two of Stanford's players from the "Sam" outside linebacker position (opposite "rush" on the strong side of the field) man the combined outside linebacker spots.
"The positions are almost mirrored," Hammerschmidt explains. "Will Powers can go in there and finish a game, or play a season. So could Emmanuel. So could Udeme, so we're in great shape."
Udeme Udofia is the redshirt junior who started last fall as Stanford's "Sam" outside linebacker. Playing in all 11 games, Udofia amassed 36 tackles and five tackles for loss. He is a bigger physical specimen than either Snyder or Griffin, with not only a strong frame but also the long arms to neutralize a tight end on the line of scrimmage. And on the 2006 Stanford defense that has youngsters and new starters at seemingly every position, Udofia is now one of the more seasoned and veteran players.
"He brings a lot of energy to the field. A lot of guys like him; they rally around him. He's one of those guys," Hammerschmidt says. "He's around the ball a lot. At times he looks awkward here and there, but he makes plays. He's consistent. Once he gets his motor going the whole time, he's going to be great."
Udofia had two setbacks this off-season however. The first came in the spring, when in the first week of practices he injured his shoulder and missed the remaining three weeks. Then he had dental surgery that required wiring his jaw, which prevented him from eating quite what a player his size and age needs.
"He lost some weight this summer and is gaining it back right now. I think that's the biggest thing. He's getting his strength back," his coach comments. "He's smart. He's consistent. He doesn't have a lot of busts. He knows the defense. He's experience with the defense. There is a lot of upside to him. The downside for him right now is his conditioning level, and now we need to get him to where he needs to be."
Though he started 11 games last fall, there is no time for Udofia to leisurely recover and regain his physical condition. Competition is fast heating up at the "Sam" outside linebacker position, led by the young Powers, who is making a run at a starting job that could put a pair of bookend redshirt freshmen on the field at Stanford's outside 'backers.
"Udeme right now is in the lead at that position, with Will Powers closing in on him. And Emmanuel has his flashes. He has his good days and bad days. They all do," Hammerschmidt declares. "But I think more consistent right now is Udeme; the second most consistent is Will; and then you go to Emmanuel."
Powers was a consensus All-American out of high school and hailed as one of the top two overall recruits in the 2005 Cardinal recruiting class. His emergence on the Stanford defense is fast, coming during the fall of his second year, though perhaps not as fast as that of Snyder. Physical ability has not held Powers back, who is strong and fast and getting bigger. It has been a more intangible factor, according to his coach.
"I think his confidence is getting a little better," Hammerschmidt says. "He's more confident in himself. That's all he needs. He has all the talent in the world to do the "Sam", to do the 'rush.' He just doesn't have the confidence yet, but now I think his confidence is building and he's starting to play harder and starting to be more physical consistently. That's all that it is going to take of him. He has all the ability."
There is an exciting collection of ability across Stanford's outside linebackers, though varying levels of experience in college football or at their position. They will be important players to watch through this fall
More News & Notes
- It had to end sometime, and that time came for Trent Edwards on Monday. The fifth-year senior quarterback had in Stanford's previous three scrimmage sessions completed 100% of his pass attempts. A shot at the endzone to senior wide receiver Mark Bradford sailed a couple yards high. Bradford was open, and it should have been a touchdown. But we won't begrudge Edwards for finally failing perfection. At least, not yet.
- The big pass play of Monday's scrimmage connected with an unlikely target. Redshirt junior fullback Emeka Nnoli had a catch and run up the left sideline that racked up 28 yards, with the final few coming as Nnoli bowled through a pair of would-be tacklers. This fall camp keeps getting better for the fourth-year (and forgotten) fullback.
- Following his surprising appearance Sunday out of a yellow jersey and in limited work with the offensive line, fifth-year senior center Tim Mattran took a giant leap forward on Monday. He started at center with the first team offense during the end-of-practice scrimmage and showed no visible signs of pain or problem. That moved redshirt sophomore Alex Fletcher back to right guard, which in turn moved fifth-year senior Jon Cochran back to the second unit. It is noteworthy that Cochran remained at guard, despite the return of a veteran interior lineman. Right now, it looks like Cochran may take a utility role on the offensive line, backing up several tackle and guard positions, wherever he is first needed. Currently, there is better tackle depth healthy than guard, so Cochran may stay inside for a while.
- Also on the mend and back in action were a pair of wide receivers. Redshirt junior Evan Moore tore off his yellow jersey Monday and took full part in the practice, including all first team snaps during the scrimmage. Freshman Austin Yancy made his debut in full pads contact work, after previously sitting out since pulling his hamstring last Wednesday. Very early observations are encouraging for Yancy, and we are anxious to watching him closely in upcoming practices.
- Anthony Kimble made his scrimmage debut on Sunday with the opening carry for the first team offense, but that was it for the redshirt sophomore running back. On Monday he took not only the lead, but also the lion's share of first team carries. We should expect Kimble to look just okay in these early practices after his illness and late arrival to camp. Instead, the Louisiana athlete looks surprisingly good. He is clearly faster, quicker and stronger than a year ago. Kimble shredded the defense in this scrimmage both running and catching the ball out of the backfield.
- More surprisingly still was the work the second unit did running the football. Redshirt freshman Xxavier Carter is universally overlooked in the Cardinal running back corps, and nothing he did last year would argue otherwise. But give credit for quickly hitting holes Monday and picking up 35 yards on four carries. I do not see the "shake" of lateral quickness in Carter that is evident in Kimble, Toby Gerhart or Ray Jones, but the redshirt frosh is making gains with north-south running. Either this means that the second team offensive line is doing a whale of a job opening holes, or the second team defense is frightfully porous against the run.
- During Sunday's practice, fifth-year senior Matt Traverso suffered a concussion and sat out the scrimmage ending the practice. Traverso was out of action again on Monday. In his absence, who took the lead in first team repetitions at tight end in both scrimmages? Redshirt freshman Erik Lorig, who is fast making a name for himself as a terrorizing run blocker.
- Redshirt sophomore right defensive end Pannel Egboh was back on the field Monday, which provides a sigh of relief for those holding their breath after he wobbled off the field injured on Sunday.
- Freshman Tyler Porras was offered by the Cardinal as a cornerback out of high school, but thus far we have seen him at safety in Stanford's practices.
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