Spring Football Notebook: Defense Makes a Statement

Saturday, halfway through Stanford’s spring football training period, marked a milestone: the first day of live tackles.

For a Cardinal defense that struggled to eliminate runners and limit explosive plays last season, this was the first step to putting the past behind them. And it happened.

Senior safety Jonathan McGill fended off an interception from junior quarterback Tanner McKee in seven-on-seven practice. Supported on the goal line, the defensive line battled to keep junior running back EJ Smith out of the way. the end zone, stopping him twice. And on the final practice play, junior defensive lineman Zephron Lester forced a turnover by beating a pass from junior quarterback Beau Nelson and his teammates swarmed him in celebration.

“The defensive line, we have young and experienced guys. But they work hard, make plays,” said head coach David Shaw. “Some of these racing games today were hard luge – which is great, that’s what we want.”

All eyes are on the Cardinal’s defensive line this offseason — and it’s not just because of Stanford’s lackluster performance on defense last year. The team made a significant schematic change at the end of the 2021 season when it moved to a four-man defensive front.

“I think it really suits our guys,” Shaw said. “We eliminated some things [to] make learning a little easier for the younger ones.

A simpler base defense, Shaw said, allowed young defensive linemen and edge rushers on Stanford’s roster to acclimate and make plays more easily. The team will gradually add more looks and pressure as spring training progresses, Shaw added, but for now, cutting back on defense will help the Cardinal replace several veteran defensive line starters and players. linebacking units.

The transition to a 4-3 defense might also better suit Stanford’s defensive staff.

“They’re not the biggest group physically,” defensive coordinator Lance Anderson said in an interview last Sunday. “We just want these guys to play fast. We want to leave the ball. We want to get into the backfield. We want to be disruptive.

The Cardinal’s two biggest defensive linemen, defensive end Thomas Booker ’22 and defensive tackle Dalyn Wade-Perry ’21, have declared themselves for the NFL Draft, and no defensive player on the roster this year weighs over 300 lbs. A four-man front will give Stanford’s lighter, faster defensive linemen more numbers at the line of scrimmage and a better chance of holding the line.

The task of “partying in the backfield” will fall to “EDGE” players — a newly redesignated spring roster position that combines Stanford defensive ends and outside linebackers. Anderson said Stanford’s point defenders would take on both passing and covering responsibilities in the first seven.

“Those guys on the edge, they might be more of the defensive/passing-rush type, but we’re still going to incorporate those guys into some drops like we would into a 3-4,” Anderson said. “They’ll have a bit of both.”

Some of Stanford’s most talented underclassmen wait backstage in peak position. Sophomore Aaron Armitage and freshman David Bailey, who headlined Stanford’s last two recruiting classes as the highest-ranked passers in high school, have both shown their potential this spring, Shaw and Anderson said.

“I’m very excited about the young guys,” Anderson said. “I think they bring a certain size, a certain strength and a certain explosiveness to the position.”

Time will tell if Stanford’s adjustments can resurrect a defense that ranked near the bottom of the FBS last season. But between a new base package and an influx of young talent, the Cardinal defense looks decidedly different next year. They just need to get up to speed.

“We’re just working on our basic stuff and getting better and better at playing the base,” Shaw said. “We did a good job.”

Additional practice notes:

  • Senior cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly has had “dominant” spring practice so far, Shaw said. “I expect him to be the best corner in the conference this year,” he said.
  • Showing the hybrid responsibilities of Stanford’s edge defenders, sixth-year Bailey and Thunder Keck were jogging on the training grounds at one point, alternating between reps in pass coverage in seven-on-seven drills and one-on-one passing drills.
  • On the injury front, Stanford seems to be in particularly good shape against running back and fullback. Junior running back Casey Filkins, sophomore running back Brendon Barrow and sophomore Shield fullbacks Taylor and Coco Lukrich were all in street clothes on Saturday. Shaw said Filkins, Taylor and Lukrich will likely miss the second half of spring training as well, but are on track to return later in the spring. After the transfer of fifth-year Houston Heimuli, fifth-year Jay Symonds is the only currently healthy fullback.

  • Also in street clothes: fifth-year cornerback Ethan Bonner and fifth-year safety Patrick Fields, Stanford’s main transfer from Oklahoma. “He’s got a bit of a makeover right now,” Shaw said of Fields. “We don’t need to rush him in the first week of training. We saw everything we needed to see. He will help us right away.
  • Fifth-year wide receiver Michael Wilson appeared to injure his foot on a tackle after receiving a deep fly ball early in the team’s period. He got up cautiously, limped to the sideline and did not return to practice.