There's been some speculation among the national media that the Stanford defense may suffer a significant drop-off in 2014, and that notion has not thrilled David Shaw. He made his feelings clear this weekend after Lance Anderson's unit put the finishing touches on an impressive two-week stretch of spring football.
"Apparently, we can play defense without Derek Mason, Shayne Skov, and Trent Murphy," the coach said Saturday. "Because the defense was on fire today."
Henry Anderson, Blake Martinez, James Vaughters, and Aziz Shittu were among the defenders who flexed their muscles during the Cardinal's final workout of the spring's first session. They led an effort that kept Stanford's offense scoreless throughout all 12 of its possessions and drew Shaw's post-practice praise.
"It was tough to move the ball," he said. "There weren't a lot of offensive mistakes. It was more about defensive guys making plays."
Anderson was especially problematic for the offense since Stanford does not allow cut blocking during spring practice. The six-foot-six, 295-pound stalwart's frame, one that's paired with frightening athleticism which generates monstrous leaps, frequently engulfed passing lanes.
Shittu, meanwhile, enjoyed his most productive public action in a Cardinal uniform. With David Parry and Ikenna Nwafor both sidelined through the spring's first session, the junior capitalized on an opportunity to showcase his versatility and start with the first team at nose tackle. Shittu ruptured the line twice, recording a sack and a pass deflection. He also pulverized tight end Eric Cotton on the perimeter to force a fumble.
"[Aziz is] physical, fast, and athletic, and I love the effort he is giving," Shaw said. "He gives us a lot of versatility. He's shown us he can play nose. He's shown us he can play outside. He's shown us he can play inside. It's great to see it on the practice field. I'm excited for him."
Some Offensive Success
This wasn't the first time that Stanford's defensive prowess has shined early in spring practice. In fact, this has been the case for three consecutive offseasons now since the departure of Andrew Luck. Shaw explained that while both the offense and defense are in playbook installation phases, the defense is further along in its development.
"And that's good for the offense," he said. "Offensively, we need to see all of those things. We need to see safety blitzes; we need to see stunts. That's been good for us."
Still, the offense did see its share of success. Devon Cajuste soared high into the air to haul in a Kevin Hogan deep out pass over three defenders. Young tight end Austin Hooper, who missed last week's open practice because of an academic commitment, showed impressive physical readiness. He broke a pair of tackles on one run after a short reception and showed that he can be a good potential complement to Cotton, a sophomore who Stanford may look to establish in the downfield passing game. Jeff Trojan also caught four passes, including one on which Evan Crower threaded the needle through a pack of four defenders.
The Cardinal's running backs continued their early offseason rotation, and Barry Sanders dazzled the crowd with a pair of elusive sidesteps. Ricky Seale, who some have called Stanford's most complete back, received considerable action, while Kelsey Young racked up 72 yards on nine carries to lead the way statistically.
Talent Emerging, Secondary Developing
The Cardinal's second team defense batted one of Crower's passes into the air, and inside linebacker Kevin Palma surged toward the landing spot to pick it off. The Tulare, CA native (hometown of Stanford great and two-time Olympic gold medalist Bob Mathias) checked into spring practice at a bulked-up 259 pounds, and his physical presence was certainly felt Saturday. Stout in run support, he led the Cardinal with nine tackles.
With both Alex Carter and Ronnie Harris out, Taijuan Thomas capitalized on extensive playing time with the second team secondary. He broke up passes from both the corner and nickel back positions, while his sizzling speed came on full display through a cornerback blitz that ended with a sack. Former walk-on Chandler Dorrell, son of former UCLA coach Karl Dorrell (recently hired as Derek Mason's offensive coordinator at Vanderbilt), also produced in the opportunity of extra scrimmage time. He netted a pass break-up, a tackle for loss, and a physical takedown of Sanders on the perimeter.
Shaw said that senior Kyle Olugbode is the current frontrunner at Ed Reynolds' vacated free safety position, but he also emphasized that the competition there will not truly heat up until August training camp. By then, Kodi Whitfield and Dallas Lloyd should have a better knowledge of the playbook and, according to Shaw, "Zach Hoffpauir will put himself into the mix." He's currently playing baseball for Mark Marquess' squad.
"[Whitfield and Lloyd] have been on offense for two years, so knowledge-wise [Olugbode] is a step ahead right now," Shaw said. "But Kodi makes plays. He's a great athlete. And Dallas puts his face in there. He hits."
Senior strong safety John Flacco also made an impression on Saturday. He made a handful of tackles, including a violent stop of Remound Wright in the backfield.
Stanford's secondary is obviously in the midst of a major stretch of development, so Shaw's reported hire of former Texas defensive backs coach Duane Akina can certainly boost efforts to bring the secondary along.
"I really appreciated coach Shaw and the Stanford staff," Akina told ESPN via text message. "Excited to join a university so rich in tradition academically and athletically, much like the one I just left."
The fiery Akina, who developed 28 future NFL players during his time with the Longhorns, is one of the most respected coaches at his position group in the nation. New Texas coach Charlie Strong did not retain Akina as part of the new coaching staff in Austin, and many are considering his acquisition as a major coup for Shaw. At the very least, his addition is an example of the new hiring power that Stanford has developed in this era of unprecedented success.
While Stanford's starting five offensive linemen have held a firm grip on their positions since the beginning of spring practice, there are several bodies jockeying for position behind the them. Brendon Austin has moved from tackle to guard, and Shaw told The Bootleg early last week that the Colorado native is the frontrunner for Joshua Garnett's former Ogre position. Meanwhile, Nick Davidson has emerged as the Cardinal's second team left tackle, while youngster Dave Bright has impressed many in steady action at right tackle.
"[Bright's] really shown some strides," Austin said. "I can't wait to see what does moving forward."
Second Team Offensive Line
LT - Nick Davidson
LG - Johnny Caspers (also played with first unit at RG)
C - Kevin Reihner
RG - Brendon Austin
RT - Dave Bright
Assorted Notes: Injuries, Harris' Leadership, Academic Focus
- Ty Montgomery (knee), who was originally slated to return to the practice field on March 31, will now also miss the second half of spring practice to ensure a full recovery from the injury he suffered late in the Rose Bowl. "It kills him, because he wants to play," Shaw said. "But I need him more in September than in March."
- David Parry (lower abdominal issue) told Shaw that he is feeling better now than he has in a long time. The injury has lingered for several months now, but Stanford believes that proper rest will bring Parry back to full health. There's a chance he'll contribute during the second session of spring, but full health is priority number one on this front for the Cardinal.
- Offensive lineman Thomas Oser did not participate in practice on Saturday and walked around with a slight limp. Shaw said the sophomore would require an MRI.
- Michael Rector, Pat Skov, Joe Hemschoot, and Ronnie Harris all missed weekend action because of minor bumps and bruises. They're all expected to be fine for the second spring session. Harris was held out after running into Cotton earlier, but Shaw praised him for his contributions to the secondary anyway. "Ronnie has been more of a leader than we've anticipated as far as the defensive backs go," he said. "The energy and enthusiasm that he brings has been awesome."
- With the first spring session over, Stanford players now have a chance to place full emphasis on academics with Winter Quarter finals looming. The team will reconvene for the second session of spring practice on March 31. Pro Day is scheduled for March 20.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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