Special Teams Take Center Stage

D.J. Durkin leads special teams

Our eyes are still adjusting to the new sights at Stanford on the practice field with the new regime. After just the second day of spring ball, we explore the extraordinary time and intensity of work given to special teams. Also comments from Jim Harbaugh on some individual surprises, connecting the long ball, the erupting crisis in the interior of the defensive line and more.

You'll have a hard time finding a college football coaching staff who downplays the importance of special teams.  It's one of the three phases of the game, and nobody wants to be bad at anything they do on the football field.  The reality is that some football teams are excellent and some are poor in special teams, and it is clear to the world on Saturdays in the fall.  That can be explained in part by the athletes available and granted by a coaching staff to play in the punt, kickoff, return and field goal units, but it also has much to do with the time, technique and emphasis given in practices.

Though the defining characteristic on Day Two of Stanford's spring practices on Thursday was once again the tempo and energy conducted from start to finish, the second unavoidable impression has been made with special teams.  Stanford is devoting more time and drills to special teams than we can ever remember in watching Cardinal spring practices, spanning four coaching staffs.  Jim Harbaugh told us prior to the spring that he would make his special teams excellent, but what else could we expect from the head coach who talks of world-class operation in every aspect of his team and program?  The proof is in the pudding, and Harbaugh is more than backing up his words.

"Coach is amazing in that aspect," says a grateful special teams coordinator D.J. Durkin.  "I would be hard pressed to find a team that works more special teams than we do, right now in the spring.  He's great about giving us time.  He realizes how important it is.  He puts an emphasis on it, and that carries over to the team.  Guys see that the head coach puts that much emphasis on it, and it definitely helps me a lot.  Guys see it's important to the head coach, so they want to work on it."

"A lot of people talk about how special teams wins games, but unless you're making it a priority, it won't happen," says Harbaugh.  "You can't rehearse special teams.  You have to go out there and actually practice special teams, and make it as game-like as possible."

A tip of the cap in this area again goes back to the practice tempo we discussed after Wednesday's first spring practice.  They speed at which drills are being run, as well as the precision with which they are orchestrated, allows Stanford to fill many more repetitions in the same two and a half hours that another team has for a spring practice.  With that much more being accomplished on offense and defense in a given window of time, there is more soil and care which Harbaugh can give Durkin to grow his special teams in these formative practices.

The other surprising part is that of all the time spent in these first two days of special teams, there was not one simulated operation of kickoff, punt, kickoff return or punt return.  We have yet to see any formations, plays or hints of the Stanford special teams schemes.  The only example of a full unit of 11 players conducting an actual special teams play was the PAT and field goal work, which is necessary for the kickers to take meaningful repetitions in that phase of the game.

But the drills on Wednesday and Thursday in the other four phases of special teams were all one-on-one or one-on-air work.  Durkin has distilled the fundamental skills of blocking and coverage and focused on teaching them without the context of a play or scheme.

"The main thing we're trying to do with special teams this spring is to give these guys a base of fundamentals and technique to where they will have the confidence to beat guys on the field," Durkin explains.  "We're not concerned with doing a bunch of scheme, 'line up here' or doing tricks.  I want them to have a base of technique and fundamentals to where they know no matter what they get across from them, they have the tools in their back pocket where they can beat it."

"That's number one," the coach continues.  "Number two is that we're finding tough guys who want to compete.  You'll notice every day when we do special team, there is some kind of competition going on.  We want to find out who the guys are who want to compete - who the tough guys are who want to hit you in the mouth.  It's as simple as that."

It would seem difficult to truly test and gauge toughness through these first two practices of the spring, however.  NCAA rules those two days compelled the Cardinal to practice without pads, which vastly limits the contact and physical nature of one-on-one competition.

"You'd be surprised.  You can see it pretty well right now," Durkin counters.  "Obviously, we'll turn it up another notch when we get pads on here Saturday.  We'll really get after it.  The guys who want to compete, they rise to the top when the lights and turned on, and you'll notice some guys hang in the back.  That's how you find out who'll be out there."

Toward the end of practice, the highlight competition came in a drill simulating kickoff coverage and return.  One player each representing the two sides of that battle lined up across from each other just as if they were across the line of scrimmage on a kickoff.  At the blow of the whistle, they both raced down the field, with the protection/blocker man, turning abruptly at a designated spot on the field.  Then in an instant, the two meet in a sudden battle to beat their opponent.  It was a hugely spirited competition that engaged nearly every player on the roster.  Players ran as hard and battled as fiercely as any time we saw during the practice.

"On kickoff, you're running full speed.  If you're on the return, you're running full speed to get back to a certain point and then try to execute a block.  We're simulating that and trying to put it in the best competitive format we can," explains Durkin.  "There's no offense or defense.  We divided them up randomly, evenly distributed on different teams.  You're competing with your team."

"They did a good job," the special teams coordinator continues.  "We have a ways to go, but they're getting better.  We did a different competition drill yesterday, and we got much better today.  I expect Saturday to get much better than that.  I expect these guys to look forward to competing.  We want guys who want to compete in everything that they do."

One of the big fans of the drill was Harbaugh, who saw passion, athleticism and competition rising in the arena of special teams.

"We want to have our guys grow in their competitiveness, and then find out who our best guys are," Harbaugh says.  "Who is going to help us win games?  We feel like we can games on special teams."

The goal of these drills is to bring the best special teams players to the surface, wherever they might play.  Harbaugh has several who early have caught his eye through the first two days of spring practices.

"Richard Sherman - he could block a bunch of punts this year.  He's like Ed Reed from the Baltimore Ravens," the first-year Cardinal coach offers.  "We're really seeing tough guys like Pat Maynor and Tom McAndrewErik Lorig continues to show up.  Anthony Kimble also on special teams.  Our philosophy is that starters have to play one or two phases of special teams.  Then we have a core group of six or seven guys who play on four phases.  When it comes to kickoff and punt, we have to have our best players on those two phases."

One area that most certainly did not shine was the placekicking.  Starting with extra points and then working their way back up the field to short and then longer field goals, the two competing Cardinal kickers had all eyes watching on Thursday.  Fifth-year senior Derek Belch started hitting his PATs, but then redshirt junior Aaron Zagory missed his first - wide left.  The kicking spiraled downward from there, with the kickers missing a handful of field goals.  The pinnacle moment of the kicking session came from long distance, with the entire team crowded around Belch and the field goal unit to scream and simulate crowd noise and pressure.  The kick shanked badly, wide and well short.

"We have to improve in that area," says Durkin.  "They have been doing a lot of kicking on their own.  Those guys have been working hard, and they're improving.  I think we'll be strong in that area.  We just have to keep working.  Just like everything else, it's a work in progress."

"We missed a few," Harbaugh adds.  "Some of that operation wasn't where you'd like it.  We're really just trying to teach technique and find the guys who will fill those roles."

"We'll devote 10 minutes every practice to the extra point and field goal," the head coach continues.  "You see it in the NFL.  How many teams are losing games, losing playoff games or losing spots in the playoffs because they can't handle a snap in extra point and field goal?  We have to make sure that we're solid in those areas."

While the kicking was a downer, Harbaugh highlights several positive surprises he is seeing on the field.  A number of the staff's off-season position switches are paying off, with Harbaugh pointing to Chris Hobbs (now at wide receiver), Ben Ladner (tight end), Erik Lorig (defensive end) and Gustav Rydstedt (guard).

The early returns on Hobbs are a good thing for the redshirt sophomore, who took a somewhat bold approach in his introduction to the new Cardinal head coach.  Shortly after Harbaugh was hired, the small speedster shook hands and introduced himself to his new head coach as "Chris Hobbs, wide receiver."

"I said, 'Oh great.  Glad to have you on the team,'" Harbaugh remembers from their meeting.  "I later come to find out that he took that opportunity to change sides of the ball on the coaching staff."

Ladner was one part of an overall impressive tight end group on Thursday, which is saying something considering that Lorig has moved to defense and Matt Traverso is still not conditioned and cleared for practice.  We all know about redshirt sophomore James Dray, who is unsurprisingly running first team at tight end after starting 11 games last fall.  But Ladner, Patrick Bowe and Austin Gunder all made a handful of nice (and occasionally standout) plays in the receiving game.  Ladner showed soft hands and flashed impressive speed for his size after the catch, while Bowe and Gunder made good catches in the middle of the field and on the sideline.

Rydstedt is the newcomer to Stanford's offensive line after playing his first three years on defense.  He already had a steep learning curve to climb when he arrived on The Farm, after scant quality football experience in Sweden.  Now he is the low man on the offensive line totem pole, with less overall offensive experience than even the Cardinal's first-year linemen.  But Harbaugh gave an enthusiastic "two thumbs up" sign after Thursday's practice when talking about his early impressions watching Rydstedt in his work at guard.

"He's athletic.  He can bend," Harbaugh says.  "He had a lateral step that just showed his athleticism and bend.  He's a knee-bender, and usually defensive linemen are more athletic."

Among the returning and more established players, Harbaugh offered praise for Anthony Kimble, T.C. Ostrander, Alex Fletcher, Allen Smith and Richard Sherman.  The Ostrander-to-Sherman long ball connection twice hit for very long gains on Thursday, which were the offensive highlights of the day.  Perfect throws, with the receiver beating his man deep and running right under the ball.

"He really improved that from yesterday," says Harbaugh of Ostrander.  "Yesterday we threw four different deep balls with four different trajectories.  Today he was able to find more consistency on his trajectory.  But, we have a ways to go in the back end in the secondary."

In addition to Harbaugh's repeated concerns on the depth and play at cornerback, there is a brewing crisis in the interior of the defensive line.  On the first day of spring ball, we reported the news that sophomore Sione Fua will take his Mormon mission this summer and not return until 2009.  That's trouble for Stanford in the fall, but they have an emergency already this spring.  Fua hurt his shoulder on Thursday and was out of action.  Redshirt sophomore Matt Kopa partially tore the PCL in his knee Wednesday and is done for the spring.  Redshirt freshman Derek Hall was carted off the practice field Thursday in bad shape, with what appeared to be heat stroke.  With redshirt sophomore Ekom Udofia already out this spring following winter shoulder surgery, Stanford finished their second practice of the spring with just one defensive tackle remaining on the field.  One.  Sophomore Levirt Griffin had to move mid-practice from defensive end, with an unplanned but now semi-permanent position switch.

"Levirt is going inside, and I think he can handle that," Harbaugh says.  "What we're going to to do is take D.J. [Durkin] and Lance [Anderson] and coach the tackles and ends together because there will definitely be some guys who have to go in there.  Sione is going on his mission.  Ekom is out.  Kopa is out all spring.  We're getting thin fast."

The only saving grace for Stanford is that the defensive ends look so strong, allowing Griffin to move inside without leaving the edge barren for the Cardinal.  Durkin had been giving equal repetitions to his five defensive ends (now four after Griffin's move), who he also has decided to practice as "left" and "right" ends rather than the conventional "strongside" and "weakside" responsibilities.  The coach explains that this is an introductory step in his teaching, and that Stanford will play strong/weak come the fall.

"It's harder for the guys at first, but it makes it easier down the road," Durkin offers.  "All of your guys have now played strong and weak, so they know it.  If you get to the point in a game where you need someone who was playing strong to go weak, he's already done it.  He's not learning on the run."

The remaining quartet are Lorig, redshirt junior Pannel Egboh and fifth-year seniors Udeme Udofia and Emmanuel Awofadeju.  Egboh when healthy has proven himself at defensive end in college, and the expectations for him by the coaching staff are immense.  The other three are all new this spring to the position, which carried some concern, albeit now melting away.

"We have four really good defensive ends," Harbaugh says excitedly.  "The other two guys who now look really comfortable with their hand on the ground are Emmanuel and Udeme.  I think that's a really good change.  They've done it before, but they look like a lot better players now that they're not linebackers off in space.  I'm really impressed with those guys.

"He's done great," Durkin adds of Lorig.  "Erik's a very intense competitor, and he works hard.  He's one of the hardest workers on the team.  He would be good at any position on the team.  I'm just glad to have him at end."

"It's just different being on the other side of the ball," Durkin explains of Lorig's transition from tight end.  "At the point of contact, the offense is trying to initiate contact; defense is trying to defeat that contact.  He has some stuff to learn technique-wise, which is common when you haven't played that position since high school.  But he's willing to learn and he works hard at it.  To me, he'll get there.  He's doing a great job."

In the theme of NFL/legend visitors started Wednesday with Bill Walsh and Bob Whitfield addressing the team to start and close practice, there was another presence on Thursday that had observers buzzing.  Miami Dolphins head coach Cam Cameron and general manager Randy Mueller were in attendance for the last hour of practice.  They were in town for Trent Edwards, possibly the #2 quarterback to be drafted later this month, but they paid close attention to the future crop of Cardinal.  Cameron and Mueller also talked afterward with both Jim Harbaugh and Jack Harbaugh for nearly half an hour.

Stanford's next practice on Saturday brings full pads and some hard hitting to The Farm for the first time this spring.  Harbaugh and the Cardinal coaches obviously hope to step up the physical nature of practice Saturday, but they also hope to keep going the positives they have nurtured in these first two non-pad practices.

"We want the same tempo.  More system will be going in, on both sides of the ball.  Just keep the pressure on ourselves," he says.  "What I love out there is that it's very chaotic right now, to steal a line from Scott Shafer, who said that our guys have to be able to play well in a chaotic environment.  You have that the first couple days, but we really want to keep that chaotic environment going.  We're shifting.  We're motioning.  We're making it chaotic for the defense.  And they have zone blitzes, 3-4 defense, nickel three-down package - keep the chaos going.  That's game-like.  We just want to make it as game-like as possible."


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