The New Middle: Part I

The New Middle: Part I

Questions abound everywhere on Stanford's defense this spring, but the greatest transition may be in the middle. The Cardinal have an all-new linebacking corps - positions and players - though fortunately a new coach able to lead the way. In the first of our two-part examination of Stanford's second level of the defense, we look (fittingly) through the eyes of linebacker coach Andy Buh.

As with many things Stanford Football, the linebacking corps is being rebuilt in 2007.  After a 1-11 season and with a completely new Cardinal coaching staff, all of the "old" has been thrown out the window, but the linebackers may be experiencing the most dramatic reset on the roster.  After three years playing with four 'backers on the field in the Pac-10's only 3-4 defense, Stanford is installing a completely new look with three linebackers in the second level of a 4-3 set.

Gone is Michael Okwo, a First-Team All Pac-10 defensive player who combined the best playmaking and explosiveness of perhaps any Stanford linebacker in a decade.  Stanford's starting "Sam" linebacker of the past two years, Udeme Udofia, is now playing with his hand on the ground as a defensive end.  Stanford's two returning starters in the linebacking corps are playing new positions, though every Stanford linebacker is to an extent playing in a new spot with the positions completely changed.

"We're starting from scratch - just getting them lined up correctly, getting their eyes right, working techniques they are going to use and getting them to execute.  And playing the game with a little bit of passion," says linebackers coach Andy Buy.  "Right now, we're just digesting stuff.  As soon as that becomes natural, we'll stop reading it and just react to it.  You know, we're coming along.  We're getting a little bit better every day, and I think the guys are progressing pretty good."

"We're giving them a little bit at a time," the coach continues.  "We're still working on a lot of base defense, base techniques and base blitz packages.  So we're not throwing a lot at them.  With as much as we are doing on offense, it gives us a lot of adjustments that we have to get to."

When Buh says he is giving his linebackers a little bit at a time, that is both true and understated.  The fraction of Stanford's defensive scheme thus far installed is modest, but the keys to Buh's linebacking Lamborghini have already been handed over to his players.  At their disposal is hundreds of horsepower loaded into a machine not quite street legal.  Buh's teachings catapulted players from San Diego State into the first day of the NFL Draft - just think what he can do with Pac-10 caliber talent.

A linebacker needs quick feet to move him to the ball, both straight ahead and side-to-side.  His hands allow him to shed and defeat blockers.  Hips help him change direction in space to react to the play.

But for Buh, it's all about the eyes.

As a linebacker at Nevada, he was short and slow.  To compensate for his physical shortcomings, Buh let his eyes lead him to the ball.  He read everything possible in the offense to anticipate the play, thereby giving his mundane body a fast jump on the ball.  Now Buh is coaching an athletically superior breed of players on The Farm, who he is trying to help see the game like he did.

"They can't react to what they can't see," Buh begins.  "That's what we always say.  Once we get that down, I think we'll be pretty good."

"They have pre-snap clues and pre-snap keys," he describes.  "They have to know the personnel.  They have to know the splits.  They have to know the back sets.  They have to know the depths of the backs.  They have to know the splits of the linemen.  They have to know the quarterback's posture.  Those are all pre-snap clues, and they all have a routine that they need to go through.  Then right before the ball snaps, they have their keys they have to look at.  Then their keys will change as the ball moves.  There is a lot of teaching involved."

There sure is.  That's more keys than a college janitor carries, which begs a question.  How can a coach ask his players to think about so many things and not expect them to play slow, mechanical football?  The idea is to make the game fast and instinctual, right?

"All of those things that I just mentioned, it takes a good linebacker about two seconds to figure out," Buh counters.  The personnel has already been told to them.  The down and distance is already out there.  When the formation comes out, they check the formation; they check the split; they line up; and they play football.  It's that easy.  We'll make that natural.  It sounds like a lot, but it's not.  A good linebacker will check all of that stuff, and that's where we need to get them to because those keys will make them play faster to the football."

"Our goal is to know where the football is going before it's snapped," the coach crystallizes.  "All of those clues and keys will help them."

Buh is also trying to help his players and Stanford's defense by plugging his nine linebackers into their best hit among the three linebacker positions.  In the middle is the aptly named middle or "Mike" linebacker.  There are two outside linebackers in this defense, a "Sam" who plays on the strong side of the field (typically marked by the tight end) and a "Will" who plays on the weak side.  Buh is blessed better than any other position coach on The Farm this spring, with all of his players starting the spring healthy and a full three-deep at all positions.  It is not obvious who belongs where, however.

The most curious Cardinal of the nine linebackers is redshirt sophomore Tom McAndrew.  Just a few months ago, he was playing as a defensive end in Stanford's three-man front, head-up against the Pac-10's titanic tackles.  Today big 6'5" athlete is playing in open space at the center of Stanford's second level of the defense.  The athletic transition being made by McAndrew is athletically daunting, if not outright counterintuitive.

"It's surprisingly pretty good," says Buh of McAndrew's adjustment.  "For a guy who is 250 pounds, he has 10 percent body fat, so he's as lean as he could possibly be.  What Tom gives us is some field presence and some leadership.  We're hoping that helps the group out there.  Not to say that he's going to be the starter, but he's leading the group right now.  He's had a pretty good spring practice up to now."

Running throughout this spring thus far as Stanford's first-team "Mike" linebacker, McAndrew has been a pleasant surprise.  But you can guess the number one area Buh feels must improve:

"His eyes," the coach critiques.  "We're working on a lot of eye progression technique that he hasn't done in over a year, transitioning from a down position to playing off the ball.  But he's doing fine.  He brings some power to that position, so to speak.  He's a bigger middle linebacker.  We're not asking him to run sideline to sideline - more tackle to tackle.  He's going to be a plugger in this defense, and he brings the leadership that we need right now."

That was the question everyone asked when McAndrew moved to middle linebacker: can he play sideline to sideline at his size?  Buh says he doesn't need to do that.  Running number two at the "Mike" position this spring has been redshirt junior Pat Maynor, who presents a markedly different package at 6'2" 220.  Maynor can run and reasonably could play the position from sideline to sideline, which could in turn allow Buh to do different things with his middle linebacker.

"No, we're asking the same thing," the coach corrects us.  "Pat gives us a little bit more speed in there, but typically the middle linebacker is going to take on more linemen inside.  Just having Tom's size is giving us help in there."

Giving help at the "Will" linebacker position is redshirt sophomore Clinton Snyder, who is a rising star.  He started 11 games last fall and through one week of spring practices is the one linebacker who appears safe to pencil as a starter.

"Clint plays with his hair on fire.  That's a given," says a smiling Buh.  "You turn him loose, and he runs.  That's what we're excited about him.  Clinton plays hard every snap. We're trying to get him to control some of that with proper technique, but as soon as we get the technical side of him firmed up, he'll be a force to be reckoned with."

"He just needs to increase his knowledge of the game," the coach comments.  "He was just running wild a lot last year and wasn't using an eye progression.  But he played well within the scheme.  He just needs to transition into this scheme, work his eyes a little bit better with technique, and then we'll turn him loose."

Unfortunately for Stanford and Snyder, the 6'4" speedster has been out of action during Stanford's contact drills the last two practices with a stinger.  While valuable time for teaching is lost, there is a silver lining to Snyder's neck injury.  His absence has afforded an opportunity to redshirt freshman Nick Macaluso, who is wide-eyed in his first spring of college football.  Macaluso took the first-team reins at the "Will" linebacker on Monday and afterward earned this praise from his position coach:

"I love Nick.  Nick is making a move," said Buh.  "He's been one of the more productive linebackers that we have right now.  He is really surprising us - he's just a freshman.  He needs to grow in some areas, obviously.  But he's hunting right now."

When Stanford was hit with inside linebacker injuries early last fall, Macaluso received a hard look at playing on Saturdays as a true freshman.  He excited during training camp with his promise, particularly playing in pass coverage.  But his run support and gap integrity was shaky and in need of work.

"He's doing that a lot better.  That's what we like about him right now," Buh says.  "In fact, it would be just the opposite right now.  He's grown in that area, and we're looking for him to keep growing."

At the other outside linebacker, growth has not been evident.  Everybody was waiting for redshirt sophomore Will Powers to run with the opportunity available to him at the "Sam" 'backer this spring, but he has not entirely impressed.

"We just want him to step up and take the job," Buh charges.  "He's progressing, but he needs to show some more."

"Right now, Will Powers is running with the one's.  That's not a definite.  We're still experimenting with different guys," hints the coach.  "We're going to put the best three linebackers on the field.  That might be two 'Willies'.  That might be two 'Mikes'.  And they know that."

Buh proved Wednesday that he was speaking beyond the hypothetical when he bumped Powers down to the second string of the defense.  Macaluso flipped from his outside linebacker position ("Will" to "Sam"), which elevated fifth-year senior Peter Griffin to the first-team "Will" spot.  Griffin is a former walk-on newly placed on scholarship who made his mark on special teams last season.  Wednesday's linebacker lineup looked good, with Griffin making the most of his opportunity and Macaluso continuing his surge.  The run defense particularly improved over Monday's performance.

What this weekend and the following two weeks of spring ball will bring is anybody's guess, but in the theme of Andy Buh's teachings, we will keep our eyes on Stanford's linebackers throughout the spring.


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