Saturday, the halfway point of Stanford football’s spring training period, marked an important milestone: the first day of live tackling.
For a Cardinal defense that struggled to take down runners and limit explosive plays last season, it was the first step to putting the past behind them. And it showed.
Senior safety Jonathan McGill ran back an interception from junior quarterback Tanner McKee in seven-on-seven drills. Backed up on the goal line, the defensive line battled to keep junior running back E.J. Smith out of the endzone, stopping him twice. And on the final play of practice, junior defensive lineman Zephron Lester forced a turnover by batting a pass from junior quarterback Beau Nelson and his teammates mobbed him in celebration.
“The defensive line, we have some young and experienced guys. But they’re working hard, making plays,” head coach David Shaw said. “Some of those run plays today were tough sledding — which is great, which is what we want.”
All eyes are on the Cardinal 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 switched to a four-man defensive front.
“I think it really suits our guys,” Shaw said. “We’ve eliminated some things [to] make the learning a little bit easier for the younger guys.”
A simpler base defense, Shaw said, has made it easier for the younger defensive linemen and edge rushers on Stanford’s roster to acclimate and make plays. The team will gradually add more looks and pressures as spring training progresses, Shaw added, but for now paring down the defense will help the Cardinal replace multiple veteran starters from the defensive line and linebacker units.
Transitioning to a 4-3 defense might also better suit Stanford’s defensive personnel.
“It’s not the biggest group physically,” defensive coordinator Lance Anderson said in an interview last Sunday. “We just want those guys to play fast. We want to get off the ball. We want to get in 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, declared for the NFL draft, and no defensive player on the roster this year is listed over 300 pounds. A four-man front will give Stanford’s lighter and faster defensive linemen more numbers at the line of scrimmage and a better chance to hold the line.
The task of “partying in the backfield” will fall to ‘EDGE’ players — a newly redesignated spring roster position which groups together Stanford’s defensive ends and outside linebackers. Anderson said Stanford’s edge defenders would take on both pass rush and coverage responsibilities in the front seven.
“Those guys on the edge, they might be more of a defensive-end/pass-rush type of guy, but we’ll still incorporate those guys into some drops like we would in a 3-4,” Anderson said. “They’ll get a little bit of both.”
Some of Stanford’s most talented underclassmen are waiting in the wings at the edge position. Sophomore Aaron Armitage and freshman David Bailey, who headlined Stanford’s last two recruiting classes as top-ranked pass rushers in high school, have both flashed their potential this spring, Shaw and Anderson said.
“I am very excited about the young guys,” Anderson said. “I think they bring some size, some strength and some 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 definitely promises to be different next year. They just need to get up to speed.
“We’re just working on our base stuff and getting better and better at playing the base,” Shaw said. “We’ve been doing a good job.”
Additional notes from practice:
- Senior cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly has had a “dominant” spring practice so far, Shaw said. “I anticipate him being the best corner in the conference this year,” he said.
- Showing the hybrid responsibilities of Stanford’s edge defenders, Bailey and sixth year Thunder Keck were jogging up and down the practice fields at one point, rotating between reps in pass coverage in seven-on-seven drills and one-on-one pass rush drills.
- On the injury front, Stanford seems to be particularly banged up at running back and fullback. Junior running back Casey Filkins, sophomore running back Brendon Barrow and sophomore fullbacks Shield 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 practice as well but are on track to return later in spring quarter. 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 headline transfer from Oklahoma. “He’s got a little tweak right now,” Shaw said of Fields. “We don’t need to rush him in the first week of practice. We saw everything we needed to see. He’s going to help us right away.”
- Fifth-year wide receiver Michael Wilson appeared to injure his foot on a tackle after reeling in a deep ball at the start of the team period. He got up gingerly, limped to the sideline and didn’t return to practice.