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Spring Update: Stanford

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Things look different in Palo Alto.

The Stanford football team said goodbye to prized defensive coordinator Derek Mason, who takes over the Vanderbilt football program. The Cardinal also lose some of the team leaders that turned Stanford into one of the elites in college football and the toast of the Pac-12. Yet David Shaw‘s squad is once again expected to be among the best in college football.

That says a great deal about the program Shaw has built, taking over for Jim Harbaugh and continuing the climb up the mountain. Stanford has now won at least 11 games the last four seasons, doing so while playing one of the most competitive schedules in college football.

But there are plenty of changes at The Farm. The Cardinal need to replace 11 starters. They also have rebuilt their coaching staff. While Kevin Hogan remains at quarterback, his meager progress last season put his job on shakier ground than many expected.

To give us a status update on the Cardinal, Stanford Daily Football Editor Joseph Beyda took the time to answer some of my questions. In between majoring in electrical engineering, co-authoring the book “Rags to Roses,” and covering the Cardinal’s women’s soccer national title for the New York Times, Joey managed to give us a great look at how Stanford looks exiting spring practice.

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After continuing the program’s upward trajectory, David Shaw looks to be at a crossroad. He’s said goodbye to Derek Mason, now the head coach at Vanderbilt. He also needs to replace key contributors on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

It’s only been 15 practices, but how does Shaw seem to be adjusting with a reshaped coaching staff and roster?

As far as the roster adjustments go, it’s hard to tell this early on. Before last season, Stanford analysts learned the lesson not to buy in too much to the adjustments we saw from Shaw in the Spring Game and early scrimmages; he called 62 passes to just 36 rushes in that 2013 game, and we all know that’s not the Cardinal’s M.O.

When it comes to coaches, though, it’s hard not to be encouraged by what Shaw has done with the cards he was dealt this offseason. Mason was replaced at defensive coordinator by outside linebackers coach Lance Anderson, one of the founding fathers of the program — he came to Stanford with Shaw and Jim Harbaugh in 2007, and Harbaugh has since called Anderson (the recruiting coordinator in the early years) the single biggest factor in the Cardinal’s resurgence. To replace Mason’s secondary expertise, moreover, Shaw brought in arguably the most respected defensive backs coach in the country in Duane Akina, who has developed 28 NFL DBs at Texas and elsewhere.

If there’s a potential weakness on the coaching side, it’s the youth of Stanford’s offensive staff. Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren are the only offensive coaches older than 35, and that room lost one of its best recruiters, Mike Sanford, to Boise State this offseason. But there’s continuity at the top, so there’s no real cause for concern as long as the results are there.

 

Offensively, the strength of the team looks to be its skill players on the perimeter, not quite the norm for a Cardinal team that built its reputation in the trenches. How talented are quarterback Kevin Hogan’s weapons?

Oh, they’re talented. This is the best skill and depth Stanford has had at wide receiver and tight end since 2010, when the Cardinal fielded six future NFL pass-catchers — Doug Baldwin, Ryan Whalen, Coby Fleener, Chris Owusu, Griff Whalen and Zach Ertz — and, as you’ll remember, flummoxed the Irish 37-14 in South Bend.

To start off, you’re looking at a potential first-round pick in Ty Montgomery, who will return as the Cardinal’s top receiver and won the Jet Award in January as college football’s top returner after taking back two kickoffs for touchdowns in 2013. Just as speedy is Michael Rector, a downfield threat who only caught 14 passes last year — but averaged 30.8 yards per reception. And the 6-foot-4 Devon Cajuste was consistently a mismatch in the slot last season, reeling in catches of 48 and 72 yards in the Pac-12 Championship Game at ASU.

But Stanford’s tight end corps is even more encouraging entering 2014, since that the position group was the Cardinal’s most disappointing last year, making just 10 receptions. Stanford’s offense was hamstrung by the lack of an intermediate passing game in 2013, and the Cardinal certainly prefer the problem they will face at tight end this fall: three talented sophomores and the top tight end recruit in the country all jostling for playing time.

 

The offensive line will be rebuilt. The good news is that Stanford has recruited incredibly well up front. The bad news is that there are a lot of starting minutes to replace. How did the offensive line look this spring and how do you project it to look this fall?

The offensive line is currently Stanford’s biggest question mark — not because the talent isn’t there, but because how quickly the group matures could determine whether Cardinal go 7-5 or whether they contend for a national title.

All five projected starters at the moment are rising juniors and members of Stanford’s 2012 recruiting class, considered by some the best O-line haul in college football history. Yet only one of those players, left tackle Andrus Peat, started on the line last season. The rest of the class has made an impact in the Cardinal’s bevy of jumbo packages; how well will that translate on a down-by-down basis?

The good news for Cardinal fans is that the team has successfully managed the annual turnover on the line in the past. But Stanford lives and dies by the so-called Tunnel Workers Union, and after the offensive line lost the battle at the line of scrimmage in the Spring Game, there’s still some work to be done. So I’d say that’s a question that won’t be answered until the season is underway, but it’s a defining question for the Cardinal as well.

 

The front seven should also look radically different for the Cardinal. Are their structural changes in place with Lance Anderson taking over, or will we see new faces taking over for stalwarts Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov and Ben Gardner.

Believe it or not, faith in the front seven hasn’t wavered around here, even with those huge losses.

The defensive line was limited by injuries throughout 2013 so it might even take a step forward this season, with Henry Anderson (another potential first-rounder) fully healthy, David Parry returning at nose tackle and a handful of experienced candidates ready to take over for Gardner at the other end spot. Stanford’s new anchor at inside linebacker will be A.J. Tarpley, who has started much of the last three seasons and has quietly been a stalwart alongside Skov over that stretch. And on the outside, rising seniors James Vaughters and Kevin Anderson have both put in solid time on Saturdays and seem primed for a breakout year.

Don’t forget, linebacker is another position that Stanford has recruited very well at in recent years. Peter Kalambayi couldn’t be stopped in his first Spring Game on the Farm, and rising junior Noor Davis made huge strides in the spring. There are holes to be plugged this offseason, for sure, but the Cardinal should continue to benefit from considerable depth in the front seven.

 

Early preseason looks have Stanford appearing like a Top 10 program again. Yet there is quite a bit of change happening on The Farm. Are those expectations in line, or merely an example of the respect Shaw has built up.

I’d say that the potential is definitely there for another special run, but a few major things have to fall in place for Stanford to get to 10 wins for a fifth consecutive season. One of them is the offensive line, which we talked about earlier. The Cardinal also have to navigate another brutal schedule, which includes USC in the second game, road trips to Washington and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks and the late-season contests at Oregon and UCLA. None of those games will be easy, and that’s not even considering the rest of Stanford’s Pac-12 schedule — keep in mind, the Cardinal have lost three conference games in which they were favored over the last two seasons.

But the one factor that nobody is talking about is quarterback Kevin Hogan. Though Hogan made strides in 2013, especially with the deep ball, he didn’t develop as quickly as some of us expected and he was forgettable in all three of Stanford’s losses. After Hogan’s honeymoon at the tail end of Stanford’s 2012 Rose Bowl run, a lot of fans envisioned him as a bigger game changer than he has turned out to be so far. There will be little competition for Hogan this season, as highly touted recruit Keller Chryst will almost certainly be redshirted and rising sophomore Ryan Burns was suspended for much of the spring before struggling in the Spring Game, in which he fumbled three consecutive snaps. So will Hogan become complacent, or will he rise to the occasion? For Stanford to be a top program once again, it will need him to do the latter.

 

Even amidst schedule changes and conference realignment, Notre Dame and Stanford are committed to an annual game. From your perspective, has this rivalry grown in significant for the Cardinal and its fans?

That’s a really interesting question, and it actually came up at The Daily’s office a few nights ago when we were watching a replay of last year’s Alabama-Auburn game (which overlapped with the Cardinal-Irish showdown). A couple of our editors said they wish they had skipped the first half of the Notre Dame-Stanford game so they could have seen that memorable ending, and according to our game-day reporters, the entire press box was watching the broadcast of the Iron Bowl despite the first-half action that was unfolding below at Stanford Stadium.

Given the Cardinal’s traditional rivalries with Cal and USC and its multi-year war with Oregon at the top of the Pac-12, students don’t really get the sense that Notre Dame is a rival at all. Most of the longtime fans still consider the game a rivalry and know about its history, but at the same time, they aren’t generally as excited during Notre Dame week as they are during the leadup to those other three games. My opinion is that the tough nonconference showdown still benefits both teams from a strength-of-schedule perspective, even if the rivalry isn’t as heated for the fans.

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You can read more from Joey at the Stanford Daily. You can purchase “Rags to Roses: The Rise of  Stanford Football here.

Kelly goes back to basics with defense

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday, revealing a few details about the defensive changes he plans to implement. And while he kept any specific schematic or personnel tweaks to himself, his comments helped clarify why he made the decision to relieve Brian VanGorder of his duties Sunday morning.

At the second inflection point of his tenure in South Bend, Kelly is once again betting on himself. We saw him do this to great success after he made the unconventional decision to name Chuck Martin his offensive coordinator after the 2011 season—betting on his protege instead of Ed Warinner, who then left to go to Ohio State after being passed up.

That’s not to say this move has the ceiling of Kelly’s last great pivot—an undefeated regular season that ended with a date in the national title game. You could just as easily argue it’s a survival play.

So perhaps that’s why Kelly was less interested in defining what Greg Hudson’s new job title means, and more resolute on clarifying that this defense will operate the way the head coach sees fit.

“He’s going to adapt to what I want to run. His style is going to be Coach Kelly’s style,” Kelly explained.

“I’ll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I’ll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.

“But right now, we’ll write the music and he’ll be the lead singer. I don’t know if that’s a great analogy, if that makes any sense. He’s going to be out front, but he just got here. In terms of assuming this role, he’s learning everything as well.”

For those worried that the Irish head coach was shirking responsibility for his team’s 1-3 start, Kelly certainly is acting like a coach who is doing the opposite. He’s doubling down, and in doing so, acknowledging some of the fatal flaws that became exposed each and every game Brian VanGorder continued to coach.

The head coach will simplify game plans, asking his young team to do less but do it better. The staff will learn from the opening night debacle in Texas, a game plan that stressed scheme over personnel, a decision that was largely emblematic of how VanGorder handled his time in South Bend.

“We can’t defend everything. We can’t defend everything, but we have to be sound,” Kelly said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Kelly’s other major move will be developing a better rotation. After seven recruiting cycles, the roster has a deeper talent pool than VanGorder was willing to access. And for all the talk of sub-packages and defensive specialization, Kelly sounded like a coach who knew he needed to take things back to the basics.

“I can’t have 15 different personnel packages. We’ve got a couple personal packages. That’s it,” Kelly said. “There can’t be cross-training into three different personnel packages. We’ve streamlined that to the point where the guys are going to know by hopefully Thursday exactly where they fit in each group.”

With just days to prepare a defense that’s already at rock bottom, implementing any gigantic scheme change was always out of the question. But in looking for a new identity, Kelly also acknowledged some of the breaking points that forced him to make the change.

 

Even in transition, Babers expects Notre Dame’s best

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Amba Etta-Tawo #7 of the Syracuse Orange pulls in a touchdown reception as Cortney Mimms #26 of the Colgate Raiders defends during the first quarter on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s defense is starting fresh with Greg Hudson, at least temporarily, at the helm. But Syracuse head coach Dino Babers doesn’t expect the instability to lead to a weakened opponent.

In fact, he thinks it’ll have the opposite effect.

“What normally happens in those situations is just like in a cowboy movies you circle the wagons and you find out who wants to fight and who doesn’t want to fight,” Babers said Monday. “So we’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded, that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have, and really wish they wouldn’t had done anything and wish they would have won the game last week.”

But the Irish didn’t win against Duke. And Brian Kelly’s decision to remove Brian VanGorder of his duties after just four games leads Notre Dame’s young defense into some uncharted territory.

Because the Irish will have to find a way to slow down a Syracuse offense that might not have as good of personnel as Texas, but is better at running the up-tempo, spread attack that the Longhorns installed this offseason. And Babers comes from the same Art Briles coaching tree that Sterlin Gilbert.

So Notre Dame will need to find a way to tackle receivers in space. And they’ll need to find a way to get an offense off the field that’s run more plays than every team in college football but three.

While Kelly promised both personnel and scheme changes, what can be done in a week remains to be seen. But with the Irish offense going up against a defense that’s actually worse statistically in every major category than Notre Dame’s, finding any success on the defensive side of the ball will be key.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Duke

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Anthony Nash #83 of the Duke Blue Devils runs for a touchdown during the second half of a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 24, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s move was emphatic. Brian VanGorder’s departure confirms that a 1-3 record is unacceptable. And the demise of this team was as swift as the departure of a colleague Brian Kelly has known for the bulk of his 25-plus year coaching career.

But that’s the job. And the move likely wasn’t easy for a head coach who saw himself as close to tenured as any man this side of Lou Holtz had been, and is now clearly in uncharted territory.

“I’m under review, as well,” Kelly acknowledged on Sunday afternoon. “We’re all in this together: All the players, coaches, everybody. So players’ jobs are on the line. Every job is being evaluated as the players. All coaches’ jobs are on the line as well.”

With Greg Hudson now directing the defense, and Syracuse having run more offensive plays than every program but three, the challenge this weekend is stark. So let’s move forward ourselves and finish off the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Dexter WilliamsBrian Kelly gave him credit, so let’s start there. Williams ran hard, looked explosive and flashed on special teams.

It’s time for Williams to get some more reps, even if it means taking away from Josh Adams’ leading load as well as Tarean Folston‘s.

 

Donte Vaughn. Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback wasn’t perfect—he got beat inside a few times on slant routes that everybody in the building saw coming. But he came up big and made a play, something Notre Dame’s defensive backs haven’t done since Shaun Crawford went down for the season.

His length and cover skills should be put to the test again next weekend when Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo looks to replicate his monster 270-yard performance against UConn. The focus will be on Cole Luke, Vaughn, Julian Love and Nick Coleman.

 

Kevin Stepherson. The freshman only caught three balls, but all of them were big gainers,  including his beautiful 44-yard touchdown catch. With Torii Hunter unable to push the lid off opponents, Stepherson might be a better fit for the X moving forward, assuming he continues to learn the playbook and run precise routes.

 

The Weather. Looked like a heckuva day in South Bend, at least from a weather perspective.

 

THE BAD

The tackling. That was one of the worst tackling performances I can remember. Especially against a team that was anemic on offense heading into the weekend. Name a defender and you’ll recall a missed tackle.

Drue Tranquill held on to a few early, then had some ugly whiffs. Cole Luke, a guy Brian Kelly called the team’s smartest football player last week, sure looked lost a few times, too. And with hopes that Devin Studstill is the answer at free safety, Studstill did his best to make us wonder about that, too. He took some horrific routes to footballs, a difficult day at the office for a young kid who needs to learn quickly.

When your senior captain outside linebacker is getting run over by a quarterback for a first down and you’re thinking, “at least he made the tackle,” the bar has been lowered pretty significantly. But another week of “thudding” at practice might be needed—even with heavy installation coming soon.

 

The special teams. A missed field goal proved costly. So did some horrific tackling and coverage on the kickoff return that let Duke back into the game. And for the fourth time this season, Tyler Newsome flubbed his first kick of the game. (All but asking for the nickname Mulligan to emerge.)

Scott Booker has a ton of kids on his run teams. But they’ve got to get some consistency out there if they want CJ Sanders to help turn this into a positive, not another unit to hide.

 

The pass rush. Yes, the drought is over, with Nyles Morgan getting the first sack of the season for the Irish. But man—this team has a gigantic hole on it and finding any type of pass rush is critical.

Sure, Duke’s quick passing game took advantage of the Irish’s leaky secondary and didn’t let Notre Dame get to the quarterback. But at this point, every snap you’re giving Andrew Trumbetti over a kid who can get to the quarterback—Jay Hayes, Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, or anyone—feels lost.

 

The coaching. Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he said the following, when asked about an evaluation of his defensive coaching and game plan.

“That’s probably the one area that I feel better about today. We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today,” Kelly said.

That was likely a time-buyer until a long night of thinking, because morning brought clarity for the head man.

 

THE UGLY

The State of the Program. With the game tied 28-28 heading into the fourth quarter, one team was jumping around like they’d won the lotto. The other was all but biting their fingernails, kicking dirty and looking lethargic.

If anything set off Kelly postgame—even more so than the defense his troops were displaying—it was the lack of effort.

“There’s no passion for it. It looks like it’s hard to play. Like we’re pulling teeth,” Kelly said. “You’re playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it’s work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game.

“There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy. We got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s where we got to go.”

In Kelly’s first few seasons in South Bend, he was criticized for having his team celebrate victories, even the ugly ones. But somewhere this program lost track of the ultimate goal and that likely falls on the head coach to fix that problem as soon as possible.

 

Firing a staffer. Notre Dame’s head coach likely saw what many of us saw as well. But a decision like that from the cheap-seats is one thing, a decision from inside the program is another.

Follow Notre Dame long enough, and you’ll tire of thinking about the carousel that’s come and gone—Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis, armies of loyal assistants who have spent years working to climb the summit. And for most, life after Notre Dame isn’t the same.

Sure, there’s Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong. But there are a few dozen others who have come to a program with noble ambitions—willing to do it right and win on and off the field—but they fail too often on Saturdays.

So as ND Nation almost united in celebration of the move, it’s worth a quick word to a fanbase that always fashions itself as possessing proper etiquette.

Few come to your office and celebrate the worst day of your professional career. Less dig into your family’s Twitter account, hoping to break a story or confirm news they celebrate jubilantly. Sure, some of that comes with the territory. And certainly VanGorder was well compensated for his time in South Bend.

But ultimately, this Sunday hopefully provided some perspective. Baseball lost one of its brightest young stars. Golf lost one of its icons. And many many more things of consequence took place—inside the sporting world and out.

But when it comes to VanGorder, a quick reminder of something that has nothing to do with sports. A man has lost his job. A family will uproot once again. And the dynamics on the current football team—where Montgomery VanGorder still plays an important role—won’t ever be the same.

“I will tell you this: Brian is as fine a defensive coach as there is out there. He knows the game. He loves Notre Dame,” Kelly said on Sunday. “He wanted to succeed as much as anybody here, but it wasn’t working.”

There should be no harm in that.

VanGorder out as defensive coordinator

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)
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Brian VanGorder has been fired. Notre Dame’s third-year defensive coordinator was relieved of his duties after just four games.

Brian Kelly made the move official Sunday morning, less than an hour before his weekly Sunday teleconference. He’s replaced VanGorder with defensive analyst Greg Hudson, a former Notre Dame linebacker who joined the Irish staff in June and spent the last three seasons as defensive coordinator at Purdue, a position he also held at East Carolina and Minnesota. The rest of the defensive staff remains unchanged.

“Obviously, this is a difficult day for our coaching staff, but I’m excited and honored about the opportunity that Coach Kelly has afforded me,” Hudson said in the team’s statement. “We’ve got to improve on defense, without a doubt, and I’m confident that we will. We have great student-athletes and a tremendous defensive coaching staff. I can’t wait to get started with our group.”

The VanGorder era ends with the Irish ranked 101st in scoring defense, 96th in rushing defense and 87th in pass defense. The Irish are dead last in sacks, the last FBS team to get one when Nyles Morgan finally got the team’s first sack against Duke.

Hired after Bob Diaco left Notre Dame for the head job at UConn, VanGorder brought with him an NFL system and a multiple, attacking scheme. But after injuries derailed his first season, it was a defense best known for its maddening inconsistency, with even last season’s talented outfit plagued by the big play and mistakes.

As late as Saturday night Kelly pledged allegiance to his defensive coordinator, calling the staff’s game plan the least of his concerns after the 38-35 loss.

“We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today. I was pleased from that perspective,” Kelly said.