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.

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line