NCF Nation: Brian Bulcke

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Stanford defensive coordinator Vic Fangio spent 24 seasons in the NFL before taking over the Cardinal’s defense. Prior to that, he hadn’t coached at the collegiate level since 1983, when he was a graduate assistant at North Carolina.

It hasn’t taken him long to get reacquainted.

Stanford enters the Discover Orange Bowl with one of the nation’s top defenses, but Fangio knows one of the toughest tests lies ahead in trying to contain mobile Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor.

“When you watch him play, he's like the point guard of a great basketball team; the guy just makes plays many different ways,” Fangio said. “Our biggest challenge is going to be to tackle him in open spaces because you can see that's where a lot of his stuff comes from, and their team feeds off of that. So he will be hard to contain, as their running backs are, also. We'll have our work cut out for us. He's similar to the guy at Oregon and I think Oregon State that we played in the Pac-10.”

Stanford ranks in the top three in the Pac-10 and nationally in five defensive categories, and has allowed just 44 points in its final five regular season games. That’s the fewest points allowed by a Stanford defense in a five-game stretch since the 1971 season. Stanford has allowed just six touchdowns in its last five games, two of which came in the fourth quarter against Cal after the Cardinal surged to a 45-0 lead.

It’s an impressive turnaround, considering Stanford finished eighth in the conference inscoring defense (26.5) and ninth in the Pac-10 in total defense a year ago.

“You don't make the improvement that they have from one year to the next defensively unless something is going on there in terms of coaching and playing,” said Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring. “And to go from a bottom-tier in total defense to the top in their conference and to be 11th in the country in scoring defense, that doesn't just happen by accident. I think it goes back to their defensive personnel and obviously their defensive coaches.”

On a team known for its blue-collar defenses, Virginia Tech’s offense has stolen the spotlight this year. Taylor, along with a tailback rotation that includes three NFL prospects in Darren Evans, Ryan Williams and David Wilson, have been the difference in the Hokies’ 11-game winning streak.

“Virginia Tech’s offense, along with the run game, they thrive off of what he’s capable of doing and the intangibles he has as a quarterback,” said Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov. “Obviously you have some awareness of where he is in the pocket and try and keep him in the pocket, but we’re definitely pressuring the same way we have all year. We’re not going to back down. We’re going to consistently bring pressure and attack their offensive scheme.”

The Cardinal has watched plenty of film – at least 10 games – of Virginia Tech’s offense to try and figure out the best way to stop Taylor.

“There’s a lot of different strategies on how to attack him, especially watching all the different teams,” said defensive end Brian Bulcke. “Some teams try to cage him, some try to slow rush him, some teams go after him. When it comes down to it, we’re just going to do what we’ve done all season.”

So far, it’s worked pretty well.

Hybrid: Stanford DEs become OLBs

August, 11, 2010
While the 3-4 defense is making a national comeback, it's only making a small mark in the Pac-10. That mark, however, will be larger in 2010.

California is the only team that has run a traditional 3-4 for multiple years, and it only transitioned in 2008 because of a surfeit of athletic linebackers and a dearth of imposing tackles.

Stanford doesn't approach the Bears linebacker depth from 2008 but it, nonetheless, is joining its Bay Area rival in adopting a 3-4 in hopes of shoring up a unit that ranked eighth in scoring and ninth in total defense in 2009.

(Arizona State figures to run some 3-4 looks this fall because it's loaded at linebacker. Oregon likes to stand up its ends at times, but if you ask coach Chip Kelly about a switch to a 3-4 he will tell you your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries).

In fact, Stanford, which brought in veteran NFL coach Vic Fangio to coordinate the transition, is a good test case for making the switch because its transformation is pure: two defensive ends in 2009 are now outside linebackers heading into 2010. You want hybrids? We give you Thomas Keiser and Chase Thomas. They've played both positions. And will play both this year as the Cardinal continues to use some 4-3 elements with Thomas and Keiser putting their hands on the ground.

Thomas was forced into action as a redshirt freshman last year when Erik Lorig got hurt and made eight starts. He finished with seven tackles for a loss and four sacks. Keiser, a junior, had 15 tackles for a loss and nine sacks. He had six sacks as a redshirt freshman.

Thomas, at 6-foot-4, 239 pounds, will play the "Sam" strongside linebacker position, while Keiser will be the rush linebacker, which is more "end-like." Sophomore Shayne Skov and Owen Marecic will be the inside linebackers, while all three defensive linemen -- Matt Masifilo, Sione Fua (the nose) and Brian Bulcke -- are upperclassmen who've played defensive tackle their entire careers.

A big test is whether Thomas and Keiser will be capable dropping into pass coverage. If they only rush the passer, the defense becomes fairly predictable. Both are good athletes, but they won't be compared to UCLA's Akeem Ayers or Oregon's Spencer Paysinger or Washington's Mason Foster in terms of athleticism. Still, both should fortify a defensive perimeter that was often successfully attacked by foes in 2009.

In terms of the hybrid split, both appear to be around 60:40 in terms of being hybrid defensive ends:linebackers, though Thomas might be a 55:45.

It will be interesting to see how the Cardinal defense uses them and how often they stand up as linebackers or put their hands on the ground as defensive ends.