Pac-12: Brian Bulcke
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.
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.
Even the two teams that fall in the "We'll see" category here don't lack for talent or experience. They just have obvious questions heading into preseason camp.
So how do things stack up?
- Arizona: The Wildcats were in great shape at the spot last year with the same two players, though Ricky Elmore eclipsed Brooks Reed when he recorded 10.5 sacks while Reed was hurt (ankle) much of the season. Word on the street is Reed has been a maniac in the weight room this offseason. Solid depth here, too.
- USC: Two players worth buying stock in: Armond Armstead and Nick Perry. Perry had eight sacks as a backup in 2009 and Armstead was dominant this spring. Transfer of Malik Jackson hurts depth.
- Oregon: Kenny Rowe led the Pac-10 with 11.5 sacks in 2009, while Dion Jordan was perhaps the breakout player of the Ducks' spring practices.
- California: Cameron Jordan has been good, but he has a chance to be great: Is 2010 his year? Trevor Guyton is the leader to replace first-round draft pick Tyson Alualu, while Deandre Coleman and Ernest Owusu provide high-quality depth.
- UCLA: Datone Jones had a great spring, while Keenan Graham looks like the favorite to start on the opposite side. Solid depth with Damien Holmes, Iuta Tepa and touted incoming freshman Owamagbe Odighizuwa.
- Oregon State: The Beavers struggled to rush the passer in 2009 and returning starter Matt LaGrone quit, but Gabe Miller is a talented athlete who came on late and had a good spring. Sophomore Taylor Henry is No.1 on the other side.
- Arizona State: The Sun Devils must replace four-year star Dexter Davis. James Brooks and Greg Smith are the likely starters. Solid depth here but no standouts.
- Washington State: The Cougars are sneaky good with sophomore Travis Long and senior Kevin Kooyman.
- Stanford: The Cardinal is hard to rate because they are switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4, so Thomas Keiser and Chase Thomas, returning starters at end, are now outside linebackers and don't qualify. Meanwhile, Matt Masifilo and Brian Bulcke are experienced tackles but are new to end.
- Washington: This is as pure of a "we'll see" as you can get. Four-year starter Daniel Te'o-Nesheim is off to the NFL and potential starter Andru Pulu got kicked off the team. If Everrette Thompson and Kalani Aldrich are healthy and ready to play 12 games, the Huskies are solid. Maybe even better than solid. If not, things are iffy.
Coach Jim Harbaugh wouldn't rule him out of the Dec. 31 game in El Paso, Tex.
"He's going to be out of practice at least two to three weeks," Harbaugh told the Pac-10 blog Monday. "He's not ruled out of the game, but based on what we know right now, he won't start. We'll have to see how his finger heals and see what his availability is for the game. It will be a game-week decision."
Luck's backup is senior Tavita Pritchard, who has started 19 games in his career but was eclipsed by Luck during spring practices.
Obviously, a huge blow to Stanford's chances.
The Sooners now likely will gang up on the line of scrimmage to stop Toby Gerhart and dare Pritchard to beat them with the passing game. A defense couldn't do that with the talented Luck running the Cardinal offense.
Of course, it was Pritchard who engineered the stunning victory at USC in 2007.
"This team doesn't make excuses," Harbaugh said. "There's injuries in football."
The Cardinal already lost linebacker Clinton Snyder, defensive end Erik Lorig, offensive tackles Matt Kopa and Allen Smith and defensive tackle Brian Bulcke to injuries this season.
Of course, Oklahoma knows all about losing star players to injuries. It's played without All-American tight end Jermaine Gresham the entire season and quarterback Sam Bradford, the 2008 Heisman Trophy winner, most of the year.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Stanford's defense? Smart and slow. Just look at film from the second half at Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons started racing -- and beating -- the Cardinal to the perimeter and then gashed them with deep throws downfield, whipping one-on-one coverage.
Wake Forest piled up 311 of its 458 yards in the second half as it rumbled back from a 14-point halftime deficit to win 24-17.
What went wrong?
"Everything," Stanford's co-defensive coordinator Ron Lynn said. "We just didn't play well in the second half. We probably didn't coach as well in the second half as the first half."
Considering Washington State piled up 351 yards in the season-opener, early on it looked like the Cardinal defense would only aspire to mediocrity in 2009.
Smart. Slow. Average. Typical Stanford defense.
But a funny thing happened on the path to "just OK." Stanford took a detour.
None of the Cardinal's last three opponents -- San Jose State, Washington and UCLA -- gained more than 299 yards. And, after five games, only Wake Forest scored more than 17 points.
Stanford is on the cusp of earning a national ranking in large part because of a highly efficient, physical offense led by Heisman Trophy candidate Toby Gerhart, who ranks fourth in the nation with 130 yards rushing per game, and poised redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck.
But the defense's improvement is nearly as notable. It is giving up 16.8 points and 324 yards per game, which is 10.6 points and 56 yards better than last year.
Of course, that improvement likely will be tested Saturday at Oregon State by the Rodgers brothers, James and Jacquizz, who rank Nos. 1 and 2 in the Pac-10 in all-purpose yards.
"It's Rodgers right and Rodgers left," Lynn said. "Those two are dynamic playmakers. If you were just a fan, it would be fun to watch them. But as an opposing coach, it's not a lot of fun to watch them."
Both are quick and fast. They dart between gaps looking for stress points. They tempt defenders to forget responsibilities. The makes plays on the perimeter and downfield in the passing game.
So slow Stanford better play smart. And with relentlessness.
By the way, asking about the defense's reputed lack of speed didn't go over that well.
"I didn't know that was the M.O. on us at this point," linebacker Clinton Snyder said. "I think we've showed we've got some speed out there."
Said Linn, "We have a little bit of sneaky speed. I'm not sure if on the clock we might be [fast]. I do know our guys care and fight their butt off to run to the ball and they are resilient. That relentlessness of staying after it covers up a lot of sins. I don't think we're slow by any stretch of the imagination but we may not be the fastest team in the nation."
Lynn, co-coordinator Andy Buh and head coach Jim Harbaugh actually made a number of moves between the 2008 season and fall camp in order to shore up a defense that was particularly weak against the pass.
While three of four 2008 starters returned in the secondary, only safety Bo McNally remains a starter. Delano Howell was moved from running back to strong safety. Richard Sherman switched from receiver to cornerback (his call). Corey Gatewood, who was injured in 2008, is the other corner.
It's a far more athletic, if less experienced, crew. The Cardinal surrendered 18 touchdown passes a year ago. Through five games in 2009, they've given up four.
"They're getting better every week," Snyder said. "In the first couple of games, there was some stuff we needed to get fixed -- some big-time plays were made on us."
Harbaugh said he's happy with the play of Snyder and the linebackers. Linn said defensive tackles Ukom Udofia and Sione Fua have played well, which is critical because starter Matt Masifilo and key backup Brian Bulcke are both out with injuries.
End Thomas Keiser is proving an impressive freshman season wasn't a fluke with 4.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for a loss.
Oregon State coach Mike Riley sees a defense that will challenge his young offensive line with a variety of looks and zone blitzes.
"They are playing very sound," Riley said. "Their front -- they play hard, they get good edge pressure, they get good push in the middle."
It's a smart, relentless unit that's starting to play together.
And, maybe, they aren't really that slow.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
Turns out the post on Pac-10 defensive tackles doesn't fit our present format either. Drat.
So let's take another look.
- Arizona: Earl Mitchell leads a crew of five returning tackles from the 2008 depth chart, not to mention the return from suspension of former starter Lolomana Mikaele.
- Oregon State: Stephen Paea had five sacks and 11 tackles for a loss in 2008. He's a load. Junior Mitchel Hunt is the frontrunner for the other tackle, and the depth chart features four or five guys who can play.
- UCLA: Brian Price's 14 tackles for a loss led all conference interior defensive linemen. If he sharpens up against the run, he could become an All-American. Jerzy Siewierski and Jess Ward will battle for the spot next to Price. Both have seen significant action.
- USC: Fili Moala is gone, but four of the top five tackles from 2008 are back, including returning starter Christian Tupou. Sophomores Jurrell Casey and Armond Armstead look like the next great Trojan DTs.
- Arizona State: Lawrence Guy earned Freshman All-American honors and Saia Falahola and Jonathan English have both seen a lot of action. In the fall, 292-pound touted freshman Corey Adams arrives.
- Stanford: Ekom Udofia, Matt Masifilo, Sione Fua and Brian Bulcke give the Cardinal an effective, experienced crew inside. They combined for 12.5 tackles for a loss in 2008.
- California: A 3-4 defense obviously means fewer tackles, but the Bears top two nose tackles -- Derrick Hill, who will miss spring after arthroscopic surgery on his knee, and Kendrick Payne -- should be solid.
- Oregon: Both starters need to be replaced. Tonio Celotto, who battled nagging injuries last year, and Blake Ferras appear to have the inside track, but newcomers will have to help immediately.
- Washington: Everyone is back, but no one stood out in 2008. The thinking is sophomores Alameda Ta'amu and Senio Kelemete should be much better after being prematurely thrown into action. There's also junior Cameron Elisara and Johnny Tivao, a 5-foot-10, 350-pound JC transfer.
- Washington State: Three of their top four tackles on the season-ending depth chart are gone, but maybe that's the good news. Junior Toby Turpin, who had 20 tackles and 3.5 tackles for a loss last year, will man one spot and Bernard Wolfgramm is the frontrunner for the other.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
You're going to hear a lot of talk over the coming weeks heading into the NFL draft about how important defensive tackles are and how rare the dominant ones are.
The recent history with defensive tackles in the Pac-10, outside of USC, of course, isn't great. Not counting the Trojans, the only conference defensive tackle picked in the first round since the 2000 draft was Oregon's Haloti Ngata in 2006.
That may change in either 2010 or 2011 with UCLA's Brian Price, a rising junior and the top returning interior defensive lineman in the conference.
Here's our list of the top returning tackles heading into spring practices, followed by notes on where each team stands at the position.
- Brian Price, UCLA: 4.5 sacks, 14 tackles for a loss led all conference interior defensive linemen.
- Stephen Paea, Oregon State: He's a load who's also productive, see five sacks, 11 tackles for a loss.
- Lawrence Guy, Arizona State: 10 tackles for a loss as a true freshman. Hello upside.
- Earl Mitchell, Arizona: 40 tackles, 5.5 for a loss after switching from H-back.
- Christian Tupou, USC: Sure, he only had 12 tackles last year, but he started for the nation's best defense, which counts for a lot.
- Derrick Hill, California: Mostly platooned with Mika Kane last year, but he's got the talent to break through as a junior.
Arizona: The Wildcats welcome back all five tackles listed on their 2008 depth chart and are expected to reinstate suspended former starter Lolomana Mikaele. Toss in marquee, 21-year-old JC transfer Jonathan Hollins, and the Wildcats probably have more depth at the position than any other team in the conference.
Arizona State: The biggest question is will 292-pound incoming freshman Corey Adams start beside Guy from day one. Saia Falahola and Jonathan English have both seen a lot of action, so it's not a sure thing.
California: A 3-4 defense obviously means fewer DT-types play. The question for the Bears is the pecking order behind Hill: Cody Jones and Kendrick Payne both missed last season with injuries, and is rising sophomore Trevor Guyton a big end or nose tackle?
Oregon: The interior d-line is probably the Ducks biggest question mark, seeing that both starters need to be replaced. There are high expectations for Tonio Celotto, who battled nagging injuries last year, but there is little to no experience. A pair of incoming JC tackles are expected to help immediately.
Oregon State: Paea can be a force when healthy, and there are experienced players competing to replace Pernnell Booth. The spring focus will be mostly on replacing both defensive ends.
Stanford: Brian Bulcke and Sione Fua give the Cardinal a quietly effective combination inside. They combined for seven sacks and 10 tackles for a loss. Matt Masifilo leads the depth, which will be at issue this spring. [Edit: As a reader pointed out in an email, starting DT Ekom Udofia will be back in 2009. So the Cardinal D figures to be fairly solid in the interior].
UCLA: Price will demand two blockers next year, particularly with the departure of the solid Brigham Harwell. The Bruins will be fairly experienced inside, but will any other player step forward to complement -- and take the focus off -- Price?
USC: Sure, Fili Moala is a big loss, but the Trojans will still will boast the strongest interior defensive lineup in the conference. Start with Tupou and the player he beat out in 2008, Averell Spicer. Then toss in Jurrell Casey and Armond Armstead, who both were impressive in limited action as true freshmen last year. USC actually might be STRONGER at tackle than 2008. Seriously.
Washington: Good news is just about everyone is back. Bad news is the Huskies got pushed around up the middle last year. Still, if rising sophomores Alameda Ta'amu and Senio Kelemete have big off-seasons in the weight room, they could form a solid troika with Cameron Elisara. And incoming JC transfer Johnny Tivao is listed at 5 foot 10, 350 pounds, so that's something.
Washington State: Lots of questions here for the Cougars, who will be young inside with the departure of three of their top four tackles on the season-ending depth chart. Rising junior Toby Turpin, who had 20 tackles and 3.5 tackles for a loss last year, will man one spot and Bernard Wolfgramm is the frontrunner for the other. And might the Cougs consider adopting a 3-4 scheme?
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
STANFORD, Calif. -- Jim Harbaugh's first season at Stanford started with a controversy. He told CBSSports.com in March of 2007 that Pete Carroll wasn't long for USC.
"He's only got one more year, though," Harbaugh told Dennis Dodd. "He'll be there one more year. That's what I've heard. I heard it inside the staff."
A minor storm followed.
Then Harbaugh proclaimed USC "the best team in the history of college football."
A minor storm followed.
Then, when football instead of words took centerstage, Harbaugh and his 41-point underdogs beat USC and Carroll, 24-23.
Harbaugh clearly is tired of talking about his Carroll comments.
"I'm not a controversial guy. Check my track record," he said. "Look at it as a rational human being, what controversial stuff? Define that. I don't see the controversy in that stuff."
That hullabaloo is about over, though. What might last is Harbaugh, who added a Big Game victory over California to a Cardinal season that greatly exceeded horribly low expectations.
With 16 starters back this fall, Stanford might sneak up on some people this fall. Toss in a fast start to recruiting, and the Cardinal might be ready to move out the nether regions of the Pac-10 it has occupied since Tyrone Willingham left in 2001.
Harbaugh much prefers talking about the recruiting effort -- "We're recruiting against national powers" -- and why he thinks hot shot high school players are giving Stanford a look.
"The word is spreading," he said. "They feel like the football program here is a powder keg ready to go off."
Another storm coming?
As for his present roster:
- Asked to name players who have stepped up thus far during preseason camp, he ticked off a list of offensive linemen: tackle Ben Muth, guard Andrew Phillips and tackle Chris Marinelli.
- On defense, he called Pannel Egboh and Erik Lorig "two of the top defensive ends in the conference," and then celebrated the depth inside with Brian Bulcke, Ekom Udofia and Sione Fua.
- Noted that LB Chike Amajoyi, 205 pounds last year, is now 238. "He hasn't lost a step," he added.
- There are still position battles at one cornerback opposite Wopamo Osaisai and free safety next to Bo McNally
- As noted earlier, he said that Tavita Pritchard continues to lead the quarterback competition, though he wouldn't commit to him as the starter on Aug. 28 vs. Oregon State.