Stanford youngsters battle for playing time on evolving defense

Entering Stanford's spring game this past weekend, some truths already were evident.

Christian McCaffrey's newfound position as the featured weapon of the Cardinal's offense, for example, was no secret. Neither was Kevin Hogan's comfort at the controls, which seemed to carry over from 2014's hot finish into a productive spring session.

But some facets of the 2015 team were submerged in murkier waters -- namely the defense, which is in the process of replacing eight starters. So Saturday's exhibition was a way to evaluate the progress that Lance Anderson's young crew has made over the past six weeks.

Disregard the 23-7 score, even if it did break in the defense's favor. Stanford's offense never divulges anything beyond bare bones installations during the spring game -- the year's first televised look at the program -- to confidently harvest conclusions from scoreboard results. Saturday provided an opportunity to evaluate individual progress among the Cardinal's new-look defense while assessing how it's meshing into a larger team-wide scheme.

Along those lines, the spring game suggested an upward trend.

"I really like the way the whole unit is coming together," David Shaw said. "I give a lot of credit to Lance and the other coaches. They do a good job of changing from year to year and playing toward our guys' strengths."

We've documented the 31-pound strengthening of Solomon Thomas up front. His beefed-up cohorts Harrison Phillips and Jordan Watkins also have garnered attention, while former walk-on Torsten Rotto has earned a scholarship to fortify the position. That foursome comprises the defensive line, ground zero of Stanford's reloading effort. But fresh faces such as outside linebacker Joey Alfieri also comprise other levels of a defense that allowed only 16.4 points per game last year, second-fewest in the nation.

"Coach Anderson has helped guide us young guys," Alfieri said. "Just because we lost a lot of guys, there are no excuses to not have the same performance or better than last year. He's not only maintaining expectations; he's raising them here."

Alfieri, who broke his femur during his senior year of high school, is feeling fully explosive after screws were removed from his leg. Some loose ones had been sticking out of his bone, causing lateral mobility issues.

"Now that I have them out, I'm just flying around," he said.

That much was evident this spring, when Alfieri shot up Stanford's depth chart and set the defensive tone of a spring game with a jarring backfield hit early on. He embraced Anderson's emphasis on positional versatility, which stresses that the Cardinal's defenders line up at multiple positions so that they have a complete grasp of their teammates' responsibilities.

"Some plays, I've been manned up on a No. 2 wide receiver, and some plays I'm in a four-tech head up on a guard," Alfieri said. "You have to be versatile."

Stanford defensive backs coach Duane Akina is working to instill similar adaptability in the secondary, where the Cardinal faces an even more drastic changing of the guard with up to five regulars gone. Terrence Alexander was the only one of five freshmen defensive backs to play last year, and that seems to have sparked a spirited fight for chances this offseason.

"The rest of us four realized that we had to put in a lot more work to get some playing time and get on the same level as Terrence," cornerback Alijah Holder said.

Results are trickling in for him: Holder forced a fumble, broke up a pass and earned his coach's praise after the spring game.

"Every time we look up Holder makes a play," Shaw said.

The complexion of Stanford's depth chart, though, is far from resolved. Opening day at Northwestern on Sept. 5 still seems ages away -- especially because the Cardinal have so many potential reinforcements still waiting to join the mix on the defensive side. Veteran defensive back Ronnie Harris will return from injury to battle with Holder and the youngsters, and Zach Hoffpauir also could be a stalwart in the secondary -- though his three-homer, nine-RBI weekend on the baseball diamond could kickstart a significant rise of his MLB draft stock.

Aziz Shittu, Kevin Anderson, Nate Lohn, and transfer Brennan Scarlett are all also on their way to reinforce Stanford's front seven. That'll only intensify the youngsters' battle for playing time in an offseason already brimming with competition and moving pieces.

"We’ve been working very hard and it seems like it's paying off," Alfieri said. "But this spring conditioning is going to be big for us."