Ask most Stanford players about their team's recently completed winter conditioning session -- chock full of 6 a.m. anaerobic training and the resulting nauseous feeling that accompanies early morning physical exhaustion -- and you'll typically see a cringe in response. Or the familiar "thank goodness that's over" look.
But defensive lineman Solomon Thomas doesn't supply the prototypical reaction. Instead, he delivers a blunt, flinch-free answer.
"It was fun," Thomas says.
Of all the adjectives he could have chosen to describe the unforgiving grind of winter conditioning (torturous, muscle-searing, bitter, traumatic, vomit-inducing), Thomas picks... fun?
I pressed him on that answer.
"How can you not enjoy grinding with your teammates at 6 a.m.?" he responds.
Meet the new stalwart of Stanford's defensive line, the explosive sophomore who has grabbed the torch from the graduating veterans Aziz Shittu and Brennan Scarlett to assume the group's leadership role. Change is the current flavor of this Cardinal position unit: Thomas is the only returning starter, and there's even a new coach leading the way after Randy Hart's retirement.
That's Diron Reynolds, a former staffer under Hart who's returned to Stanford after a year coaching the defensive line at Oklahoma. Reynolds glows when he speaks of Thomas' physical development, which now includes the explosiveness to reach 11 feet into the air on a vertical jump -- a rare feat for a 275-pounder.
"Anytime you see a big man that can explode like that, it's freakish," Reynolds said. "We knew he was different when he first got here, and he continues to prove us right."
Thomas says he spent winter conditioning trying to rally his fellow defensive linemen, and he hopes that his efforts will continue to spur progress throughout spring practice and the rest of the offseason. This Stanford position group represents a massive question mark entering 2016. Scarlett led the team in sacks and Shittu led in tackles for loss, and the production of both players must be replaced.
Thomas is the lone remaining 2015 workhorse, and Reynolds says he's the only locked-in starter. Harrison Phillips played well to begin last season, but he's still recovering from a torn ACL suffered in the opener. The Cardinal are counting on fifth-year man Luke Kaumatule -- a 6-foot-7 former tight end who bulked up to 295 pounds while he redshirted last year -- to fortify the front.
"He's the kid you want to grow up and look like," Reynolds said with a smile.
Beyond Thomas, Phillips, and Kaumatule, Stanford will turn to a cluster of relatively unfamiliar players to solve its biggest concern up front: depth. Fifth-year senior Jordan Watkins is working to crack the rotation after getting only sporadic playing time up to this point, while Eric Cotton -- also a converted tight end -- and sophomore Dylan Jackson have impressed the staff enough to project to receive playing time in the fall.
"The depth of the unit is coming through," Kaumatule says. "We'll have more rotations than previous years so that guys don't gassed."
Stanford is also gunning for more development from sophomore Wesley Annan, who they hope can man the interior in the future. The Cardinal's incoming 2016 recruiting class includes a touted foursome of defensive linemen -- Mike Williams, Bo Peek, Jovan Swann, and Thomas Schaffer -- and coach David Shaw has not ruled out the possibility of some of those newcomers contributing immediately.
Stanford typically redshirts its freshman defensive linemen, but since the situation up front beyond Thomas and Phillips is currently tenuous and reliant on inexperienced players, the Cardinal are keeping their options open. The team surrendered 4.3 yards per rush last season -- an unnerving increase from the 3.o per carry they allowed in 2014 -- so there's a concerted goal to stop the leakage in 2016.
Thomas is the central pillar of that effort, both schematically on game day and in the push to mold the defensive line into form this offseason. He's encouraging his teammates to enjoy the pain associated with improvement so that Stanford can develop a rigid front to go along with its surging secondary.
"It's about working harder and getting better with each rep," Thomas says. "I didn't want to go out there and just assert myself vocally. I wanted to lead by example first, and do that by my work ethic and the things I do when the coaches aren't watching me. That's how I know that we'll continue to improve as a unit."