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August 25, 2013

8/24 Practice Report: Defense

As expected, Stanford's defense was the dominant force in the Cardinal's intrasquad scrimmage on Saturday. Though the offense did move the ball down the field and into the red zone on a few occasions, the defense surrendered only one touchdown (on the last drive of the practice).

"(It was) solid," Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason said. "We went out and played hard. We did some good things. It's still a process for these guys. I think the corners showed some nice things. They're playing top down, they're challenging balls. They're older. They're older, more mature. I have some young guys that are battling for some rotation time and I feel good about where we're at."

Defensive Line: There were no major surprises up front for Stanford, which possesses one of the nation's most talented and deepest defensive lines. Ben Gardner, David Parry and Henry Anderson started with the first team. Josh Mauro, Ikenna Nwafor and Aziz Shittu played with the second unit, though numerous linemen took reps with the backups.

That Mauro wasn't initially with the first unit doesn't change his projected status as a co-starter; when Stanford releases its pre-San Jose State depth chart, he'll likely be listed alongside Parry, Gardner and Anderson with the first team. And he did rotate in with ones during the scrimmage.

And, since the top four defensive linemen are so established, most of the intrigue in the Cardinal defensive line corps lies with the linemen who will emerge as capable backups. Stanford hopes to establish a six-man rotation along the defensive line this year; with four of those spots already occupied, several of the team's younger linemen are competing to earn a place in the rotation.

According to Mason, several second-year linemen have impressed.

"We feel like it's Aziz Shittu, it's Jordan Watkins, it's Ikenna Nwafor, and then those guys are going to have to earn their way onto the field," Mason said. "Because you look at David Parry, Josh Mauro, Henry Anderson and Ben Gardner, they're not going to let you get in there unless you earn it."

Linebackers: Shayne Skov, A.J. Tarpley, Trent Murphy and James Vaughters began the scrimmage with the first unit. Blake Lueders, Jarek Lancaster, Blake Martinez and Kevin Anderson took reps with the second team. (Vaughters and Lueders have been rotating with the first unit on a daily basis during camp. Stanford has yet to name a starting outside linebacker opposite Trent Murphy.)

The usual suspects starred at linebacker. Skov recorded a nice pass breakup on a pass intended for tight end Luke Kaumatule. A.J. Tarpley made two tackles and had a pair of pass breakups. Blake Lueders was stout in run defense.

But some of the Cardinal's younger players made an impact as well. Freshman Kevin Palma deflected a Ryan Burns pass that appeared targeted for the endzone. And redshirt freshman Noor Davis, who was moved to inside linebacker at the start of camp, made a couple of physical tackles.

"It was exciting," Stanford coach David Shaw said of Davis' contributions. "He's one of those guys, he's been on the verge. He's been close. He's got the athleticism, he's got the size, but once again, when is that light going to come on when he plays at that level all the time? When it does, he's going to be a heck of a player."

Defensive backs: With Ed Reynolds out due to a minor injury, Devon Carrington started the scrimmage with the first team at safety, though Kyle Olugbode got reps with the top units as well. They were joined by Alex Carter, Wayne Lyons and Jordan Richards with the first team.

Lyons' inclusion in the first unit was the most notable takeaway in the secondary from the scrimmage. Though the competition for the starting cornerback spot opposite Alex Carter is still ongoing, Lyons has had a strong camp.

"As of right now I think it's still a battle, but Wayne's starting to stretch it out a little bit," Derek Mason said. "He's playing some of his best ball. He's made very few mental (mistakes). A lot of good decisions and he's tackling well. It's what we sort of expected from Wayne coming in a couple of years ago."

One of Lyons' fellow defensive backs attributed Lyons' improvement to his technique.

"Last year when I was watching Wayne, he was explosive," defensive back Alex Carter said. "He was the most explosive person I had seen. But his technique was off. This year I could tell that he's worked hard in the offseason to fix his technique and to work with his feet and he's playing a lot better."

No matter who starts, Mason said that he is confident in the two deep at corner (Carter, Lyons, Carrington and Browning) and the depth at the position.

"You look at Devon Carrington playing outstanding at safety and corner," Mason said. "You look at what you see from Barry Browning, he's finally healthy. I think for us, we've got four guys that can play and I think young (Ra'Chard) Pippens is showing that he's starting to come along too. The depth is coming. I'm not worried about who plays, I'm worried about how we play."

David Shaw also praised Ra'Chard Pippens, who made a pair of pass breakups during the scrimmage.

"It's coming around," Shaw said. "You never know, and to continue to use the Kevin Hogan analogy, you never know when that light's going to come on. He's big, he's fast, he's physical, he's strong. He knows what to do. And when he does it full speed he can make some plays on the ball. So when it all comes together for him he has a chance to be a really good player.

"But for us, I tell our guys all the time: We win games on maturity. We win games with guys who don't make mistakes. Those young guys who are young and athletic, if they make too many mistakes they're not going to be out there on the field. I need to be able to look at Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy and David Yankey, these fourth and fifth year seniors and say we're going to put guys out there that earned the right to play. If they're fast, great. They better be fast running the right direction, otherwise we have big problems. So (Ra'Chard) is on that ascension but he's not quite there yet. We're hoping he gets there soon."

Freshman Taijuan Thomas, who was recruited primarily as a receiver but transitioned to defensive back for Stanford, also made a few plays during the scrimmage. He made a nice one-on-one tackle of running back Barry Sanders, and recorded a pass breakup.

"He's playing hard, he's playing fast, he's physical," Derek Mason said. "The biggest thing that you see from Taijuan is this: You're starting to see plays made. His skills are starting to transition. I think he's going to be a good player."

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