The loss of sophomore nose tackle Harrison Phillips for the season with a knee injury will test the depth of the Stanford defensive line this weekend when the Cardinal opens its home football season against University of Central Florida on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Senior Jordan Watkins appears to be the first option. Watkins (6-foot-5, 273 pounds) came on strong toward the end of training camp, said Stanford head coach David Shaw. Two other possibilities are moving Luke Kaumatule, who has been playing outside linebacker, and Nate Lohn, a defensive end, to the inside.
One thing Shaw wants to avoid is taking the redshirts off freshmen Wesley Annan (6-4, 285) and Dylan Jackson (6-6, 248). Annan, the son of Ghanaian parents, grew up in Canada and played high school ball at Lake Forest Academy near Chicago. Jackson led Maryville High to three Tennessee state titles.
"Both of those guys are going to contribute a lot in the future, and they need this year to develop and get a little bigger and a little stronger," Shaw said. "I'm extremely excited about them, though. Wesley is a big physical guy in the middle that we need, at the nose in particular. Dylan is long, physical and athletic, in the line of Henry Anderson and Josh Mauro. I'm excited about their future. I just hope their future's not now, it's later."
Though Stanford's defensive base is a 3-4, with three down linemen, Shaw said that on a majority of the snaps in the Pac-12, the Cardinal will use two. To combat the spread formations most of the conference schools use, Stanford shifts to a nickel formation, removing a lineman, mitigating some of the depth issues.
As for Phillips, who swatted down a pass Saturday in the 16-6 season-opening loss at Northwestern, he has the option of using a redshirt year.
"It's unfortunate," Shaw said. "He was just starting to show what he could do."
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With no preseason to ease into the season, power-conference coaches often are hesitant to schedule Division I opponents in the opening game.
"We don't necessarily believe that's a good thing for college football," Shaw said. "We don't mind being challenged right off the bat. We never make any excuses."
When others talk about upsets in the opening weeks, Shaw said coaches don't view the results the same as fans, because teams need time to define themselves.
"No one knows what you have until you play four games, it doesn't matter if you're the No. 1 team or the No. 75 team," he said. "That's when you finally get a chance to see your new guys, or some of your older guys in new positions, or some of your veteran guys who put on weight, or take weight off. We're all trying to figure out who we really are."
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Among quarterback's Kevin Hogan's talents is his ability to run. Hogan had two designed runs against Northwestern and checked out of others. But for Stanford's offense to be at its best, Hogan needs to be a run threat.
"Kevin's rushing yards are going to come from scrambles and called runs," Shaw said. "We need more of those, but we're not going to run things we think aren't good against the looks that we're getting.
"He's an athletic quarterback, we need him to get out and go. If people are covered and nobody is left for him, that means he's got to get out and run. That's been his career. The combination of those scramble yards and his designed runs are something that we depend on."
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Stanford didn't throw downfield often because the Northwestern defense was playing deep -- using two deep safeties or dropping eight into pass coverage.
Shaw said Stanford used an array of deep routes, but it didn't make sense to force passes against coverage designed to stop those plays. Still, Stanford was able to set up a fourth-quarter deep ball toward Michael Rector late in the game by creating a favorable safety-receiver matchup.
"We're not going to force it," Shaw said. "We never have. Even when we had Andrew Luck and Chris Owusu, and Coby Fleener, we took calculated shots against specific coverages. Besides that, we need to be efficient in our passing game and we were not, because of dropped balls, missed throws, penalties, and missed blocking assignments.
"If we run the ball and complete passes the way we should, we'll win time of possession, we'll be in positive position, and we'll do well in the red zone," Shaw continued. "The formula for the West Coast offense hasn't changed in years, it's about taking care of the football, being smart, and getting positive yards. The explosive plays are going to happen if they're there. They'll happen if we convert on third downs and get in a groove offensively."
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One danger of losing is allowing outside criticism to become distracting. Shaw said the coaches addressed that with the players.
"When we lose a game, everybody's going to be trying to pull us apart," Shaw said. "Everybody's is going to try to get us to point fingers. The good teams can handle a loss and bounce back, and not let the outside influences bother our chemistry."
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Hogan said he's encouraged by the opportunity to get better simply by correcting a few mistakes.
"You can't dwell on it," Hogan said. "We learned a lot. We saw a lot of great things on tape and a lot that we need to correct. That's the best thing about it, knowing they're all correctable. We're looking to move forward.
"Everyone could tell you we could have done so many things differently. It's good because that's the mindset we need. People need to recognize the need for improvement and growth. It was a good lesson. I'd rather have that early on.
"We've got to have that sense of urgency now that we've got to make sure our week at practice is that much better, and we're that much more prepared heading into the week."
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Inside linebacker Blake Martinez said the team understands the importance of Saturday's home opener against UCF.
"This is what it all comes down to," he said, "This is going to define our season, right here this week.
"To Stanford fans, I would say: 'Wait 'til Saturday.'"