Top 10 Questions for Spring Ball

Less than a week away, Stanford football is again ready for full focus with the onset of spring ball. There are obviously a plethora of position switches, depth chart shufflings and schematic queries to come, but here is our directed list of the top 10 questions we are asking. Read on for a preview of the spring and where to focus your cogitations...

10) Can everyone get and stay healthy?  It goes without saying that an important outcome of spring ball is to have everyone healthy, but on this team with so many positions of thin depth, we could face a downright disaster if serious injury should befall a Babatunde Oshinowo or a Kirk Chambers.  Given that Buddy Teevens has made a directive that this will be a markedly more physical spring than last year, there will be plenty of opportunity for injuries.  But before Stanford can hope that everyone stays healthy, then need everyone to be healthy.  Some injuries and surgeries still leave question marks with the first day of spring practices less than a week away.  Chris Lewis is still rehabbing from his rotator cuff surgery, and was not cleared winter quarter to throw a football even in unofficial throwing workouts with his teammates.  It is far from a given that he'll be ready, able and cleared to throw come April.  Luke Powell fought through a slowly healing groin injury last fall, and then compacted his misery with an ankle sprain.  Powell was frustrated during the winter quarter with the ankle not getting well, and that leaves him questionable for how he can run this spring.  Or if he might hold out and let it heal.  A lot of Booties have been asking where Stanley Wilson has been this track season, not seeing his name in any of the race results.  The answer is that he had off-season surgery on his knee and shoulder.  We'll be watching to see if he starts the spring at 100% or not.  Someone who had better be back at 100% is Justin McCullum.  He was a tragic example of a spring injury last year when he tore up his knee on the very last practice of the spring, and his recovery took him through the fall season.  He should be ready and fired up for this spring, but be sure the coaches and doctors will still be watching him.  Michael Sgroi endured back problems last year, but has strengthened and healed his back this winter.  If he aggravates that back this spring, there is no other placekicker, but the coaches are optimistic that the very light kicking load during the spring should leave him in a low-risk position.  Jon Cochran (tendinitis) and Jay Goff (broken foot) are two others to watch.

9) How will the LBs sort out?  The linebackers were all as green as could be this past fall, but Tom Williams identified what he believed to be a group of the top six who rotated for regular game action.  And though there were bright spots of highlight reel plays, the group displayed every bit of its youthful inexperience.  The linebacker play was fraught with missed assignments, sloppy formations and poor reads of the offense.  As a group, there is a lot of maturation expected and needed this spring on the mental side.  Unfortunately, the mental part of LB play completely escapes most fans, who solely project personnel based on raw athleticism or speed.  But in a spring where these top six will compete hard for starting spots, plus several others looking to step up (e.g. Mike Silva, Capp Culver), competition will be incredibly fierce.  If you don't perform, two guys at your position will be waiting to jump in and grab the reins.  The one officially advertised move from last year's positions is David Bergeron sliding inside to the "Mike" linebacker.  Two more are set, but have been requested to remain quiet until the players line up next Wednesday.  I promise to bring the new positions to you then.  There are questions surrounding all eight of these talents, but I think it is fair to say that a lot of responsibility is on Michael Craven's shoulders to step up in a big way.  Time for him to show the heart, drive and determination that can project his natural abilities into a consistent on-field terror.

8) Who will emerge at WR?  Consider that the most dependable and consistent receiver from 2002 is gone in senior Ryan Wells, and the most athletically gifted underclassman in Teyo Johnson is gonzo to the NFL.  Then assume that you might have something less than the real Luke Powell this spring.  Grant Mason is moving to defensive back, as told to me by Buddy Teevens.  That's a world where your top four receivers from the fall are subtracted, which opens up a whole new world for several others.  Greg Camarillo showed last spring that he was the most consistent WR on the team in his route running and hands, but can he step up to become a player who can actually threaten Pac-10 defenses?  Nick Sebes and Gerren Crochet both struggled to get on the field last fall, but they have had great winters in track and now the light is shining directly on them to step up as the leading receivers this spring.  Justin McCullum is often forgotten in receiver talk, and he has gone close to a year without full action, but he looked so good the fall of 2001 that I was calling for him to play as a true freshman.  He has the best size of the group and should be a perfect fit for the crossing routes that are promised to grow in the new offense.

7) How does the free safety position play out?  Everyone recognizes that Colin Branch is gone to the NFL combines after his graduation from the program, but also remember that his backup in Jason White departs as a fifth-year senior.  Suddenly, the position looks vacant with a pair of rather unassuming candidates waiting in the wings.  Booties are wary of the level of competition that will come from two unhailed youngsters like Timi Wusu and Trevor Hooper.  But if you've ever looked at Wusu, he has the frame and athleticism that remind a lot of people of a young Tank Williams.  And Hooper was one of the biggest surprises in this freshman class last fall in practices.  Both are a good deal bigger now than you last saw them.  Speculation has been that Leigh Torrence would move to FS as T.J. Rushing steps up at cornerback this year, but indications are right now that no such move is in the works.  I have also been told that Kevin Schimmelmann will continue to compete at strong safety, at least to start the spring.

6) Who will make position switches?  I'm not talking about the switches that will become evident on Day One of practice, but the moves that will get made mid-course during these three-plus weeks of spring football.  Until I see who lines up where on that first practice, it is hard to say which moves may be delayed, but here are some moves I expect to come.  David Lofton - Unless he is making headway and has a legit shot at one of the top three spots, I would forecast a move before the end of practices.  Perhaps a move that exactly mirrors the Teyo Johnson situation in the spring of 2001.  Johnson was also a raw but athletically promising QB in his first spring, and to be fair, Johnson showed really well in his first few practices that spring.  But he hit a wall and it became clear he would not challenge those senior to him at the position.  Then-head coach Tyrone Willingham approached Johnson as the spring neared its completion and forcibly requested that his prized athlete move to wide receiver.  That left one week at the end of spring for repetitions for the freshman, who would just 20 months later declare for the NFL.  I can see similar timing for Lofton's move.  Taualai Fonoti - If he isn't moved at the start of spring and if he isn't making headway in the very congested LB group, look for the Hawaiian Hammer to move up to the defensive line and play with his hand on the ground.  This is a move that is going to happen; it's just a question of when.  Brandon Royster - I'm told that strong consideration is being given to returning him to his original position, running back.  I wouldn't be surprised if this actually turns up on the first day of spring.  Royster is someone whose knee troubles have hampered him since his first freshman days, and the thought is that running the ball might be easier for him than sprinting up and down the field.  

5) Who plays where on the D-line?  The defensive ends will be totally shaken up this spring now that the group comes in healthy, stronger and bigger.  Julian Jenkins is a phenomenal specimen who earned his spurs last fall as a true freshman on the field, but honestly he received earlier chances than expected because Louis Hobson and Michael Lovelady were not healthy to start off in August.  Ostensibly, I would slot those three at the weakside to start the spring, and Amon Gordon plus Will Svitek and Drew Caylor at the strongside.  But Pete McCarty wants to play everyone on both sides for at least the first week this spring and try to remove some of the distinguishing discrepancies between the two end positions.  The goal is to get everyone ready to play either side, which has a lot of merit if you watched some of the troubles last fall.  But one of these DEs will move inside to bolster a razor-thin interior.  My money is on Caylor, though Svitek is possible.  At the tackle positions, Babatunde Oshinowo and Casey Carroll likely start the spring as starters, with Scott Scharff and the newly moved tackle-to-be-named rotating frequently.  But this depth chart across all four positions is awfully fuzzy right now.

4) How do the freshmen fill out the O-line?  Gone from last year's playing rotation are six of the nine linemen who have seen any time at all in a college football game, and two of those three returnees have scant more game experience than you or I.  Still, the non-freshmen in this group have to provide solid play and a lot of leadership to the seven first year frosh that will fill out the remaining depth on this frightening offensive line.  The question next fall will be at what level can these young fresh faces play, but for now there are a myriad of questions as to who should play where.  Body types have changed significantly for many of these seven frosh, and there will be flips and flops between tackles and centers, centers and guards, and guards with tackles.  My best guess for the starting five on the first day are the three returning players (Kirk Chambers and Mike Sullivan at OT; Brian Head at C) plus Josiah Vinson and David Beall at the guard spots.  But Sully and Head will be pushed hard, and Jeff Edwards is a force to be reckoned with at guard if he doesn't move to tackle.  I can see as many as five candidates at center, including Head, Beall, Tim Mattran, Matt McClernan and Ismail Simpson, by the way.  And will Jon Cochran play best at left tackle, which would put him behind Kirk Chambers, or can he play on the right side?  There are as many permutations for the group of ten in a two-deep at the five positions as there are questions on the entire remainder of this roster.  Truly fascinating and a point of emphasis I'll watch closely throughout the spring.

3) Will Stanford really run the ball?  OK, that's an overstatement, but the abject lack of a running game last spring was a killer for the development of this offense and the team for the 2002 season.  When you don't have Kerry Carter, Kenneth Tolon or J.R. Lemon able to go at the start of the spring, that sure as heck crushes your ability to get anything done.  But now there are two clear frontrunners for the position in Tolon and Lemon, and the coaches are all saying that running the ball is paramount to the success of this football team.  So we first will watch just how many reps in the offense are given to the running game.  Next is the competition between those two backs with loads of potential, but a lot of questions.  Ask Wayne Moses and he'll tell you that both RBs have a lot to show about how physically they can run.  Tolon has to show he can run between the tackles, and Lemon has to show he can be durable. 

2) Just what the heck will this offense be?  Everything above is personnel related, but schematically there is a big unknown as to the composition and thrust of the new offense under new OC David Kelly.  All we know today is that running the ball is serious business, and the tight ends will be used and reused like a cheap prom date - lining up two at a time, at a lot of different positions on the field.  And when you have talents like Brett Pierce and Alex Smith returning at TE, you bet your Bootie bottom dollar that they need to be on the field whenever they can stay standing.  But just how will the ball be run?  Last year, there was a lot of single-back draw plays, which worked like a charm the first couple games and grew stale thereafter.  Teevens talks about a power offense, so we'll look for the return of the I-formation behind big Cooper Blackhurst, who succeeds all-world Casey Moore at the fullback position.  And in the passing game, I'm told that receivers will actually move more horizontally and not strictly vertically, as last year.  More drags and less comebacks.  The passing game was an abysmal failure last year, given the constraints of the throwing and receiving talent on display, so there has to be schematic overhaul evidenced this spring. 

1) Who will take the lead at Quarterback U?  As much as the playcalling needs to improve in the passing game, even the most mundane schemes can look good if you have a precise and sure arm to deliver the ball.  That golden arm was uniquely absent in 2002, and with five QBs heating up to compete this spring, this is an honestly wide-open competition.  Chris Lewis does not have the benefit of the doubt just because of his age and experience, and Kyle Matter has much to prove despite his heavy yeoman's duty last fall.  Ryan Eklund, Trent Edwards and David Lofton will all get equal cracks at the top spots in this crowded position with the two experienced starters, and Teevens says he wants a starter named by the end of spring.  My theory through the winter was that he would instead try to leave the job open between at least two of the QBs to keep their competition and drive burning through the summer, but Teevens says he wants a productive August and that means knowing the starting quarterback coming in.  The stakes are huge this spring at this most visible and closely watched of positions at Stanford.  Expect reports on this battle every day as we help you follow 2003 Stanford Spring Football.

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