Spring Game and Spring Football Review

It was a day full of excitement, on the field and in the stands, but there frankly was less to be learned from the 2001 Spring Game than in past editions. Given injuries of varying degrees at positions across the board, Stanford was unable to adequately field 2 legitimate squads for the O and D. So instead of the nominal format of #1 O vs. #2 D, #2 O vs. #1 D, Saturday’s affair was a simple matchup of one offense against one defense. Subsitutions varied throughout the game.

To hit home the point about how many Cardinal men were "walking wounded," here is a listing of those out of pads on Saturday:

Jamien McCullum (brother Justin says he’ll be fine soon), Nick Sebes (thankfully with no brace), Greg Camarillo, Eric Heitmann (integrated into drills in the last week, but played it safe Saturday), Paul Weinacht, Matt Wright (bad ribs), Brett Pierce (bad neck – I heard two different reports Saturday with very different outlooks on his prognosis…), Darin Naatjes (healthy, but playing long ball), Austin Lee (still on crutches), Louis Hobson (unfortunately on crutches, as well), Amon Gordon (no sling or brace – anxious to get well enough to hit the weights), Scott Giles, and Simba Hodari.

Before you get too glum, know that most if not all of these injuries are short-term and should not affect the team come August. Most will be memories by summer workouts. Nevertheless, they remind us how eerily thin this team is at certain positions. The offensive line is the poster-child for thin ice, with barely a starting five available right now. The good news is that several players are versatile: Quaccia and Holman can play across the interior 3 spots; Heitmann can play either guard, and has experimented at tackle; and both Weinacht and Schindler can move outside. But above all else next fall, the success of this team will depend heavily on the health of the starting OL. Heitmann plus Kwame will make for a dominant right side, and Quaccia is far more effective a center than anyone else on the team, regardless of his versatility at guard. The time missed for Heitmann and Weinacht was unfortunate, but gave guys like Holman and Schindler a lot of reps. We also saw a lot of time for the guys behind the top seven: Kolich, O’Neal, Stimson and Sullivan. There is a clear gap between the top seven and the rest, though Stimson is admittedly just working at a new position this spring. Andy Clavin took some snaps this spring at center, but he looks more focused on long snapping, as he spent more and more time later in the spring working with the kickers. The point Booties should take home is that when the line wasn’t looking good this spring, or on Saturday, the resultant concern should lie in our depth, not in our starters.

Speaking of special teams, there are major concerns. Mike Biselli had a very admirable and solid spring in place kicking. He looks fresh, confident and consistent. However, he is not punting at all, and is laying off on some of the kick-offs. That has left Eric Johnson and Greg Davis to get several cracks at both duties. As the Spring Game reflected, the punting is as inconsistent as ever. Booties may be seeing at least one boot under 25 yards each game, if this doesn’t get shored up. Two other factors related to the punting Saturday will just make your stomach churn: the long snapping was equally shaky, and the woeful wobblers came with not a single player rushing the punter. Johnson reportedly has a scholarship to punt, so the hopes are still pinned on him to work out over the summer and improve markedly. Of course, there still should be some new blood walking on in the fall to heighten the competition…

As sorry as the punting was in ’99, the team’s success was scarcely affected, given the high level of performance from the offense. To mitigate the damage wrought by our impending punting pratfalls, we once again turn our eyes to the big O. All three QBs had fine throws at the Spring Game, as they did throughout the spring. Randy looks healthy, with a world of talent. He is rolling out of the pocket more and more, though I have to believe he’ll be willing to set up in there when he gets a solid five in front of him. His throws are very accurate, including 35-40 yard tosses down the sidelines. Doesn’t get flustered to throw back across the field, and is more judicious than ever about when to scramble. I’d like to see him in the shotgun more this fall, given his skill set and some deficiencies at WR. My overriding concern with Randy is his foot/toe. It didn’t get completely healed over the winter, as it’s darned near impossible to get him to sit still and “rest up.” His workouts with the team this summer will go a long way toward how successful September starts, but I think the success for the term of the season is tied to how long he stays on the field. Chris Lewis has matured greatly after his experience and successes last fall – the difference is palpable as you watch him under center. He sails a few balls and is not as accurate (right now) rolling out as Randy, but he has a command of the offense. Stanford can beat some good teams this fall if Chris has to take the helm. While he was not known for his speed coming out of high school, he is showing more and more how much of a threat he can be when he breaks loose. He notably heads toward the sideline more than “Mad Man” Randy does, which is both good and bad, depending on your perspective. Ryan Eklund continues to show that he has a nice touch, particularly on long balls. He can thrive in situations where he can sit back in the pocket with great protection, but can struggle mightily under modest pressure or when receivers don’t break open early. My target for Ryan in the winter off-season was to see him hit the weights and training table; I’ll be watching come August to see if he can better his confidence and presence. It will be plenty interesting to see how Kyle Matter and Eklund duke it out for the 3rd string position this fall. Teyo should not be forgotten, as well. I would believe that he has moved to WR in an arrangement similar to Fasani’s “conversion” to tight end in ’99. He is very intense competitor who wanted to get on the field and help the team now, but that does not preclude him from competing for the QB position going forward. His dynamics as a hoopster are more complicating than Fasani’s, though…

But staying focused on this fall, Teyo could provide big help at receiver. He was the star of the Spring Game, pulling down 3 passes for 68 yards and 2 TDs and laying down the biggest hit of the day on a nasty block to Brian Taylor. Both TDs were “jump ball” situations, and there is frankly little reason to believe that any defensive back in the conference will be able to stop Teyo on this play. Last year, I was excited about the athletic upgrade in the receiving category at tight end, watching Pierce and Nacho catching jump balls in the corner endzone. Frankly, Teyo and tight end Alex Smith have them both beat. These guys have the unique combination of wide frames and leaping abilities that have Diedrick chomping at the bit. As soon as Teyo starts to demonstrate this in September, I expect opposing coaches to start putting safeties on him, and ordering DBs to lay major hits on him. Belotti and Oregon will “release the hounds,” particularly. The question, then, is how well-rounded will Teyo’s receiving game be? He is a little tentative in running routes right now, and does get jammed at the line. He’s also had very good and not so good days holding on to passes. But Teyo is a perfectionist and fierce competitor who fixes mistakes as rapidly as possible… and his learning curve in hoops demonstrated just how quickly he can ramp up. Two years ago, Teyo might not make this move to WR, or might struggle to see time. For fall 2001, he has Diedrick rewriting plays in his office starting today. I personally want to see Teyo catching more than jump balls, though. When he gets in the open field with the ball, he’ll have a good chance of making it to the endzone at any time. No need for him to leave his feet and set a huge target for charging DBs too often.

The rest of the receiving corps is a mixed bag. Saturday showcased a disturbing number of dropped balls, including one man who has yet to shake the “dropsy” image – Caleb Bowman. For fly/out patterns, there is still no one on this team who can match his speed, and that combined with the long ball accuracy of our QBs could make for some game-winning plays. But Caleb is going to have a short period this fall to prove that he is game-ready. Luke Powell and Ryan Wells have proven this spring to be more consistent. Luke catches more railbirds’ eyes with his shake-n-bake moves in the open field, which are amazingly effective; Ryan has done more work catching short balls, quietly and effectively. Both are candidates to run Stanford’s patented screen passes, with their explosive speeds. Luke can accelerate faster (quickness), while Ryan has better top speed and maneuverability at that speed. Several posters on the BootBoard have pined that the young studs will rise up and take the reigns in this group, but I think that Ryan Wells has the experience and confidence of the coaches that will place him on the field early and often. In that category is the forgotten Jamien McCullum, who missed most of the spring injured. He made some plays last fall, and will get the nod ahead of Nick Sebes and the freshmen (including his brother, Justin). Sebes was a real disappointment to see get hurt, as he was rising up with some great performances this spring. Despite his Noah Wylie visage, he is a mature, complete package. He cuts off his routes at the right spot, senses defenders, and glides across the field. He’s a quick little sucker, as well. Put these guys all together, and I think we have a very competitive unit, without depending heavily on the incoming freshmen. The top three WRs will be Powell, Wells and McCullum, with both Teyo and Sebes gaining playing time as soon as the coaches’ confidence catches up to these kids’ abilities. I hope Caleb can put it together, and that Royster can make some plays, but this top five should be good enough by mid-season to make it tough on them. Injuries are always a reality for receivers, as was evidenced this spring. If a couple of the top guys take a hit, I still think one of the incoming frosh could get a chance to play. Redshirts are not assured. Overall, there is a lot of optimism toward this group, though most of it unproven. It is also worth noting that Randy can make these guys look good…

Tight end is a position clouded with constant injuries, but highlighted brightly with the play of Alex Smith this spring. He pulled down 3 catches for 46 yards, including a very nice catch in the middle of the field late during the hurry-up offense. He has the strength and size to effortlessly brush defenders away, but a lean and limber frame to make some spectacular plays. He has the early signs of both a warrior and a playmaker. The ball, figuratively and literally, is in Diedrick’s hands, though. We were duped last year by so much practice using the tight ends. Will he make good and harness the horses this fall? Another great determinant of how much we’ll see Alex will come from those at his position more senior to him. Matt Wright, Brett Pierce and Darin Naatjes were all MIA at different times and for different reasons this spring. Matt was guarding bad ribs, while Brett was fighting a neck injury. I heard some genuine concern Saturday that Brett might not heal up so easily, with an MRI in the wings. I heard a very different viewpoint dismissing any long-range concern about Brett for this fall, as well. I wish I knew which to believe right now. But tight end has proven to be an injury-riddled position in recent times at the Farm, which will get all four of these studs on the field. The question is who is ready, and who will best perform? Matt Wright will likely start, as he is the best blocker of the four right now, though Brett Pierce is not far behind. These same two guys can be counted on with sure hands for short passes, but it’s Nacho and Smith who could really stretch the field. Nacho vertically, and Smith crossing. If Nacho isn’t seeing the ball relative to other guys early in the fall, many a Cardinalmaniac™ will be pointing fingers at his decision to hang with the baseball team this spring. Furthermore, how well Kwame and Kirk pass-block will influence how the TEs need to be used this season.

On offense, that just leaves the backs. Kerry Carter looked the best Saturday, though results varied wildly for all backs, depending on how lucky they were in who was blocking for them. Kerry is showing more assertiveness in changing direction, and powering through tacklers. His speed trails just about every other TB on the team, but he still is our best bet running between the tackles. Given the experience and talent our starting front five given this year, that might argue for KC as the starter. Brian Allen has the big play potential, and the best chance to beat defenders to the corner. Justin Faust and Kenny Tolon both have talent, but continually lag in reps and opportunities behind the top two. A combined 7 carries for 11 yards for Faust and Tolon on Saturday won’t help their case, but most of those runs were doomed from the start with who was in front of them. All in all, a pretty mediocre day for the running game, though. This was a quiet spring for Casey Moore, but that isn’t unexpected. He is a known quantity who successfully stayed healthy through the spring. Mission accomplished. Look for him, and an underrated but athletic duo of Landry and Newberry to make some noise blocking and catching the ball at fullback.

Defense doesn’t get as much mention on the BootBoard, as most fans more easily follow and understand the offense. Not to mention the fact that Stanford’s offense has been awfully prolific in the last few years, leaving us want for more. But there is a very serious buzz about the 2001 Stanford defense, and justifiably so. The holes left by senior departures are not as gaping as we once thought, and the overall talent and depth is reaching levels not seen on the Farm since the early 90’s. It all starts, of course, up front, Gone are DE Sam Benner and all-world DT Willie Howard. But a solid 2-deep has emerged from this spring, led by Matt Leonard and Trey Freeman in the middle. Matt came into Stanford with more expectations than any other interior DL in the TW era, but has underperformed relative to those expectations. He was clearly the top lineman this spring, though, constantly harassing QBs. From what I saw, Matt could and should be at least as good this fall as Willie was. It helps that Trey Freeman broke out this spring, showing up in the best shape of his Stanford career. He has leapt ahead of veteran Travis Pfeiffer and a very good Craig Albrecht to nab the starting nose tackle spot. The talent and experience between these four is outstanding. Moving out to the ends, the veterans got the nod in Austin Lee and Marcus Hoover. I watch Marcus in practice and feel that he is an underrated player, able to power through most O-linemen and always ferocious. Still, the writing is on the wall that Will Svitek is the future at one of these ends… and that future should hit soon. Will has deceptive speed, great strength and very sound technique. He’s very teachable, and is making plays against the 1st string OL. When Austin (and later Louis Hobson) went down with injuries, Will picked up the slack and impressed a lot of people. Whether through injury ahead of him or through outright superior play, Svitek should be on the field by October at the latest. I feel that Louis Hobson could break through as well, with his God-given frame and build. He has been besieged with injury bad luck for his duration, though. He needs luck to stay healthy, above all else. Scott Scharff got more snaps than expected late in the spring, with Austin and Louis down, but he is not as far along as his classmate (Svitek) at this time. Drew Caylor will have a tough time getting on the field at DE, and thus is working on long snapping.

The linebackers have been a wildcard, viewed as a major question mark after the ’99 season, yet viewed as a glut of talent just 12 months later after the 2000 season. So overloaded was this corps – veterans, up-and-comers, as well as incoming studs – that the staff made some moves to “spread” the talent this off-season. Newberry moved across the ball to fullback, and Cooper Blackhurst was moved up to defensive end (another perfectionist adapting to a new position). That left two 5th year seniors to anchor the LB corps in Coy Wire (inside) and Anthony Gabriel (moved outside). The hope was that the other inside position vacated by Gabriel would open up wide for the great Amon Gordon, who started off with a phenomenal spring. But before he could get through a full week, he hurt his elbow and was sidelined with a sling for the remainder. That left Matt Friedrichs to hold down spot alongside Coy, which he did solidly. But neither Friedrichs nor Brian Gaffney showed anything remarkably new or improved this spring, leaving one to conclude that a real upgrade in performance at LB will have to come from Amon (who will not be affected by his elbow this summer). In considering the OLB position, it was noteworthy that Gabriel did not exhibit any of the pass rushing this spring that Stanford fans became accustomed to with Riall Johnson the past couple of years. He is an improvement at that position in pass coverage, however. Provided that he’s healthy in August, incoming freshman Michael Craven will get a look at the position and some playing time somewhere in the linebacking corps.

Finally, the defensive backfield "a perennial weakness in Stanford football" appears to be in the best shape we’ve seen in years. FS Tank Williams was another rising senior who took it easy this spring, but who should have a major impact on the field this fall. The other safety position was the only one vacated in the starting defensive backfield as Aaron Focht graduated, leaving Simba Hodari and Colin Branch to compete. Simba wasn’t healthy through the spring, yielding the lion’s share of snaps to Colin. The results were positive, as Colin continually was found around the ball. Not a flashy playmaker, but very solid. One area for improvement appears to be in stopping the run, as I see a defensive player predisposed to pass coverage. I’d also like to see a little more of a linebacker mentality in hitting and tackling, as seen previously from Focht and Wire. I believe that Colin holds down the starting spot, even against a healthy Hodari in the fall. That leaves the CBs, who look to give a lot of solid depth this season. Ruben Carter is again a lock, blanketing receivers better than ever this spring. The other corner should go to Ryan Fernendez, who was more fundamentally consistent this spring than last. Brian Taylor also showed quite well this spring, as both of these kids are showing the dividends of experience, maturity and Denny Schuler’s teachings. Brian has improved enough, and shown a greater ability to make bigger plays, that Cardinalmaniacs™ should not see a drop-off if one of the two starters is lost to injury. BT appears to be a lock for the extra DB in the nickel package, which curiously didn’t get near as much work (to my eyes) this spring as last spring. Further depth will come from the pair of redshirt freshmen who have gotten Booties excited since their arrival at the Farm. Stanley Wilson and Leigh Torrence showed well in their first spring ball, and should got on the field this season. Wilson particularly stood out, with his speed, instincts and reactions. It’s hard to see either one cracking the starting lineup early this fall, barring injuries, but they are up-and-coming and too talented to stand on the sideline. Another young DB to watch is their classmate, O.J. Atogwe. He got plenty of reps at free safety in his first spring, and looks to be ahead of Jim Johnson already.

One of the other great parts of Spring Ball is the chance to meet and see many of the incoming freshmen who come out to visit. The last three years have produced very encouraging pools of talent through recruiting, and the 2001 class looks to provide near-term and long-term boosts to this football program in a big way. I personally had a couple of chances each to talk with the parents of OJ Oshinowo and Mark Anderson, as well as a bit with those two recruits themselves. They physically present packages that match their recruiting hype, and personally present young men that every Cardinalmaniac™ will be proud of. In total, there were some eleven incoming freshmen at the Spring Game, which The Bootleg was eager to talk with. Unfortunately, we quickly learned that they were advised very specifically not to talk with us. Given how excited Booties are toward meeting these young men, at least remotely through The Bootleg, and given how many of them and their families have avidly grown attached to the program and fan base through our site and community, this was a grand disappointment for all concerned. At a time when fans, donors, families and players are increasingly voicing their support for The Bootleg as a meaningful and vital part of the Stanford Athletics experience, football remains an Iron Curtain. Tyrone has apparently taken his anti-Bootleg vigor to the next generation of the Stanford family, before they even arrive at the Farm. Way to get to ‘em early, TW!


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