Spring Practice: Day Two

The second day of spring football brought a modicum of sunshine, but no respite from the cool wind. Nevermind the weather, though, as the fiery spirits of this Stanford team shone through like a July afternoon. There were a few players and positions that also stood up, including a running back and a freshman offensive lineman...

Right off the bat, I want to correct an injury report from Wednesday's article.  I wrote that redshirt sophomore quarterback Ryan Eklund was unable to throw because of his wrist, but that is not accurate.  He told me today that he actually broke his thumb, and up close I saw that the brace to support his thumb is attached to his wrist.  The good news is that the doctors have told him he should be able to throw sometime next week.  Eklund is fortunately able to take part in the footwork drills, though.  Continuing the theme of spring ball injury good news - there have been no injuries through two days.  Woohoo!

In the not-so-good news category, redshirt sophomore defensive end Amon Gordon has not been at practice either of the first two days.  Head coach Buddy Teevens says that Gordon is tending to some personal matters, but he is expected to join the team soon.  Speculation on the rail at practice these last two practices had been pessimistic about Gordon missing the entire spring, for one reason or another.  But Teevens says he'll be back.  Additionally, walk-on defensive lineman Chris Gaines has not reported for the spring and is also wrestling with (different) personal matters.

Returning to those who are in action, it is important to note the overall atmosphere of these first two practices.  While "morale" and "enthusiasm" may seem a little too touchy-feely for some fans who live and die by technical analysis and depth chart discussion, these characteristics of a football team can mean the difference between wins and losses in a handful of games in a season.  More to the point, morale is as big a question mark on the heels of a 2-9 season as anything else.  Do players still pine for the previous coaching staff?  Are they buying into the changes in the strength and conditioning program?  Are they buying what the coaches are selling schematically on offense?  Do they still feel they can win???

These are legit questions, and though they all deserve their own attention, they have been collectively answered with the rousing energy on display these first two practices.  Guys are slapping each other on the backs, slamming into each other in the trenches (which ostensibly doesn't happen when you practice in shorts), flying around the field to the ball and hollering at every chance.  One such signature moment today came when Trevor Hooper made a fantastic pass break-up, diving to knock the ball just away from in front of Alex Smith.  Really a standout play.  But no sooner did Hooper hit the ground than the entire defense swarmed to him.  And I am not exaggerating to say that I have seen less enthusiastic celebrations in real game situations for much bigger plays.  This whole team is poised like a loaded spring [no pun intended], and it comes through in much of what you see.  Though the team may have its soft/young spots, and though execution may be quite imperfect in many places, the hunger and desire is like that of a pack of bloodthirsty wolves.  It truly is beautiful to see.

One assistant coach remarked to me after practice that he sees something very different in these kids that wasn't there last spring.  He pointed as an example to the offensive line, who at the end of practice did a session of drop-downs.  Drop-downs are an exercise that mixes the elements of jogging in place with dropping to the ground for push-ups.  It burns your muscles in a hurry because of the constant up and down, and it is commonly used as a punishment for fumbles, drops or muffed plays.  But the offensive linemen chose to do a session of drop-downs at the end of practice all on their own.  No coach told them to do it; they just did it.  Just a group of kids who are burning to get better, and want to push themselves in any way they can to get there.

The coach who is probably most closely associated with this frenzied energy and the many warrior actions is linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Tom Williams.  He played at Stanford a little more than a decade ago, and he was known then by his teammates as a tremendous and fiery leader.  Better than perhaps any of the other coaches on this staff, right up to Buddy Teevens, Williams knows what it takes to motivate and light a fire under Stanford football players.  It's Williams who is racing around the field these first practices like a methodical madman, setting the tone for his defensive players.  Setting an example for what fire, speed and urgency they need.  If you have the chance to get to a spring practice one of these next few days, do it just to watch Tom Williams and how he is molding his defensive players.  It's a beautiful thing.

The defense generally looks better than the offense, which you expect early in spring like this.  The offense has to shake off its rust in order to run its plays, while the defense has the more instinctual task of reaction to plays rather than execution.  In addition to Hooper's great play, Jon Alston had a nice pick today off a Kyle Matter throw.  Matter was a little flat on his throws, and paid for it more than once.  The defense also dominated in the one-on-one battles between the DL and the OL.  Of course, that more often than not pits veterans against first year players, which is producing predictable and humbling results for the green O-line.  I watched Scott Scharff come at the right shoulder of Tim Mattran on a particular play, only to then turn back inside to the left shoulder and knock the freshman back.  I watched all the freshmen take their beatings.  But then best play by a young lineman I saw came from Jeff Edwards, who reasonably handled Julian Jenkins.  JJ is a load, and that's something for Edwards to build on.  I also noted that Brian Head did a fair job against Babatunde Oshinowo, and that Ian Shelswell is starting to put things together pretty well.  He's still big, but moving around more and more quickly.

The best sign of the day for the offense was an emerging running game.  I didn't see a lick I could hang my hat on Wednesday, but Friday saw better footing and better decisions by the young backs.  Kenneth Tolon ripped a couple good runs, but I thought J.R. Lemon was clearly the standout of the day.  Two really fantastic runs through traffic, then finding an angle toward the sideline.  But in shorts, there isn't any tackling and it remains difficult to g


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