It's a fact of life in football that injuries will happen. It's just a question of who, when and how severe. On Day Three of spring ball, the Card suffered their first injury loss, and it came in the opening minutes of practice. Ian Shelswell and Josiah Vinson were doing battle in a one-on-one drill when Vinson was put on his back but fell down awkwardly. He hurt his right leg and was carted off the field after being supported with a full air cast. Head coach Buddy Teevens has asked that we hold off on revealing details of the injury for now, but we will bring you the full details this coming week. The good news is that Vinson did not hurt his knee, which was the great fear among players, coaches and Stanford fans Saturday morning. The injury is nonetheless a tough loss for this young standout lineman, who also was set back early last fall when he injured his knee and required surgery. The thin Cardinal offensive line, now down to just nine players, also suffers a key loss with its top guard.
The rotation for the O-line takes on a different feel now. No longer can they make a full set of substitutions two-deep, which also limits some of the drills they had been running. And with Vinson out, his spot at right guard appears to be manned for now by Jeff Edwards. Also noteworthy that Ismail Simpson is still holding down the left guard starting spot.
On a more global note, this was the first practice of the spring in full pads. That meant live tackling in 9-on-7 drills or 11-on-11 action. The good news is that the defense was ferociously animated, flying to the ball and making a lot of plays. Some of the safeties stood out in how they attacked the ball during tackles. Oshiomogho Atogwe succeeded in stripping the ball from Alex Smith, which the defense recovered to much celebration. Trevor Hooper and Marcus McCutcheon also stood out in their physical tackling efforts.
Holding onto the ball is an emphasis for the offense, and particularly the running backs. Many of Wayne Moses' drills with his backs center around protecting the ball. That included diving to the ground repeatedly, Moses punching at the ball with his boxing glove on a stick and the players trying to wrestle the ball from each other.
The best drills of the day to watch were the "okie" drills, which had two players running parallel down the field, one a few yards ahead of the other. The lead player then turns quickly and has to try and block/stop the oncoming player. A tough drill for that blocker, but a fantastic drill for the fan on the sidelines. Produced some fantastic hits, across many positions.
Returning to the running backs, they were a focus for my eyes on this day specifically because this was the first day of live tackling. Thus, it was a litmus test for where Stanford's running game stands. With the results in, the answer is... not good. The backs were dominated by the defense Saturday, to the point that Wayne Moses was the last coach off the field, with a long face. His RBs had performed well on Friday, but that was light contact while today's tackling test was more telling. This is not the final datapoint of the spring for these running backs by a longshot, but there clearly is a need for dramatic improvement if this offense wants to run the ball as planned.
On a more positive note, the expected receiving stars stood tall Saturday. Luke Powell broke two highlight-quality touchdown receptions behind the defense, both thrown deep down the field by Kyle Matter. Matter appears to have added legit real arm strength in the off-season, for the second year in a row. Arm strength will continue to be a bugaboo for him, but he's closing the gap. And for Powell, it was truly a big day. He has not been healthy enough to run like he did for those long scores in more than a year, though to my eyes he still isn't all the way back to where he was two years ago. I still don't see that extra gear, that afterburner, he used to ignite to pick up a couple yards for the long ball at the last second.
The only other receiver who is consistently getting open is Justin McCullum, who is showing that he can move around the field, go up for the high balls and even get down low to pick up the low passes. He has a lot of upside still to reach, but he should be a factor this coming fall. The other wide receivers Saturday had a difficult time getting open against an encouraging defensive effort. Stanford needs to get Nick Sebes and Gerren Crochet back from the week's track travel and onto the football field.
The tight ends are another story, though, dominating at every turn. As promised, they are heavily involved in the passing game, and a lot of two-tight sets are being employed. Alex Smith had probably the best play today of the group when he snagged a ball at the sideline and just kept his feet in bounds. Coach David Kelly was right there to heap praise on the beloved tight end, putting his arm around Smith and offering up, "That's my All-American tight end. That's my All-American tight end."
Friday and Saturday represented a lot of work for the quarterbacks, and Chris Lewis noted after Saturday's workout that the first instance of back-to-back practices was a serious test for his shoulder. We'll see in the coming days if that soreness sticks with him or not. For now, he is just grinning from ear to ear with the chance to throw again for the first time since the middle of last season.
Speaking of QBs, coach Bill Cubit says it's too early to name 1 through 5 in this group, but he sees improvement across the board from Day One through Day Three. He was duly impressed with Matter's deep throws, Trent Edwards' mechanics and Lewis' leadership. That leadership category for Chris Lewis is of an importance that can not be overstated, and is a key to both his success and that of this team. Frankly, Lewis didn't shine in this area last season, and I consider it a major development to see him growing in this dimension.
On a closing note, you have seen in photos and you have read my comments about the all-white helmets in use this spring. I knew there was a motivational ploy behind that, and learned a little more Saturday. Teevens wants to symbolically remind his players that the success at Stanford does not come to them as a right, but rather earned through hard work. To that end, they will not have the Stanford "S" on their helmets until such time that the coaches agree that it has been earned. That is a fluid evaluation that comes up in coaching meetings, and will continue to be reviewed throughout the spring. The day you see the classic "S" decals back on the helmets, take it as an important transition moment for this football team.
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