Spring practice, take two

With February's chill clinging doggedly to The Farm, the Cardinal football team opened its fourth "spring" practice (if you can call it that) on Saturday with several big questions still unanswered. We got an inside look at who might be filling some of the holes left on the Stanford depth chart, as this practice was the first with full-speed, live-contact drills.

The session was "better" than the Cardinal's first three, per David Shaw, but as the head man continually reiterates, there are always improvements to be made.

Injury Report

Starters Delano Howell and Chris Owusu were nowhere to be seen on Saturday. Both are still rehabbing from undisclosed injuries, and the Cardinal coaching staff won't jeopardize their recoveries just to rush them into spring practice participation. As Shaw said, neither player has anything to prove, and both will be at the top of the depth chart at their positions in the fall. Coby Fleener and Michael Spanos again wore yellow jerseys and participated in a limited capacity. Levine Toilolo was on the field as well, but wore a knee brace and didn't participate in any full-contact drills. Tyler Gaffney also did not participate, presumably due to his baseball commitments.

Position Switch Updates

While relatively few Stanford players shuffled positions this season, one big change is Usua Amanam's move from running back to the defensive backfield. Amanam seems to be handling the transition well: through he missed a few reads and was caught out of position on some drills, he made a good number of plays, highlighted by a solo tackle of Ryan Hewitt toward the end of practice.

Corey Gatewood also continued his transition into a full-fledged wide receiver. Gatewood has seen time on both sides of the ball and on special teams throughout his Stanford career, but Shaw affirmed before the start of spring practice that Gatewood would line up exclusively as a wide receiver this season. He had a decent practice overall, highlighted by a diving catch on a bullet from Andrew Luck.

Depth Chart Battles

With so many experienced players departing from last year's Orange Bowl squad, the battles for newly vacant starting positions are heating up on both sides of the ball. The biggest gaps are along the offensive and defensive lines, but the Cardinal also needs to find new starters at linebacker, defensive back and wide receiver.

Offensive Line

With three openings on a line that was among the country's best last season, battles for starting positions are especially intense. Nowhere is the competition fiercer than at center, where Sam Schwartzstein and Khalil Wilkes are neck-and-neck. Shaw said that Schwartzstein has had a slight edge through the first four practices, but Wilkes had a better day on Saturday. Elsewhere on the line, Tyler Mabry appears to be a frontrunner for a starting slot, with Kevin Danser still in the mix. The returning starters are Martin and David DeCastro.

Defensive Front Seven

The main holes in the defensive front seven are at the linebacker positions, where Stanford is trying to replace Owen Marecic and Thomas Keiser. Blake Lueders, last year's top recruit, struggled somewhat on Saturday, but was taking reps with the first team. Shaw said that Alex Debniak has stepped up and outperformed expectations early, and that sentiment was echoed by one of the unit's returning starters, Chase Thomas.

Defensive Backfield

A lot of different players got looks in the defensive backfield, but the early frontrunners to start at corner look to be Barry Browning and Johnson Bademosi, who often served as Stanford's second cornerback last season. Quinn Evans also got some good looks in. The Cardinal needs another starting cornerback to replace departed senior Richard Sherman, and defensive coordinator Derek Mason focused his attention on the secondary throughout Saturday's practice. Though the injured Delano Howell will take one of the starting spots at safety, Stanford rotated through several players at the safety position, including Amanam, Michael Thomas and Ed Reynolds.

Wide Receiver

With two of last year's top receivers, Ryan Whalen and Doug Baldwin, lost to graduation, a new crop of wide receivers competed for position as targets for Andrew Luck. Drew Terrell and Griff Whalen got the most playing time and took the most snaps with the first team, while Jamal-Rashad Patterson and John Flacco took a good number of throws from Luck as well. Of course, Luck's top target in the receiving corps next year will most likely be Chris Owusu, once he returns fully healthy.

Quarterback

Though the Cardinal is set at starting quarterback with Luck, there's a fierce competition for the backup slot vacated by Alex Loukas. Three players—Josh Nunes, Brett Nottingham and Darren Daniel—took snaps at quarterback, but Nunes looks like the early leader of the pack, taking snaps with the second team right behind Luck during the team's live scrimmages. Nunes is a sophomore with a little more seasoning, while Nottingham and Daniel, a more mobile quarterback, are both freshmen. Robbie Picazo wasn't at this practice, after also missing Stanford's first spring practice.

That's all from Stanford's second open spring practice. I'll leave you with a quote that proves that David Shaw might just be as quotable as his predecessor (who shall remain nameless here):

"We can't have two good plays and one bad play. That's not how we operate and that's not how we run things around here. Every single play has to be executed with passion and precision."


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