Spring practice, take three

A warm spring day finally smiled on the Farm for Saturday's spring practice, the seventh practice overall and the third open to the public. Head man David Shaw is staying secretive over how he thinks the depth chart will play out, but with the "first session" of spring ball now in the books, we can make some educated guesses as to who's going to be starting on Opening Day.

Scrimmages and special teams

Saturday's practice took on a much different character than the first two open practices. Where the majority of earlier sessions consisted mostly of drills and conditioning to get the team back into form, the Cardinal scrimmaged live at full speed for much of Saturday afternoon, with the first and second teams switching off every couple of drives.

There was also a much bigger emphasis on special teams, with special teams coordinator Brian Polian running even the first-team players through drills. Stanford ran through blocking and coverage on kickoffs and punts, and also made progress in the competition between Eric Whitaker and Jordan Williamson for the starting kicker job. The early front-runners for the kick return role appear to be Drew Terrell and Usua Amanam, with the caveat that Chris Owusu, Stanford's top return man for the last couple of seasons, is still out with an injury.

The Usua Amanam position shift

Amanam is the only prominent position switch this season, moving from running back to defensive back. I caught up with him after practice to ask him about the switch.

"Defense and corner is a lot of technique, so it's going to take some time," he said. When I asked him about learning the defensive playbook, he said, "It's not as tough as the offensive playbook. It's pretty simple, making a couple of reads—it's not like you're coming to the line and you have three or four calls. It's a lot simpler, but like I said, I haven't played defense in a while, so it's just going to take a little time." He later said that he expects to contribute on special teams this season, and that he enjoys being on the side delivering hits instead of receiving them.

The backup quarterback dilemma

All of Stanford's quarterbacks behind Andrew Luck looked pretty shaky at practice. For now, it looks like Josh Nunes is the leading candidate to replace Alex Loukas as Luck's backup, and he was taking reps with the second team for the majority of the day. However, Nunes' performance didn't exactly inspire confidence—he regularly missed receivers and threw a couple of picks. His only really good throw in a live scrimmage, a deep bomb down the left sideline that was right on target, was dropped by Jemari Roberts.

The other quarterbacks didn't have much success, either. Darren Daniel and Brett Nottingham both looked shaky. Daniel, who is more of a running quarterback and a wildcat option than a true passer, didn't really make any solid throws, and we didn't get to see as much of his running ability since quarterbacks are protected from hits in scrimmages. Meanwhile, Nottingham showed flashes of potential, but was plagued by the same troubles as Nunes—off-target throws, bad reads and passes into coverage. Harold Bernard took one of his passes back for a pick-six, and Nottingham was visibly frustrated after that play. Robbie Picazo, the final quarterback on Stanford's roster, did not participate in practice again due to mono, but he was on the sideline without pads throughout the day.

The situation behind Andrew Luck doesn't look so great for now. When asked about it, Shaw said that there's no frontrunner for the job right now, even though there were some pretty big disparities in scrimmage time on Saturday. It's all enough to make you wonder what this season would be like had Luck chosen to go the NFL route.

Luck's protection and targets

Speaking of Andrew Luck, some of the most important position battles are playing out along the offensive line and at the receiver positions, which will be critical to his success next season. Stanford lost three of its starters on the O-line and two of Luck's best targets, Ryan Whalen and Doug Baldwin, to graduation and the draft. There's also the rather large hole to fill at fullback left by Owen Marecic.

Right now, the most heated battle is to replace All-American Chase Beeler at center, where Khalil Wilkes and Sam Schwartzstein have been close all spring. Shaw wouldn't say who is in the lead right now, but Schwartzstein was playing with the first team for almost all of practice, though Wilkes is generally considered to have more upside. There's still a long way to go, though, so it's impossible to predict who will be the starter come next fall. In the other open offensive line slots, Tyler Mabry and Kevin Danser were getting significant time with the first team, with David Yankey in the mix as well.

In the receiving corps, Griff Whalen and Drew Terrell continued to be the top two receivers, playing almost exclusively with the first team, with Jamal-Rashad Patterson also in the mix. Corey Gatewood played mostly with the second team again. A noticeable absence from the first team was John Flacco, who got a solid number of reps in last weekend. Flacco was at practice and fully dressed, but just wasn't really inserted often into scrimmages.

At fullback, Ryan Hewitt took a number of reps, so he might be converted from tight end to the position for the start of next season. Given the deep stable of tight ends on the Stanford roster, and the ability shown by Hewitt over the last couple of practices, it's not surprising that the Cardinal would move him to fullback to take advantage of his blocking skill and his pass-catching ability out of the backfield. Geoff Meinken got some playing time at the position as well. Meinken has been the understudy to Owen Marecic in his career at Stanford, but right now he looks squarely behind Hewitt in the fullback pecking order.

Defensive battles

Competition for starting jobs on the defensive side of the ball was intense as well. Along the defensive line, Trent Murphy and Terrence Stephens saw a lot of action. Stephens appears to be the successor to Sione Fua at the tough 3-4 nose tackle position, but he's a big player who could very well fit the mold of a solid lane-clogging, run-stopping defensive tackle. Despite a couple of hiccups, the run defense along the front was fairly solid for the most part. Another player of note was Stan Fich, a junior walk-on who was originally recruited to Stanford to play baseball but left the team to play football before spring practice. Fich is fairly physically imposing, to put it mildly, and got a sack while working with the second team. With good size and surprising speed, Fich could have a decent shot at earning a roster spot.

There are also two spots to fill at linebacker, next to current starters Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas. Alex Debniak, Max Bergen and Ben Gardner all got in a lot of reps with the first team, with Debniak and Bergen emerging as the frontrunners. Perhaps more interestingly, Blake Lueders hasn't seen much first-team action this spring. Lueders, the most highly touted of last year's recruits, was expected to step up and fill the void left by the departures of Marecic and Thomas Keiser, but he hasn't really been a factor in the competition to replace them up to this point.

In the secondary, little has changed since last week. Johnson Bademosi and Barry Browning will most likely be the starting corner combination, with Michael Thomas and Delano Howell at safety. Howell, still injured but in attendance on Saturday, said after practice that he would participate in the second session of spring practice, which will start up after spring break.

On that note, we'll be back after a three-week hiatus to bring you all the news from the second session of Stanford's spring football camp. The session will start on March 28 and culminate with the Cardinal and White spring game on April 9 at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco.

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