Ogling the O-Line

If you ever have the opportunity to watch a football practice, or even when you watch games in person at Stanford Stadium, chances are your eyes instinctively follow the ball. It's the quarterback and skill positions that stick in your mind after plays, and in reflection after games. But it's the offensive line that makes or breaks those plays. Hence our unending scrutiny of the beloved beefcake, which we examine in detail here...

I wrote before the spring, in both the magazine and here on the website, that sorting out this offensive line would be the most complex and mesmerizing facet of 2003 Stanford spring football.  That has proven correct, though one heavy wrinkle was added to the already intricate tapestry of the O-line when freshman Josiah Vinson went down in the first week with a broken ankle.  On a line that featured seven true freshmen, two players with scarce game experience and one talented veteran, Vinson stood out as the most athletic and able of the young hopefuls.  His loss was a crushing blow for his individual development, and what that meant to the collective development of the starting front five.  But out of tragedy was born a great innovation as Drew Caylor was moved from the defensive line to offensive center.

Suddenly another senior is added to the mix, and though he is young in OL experience, Caylor brings depth of game experience.  He understands the speed, strength and ferocity at which battles are waged in the trenches at the Pac-10 level.  And thankfully he has the athletic ability to mask his inexperience and raw technique as a center.  His new position coach is certainly excited at the possibilities.

"A third of the time, Drew takes off in the wrong direction," Steve Morton discloses.  "But he's better today that he was in Saturday's scrimmage.  He's a very explosive player and moves around very well.  I'm pleasantly surprised with where he is right now.  I just wish we could have had him over here [on the offensive line] earlier.  If he had been moved two or three years ago, he'd be playing today for a shot at the NFL.  He still could, but he just has so much to learn so fast."

Morton is so impressed by the quick learning curve displayed by the fifth year from Maryland that he already is in the early stages of elevating Caylor to the first string.  The second year Stanford line coach has shared with The Bootleg a plan to promote Caylor to the first unit and moving redshirt freshman Brian Head to one of the guard spots.  Morton admits that he does not yet know which guard position Head will best suited to, and that will come with experimentation at both sides.  I caught my first hint of this change at Monday's practice (Day Eight), when I saw Caylor and Head lined up together during nine-on-nine running drills.  But when the team scrimmaged later in the practice, Caylor remained with the second string and Head held tight at the first string center.  "I didn't want to overload Drew with the pass blocking calls too fast, so I'm going to be careful working him into that," Morton offers up.

Which brings us to Head, the 300-pound second year player from Corona (CA) who has received little pub on this O-line, though he received the second most playing time last fall of the returning group.  He suffered bad luck in his first year, much like Vinson, losing his first fall to injury and hobbling around on crutches.  He backed up the entire interior of the O-line as a redshirt freshman, behind a trio of fifth-year seniors, but he feels like he enters this spring with more under his belt than that role might indicate.  

"Dustin Stimson had to be late to practices on certain days last year, and I would take his first string reps," he explains.  "So all this work with the first unit isn't so new to me.  Still, this spring has been great for me.  It's a little easier for me because I know my assignments better.  But I have a responsibility to make the calls now, whereas last year I could get by without all of them.  That's the advantage of being surrounded by seniors.  Now I'm the older guy, surrounded by freshmen, and I help a little with the calls.  Once they get their assignments down, they'll be fine.  They're a little timid coming off the ball, but I think they are just a few days away from getting it.  The mistakes you see right now are when our guards are coming off on linebackers and missing assignments.  One blown block and that leaves an open path to the backfield.  We also need to keep our pad level lower."

Head also knows that his coach has high demands of this young group.  "Coach Morton was a little pissed Saturday with our mistakes.  Maybe we're overthinking things at times and just need to go out and play," the versatile interior OL opines.

Morton agrees that the elixir needed for his green group will come with repetitions more than chalk talks.  "These guys really need to play football - a lot of football," the coach begins.  "The technique will come as they play out situations and realize what does and does not work for them.  But you can't fully teach that.  It comes with experience, so I just want these guys to keep working at it this spring.  It'll come."

That doesn't excuse Morton from the depth chart gymnastics he still has ahead of him.  With only ten healthy linemen, every move at any position forces him to reshuffle the deck elsewhere.  If Caylor does move up to the starting center spot, and Head moves out to guard, that necessitates that another linemen move in to fill that second slot at center.  How that proceeds depends on which side of the line Head works best.  Should he stick at right guard, you will see Jeff Edwards step back to the second string there and Tim Mattran move over the ball.  Should Head fit better on the left side, you might see one of the current left guards move to the right side and a more complex set of movements to ensue.

So how are others on the line performing, according to Morton this spring?

  • Jeff Edwards: "As you look at his tape, you don't see flashes of spectacular play, but he doesn't turn defenders loose either.  He doesn't swing between the highs and lows like the other freshmen.  He's been a pleasant surprise."
  • David Beall: "His run blocking Saturday was probably some of his best football at Stanford.  He doesn't have the foot quickness or athleticism of a couple of the guys, but he's strong and is on track to be a good lineman."
  • Ismail Simpson: "Ish is our best pulling offensive guard right now, without question.  You grade guys on three areas on the offensive line: assignments, technique and effort.  His consistency on his assignments has improved and his effort is tremendous.  But his technique are all over the place.  His feet move so fast, which is an asset for him, but sometimes he moves so quickly that he doesn't know what he's doing and winds up out of position.  The good news is that I can't teach quick feet, but I can teach technique."
  • Tim Mattran: "He honestly is probably the least athletic of the class, but he fires off the line and runs around with a helluva motor.  He's making progress

The Bootleg Top Stories