Spring Practice: Day Thirteen

Wednesday marked the final day of full-contact action prior to Saturday's final scrimmage in Stanford Stadium (1:00 pm kickoff). But the defense acted as if to squeeze two practices of hitting and aggression into one with their physical play Wednesday. That being said, the offensive line stood up and rose to the challenge...

The first note of the day was that quarterback Ryan Eklund was the newest Cardinal to have the "S" decal adorning his previously barren helmet.  That will come as a surprise to Booties who wonder how a reserve QB who has spent much of the spring recovering from a thumb injury could earn this badge of honor ahead of putative starters at other positions on the field.  The bigger question surrounding the "S" has been how are these players being measured for the presence of absence of the trademark Stanford symbol?

As you tally up through these last few weeks of practice notes, you find a relatively even distribution of the awards to the offense and defense.  The defense jumped ahead early, but the offense came together as a unit and found more and more individuals earning the decal.  However, the breakdown by classes is not so even.  Of the 25 decals I have counted to date, just one has been doled out to the freshman class.  And that has gone to quarterback Trent Edwards.  In a class full of talented and hard-working players, how has just one been rewarded so this spring to date?  I believe the answer lies in two categories that are principal in the determination these decals: performance and leadership.

The performance category encompasses not just athletically demonstrated ability, but more importantly improvements in areas of need.  Some defensive players need to be heady about their assignments, while some offensive players need to be more physical in their playmaking.  A uniform emphasis on mistake-free football has been dictated to players on both sides of the ball, as well as special teams.  The mental lapses seen in practices and scrimmages become costly errors in football games.  And frankly, the freshmen have had ups and downs this spring, with very rare stretches of clean football.  They have made steady but slow incremental improvements.

But I also think a premium is being placed on leadership as well this spring.  And leadership means much more than inspirational speeches to your teammates.  It means taking ownership for your actions and those of every teammate you see around you.  It is tough for freshmen to feel comfortable enough with their role on the team to act in that manner, but the coaches conducted leadership seminars this off-season with exactly that mentality in mind.  Those seminars were conducted by class, which a coach speaking to the freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors as groups so as to uniquely address how they can be leaders within this team.

Trent Edwards is the one player within the freshman class who has probably delivered the most in both categories, making big plays during hotly contested scrimmages and proactively leading his offensive teammates in the huddle and in drills.  The coaches have generally felt that though the youngest of the group, Edwards is the most forceful leader among the quartet of quarterbacks.  And Teevens said after Wednesday's practice that his performances on the field are continually improving.  "I thought Trent was very sharp in throwing the football today," the head man commented.  "And something you don't often notice from the sidelines is how he sometimes changes a play at the line of scrimmage and makes something happen."

But Wednesday was also a day of progress for several other freshmen, particularly the big bodies.  Offensive line coach Steve Morton noted to us the other week that he wanted to nail down run blocking first, then put a mad push forward on pass blocking to finish the spring.  It had been tough sledding protecting the QBs for several days, but Wednesday marked the first day of serious progress.  Before the scrimmage at the end of the practice, drills were run to simulate defensive blitzing pressure.  And the young linemen responded with their best protection of the spring.  When it came time to protect in 11-on-11 action, the quarterbacks almost always had time to get off their passes.  Teevens afterward had praise for just about all the frosh linemen, noting real strides made by Jeff Edwards, David Beall, Matt McClernan and Ismail Simpson.

Just outside the tackles, Matt Traverso also turned in his most pleasing practice of the spring.  He has continually done his job catching the ball, but his first couple weeks of practice had disappointed in the level of physicality in his play.  Particularly in blocking.  "The biggest thing for Matt is the physical aspect of his play," Teevens notes.  "He is making real progress now, though.  He's more confident and playing tougher."  Teevens particularly pointed to Saturday's scrimmage when Traverso sprained his ankle but would not leave the offensive huddle until tight ends coach Tom Quinn pulled him out.  Traverso quickly returned to action, though, choosing to tough it out through practice.

Another offensive freshman making his mark Wednesday was David Lofton.  Though just his second day at receiver, he is turning a lot of heads with his playmaking ability.  And relative to his Monday performance, he is already more confident going up to get the tough balls against tight coverage.

On the other side of the ball, T.J. Rushing may be making a surge forward in his play.  He came to spring practices a few days late because of his trip to the Texas Relays with the track team, but before long claimed the left cornerback first string spot.  Soon thereafter Grant Mason took it back, though, and has held it for more than a week.  Then in the middle of Wednesday's practice, Rushing replaced Mason and worked out the remainder of the day at the starting left spot.  We all know of his blinding speed, but he has the last couple days made some great plays on balls and started to limit his mistakes.

In other depth chart notes, Wednesday was the second straight practice in which I noticed that Will Svitek was starting at the defensive end opposite Louis Hobson, where Julian Jenkins has previously been starting earlier in the spring.  This is something interesting to watch in Saturday's spring finale.  Svitek, incidentally, had another strong practice rushing the quarterback, including a pass deflection.

As a unit, the defense did not run roughshod through the offensive line as in some practices, but their intensity and energy level was the highest I've seen all spring.  There is no way to describe it other than to say they were swarming to the ball.  Big gains by the offense were tough to come by because any run or any completed pass was immediately smothered by a legion of linebackers, linemen and DBs.  "It's the little things they're doing right now that are making the defense," Teevens describes.  "They get their hands up on passes, break to the ball and aren't missing any tackles.  They're really wrapping up right now, and that's something we didn't do well enough last year."

Teevens heaped particular praise on Brian Gaffney, who had a superlative practice as he continues to start at the MLB position while David Bergeron sits out with a broken hand. "I thought Brian played with a lot of energy and was leading a lot of those plays today," the coach opined.  He also noted that Bergeron is showing the kind of toughness he wants on this team, fighting with the trainers each day to get out of the yellow jersey and onto the field.  "It's been a source of pride with guys this spring to not miss practices," Teevens adds.  Capp Culver is another player who is receiving more accolades from the coaches, and he is earning more time at the weakside "Will" linebacker spot as a result.

Wednesday was the final 'live' practice of the week, with Friday's work scheduled for a walk-through in preparation of Saturday's Spring Game.  Teevens notes that he is putting an emphasis on how players respond under the pressure of game conditions.  Some guys shine in drills, particularly those that involve seven-on-seven work, but he wants to put the players at the top of his depth chart who perform under pressure.  Look for Saturday's results to have a heavy bearing on the final depth chart of the spring.  And to the question of the quarterbacks, Teevens says he wants to walk away from the Stadium Saturday with a clear #1, #2 and #3 guy in his mind.  There is no intent to name co-starters or even co-#2 at the position.

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