Stanford spring football may have formally concluded on April 26 with the Cardinal & White Scrimmage in Stanford Stadium, but the workouts have continued for your Cardinal footballers. Twice each week they have convened at the practice field for an hour of drills. Monday was the seventh such practice thus far this spring, and I took a trip down to The Farm to check
"These have been great workouts for us," says senior quarterback Chris Lewis. "We're doing it twice weekly right now but will expand to three times a week in the summer. We are so far ahead of where we were a year ago, and this is going to make the summer so much more useful. The plays are staying crisp, and we're keeping our timing."
Lewis even went so far as to say that this level of structured off-season workouts will save the team a week of work when official practices are allowed to resume again in August. The starting quarterback laments that it took the first week of last August's two-a-days to get the rust off the offense, and that helped to engender a very slow start for the entire team.
And from my observation of this Monday's workout, I concur. This single practice had more structure, worth and participation than any workout the entire 2002 off-season. I could count only a scant few players who were missing, with at least 90% of the active roster in attendance. And that is about as much as you will get with class conflicts and illnesses. The team had scripted plays to run, which they obtain from the coaches, and specific drills for specific lengths of time. Punter Eric Johnson even sounded an air horn to signal the changeover between drills. All units, including the offensive and defensive linemen, were busy throughout the practice, in contrast to last year's fragmented sessions with linemen and skill players at different times on different days. The overall organization and efficiency of the practice was impressive.
The one big surprise note was seeing Grant Mason working out with the wide receivers. My first thought was that Mason has chosen to workout at cornerback and receiver this off-season, given that he told me early in April his aspirations to play both ways. "I have aspirations to play both ways, and a lot of that comes from growing up watching Charles Woodson at Michigan," said the Pontiac (MI) native. He had a wildly successful four weeks in April in his Stanford defensive debut, showing better natural cover skills than many of the starting corners that have played over the last decade for the Cardinal.
But Mason noted even at the end of the spring official practices that he was not in a position yet to beat out Stanley Wilson, who was on the sidelines throughout the month as he recovered from off-season surgeries. Monday, Mason again described his status within the defense and what prognosis that provides for his 2003 playing future. "I saw myself as a backup cornerback after the spring," he revealed. "And I don't want to be backing up anybody. My goal is to be in the starting lineup, and then find situations where I can help elsewhere. I had a talk with Coach [Buddy] Teevens after spring ball, and we're putting me back at receiver for now. I think there is a greater opportunity for me at wide receiver right now. I think I can start, but I've also shown that I am capable enough to help play in nickel or dime situations on defense. I'll be working at both positions during the summer, but mostly offense right now because they need me more."
That "need" refers to the fact that a handful of Stanford's receivers are not cleared for action. On Monday Nick Sebes, Gerren Crochet, David Lofton and Brandon Royster were all present but did not line up for work against DBs in passing or 11-on-11 drills. But as you look ahead to the fall, the receiving corps will be overflowing with numbers. Moving Mason away from CB to WR might indeed give him a better chance to start. Wilson and Leigh Torrence look incredibly difficult to unseat as the starting cornerbacks, while the #2 and #3 receiver spots behind Luke Powell are more open. But does this move leave the defensive backfield too thin? Only T.J. Rushing provides additional talent at a starting level, which leaves no margin for injury as the Cardinal look to populate their nickel and dime packages. Unless of course, you believe that Mason can pull off his two-way dream.
For the record, Mason looked fantastic at the receiver position Monday. I thought he was the best WR in the 2002 spring, and he got on the field last fall as a redshirt freshman. He's a very good athlete who will trail the Luke Powell's, Nick Sebes' and Gerren Crochet's in straight-line speed, but has a knack for attacking the ball and making plays. But it remains an open question as to where he can best help this team in the fall, and how his off-season training will prepare him and his teammates for maximum success...
Some additional player notes:
- Tight end Alex Smith participated in his first unofficial spring practice, as the team doctors had held him out the past three weeks. You may remember that he was injured late in spring official practices and missed the last week of action, including sitting out the Spring Game. Smith tells me that his right knee was still bothering him into May, and he just now feels well enough to return to action. He wore a sleeve brace on the knee for Monday's practice and was very excited to rejoin the offense.
- Wide receiver Greg Camarillo is out of his cast as he continues to recover from his broken leg, suffered during the April practices. He just started walking without crutches and says he is still a few weeks away from being cleared to run. He projects that he will join the team unofficial workouts in the first or second week of their summer session.
- Center/guard Tim Mattran is the one player who appears to be out of action with a new injury - a broken right foot. The good news is that it did not transpire during these workouts, which are non-contact and proceed without any pads. But it is unfortunate that the freshman lineman suffered the unnecessary setback off the field. As he describes the accident, he was stepping off a sidewalk and set his right foot just on the edge of the curb. The unexpected uneven footing caused him to lose his balance and fall, breaking his foot in the process. Mattran is visibly frustrated by the silly injury of a little more than a week ago, but says that he is less than two weeks away from removing the boot on his right foot. "They're just being overprotective right now," he reports. "I'll be back 100% pretty soon, probably as soon as I can get this thing off."
- The cornerback crew has deeper numbers, even with the move of Grant Mason to receiver, now that Stanley Wilson and Calvin Armstrong are both back in action. The two wore yellow jerseys through the entirety of April and could not participate in any cover drills, but they were right in the thick of things Monday. Wilson grabbed the only interception of the practice's passing drills, jumping in on a ball after the receiver slipped on a cut.
- Linebackers David Bergeron and Kevin Schimmelmann both missed the latter portion of the official spring practices with broken hands, but they are now sporting smaller casts and lined up for drills and the 11-on-11 action at the end of the practice.
- In receiving drills, there is no question that Luke Powell is the most dangerous and complete player among the wideouts. He showed the best long ball threat as well as the ability to get position in shorter routes against press coverage. The #2 target for the quarterbacks was Justin McCullum, who presents a big target in many intermediate routes. McCullum though had two unacceptable drops that reflect lapses in concentration. His upside is tremendous, but he will need to display better consistency to keep himself on the field this fall.
- In coverage work, I took particular note of safety Timi Wusu. He is a fan favorite of late because of his ascension to scholarship status from his former role as a walk-on player, as well as his successful foray into the decathlon for Stanford's track & field team. But he had a tough time in the coverage drills I watched early in Monday's practice. There clearly is a learning curve he is still ascending, where he finds himself physically further ahead of his mental progress. Those observations make me more comfortable with the move defensive backs coach A.J. Christoff made in April, shifting Wusu from free safety to strong safety. His coverage skills are not yet able to execute anywhere near the Pac-10 level required for a free safety. Though to the credit of the redshirt freshman from Palo Alto, he did snag an interception against Chris Lewis in the back of the endzone in a two-minute drill at the end of practice.
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