Offense improved in Sunday scrimmage

If there's one positive from Sunday afternoon's scrimmage, it's that Stanford's offense has improved significantly over the course of the past four months. There's nothing spectacular yet about the unit missing Andrew Luck, but there are now semi-stable signs of proficiency coming from the group.

Here's a position-by-position breakdown of the offense on a sun-splashed Farm afternoon.

Recently, the physically imposing Kevin Hogan had played his way into the race, but he played his way right out of it today with several errant passes, many of them into coverage. So, we're right back to the original duel: Nunes versus Nottingham.

Without beating around the bush, Brett Nottingham (5-of-6, 125 yards) looked better than Josh Nunes (7-of-10, 49 yards, 1 TD) today. He completed the two prettiest passes of the morning. The first was a beautiful 25-yard seam laser beam to a well-covered Keanu Nelson on third and long, while the second a perfectly placed 35-yard floater that hit Kodi Whitfield in stride down the left sideline. Nunes capped off his day with a good toss of his own, a perfectly executed lob into double coverage that only towering Levine Toilolo could grab for a touchdown. He looked slightly more agile, too, picking up 15 smart yards with his feet on the second play from scrimmage and nimbly buying time to convert fourth and one to Patrick Skov on an early play-action call. Yes, it looked like Spider Y-3 Banana. Somewhere, Jon Gruden is smiling.

With Nottingham, though, there was just more of a wow factor when it came to big-time downfield throws. Nunes disappointed the sizable crowd when he underthrew a wide-open Ty Montgomery, who had beaten Wayne Lyons to the end zone down the far sideline. Nottingham, meanwhile, didn't have much of a chance to throw to Montgomery because he was leading the second team. Still, he also niftily dodged a rush by rolling to the naked side and subsequently finding running back Remound Wright in the clear across the field. Some after-the-catch shake-and-bake turned that play into a 60-yard gain.

In my eyes, the fact that Nottingham looked more impressive leading the backups then Nunes did leading the first stringers (in a repeat of the Spring Game) was telling. That might not be the case in David Shaw's eyes, though. After the scrimmage, he said that 80 percent of his decision will be based on which quarterback better avoids negative plays. Since quarterback hits were not allowed and interceptions were nonexistent, that's a tough metric to evaluate from today's scrimmage. Still, Shaw said he and his staff will make their judgments based on film tonight. He also mentioned that Stanford will begin installing its week one game plan next Sunday, so a starting quarterback will be announced by then.

Even though he told me he absolutely hates watching from the sidelines, a healthy Stepfan Taylor sat out again simply because Stanford sees no reason to risk wearing him down. That translated to first-team action for Anthony Wilkerson, who was held in check early by the run-suffocating first team front seven.

It's been well-documented, but it deserves repeating: the Cardinal are loaded with potential playmakers in the backfield. As mentioned above, Wright, who played with the second team, was exceptional running after the catch in the scrimmage's first big play. Barry J. Sanders, playing with the third team, led all of the Cardinal horses with 52 yards and a pair of explosive runs. Jackson Cummings showed burst and elusiveness on his 33-yard touchdown run that bounced to the outside. Kelsey Young wasn't featured as heavily as he was in the Spring Game, but he showcased his speed on a well-designed reverse that helped him net 22 yards.

Obviously, Taylor will be the workhorse of this group. Still, despite the loss of Tyler Gaffney, Stanford fans can breathe easy regarding their team's depth at the running back position after today's performance. Between Wilkerson, Sanders (who made a strong case against redshirting), Wright, Cummings, Young, Ricky Seale, and even Andrew Stutz (whom Taylor mentioned to me as a very hard worker Thursday), there's an embarrassment of riches here.

Although fullback Ryan Hewitt twisted his ankle early on, Shaw said the injury isn't too serious. There's a chance he may miss the August 31 opener against San Jose State, but he should be back soon enough to complement Lee Ward (returning from a leg injury) and Pat Skov, both of whom saw action in the backfield today.

Receivers/tight ends
Ty Montgomery is the stalwart here, though Nunes' underthrow prevented him from making any spectacular plays. The real news on the perimeter is true freshman Kodi Whitfield, who is performing at a prodigious level. Afterwards, Shaw said that Whitfield is "completely ready to contribute," noting that the son of the former Stanford great had picked up the playbook quicker than any other receiver in the post-Walt Harris tenure. The aforementioned 35-yard sideline haul from Nottingham put some extremely soft hands on display.

Despite rave reviews from Shaw earlier in camp, Jamal-Rashad Patterson still did not stand out in the way many have hoped that he will. The senior snagged a few balls on short throws, including a two quick screens, but was never able to turn those passes into significant yards after the catch. That's something one expects to see from his 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame.

There are other names in the receiving corps, namely Keanu Nelson (with the aforementioned seam catch from Nottingham), Drew Terrell, Jordan Pratt, Jeff Trojan (an 11-yard reception), and freshman Dontonio Jordan. All saw the field. Cornerback Alex Carter also told me that fellow freshman Michael Rector, currently hurt, is a speedy guy to keep an eye on, but today's scrimmage suggests that the spotlight out wide will belong to Montgomery and Whitfield. Kelsey Young also split out of the backfield and drew a pass interference flag against Ra'Chard Pippens.

There is potential beyond the current top two options, to be sure, but it just hasn't been proven yet. Heck, even Whitfield has yet to carry over his practice success into a real game.

Those question marks make the tight ends' presence vital. With the touchdown toss, Nunes demonstrated that the 6-foot-8 Toilolo is virtually uncoverable when a pinpoint throw takes advantage of his height. Zach Ertz caught only one pass, but he is a special talent who will certainly be a focal point of the 2012 offense. Jemari Roberts, who split out wide a couple of times today, is expected to bring his big body to the tight end position along with Davis Dudchock, who played well in the Spring Game and also looks physically ready to produce at the position. Both were relatively quiet Sunday.

If that remains the case, the door may open even wider for big freshman Luke Kaumatule. The Card recruited the 6-foot-7, 253-pound bruiser as a defensive end, but he saw his action and was targeted by Hogan Sunday at tight end. It was particularly humorous to see big No. 98 split ut wide late in the scrimmage. He was only a decoy on that play, though; the touchdown lob went up high to Toilolo.

Offensive line
Admittedly, without analyzing film, it's difficult to properly assess the big boys up front. Still, most notable was freshman Kyle Murphy's appearance in two places. He saw some first-team action at left tackle behind starter Brendon Austin, and some time as third-team right tackle, while fellow newbie behemoth Andrus Peat took snaps at left tackle with the second team. After the scrimmage, Shaw marveled at Murphy's ability to seamlessly learn both sides of the line. He said that he was hesitant to give him that responsibility at first, but went through with the added assignments because of Murphy's tremendously quick learning abilities and polished skills. After practice, Shaw declared both Peat and Murphy game ready, while saying freshman guard Josh Garnett was "almost there."

Based on Shaw's evaluation, it seems distinctly possible that none of the big three freshmen will redshirt this season. Clearly, the new boys on the block have the potential to become absolute monsters, and they're joining proven talents Sam Schwartzstein, David Yankey, Cameron Fleming, and Kevin Danser. Based on all coaching indications, the young'uns already made tremendous progress in their short time on the Farm. It's tough to completely evaluate protection success when the quarterback can't be hit, but the offense did see breaths of fresh air Sunday - something that was a rarity back in the spring. So count it as progress.

David Lombardi, a TV and radio (95.7 The Game SF) personality in the Bay Area, is a Stanford and Pac-12 Conference enthusiast. He has broadcast the Cardinal on KZSU for several years. You can check out several of his Stanford calls and other writing at

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