If a team's defense is stout, the offense may be seen as inept. But if the attack is strong, there will be worries that the defense is porous. Such is the maddening nature of any preseason intrasquad scrimmage. Anything positive translates into a negative somewhere else.
Still, David Shaw saw enough balance at Stanford's only open scrimmage of fall camp to come away reasonably satisfied Saturday.
"There was a little bit of everything," he said. "Big plays passing, big plays running, stout defense, physical play, sacks. As long as it's good and bad on both sides, I think we're going in the right direction."
A year ago at this time, most of Stanford's good resided on the defensive side of the football, while the offense didn't discover consistent decency until late October. Though Saturday's attack didn't score until true freshman Ryan Burns hit fellow newbie Eric Cotton in the back of the end zone on the last play of practice, there was plenty of positive ball movement before then. Michael Rector made a pair spectacular catches, Jordan Pratt hauled in a long gain, and Kevin Hogan showed increased zip on his downfield delivery during multiple sustained drives.
Tight End Effect
Offensive momentum, though, constantly stalled in the red zone, an interesting twist considering how good the Hogan-led offense was there last year. The Cardinal scored touchdowns on 74 percent of possessions that crossed the defense's 20-yard line. Perhaps significant offseason losses at the tight end position have presented a new challenge for this 2013 team in that part of the field.
Lumbering 6-foot-8 tight end Luke Kaumatule was rarely targeted, while redshirt junior Davis Dudchock caught only one pass, a crossing pattern near midfield. Stanford's passing attack relied almost exclusively on receivers running noticeably sharp patterns and backs coming from their position to make plays downfield.
Fullback Ryan Hewitt provided an especially significant sample of what the Cardinal may have up its sleeve to replace the graduated production of tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo: No. 85 came out of the backfield and was targeted on a middle slant pattern, a typical tight end's route. Hewitt arrived on The Farm playing that very position, and though he's officially sticking at fullback, it's becoming ever more apparent that Stanford will count on his versatility to pick up slack in the passing game.
Between Lee Ward and Pat Skov, both of whom impressed Saturday, the Cardinal has the fullback muscle necessary to grant Hewitt freedom of movement around the field.
"Pat is an action figure," running back coach Tavita Pritchard smiled. "You see his biceps popping out. And Lee is a hammer. We're talking about physical play at the fullback position, and he's where we hang our hat right now."
Much talk has centered on Stanford's 2013 wide receiving corps, an untested wild card which has the potential to be productive because of its diverse combination of size and speed. Though 230-pound starter Devon Cajuste missed practice because of soreness, Rector and Pratt lived up to recent praise that the coaching has bestowed upon them. Kelsey Young was not targeted as often, but his positioning around the field suggests that Stanford has big plans for him as well. Shaw said afterward that the Cardinal only used about "one tenth" of their defensive playbook Saturday, so it's fair to infer that coaches didn't give away many offensive secrets, either.
Coming off a productive spring, Jeff Trojan enjoyed snaps with the first team. The staff values his consistency, and that may earn him a handful of catches this year. But Pratt, a former fifth-round pick in the MLB Draft, is the veteran who is most likely to emerge in 2013.
"There are still things that I'm working on getting back [in the transition from baseball to football,] but I feel more like a football player than I did a year ago," he said. "It's not so much the physical stuff, but [rather] the internal clock of, 'Now it's time to go, the ball's going to hit now.' Knowing where to be, what kind of leverage to get in the run game, those kinds of things. I'm getting my football instincts back: being low, sinking my hits, being in a great position to block."
Also notable: true freshman Francis Owusu already looks impressive physically:
Stanford WRs Ty Montgomery and freshman Francis Owusu. Physically, Owusu looks ready to see field pic.twitter.com/fEbnvOxvEl— David Lombardi (@DavidMLombardi) August 24, 2013
Both Anthony Wilkerson and Ricky Seale (who Shaw said is "playing the best football of his life") missed Saturday's practice for precautionary reasons. They'll likely both be back in action Monday. For the time being, Tyler Gaffney was Stanford's primary running back. Remound Wright complemented his efforts with a pair of bruising runs, one of which dragged a host of defenders several yards. Barry Sanders and Jackson Cummings also each showcased nifty moves.
The Cardinal's physical attack, though, is predicated on downhill running between the tackles, and progress in that regard is what has most satisfied the coaching staff.
"All of our guys adopt that physical style," Pritchard said. "They come in here as power runners, as finesse runners, as space guys. But they all learn our style. When it comes to running between the tackles, sticking a ball downhill when we need three, four, five yards, they all do it."
Barry Sanders is known to be a shifty runner in the mold of his NFL Hall of Fame father, but it is the redshirt freshman's newfound physical running style and developing blocking ability that has earned him a playing-time guarantee from Shaw.
"He's learning to play without the ball," Pritchard said. "He's come leaps and bounds in terms of pass protection. He stuck his face in there a couple of times today and I was proud of him."
Center Competition: Down to Two
The Cardinal's center competition is narrowing to two candidates: Khalil Wilkes and Conor McFadden. Shaw said that Kevin Danser will be available to step in at center if need be this season, but his play and experience at right guard are just too much to waste in the middle.
"He's about to be a three-year starter and one of the best in the conference at right guard," Shaw said. "He's just too good there."
No Pulled Muscles
Though a handful of players missed Saturday's practice because of soreness, Stanford currently has no serious injuries. Remarkably, not a single player has pulled a muscle yet this season. Shaw says that's a testament to excellent collaboration between the program's strength staff and training staff, a union which The Bootleg detailed this offseason.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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