There's one sign that the dog days of August camp are beginning to wind down: Stanford's staff has cut back on the month's grueling regimen to infuse players with some energy before Saturday's public scrimmage. And there was indeed an added spark among the contingent after Thursday's session.
Perhaps cornerback Ronnie Harris should get credit for some of this extra pep, too. The cornerback's solid camp performance earned him a chance to address the squad as Stanford resurrected its traditional post-practice "Wise Words" veteran speaking series. Harris didn't disappoint in a fiery speech that encouraged his teammates to avoid entitlement, to earn what they get, and to play for the man next to them.
"He gave us his blueprint," sophomore tight end Eric Cotton glowed afterward. "He talked about how he molded himself into the player that he is, and that meant a lot to everyone."
Players roared and clapped in approval of Harris' speech. Then dozens of them stuck around to put in some extra work. On one end of the practice field, Kevin Hogan threw end zone slants and fades to reserve wide receiver Rollins Stallworth. On the other half, 55-year old secondary coach Duane Akina was more energetic than anyone. He showed off his canon of an arm, firing strike after strike to his defensive backs in post-practice drills.
Just another Thursday afternoon at Stanford camp.
Shaw again expressed satisfaction with his defense's performance; after the Cardinal's offense controlled the practice proceedings (a first in the post-Luck era) throughout a string of workouts last week, the defense re-established control this week, in which Stanford began narrowing its focus onto precise situational work.
"The last two practices, the defense really has been dominant," Shaw said. "Short yardage and goal line today, the defense really ran away with it."
David Parry, Henry Anderson, A.J. Tarpley, and Kodi Whitfield all delivered solid of days of work while the defense exacted its revenge. The stage is set for what should be a competitive open scrimmage at 10 a.m. Saturday.
Aziz Shittu, who missed some time earlier this week, returned to practice at full speed Thursday. Devon Cajuste will sit out through Saturday's scrimmage as a precaution, but he's expected back in action next week. Freshman offensive lineman Reilly Gibbons (knee) is close to returning, as is defensive lineman Jordan Watkins, who "almost" practiced Thursday but ultimately sat out.
The Stanford Daily spotted both Kelsey Young and receiver Jordan Pratt leaving practice in walking boots. Running backs coach Lance Taylor told a remaining media contingent that Young's injury is minor and that the boot is only a precaution. The Bootleg should know more of Pratt's status on Saturday.
Speaking of the Ogre
Stanford's starting offensive line seems all but officially set at this point. Shaw began discussing candidates for the team's supplementary line positions (the 'Ogre') used in jumbo sets. He mentioned Brendon Austin, David Bright, true freshman Casey Tucker, and Nick Davidson.
Tucker's inclusion on that list may be the most intriguing. The recent five-star recruit has been taking snaps with Stanford's second unit at left tackle, a notable achievement for a player who arrived on campus just about two months ago.
"We'll see how early he's going to be ready to play, but he's going to be ready to play at some point this year," Shaw said.
According to the coaching staff, Austin, Bright, and Davidson have all enjoyed solid camp performances.
Talking Some Interior Defensive Line
Shaw confirmed what has become apparent at Stanford practice since spring ball: Aziz Shittu is David Parry's back-up at nose tackle. Ikenna Nwafor's foot injury, which is likely career-ending, has put the Cardinal in a precarious position in the middle of the defensive line. Parry is a fifth-year senior, while Shittu is having to display notable versatility to provide a second line of defense behind him (he's simultaneously rotating with Blake Lueders at defensive end). Anthony Hayes and Lance Callihan are Stanford's other two options at nose tackle, but neither of those two veterans has worked into meaningful game action in several years on the Farm.
This is purely speculation at this point, but the Cardinal may consider moving six-foot-three, 321-pound freshman offensive lineman Brandon Fanaika to the defensive side. Parry made the same position move early in his career, and it ended up rewarding Stanford with a quality nose tackle to anchor the 3-4 scheme. It looks like the Cardinal will need an infusion of beef on the interior in the near future, and Fanaika's formidable frame may make him an excellent candidate to be the fire hydrant that clogs the middle.
For now, though, the staff is happy with Shittu's versatility behind Parry, and Shaw fully expects a breakout year from the junior, once a touted recruit from California's Central Valley.
"We were expecting the big jump last year," he said. "He put in the work and came close, but didn't quite make it. This spring he started really realizing his potential. He now knows how good he really can be. He's putting the work in, and it's showing on film."
More on OL Gelling
After effusively praising the potential of Stanford's projected starting offensive line earlier this week, Shaw emphasized that realizing that potential up front presents a whole separate challenge. The raw talent of the Cardinal's top five is likely the greatest the program has ever seen, but Shaw warned that attaining necessary cohesion up front -- a prerequisite for living up to that talent -- can be a slow project at any level of football.
"If you've ever gotten down in a three-point stance and tried to see more than three feet in any direction, it's very difficult," he explained. "So you have to rely on quick communication, you have to rely on their instincts, you have to rely on things happening after the snap. You have to trust not only what you're doing, but what the guys next to you are doing also. So the more you play together, you just see things the same [as your fellow linemen]. Hopefully, we get there sooner rather than later. It's a gradual process."
Earlier this week, Shaw and right guard Johnny Caspers both told The Bootleg that the offensive line's close bond off the field -- all five projected starters were part of the 2012 recruiting class -- should be beneficial in their effort to gel as quickly as possible.
Stanford will miss the star power that Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov brought to the table, but Shaw thinks his defensive front seven is built deep enough to withstand that in a rather unusual way. The Cardinal's departed stars were often considered the unit's tone-setters, but the coach says that burden has now spread across the unit.
"We now have a bunch of tone-setters," he said. "Henry Anderson and David Parry have been tremendously physical up front, A.J. Tarpley is playing his best football. Blake Martinez and Noor Davis are also playing very well."
Shaw is also enthusiastic about the performance of outside linebackers Kevin Anderson and James Vaughters. In short, the staff's optimism regarding the depth of Stanford's defense is palpable.
- Ty Montgomery added 8-10 pounds of muscle over the offseason, and Shaw thinks that the star receiver/kick returner can be even better in 2014 than he was in 2013. "Right now, it's scary," he said.
- Shaw thinks Stanford's new trio of tight ends "is going to be something that helps our quarterback play well." The coach has already named Austin Hooper the starting 'Y' (inline blocking) tight end, while he anticipates Eric Cotton (interview embedded above) to form a "good tandem" with Greg Taboada at the 'F' (receiving) tight end position.
- Alameen Murphy and Terrence Alexander are the two true freshmen defensive backs who earned praise from the head coach on Thursday. Because of Stanford's depth on the defensive side of the ball, Shaw said that playing time for incomers may be more difficult to come by there than on the offensive end, where Christian McCaffrey and Casey Tucker are expected to see at least some action this year. "We'll see if some of those [young defensive backs] play on special teams," Shaw said.
- With the season opener against UC Davis just two weeks away, here's something to monitor: Cornerback Alex Carter, who missed spring practice with an undisclosed "lower body injury," has been participating this camp, but he's been wearing a yellow non-contact jersey. "He's feeling better," Shaw said. "Hopefully, he'll be ready early in the season."
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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