The 2016 Stanford Football Team took the field under a picture perfect blue sky to the sound of hard pounding music and in front of the eyes of its fans for the first time. The general presumption is that coaches and players are unlikely to reveal much about themselves and that what you see on the field is not likely to be very indicative of anything.
And while that may be largely true, Stanford showed this observer quite a bit on Saturday, and perhaps revealed the most encouraging virtue of its 2016 run after the actual football playing was done. More on that later. Here are some observations from about 90 minutes of practice time.
Everybody wants to know about the quarterback battle between Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst, a decision that Coach David Shaw said earlier this week could stretch to ten days brefore the first game September 2 vs. Kansas State to resolve. Based on what happened on Saturday, the angst about this decision, while understandable, is probably going to be for naught.
First off, there’s not a huge difference in what I saw in physical ability. Both players are big, stand tall in the pocket, have clean, repeatable throwing motions, and strong arms. They spent most of their time huddling and handing the ball off on Saturday, but they definitely had some shots to spin it under both 7 on 7 and full 22 situations.
Burns throws the ball much better than I expected. He’s got some work to do on his footwork, as his drops included some shuffle steps that should be eventually gone, but overall he looked more than capable of getting through his drops and making his throws. He hit Trent Irwin on a deep fade down the right sideline and also hit Francis Owusu on a square in route, showing some good timing and good accuracy.
Burns spent a good deal of time under the watch of Coach Tavita Pritchard, and both he and Chryst had a number of snaps where they held onto the ball and chose to tuck and run. You can look at this in a couple of ways. There weren’t many instances where either seemed to be clearly getting through very many progressions, but that’s likely by design.
Chryst threw some good balls, though he did miss running back Cameron Scarlett on the slant out of the backfield route Christian McCaffrey made famous in both the Rose Bowl and the Pac-12 Championship games. Ultimately, we’re not going to know about these guys until they get into a game, but my early impression is that right now there’s not much difference between the two, and in a good way.
Offensively, Bryce Love did a number of Bryce Love things, which mainly involve getting into space and then leaving defenders hopelessly chasing him to the end zone, or in this case, until a coach’s whistle blew the play dead. McCaffrey remains unstoppable, and it was very interesting to hear Coach Mike Bloomgren disclose that he won’t see any full contact action in spring ball. Very smart by the coaches.
The offensive line, the signature group of this program, was in very good shape at this stage of the year. The Cardinal’s first unit went Casey Tucker, Brandon Fanaika, Jesse Burkett, Johnny Caspers, and David Bright left to right. Burkett and Caspers both agreed with Coach Bloomgren that there was much to be “cleaned up” at this stage, but all three were overall very happy with the group’s progress as a whole.
We’ll let Burkett speak for himself in the interview we did with him after practice, but he seems like he’s very comfortable in the starting center role. Coach Bloomgren had a few key comments about the offensive line to consider. First, he’s far more anxious to set the starting five on the line than he is the starting quarterback. “We’d like to have our group by the end of spring ball. Heck, I’d like to have ‘em by the end of today,” he joked.
Coach Bloomgren also pointed out that it was the stated goal of the coaches to have a solid seven players when the season starts. Seven guys they could count on, with a number of players capable of stepping into various spots. He also said he was very open to the possibility that some of Stanford’s incoming freshmen could very well be in the mix to compete for those seven spots. The willingness of this staff to utilize freshmen is just one of many clear signs of its own growth and development over the past couple seasons.
On an individual basis, it was the defense that showcased a number of very exciting individuals. Eric Cotton has certainly transformed physically. On first glance, I thought he was lined up too high at his defensive end spot the first play I saw him. However, as the day went on, my first impression of Cotton became more and more auspicious. On one play, he burst past David Bright and into the backfield, and on another, he showcased a very nice spin move to get to the quarterback. He’s got a motor, and he looks like a potential contributor on the line.
Another player who fits that description is Luke Kaumatule, a positional vagabond who may finally have found a home on the defensive line. Coach Shaw singled him out after practice as a player to watch, and he looked huge and played very physically while engaging Stanford’s first string offensive line.
Coach also sang the praises of Solomon Thomas, who also looked fierce in both drills and scrimmage situations. On one play he burst past David Bright, and on another he took on Johnny Caspers in a titanic stand-off. By the way, Bright was very good for much of the day. Don’t read too much into the singling out here. The point is to shine the light on Cotton and Thomas, not to knock “Salty Dave,” who we’ll get to shortly.
Cornerback Alameen Murphy did not participate along with Linebacker Joey Alfieri. Our first look at Stanford’s 11 on 11 defense consisted of Peter Kalambayi, Kaumatule, Jordan Watkins, and Solomon Thomas left to right on the line, with Bobby Okereke, Jordan Perez, and Mike Tyler manning linebacker spots. The defensive backfield consisted of Elijah Holder and Terrence Alexander on the corners, with Frank Buncom and Dallas Lloyd at safety.
Holder is gonna be great. He was already jumping routes effectively on Saturday. If there is a new name to look out for right now, it may be Casey Toohill. The Sophomore from San Diego made a number of sparkling plays in live action from the linebacker spot. Bookmark that name as we move forward.
Ultimately, however, the best part of Saturday was the vibe. Coach Shaw moved around with some bounce in his step, and really seemed to be enjoying what he was seeing. Afterwards, he was in great spirits, even cracking a joke to kick off his post-practice interview scrum. The Chronicle’s Tom FitzGerald asked “Who looked good out there today, Coach?” Coach responded, “You mean besides you?”
All kidding aside, the major impression I got after speaking with Coach Bloomgren, Johnny Caspers, and Jesse Burkett, was one of synchronicity. Yes, identifying a starting quarterback is a huge stakes task. Prepping a new offensive line is a vital challenge, and one with which Stanford’s struggled in 2014. Reflecting on that process, Coach Bloomgren openly acknowledged that he may have overloaded that group two years ago, to their detriment. He said that the experience of 2014 would definitely inform the process this go around. His direct self-assessment actually gave me even more faith that Stanford’s going to conquer its biggest offseason challenges.
This is a program in full. Everybody’s on the same page, and the elusive joy that Coach Shaw alluded to in the summer of 2015 now seems fully entrenched in the program. These guys love playing , they love playing with their teammates, the coaches really seem to love coaching them, and both are very, very good at their respective jobs. Even a random inquiry about the “saltiest” player on the offensive line is met with a unanimous response (it’s “Salty Dave” Bright, by the way, a nickname both Coach Bloomgren and Johnny Caspers used in answering the question).
Granted, that’s a lot of presumption for one session of spring practice. Things can always go “haywire” to use Coach Bloomgren’s word, but the takeaway from Saturday is that this program is in a real groove. In a year in which the schedule is going to demand much, much is what this group is poised to give. So fret about Chryst v. Burns if you will, kvetch about the o line, but trust this: Stanford’s got the right guys for the job.
Is it September 2 yet?