If you've been out to The Farm in the last week to take in a Stanford football practice, you undoubtedly have noted that the team is getting a lot of plays. I'm not talking about the 2 1/2 hour length of the practices this first week, due in part to the absence of two-a-days with the new NCAA rules. Instead I am talking about the pace of these practices, which has proceeded at a breakneck speed. It started last week with the freshman practices, during which the coaches made an immediate impression with their unrelenting demands to get in and out of huddles faster. Players who slowly walked into a huddle - on offense or defense - would be made to do pushups off to the side. It looked like an indoctrination to the discipline and professionalism of Stanford football, but unbeknownst to observers was a preparation for the coming practice pace.
"We're going through so many more plays than we've done at this point before," says redshirt junior OLB Jared Newberry. "The repetitions are off the chart, but that's a good thing. It gets our legs to feel like two-a-days."
For all the upperclassmen who are chomping at the bit to hit each other and get closer to game conditions, the greater number of plays helps satisfy some of their thirst. There is less of a slow ramping up that drags at the typically beginning of camp. But there is another group who is greatly benefiting from the rapid fire frenzy of plays in practices.
"We already know a lot of what the older guys can do," says linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Tom Williams. "But this gives us more chances to see the young guys. It gives them more exposure and lets us get a better idea of who can help us this year, as well as who will take a few years to come along."
Exposure is a word on this website which 98% of the time is used in a recruiting context, but Newberry explains what exposure means in the universe of preseason training camp. "The slower pace as camp builds up usually hurts the freshmen," he begins. "You come in as a freshman and don't really know what to expect. And with few plays to start, they don't get a lot of chances to review their film. More reps means they get a chance to learn more in meetings, and the coaches can bring them along faster."
One freshman who made a strong showing today and is taking advantage of his opportunities is linebacker Michael Okwo. During the two-minute drills at the finish of practice, he found his way onto the second team defense, which has been wholly manned by upperclassmen the first three days of practices. Okwo grabbed his chance and made the most of it, recording a quarterback sack on a zone blitz. His speed and instincts are already making plays, and Williams is taking notice.
"He's pretty good," the coach grins in describing his protege. "He has what we want in our linebackers - the attributes where we can play him at any spot. In that two minute drill, he showed what he can do bringing edge pressure. He's a guy who has a chance to play for us this year. He could be a starter on special teams, a backup at any linebacker, and even be a nickel linebacker for us."
But this is a position group where Stanford goes at least eight deep, with six returning LBs who played regularly last fall, plus a rising talent in redshirt freshman Mike Silva and new addition of converted safety Kevin Schimmelmann. Okwo would appear to have a serious uphill battle ahead of him to gain any meaningful playing time. Williams is focused, however, on getting Okwo what he needs to improve and climb that mountain.
"Michael is continuing to adjust to the game speed of college football," Okwo's position coach explains. "His football instincts are incredible. He could find the football on defense with his eyes closed. But he needs to learn how and where to be within our scheme. He needs to get comfortable with where other guys are on the field. And that is going to come with repetitions."
Also of note in today's practice:
- The other freshman to get time on the second string defense during that two-minute drill was cornerback Nick Sanchez. He moved up and took Nick Silvas' spot, playing opposite Calvin Armstrong. That's a good sign that Sanchez is earning chances like that with secondary coach A.J. Christoff.
- Another move seen in late scrimmage action in practice was center Drew Caylor moving up to play with the first team offensive line. That moved Brian Head over to right guard. Though Caylor had some ups and downs, I have a strong feeling this is the offensive line we will see start or play significant minutes in September. I checked with some veteran defensive players, and they are all giving their vote of confidence for Caylor. One player also notes that Head is making big strides. "He was thrown the wolves a year ago in that Boston College game, playing for the first time as a redshirt freshman. And he had been hurt the year before that. But he's come a long way since then," the defensive teammate encouragingly adds.
- Players are also pointing to left guard Ismail Simpson, who is making real strides on the line. He was an up and down player in the spring, showing flashes of quickness and power, but now he is more consistent in his play and has also (thus far) managed his infamous fiery temper.
- Tempers did flare elsewhere on the field Thursday, however. The first scuffle of the camp came between OT Mike Sullivan and DE Will Svitek. Just some pushing and shoving after blocking downfield at the end of a play - harmless stuff. But fire is a good thing in football and I'm glad to see a little bit flare up.
- Fifth-year senior quarterback Chris Lewis showed for the second straight day that he has improved judgement, knowing when to throw the ball away. He did have an INT during his two-minute drill, though. A ball intended for Justin McCullum on the left sideline was thrown a little inside, and Leigh Torrence picked it off.
- Torrence and T.J. Rushing were tested once again on several deep throws today. Rushing made a fantastic deflection against a ball intended for Gerren Crochet, but he was beaten a couple plays later by Luke Powell. Calvin Armstrong for the second straight day also had a couple nice breakups downfield. On the final play of the practice, Trent Edwards threw long to Crochet, who looked to make an acrobatic catch. But Marcus McCutcheon swiped at the ball at the last second and stripped it free before Crochet could gain possession. McCutcheon also took a shot to the face as their two bodies tumbled on the ground, and was slow to get up. All of his defensive teammates on the field immediately called out to him, "get up" and "hop up." I saw that earlier in practice when Matt Buchanan was rocked by Oshiomogho Atogwe after a catch, and was dazed on the ground. Again it was "get up, get up." There is a clear undercurrent on this year's team that you play through the pain and the tough knocks - never stay down. Hop up and get back to the huddle.
- For the second straight day, it was just Lewis and Edwards who ran the offense during two-minute drills
- Yesterday I sang the praises of Amon Gordon, but one offensive lineman showed today he could shut down the 295 pound defensive tackle. On one running play Kirk Chambers broke immediately to his right off the snap for an angle block and knocked Gordon sideways. That opened up a big running lane for J.R. Lemon, who exploded up the field and headed for the right sideline. Off to the races.
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