Friday marked the end of the second week of preseason practices, as the team prepared for Saturday's much anticipated intrasquad scrimmage. That Saturday contest, by the way, will be begin promptly at 10 am in Stanford Stadium and last a little less than two hours. On the original practice schedule, this was to be an afternoon scrimmage on the practice field, but the time was moved to allow the coaches to watch San Jose State in the Spartans' season opener for some scouting. The location was moved to help the Cardinal's younger players become accustomed to playing in their home stadium. You might remember the unexpected nerves and wide-eyed mistakes that last year's redshirt class made in the Spring Game when they endured their first career competition in the Stadium. The coaches surely remember and want this scrimmage (plus the one next Thursday against UC Davis) to help their young pups get acclimated to the feeling of playing in the 85,000 seat bowl.
But we'll have plenty of coverage of this tell-tale Saturday scrimmage after it has completed. There still is the business of examining what happened Friday, with the fourth day of double practices. The morning workout was the 10th straight practice the Cardinal has conducted in full pads, but the afternoon practice was slightly abbreviated and held in shock pads. That afternoon session was devoid of the hard hitting we enjoy, but still had some good take-home notes. First, the morning's action...
Thursday's practice was a rousing success for the running game of the offense, with the offensive line blasting open holes and many backs slashing their way to big games. Come Friday morning, you could tell that linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Tom Williams took that personally. His LBs absolutely dominated the 11-on-11 "live" portions of the practice, making stuff after stuff. It started with David Bergeron dropping back in coverage and making a last second swipe at a pass to deflect it away. The offense decided to lock in on the ground game after that, and the linebackers were up to the challenge. J.R. Lemon took a handoff up the middle, only to find Kevin Schimmelmann stuff him behind the line of scrimmage on a solo tackle. Lemon took the ball outside on the next play, but Jared Newberry was there for another excellent solo tackle. Gerald Commissiong would take the next running play right up the gut, but Brian Gaffney laid him out with a crushing shot at the line of scrimmage.
Friday was also the fifth practice of camp for redshirt sophomore Michael Craven, and he was in full pads and top form. He is running deep on the depth chart as he has to prove himself anew to his coaches and teammates after missing a full week of practices, so he rotated into action only after the first and second team defenses had their shots. My eyes were on Craven the moment he trotted onto the field, and he wasted no time making his presence known. On his very first play he exploded into the backfield for a blinding attack and solo stuff behind the line of scrimmage. Two plays later, he showed his lateral quickness to go outside and hog-tie freshman tailback David Marrero. Tom Williams was as pumped as you can imagine, and he is on a dull day already an extraordinarily energetic coach. He raced over to Craven and pounded him on his helmet, shouting out, "Bring the pain! Bring the pain!!!"
The offense couldn't move the ball on the ground anywhere near their success they enjoyed Thursday, and the aerial attack had mixed results. The one player who really stood out receiving was Gerren Crochet, who caught every ball I saw come his way in the morning practice, and on several occasions made big plays against double coverage. In contrast, much-hyped tight end Alex Smith had two dropped passes that hit him in the hands - not what Buddy Teevens needs from his TEs in this year's offense. The tight end who instead made the offensive play of the day was redshirt freshman Matt Traverso, who had a ball come his way while being covered like glue by Oshiomogho Atogwe. The safety made a great play on the ball and deflected it away from the offensive target, but Traverso stuck with it. As the ball tumbled away from him (and with Atogwe grabbing his right arm after the deflection) Traverso stretched out his left hand and tipped the ball back toward himself. Still with just one arm, he managed to pull the ball in to his chest. It was an inspiring effort that drew thunderous approval from every man on the offense.
Elsewhere in the secondary, freshman cornerback Nick Sanchez had his first standout practice since his first week. He snagged two very nice interceptions, and also recorded a surprising quarterback sack off a corner blitz. That practice was a great step back in the right direction for Sanchez, who has shown some promise but has not delivered many plays in the last week against upperclass receivers. "Sanchez is really going to be a good football player for us," comments secondary coach and co-defensive coordinator A.J. Christoff. "But he has had a lot thrown at him in this camp. His adjustments will dictate when he starts to become that player."
Christoff also helped to explain some changes seen in the safety positions in both of Friday's practices. In the morning it was Atogwe and Marcus McCutcheon taking all the repetitions for the first team defense. If that has you scratching your head, it should. Atogwe has been playing free safety since the beginning of the spring, but so too has McCutcheon. They had been moved from strong safety and cornerback, respectively by Christoff. Friday morning Atogwe lined up primarily with the tight end, indicating that he was returning to his old strong position, while the smaller McCutcheon was roving in the defensive backfield free.
But Friday afternoon, it was Atogwe and freshman Brandon Harrison who manned the defensive first string safeties. Harrison has really come on with a strong week of playmaking, as Christoff attests. "Brandon just makes plays," his new position coach begins. "When he came in and tested for us, he wasn't outstanding running or jumping. But that doesn't make a great defensive back - the knack for making plays does."
In this alignment, Atogwe was back at free safety while Harrison was playing a run-stuffing role at the strong safety. This day alone underscores how talented and versatile Atogwe is for this green safety crew, and Christoff says that their thin depth necessitates as much. "Each of these guys needs to learn how to play both positions for us," the coach says. "We just want to get our two best safeties on the field, and hopefully they can perform wherever we need them to play."
Translation: Atogwe is on the field so long as he is physically able. The second safety spot will go to the next best performer, regardless of position. If that proves to be McCutcheon, then Atogwe will play strong. Should it be Harrison, Trevor Hooper or Timi Wusu, then Atogwe would probably man the free safety. This is a heated competition that will play out the next two weeks leading up to San Jose State and will be a lot of fun to watch.
Speaking of Wusu, his hamstring is improving enough that he was slated to participate in some drills Friday afternoon, but the abbreviated schedule took away some of the lighter running situations that he could handle right now. "I can't go in a 'live' situation right now, because that might call for me to make a quick break on the ball," Wusu explains. "Those are the movements most risky for my hamstring right now, so I'll have to wait until Monday."
Nevertheless, it is good news that we are on the path to a returning Wusu. Other good injury news Friday included the first full practice of action from freshman guard Merlin Brittenham, who rolled his ankle on the first practice of the camp. Fullback Cooper Blackhurst practiced all day and showed no signs of tightness in his back. Position mate Kris Bonifas still donned a yellow jersey in the morning, but lined up at fullback in some seven-on-seven situations, which is a step in the right direction for him. Freshman defensive end Udeme Udofia had sat out much of Thursday banged up, but was back in action Friday. Redshirt freshman guard/center Tim Mattran is still out with a knee injury, but he says that he could be back in a week. Moreover, the injury could have been worse than it was. "It's exactly what happened to [Ismail Simpson]," Mattran explains. "The knee brace really saved me. Without it, I would have torn up my knee. But I'll be OK."
At the conclusion of Friday's practice, the offense and defense collided in goalline situations. The offense drew first blood, with Lemon scoring on a powerful run behind the left side of the offensive line. Then Commissiong hit paydirt with a fantastic dive over the pile. The offense went to the air on the next attempt, which found WR Luke Powell, but the fifth-year senior bobbled the ball and Atogwe grabbed it for an interception. Continuing to mix things up, Bill Cubit called for play action on the next attempt, which created a wide open Pat Jacobs for the score. The ball returned to the ground the next three plays, as the freshman tailbacks tried to break through against a stacked veteran defensive front. David Marrero made a fantastic move, taking the ball as drawn up to the right, but finding his hole sealed up cut back left and darted around tacklers for the score. However, Teevens called a procedural penalty on the offense and brought the play back. Marrero was wraped up by Brandon Harrison at the one yardline on that attempt. Jason Evans took the ball on the final play and made a great move in the backfield that drew immediate cheers from his offensive teammates on the sidelines. But as quickly as they celebrated, Kevin Schimmelmann made a surprising dart into the play and stood Evans up just short of the goalline. No score.
The afternoon's practice was honestly less exciting. Without pads on, the contact was light and the plays were less revealing. A few moments of note, though...
- If Crochet was the playmaker of the morning, Nick Sebes was the man of the afternoon. He showed all the tools of the wide receiver, flashing quickness before and after the catch, snagging tough balls with glue-laced hands, and running precision routes.
- The defensive backs made some nice plays on the ball, including a pair of quick breaks by Trevor Hooper and T.J. Rushing for interceptions. Atogwe was again around the ball much of the afternoon, making deflections and tips left and right.
- Alex Smith managed some redemption with some nice receptions in the afternoon. He showcased his speed and hands, racing through the defense and hinting at his ability to do more than just move the chains.
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