The quarterback position still remains one of the highest areas of scrutiny in this preseason camp, and though Chris Lewis has (in my eyes) outpaced his younger competitors in almost all areas, head coach Buddy Teevens is not yet ready to name a starter. "I think the competition has helped everyone," he opines. "We're getting rid of the ball rapidly, making better decisions and playing smarter. The guys are protecting the football, and improving on the deep ball placement. My expectations are very high for this position, and I expect to see better decisions and leadership."
Teevens on the three QBs still fighting for the starting nod:
- Chris Lewis - "Chris is executing better. He's much cleaner and has better placement. Most importantly, he's being more shrewd at the quarterback position."
- Trent Edwards - "Trent has a strong arm, but on occasion he wavers with his decision making and consistency. Still, he's improving; every day he comes out to the field with a better understanding of the position and what he needs to do."
- Kyle Matter - "Kyle is a very intelligent quarterback and knows as much about the position as anybody here. He just needs to get the ball on his receivers better."
As a final note on the QBs, Monday's afternoon practice concluded with the two-minute drill. Lewis moved the ball down the field, and finished with a short comeback to Brandon Royster at the goalline for the score. The key players moving the ball were the tight ends (Brett Pierce first, Alex Smith later) and Mark Bradford. Bradford in particular made a tough fight for a ball that T.J. Rushing probably should have picked off and taken the other way for six points. There was a little luck for the true freshman to come down with the ball, converting a 4th and long in the process, but his physical toughness was a big part as well. There is some message in Bradford getting consecutive repetitions with the first team offense in the two-minute drill, by the way. Lewis got the job done, though there is something that still catches your eye about Edwards when he hits the field. He is having a tough time making the ultra-quick reads needed on these three-step drops, but when he does find his man and makes a quick throw, the ball gets there in a serious hurry. Edwards' first completion for his session of the two-minute drill was a harder throw than anything Lewis gave all practice. And that makes you feel very good about these top two options for Stanford at the quarterback position.
On the note of Bradford and the freshmen, the coaching staff is continuing to make evaluations of this 30-man class and who could play this fall. Those decisions ostensibly could be made next week, as the season opener against San Jose State approaches, but in actuality the first intercollegiate contest is coming this Thursday when UC Davis visits Stanford Stadium for a joint practice and scrimmage. In the NCAA's eyes, that counts toward eligibility in exactly the same way that a "regular" game counts, and in fact this Thursday's action is seen as Stanford's 12th game by the NCAA's rules. Had the Cardinal scheduled a real 12th game, this joint practice would not be allowed.
Some of the freshmen may see action Thursday, if the coaching staff feels they are completely solid in the evaluation that those individuals are ready or needed to play this fall. That is a result of talent, maturity and need. Teevens currently gives the following list of players who are receiving the most fervent consideration for true freshman on-field action: Bradford, Michael Okwo, Patrick Danahy, Michael Horgan, David Marrero, Nick Sanchez and Brandon Harrison. "We haven't ruled anybody out yet," Teevens diplomatically adds. "We'll sit down as a staff for final decisions soon, but it's not like this will be a new thing. We've been discussing this all the way through camp. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that some guys are great performers, but depth at a position is an important consideration for us."
Here are my own evaluations based on what I have seen and what I know for the most likely candidates to play in this freshman class:
- Mark Bradford - Despite the depth at WR, he is a tremendous playmaker who just begs to be on the field. And unlike many other freshmen, his contributions will come primarily on offense; there is no obvious early ability or need on special teams. He could be a good punt returner, but it would take two or three injuries for him to see time there right now. That is a testament to how good he could be on offense. Coaches want him on the field because he is going to make the tough play for a 50/50 ball that gives you a first down or a touchdown that lifts you to victory. He's a fighter and a winner. I say he's a lock to play, and probably play this Thursday.
- Michael Okwo - Michael Craven's return makes the WILL linebacker a stocked position, but Okwo has answered the call at every opportunity in this camp. One injury in the LB corps could elevate him again to a critical position, and he shows great instincts (plus speed) as a blitzer. You might use him in specialty situations at LB in early games, but also start him on special teams. Okwo's natural speed and nose for the ball make him a perfect fit for coverage teams. I say he's a lock to play, and probably this Thursday.
- David Marrero - He is getting a lot of repetitions with the offense, especially at a position where Stanford returns three upperclassmen. But despite that depth, Marrero brings you something you don't get from any of the other three, and that is ridiculous speed. Kenneth Tolon is quick, and J.R. Lemon can hit the whole hard. Gerald Commissiong can rev his motor pretty high, despite his thick body. But Marrero is another level of explosiveness that can break plays, found nowhere else on this offensive roster (save Luke Powell). I'm starting to see more directed use of Marrero on plays that take advantage of his quickness, particularly out in open space. But he also makes some great breaks running between the tackles. He's probable to play this fall, but maybe there is enough uncertainty that you don't use him Thursday.
- Patrick Danahy - Teevens continues to mention both freshman tight ends as candidates to play, but I believe that Danahy is the one who is ready. He is a smaller TE, but in this offense that fits fine. The tight end plays some fullback and goes in motion, both of which the mobile Florida frosh can handle. I also believe that he is a better blocker and more physical TE right now than Horgan. What you like about Horgan is his size and hands, which could make him the next Brett Pierce. But his receiving is far too inconsistent at this stage in his career, with a mixture of fantastic grabs and head-slapping drops. I think that Danahy could play this fall, but would definitely sit him on Thursday. You have to decide whether you play him from the start of the season, versus San Jose State, or if you hold him back so long as your TEs are healthy. If they can stay in games, you don't have to use him this year...
- Brandon Harrison - Unquestionably, Harrison is the shocker of this camp. His nose for the ball and closing speed have him atop the depth chart at strong safety, which is perhaps the one (and only) question mark on this entire defense. So long as he stays healthy and continues to improve, he could not only play... he could start in two weeks. But his acceleration up the depth chart has come in the absence of Timi Wusu, and with the redshirt sophomore returning to action, this position is very much up in the air. If Wusu comes back to full form, or if Trevor Hooper can step up his game, you have to think twice about playing a true frosh in the secondary. Unless Harrison just dominates at the SS position Tuesday and Wednesday, I think you hold him back Thursday and make the call on this one late next week. Too many unknowns right now, though Harrison is for real.
One freshman not on the above list is Evan Moore. He had a tremendous start to camp, and even Monday he made an incredible one-handed grab on a deep jump ball in the endzone. There is great athleticism there, and Moore brings size to the position lacking elsewhere on the roster. But his consistency is not enough right now to put him on the field in game situations, given the depth you have elsewhere at WR. Particularly, every day that Justin McCullum improves, you can rationalize holding Moore for a redshirt. The desire to hit the Maples hardwood with a running start come October is also a factor that continues to push on this situation, and I would put my money currently on a football redshirt.
The injury report continues to be a fast-changing part of these practices, and Monday was no exception. The heat touched the high 90's and made both the morning and afternoon workouts the toughest this team has gone through all camp. There were a few more cramps and a little more fatigue than on a normal day, so it is hard to say who is actually "out" versus who will bounce back just fine on Tuesday. One player of note is Brandon Harrison, who felt tightness in his high hamstring late in the morning and sat out the remainder of that practice. He was held out of the afternoon practice as well, donning the famed yellow jersey, though he told The Bootleg after practice that he expects to be back in action Tuesday. One player who did return to action Monday morning after a week of injury time off was fullback Kris Bonifas, and his return did not go well. He reinjured his knee and will be out for an unspecified amount of time. Walking onto the practice field late in the afternoon practice with crutches and a knee brace was an ominous sign, though it is not believe that he has torn any ligaments in his knee.
Two more successful returns Monday were a boon to the secondary, as Timi Wusu and Stanley Wilson both had two full and healthy practices. With Harrison sitting out, Wusu immediately climbed back to the #2 strong safety position, and he made several great runs at the ball without any hold-up in his hamstring. Wilson also looked normal, and he made a very quick ascent in his repetitions. By the end of the afternoon, he was taking several snaps opposite his classmate and buddy Leigh Torrence, with Rushing manning the nickel position. That nickel spot had been held the last several days by Marcus McCutcheon, but he was a little gimpy during both practices Monday.
Good news on the offensive line is that Ismail Simpson is now starting to get back in action with the one-on-one drills that are conducted against the defensive line. Also, Josiah Vinson is making more progress, starting to get a few reps in 11-on-11 situations. If those two continue their progress, the competitions for the starting guard spots will really heat up the next few weeks.
David Lofton had some groin problems Monday morning and stood out of drills in the afternoon. One player wearing the yellow jersey through both practices that surprised me was defensive end Julian Jenkins. I'll find out the nature and extent of his injury Tuesday, but that forced young Taualai Fonoti to play second team at DE for the first time this camp. Defensive tackle Babatunde Oshinowo also held out of some of the afternoon's 11-on-11 scrimmage action, which shook up the rotation for the DTs. The first team was Amon Gordon with Casey Carroll, and the second team was Scott Scharff with Nick Frank.
Frank caught my eye in both practices Monday, both against the run and the pass. He flushed Chris Lewis out of the pocket on one play in the morning, and showed off his speedy pursuit chasing the fleet-footed quarterback out of bounds. A few plays later, Frank recorded a great solo stuff at the line of scrimmage on a running play. He had a pass deflection in the afternoon and was getting after the ball on every play. He still has some strength and size, as well as savvy, to gain before he should play in games, though. I watched Mikal Brewer and Drew Caylor double-team and crush him to the ground on one play, and Frank didn't have a chance. He'll be a good one in time, and his promotion Monday during Oshinowo's absence speaks to his leadership among the frosh DTs.
More plays and players of note:
- Great plays by both Calvin Armstrong and Nick Sanchez Monday. The former is receiving consistent praise from a very hard-to-please DBs coach A.J. Christoff, both for his tackling and his pass deflections. Sanchez had a pair of nice tackles Monday, though he has much to learn about assignments and coverage schemes. This early, though, he appears to be an attentive student to the vocal Christoff.
- The most fun of the day came in watching the one-on-one blocking battles between the running backs and the linebackers. The defense won most of the battles, as well they probably should. But J.R. Lemon did a great job keeping the defenders off the tackling dummy, with both strength and leverage. He stymied both Mike Silva and Brian Gaffney on impressive blocking displays... Freshman Jason Evans managed to stand up Kevin Schimmelmann not once, but on two separate occasions... Michael Okwo had the quickest blow-by moves of the session, smoking both Pat Jacobs and Gerald Commissiong with a spin and swim move, respectively... Landon Johnson also did a number on Cooper Blackhurst with a very quick spin move.
- Don't count out Michael Sgroi for kicking yet this fall. He still reports that he feels completely fine, and the training staff is being very conservative in the kicking load they are allowing him. He hit a few balls Monday, but is hungry for the chance to kick many more. Meanwhile, freshman Derek Belch continues to hit the ball with his hammer of a leg. He isn't just looking to be ready to replace an infirm Sgroi; he's trying to win the job outright. "I came here with the idea that regardless of class, there would be an open competition," Belch comments. "I hope Mike gets healthy, but I have to concentrate on kicking my best regardless of those factors. I'm really, really happy with the progress I'm making on my field goals - timing, strength and consistency."
- If you are watching long snapping in practice, be careful of who is snapping the ball. No less than five different players took long snaps during special teams drills: Drew Caylor, Jon Cochran, Matt Traverso, David Bergeron and Brent Newhouse. Caylor and Cochran are the top two guys right now, in that order.
- As a whole, there were too many drops by the receivers in the afternoon practice. With everything that needs to come together for this offense, that is not an area that can be allowed to waver.
- Like just about every team in Division I football, this offense has the option as some part of its arsenal. How successfully it can be run, however, remains a large question after watching a shaky week of its installment in this camp. Kyle Matter is without question the best natural option quarterback of the five, with his great quickness and scrambling abilities. Chris Lewis looks the most comfortable pitching the ball, while Trent Edwards still has much to improve in both the timing and toss.
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