Ah, yes. Spring is in full swing.
2004 Stanford Football put its first day in the books on this last day of March with a 135-minute practice that saw the team begin to work out the rust and kinks from the last four months off the field. The practice was without pads - in jerseys and shorts - and without hitting, but the contact was spirited in two different batches of 11-on-11 action.
It is too early to make definitive evaluations of individual talents who are rising and falling on this squad, and several depth chart reshuffles will come over the next four weeks. But today did tell us a lot about the depth chart to start the spring, including a few surprises to even me.
The two biggest surprises were on the offensive line. I was sure that redshirt sophomore Brian Head would be involved in only limited line drills, and no contact. Quite to the contrary, Head was out there today and is cleared for all football activities this spring.
"I'm definitely ahead of schedule," the starting center gladly reports. "The way these things go, I'm one month early."
"I felt a little rusty out there, but you're always rusty the first day of spring," Head continues. "I feel like I'm playing high and slow, but that will change quickly. I can't wait for pads."
There were a few snaps where Head vacated his spot on the first string O-line, but the imbalanced numbers necessitate an imbalanced rotation that mixes in some of the levels of the depth chart. Roughly speaking, Head will take four out of five plays, and then Josiah Vinson will take that fifth snap before the second string takes over. That gives Vinson a little work with the first team guards and tackles, who were as expected. Jeff Edwards has the lead at right tackle, with David Beall adjacent at right guard. Ismail Simpson continues at the left guard position where he started 11 games last fall, and Jon Cochran takes the reins at left tackle. All four are redshirt freshmen.
The second surprise in the trenches came along the second string, where Tim Mattran worked at right tackle. The 6'5" second-year lineman has seen time everywhere in the interior at Stanford, and now he is moving outside to shore up the thin tackle depth. There is also the thought that Mattran might best perform in the type of stance that tackles employ. The rest of the second team OL are: Mikal Brewer (RG), Josiah Vinson (C), Preston Clover (LG) and Amir Malayery (LT).
Mike Macellari enjoyed his first practice of his Stanford career at offensive tackle, after working last fall on the defensive line. The freshman may have been third string in this first practice, but his feet were remarkable, even though he is not yet sure of all his movements and responsibilities. If Macellari makes the progress I think he will make the next couple practices, I expect him to jump to the second string by next week. His development on the OL this spring should be one of the great stories to watch.
Also interesting was the personnel on the defensive line. With two starters departed, there are some movements in the depth chart. The starting defensive interior is Babatunde Oshinowo and Casey Carroll, backed up by Nick Frank and newly converted Matt McClernan. McClernan is the other half of the swap that sent Macellari to the offensive line, and he gets my vote for most visible body change since last fall. He has to be pushing 290 pounds, and looks the part of a defensive tackle. Freshmen David Jackson and Chris Horn man the third team. You did not see Scott Scharff on the field today and will not see him at all this spring, as he is recovering from ACL repair surgery. In case you have forgotten, Scharff tore his ACL during the season last fall but continue to play without the ligament and put off surgery until the end of the season.
Will Svitek still holds down his starting job at defensive end (strong side), while Michael Lovelady has risen at the rush end spot to the number one position. The second team ends are Julian Jenkins and Taualai Fonoti, which leaves freshmen Emmanuel Awofadeju and Udeme Udofia on the third string. That may come as a surprise or disappointment to fans who are anxious to see some "new blood" invigorate this production-poor unit. I would suggest that the book is yet to be written for this group, though. Tom Quinn wants every player in his unit to feel the heat every day, and nobody's job or spot on the depth chart is safe.
Another interesting group is the defensive backfield, though nobody has graduated to stir things up. Back are the starters at all four positions, but competition looks a little different than what we saw last fall. The cornerback spots still have three veterans with loads of starting experience, but this first day of spring suggested to me that the three-man rotation for the two starting spots may be over. I did not see Leigh Torrence, Stanley Wilson and T.J. Rushing equitably share the first team duties; instead, just Torrence and Rushing ran with the starters today. Wilson was joined by freshman Tim Sims on the second team. Nick Sanchez and Nick Silvas ran with the third team.
No sane man can doubt Oshiomogho Atogwe at free safety, but Trevor Hooper is back in competition with Timi Wusu for the strong safety starting job. Hooper may have started all 11 games last fall, but Wusu was removed from the mix by injury. Healthy once again, the competition is back on. In the last stretch of 11-on-11, Wusu exclusively took the field with Atogwe for the first team, while Hooper stood on the sideline with ice on his left hamstring. We will see Friday if that is a short-term or more extended injury situation for the redshirt freshman.
Brandon Harrison can play either safety position, but he worked out at free safety behind Atogwe. Harrison looks like he has more confidence in his offensive reads, and that came through on one play that was the standout defensive play of the day. The true freshman broke early on a T.C. Ostrander pass and picked it off cleanly, racing the other way for an easy six points.
The offensive play of the day came on a better connection between QB and WR, with Trent Edwards finding Marcus McCutcheon 50 yards downfield for a magnificent score. The long ball dropped right over McCutcheon's head, in perfect placement, and the receiver handled the ball effortlessly. It was appropriate that these two hooked up for the highlight, given how they both looked throughout the afternoon. With Kyle Matter nursing a repaired shoulder and standing on the sidelines with a tee-shirt and sling, Edwards was the clear #1 signal caller on the day. His mobility was not impressive, though that is forgivable with his weakened leg and ankle muscles derived from his December quadricep surgery and subsequent rehabilitation. On a day when all the quarterbacks were erratic, Edwards threw the best balls - with strength and accuracy.
"He's seeing things a lot better - just going from his last practice in November to today," Buddy Teevens notes after Wednesday's workout.
McCutcheon is the "new guy" to the receiving corps, having made the switch from the defensive backfield this off-season. The redshirt freshman is probably the shortest of the recievers on this team, but he moved around really well. He has fantastic change of direction and runs hard out of cuts. With just one day down and 14 to go, we have a volume of data points to still gather, but McCutcheon looks like an athlete who can make it at wide receiver. Now we have to see how well he can be coached to run precise routes, and how well he can pull down the tough balls.
Another "new" face on offense is freshman fullback Emeka Nnoli, who was never medically cleared at any point during the fall and as such was never engaged in contact drills in practices. This first day of spring saw no tackling, as the players do not yet don pads, but Nnoli looked marvelous. In blocking drills he was as physical as any of the running backs, but he also has a great burst after he touches the ball in the backfield. It was an eye-opening debut, but we need to see how he responds to tackling in full pads when that hits in a few days. Remember that Nnoli has not had a full-pads football workout in 16 months.
Kris Bonifas enjoyed his time on the football field since his early August knee injury that ended his 2003 season before it ever started, and Stanford's head coach is excited about both fullbacks shoring up a position that has not enjoyed health and success in quite some time on The Farm.
"They're athletic, strong and can catch the football," Teevens praises of the fullback pair. "There are a lot of things we expect they can do."
New running backs coach Jay Boulware expects that this duo can demonstrate blocking ability, which appears to be at the core of his emphasis for his entire position group. He spent the bulk of the first hour of practice working his tailbacks and fullbacks exclusively on blocking drills and protection technique - with attention to detail and a drive toward physical play. Boulware is also someone who his boss is looking to for an improvement in the execution of the running game.
"In hiring a new running backs coach, I was looking for someone who was a real technician," Teevens explains. "We need our backs to better understand how to run effectively. I thought J.R. Lemon saw things really well today. He had better patience, already."
Another new effect from the new coaches was seen in the revamped offense. Receivers ran more crossing routes. Evan Moore had balls thrown to him other than mere fade patterns. And the shotgun was completely and totally absent from any and every snap taken in the more than two hours of practice.
"It isn't going to be as much of a major role in the offense," Teevens responds when asked about the conspicuous absence of the shotgun.
One could not help notice the coincidental presence of Bill Walsh on the sidelines, observing the first Stanford Football practice of 2004. He has long made it known that he sees the shotgun formation as completely unnecessary for a quarterback in his vision of offense. Walsh and Teevens have met regularly this off-season to talk about schemes, formations and personnel. It would appear that some of these changes are taking shape already.
"Bill and I have had great talks," Teevens reports on his sitdowns with "The Genius" in the winter. "He knows a lot of football, and we want to embrace similar things. We need to involve our running backs and tight ends in the passing game, as we expand what we do."
That, too, was evident in this practice. Running backs were no longer perfunctory decoys in seven-on-seven passing drills, as they have been much in the past. The quarterbacks threw to the tailbacks and fullbacks, and all four tight ends were used heavily in offensive schemes. Two tight end formations still exist, despite the graduation of Brett Pierce, and they include double-tight symmetric formations, heavy imbalanced formations and even TEs split out.
Other assorted notes:
- Capp Culver was out of pads and still is having problems with his shoulder. It would be a surprise if he was able to participate in any capacity in drills this spring. He missed all of the fall with a shoulder injury and has yet to see any work at his new fullback position.
- Defensive back Calvin Armstrong was suited out and had his helmet on, but he did not take any repetitions at cornerback or safety. Something is going on there, and I will report back as soon as I can learn his condition/status.
- As expected, Gerren Crochet did not take part in the practice and stood on the sidelines wearing a yellow jersey. Later in the afternoon, he was off on another field doing some running, though. It would be a big help for him and the team if he could get some work this spring.
- Special teams saw a healthy dose of work about two-thirds of the way through the practice, and the search for new long snappers involved a sizable contingent. Jon Cochran is atop that depth chart starting the spring, though put an unsettling number of balls on the ground on this day. Also long snapping were Matt Traverso, Patrick Danahy, Jared Newberry and Brent Newhouse.
- As expected, Evan Moore and Mark Bradford have the lead at the wide receiver position, but with a small group, everybody is seeing a lot of repetitions. It was particularly nice to see Chris Ryan and Matt Buchanan running out there; both were sidelined through most of the fall with injuries.
- It's very early, but David Marrero was out on the field for a lot of snaps. As of Day One of the spring, the promise to get Marrero much more involved in the offense looks to be holding. He was used in two-back, single-back and wideout situations.
- Too many dropped passes by the receivers, tight ends and backs. They get a free pass on the first day, but that had better clear up in a hurry. As much responsibility as has been (rightfully) put on the quarterback position for the execution of this offense, the playmakers had better make their plays when the ball comes to them.
- Incoming freshman Gustav Rydstedt was the first member of the 2004 class to take in a spring practice, and he had a wide grin plastered on his face throughout. "This is like a dream," he says of his first ever visit to Stanford. The 19-year old Swedish native arrived Monday and will be on campus through next Tuesday. "One of the conference rooms we used for a meeting was bigger than the entire clubhouse back in Sweden. The players move so fast, but I think I can play at this level. It just kills me that I have to stand and watch, though; I wish I could put a helmet on and get in there."
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