Saturday marked the first day this spring where the boys were in pads and free to lay the wood out on the field. That was the good news of the day for this third practice of 2004. Physical play needs to dominate this spring session to help ready players for the fall, and Saturday was an important step in that direction. The biggest hit of the day came when David Marrero was carrying the ball out of the backfield and met head-on with Nick Silvas. Marrero moved the cornerback straight backward, with a chorus of "oohs" and "aahs" coming from teammates on the sideline.
Calvin Armstrong delivered some measure of revenge for the defense with a big blow he levied later in the practice, but the more interesting note for the redshirt sophomore was his apparent placement on the depth chart. Just a day ago he made the move from cornerback to strong safety, which makes a lot of sense for the hard-hitting DB. Secondary coach A.J. Christoff is wasting no time seeing how Armstrong handles the new position, as evidenced by the Georgian's heavy repetitions Saturday with the first string defense. Armstrong played alongside Oshiomogho Atogwe every time I took a look in the defensive backfield, while freshman Brandon Harrison took a temporary step back down to the second team. Both players are enjoying heavy snaps atop the strong safety depth chart while 2003 starter Trevor Hooper is out with a sore left hamstring. For the second straight practice, Hooper was in the yellow jersey and camped out 15-20 yards behind the secondary with Christoff.
The redshirt freshman safety, however, should not be out much longer. The word Saturday was that Hooper could be back in action as soon as Monday. A quick return would not only spark the competition at that heated safety position, but it would also put Hooper on the field for the first "big practice" of the spring. While every practice is a critical one for this team, in coach speak, I am told that Monday will be the first scrimmage of the spring. That comes earlier than anything we have seen in a Stanford spring in years, and this year it throws an uncertain offense to the defensive wolves in just the second day of pads.
If Saturday was a predictor of Monday's events, then the defense will have their way with the "O". Progress made by the offense Friday was seldom seen Saturday, but there is a reason for that. The coaching staff installed some new plays for the offense Wednesday, in the spring's first day of practice, and that led to plenty of predictable pratfalls. Friday reworked those same plays without introducing anything substantially new, and the players improved their execution. But when a slew of new plays were installed Saturday, the quality of play took a step back. The hesitation was clear for several players at several times, as they wrestled with their first practice in pads in more than four months as well as a playbook that probably tripled or quadrupled in size relative to the first two days.
The apparent focus of the offense this day was the two-back running offense. Single-back sets were a staple last year, as the fullback position took something of a vacation from the Cardinal offense, but there is a heavy emphasis on finding trustworthy fullback play for 2004. Based on the repetitions and performances through Saturday, I would project a starting backfield of Kenneth Tolon and J.R. Lemon if the season opener were tomorrow. The veteran tailback tandem took the most snaps of any combination Saturday, with a mixture of offset and "I" formations. I was favorably impressed with the job Tolon did throughout the practice, running hard and fast both inside and outside the tackles. It's hard to believe that the New Mexico native is heading into his fifth and final year on The Farm, but this is his last shot to deliver in his Cardinal career.
The fullback position saw time for both Kris Bonifas and Emeka Nnoli, with Bonifas holding a slight edge in the repetitions by my unofficial count. But another intriguing performer at the position was tight end Matt Traverso. You may remember seeing Brett Pierce morph from a TE to a FB at the tail end of the 2003 season, so there is some precedent in this offense for a tight end to take snaps in the backfield. The graduation of Pierce has opened the door for Traverso to take a bigger role on the team in 2004, and we are seeing an early glimpse at the redshirt freshman's versatility.
"I have to improve a lot - everything really can get better," Traverso answers to the question of his focus this spring. "Though I really want to improve my route-running. Blocking has been more my strength, but with Brett [Pierce] gone, there is a void to be filled in the passing offense. [Tight ends] Coach [George] McDonald has been a huge help already. He really knows how to run routes, and he has showed us some things already watching film of our practices."
Returning to the original topic of the installation of the two-back running offense, it is interesting to see how the draw play looks. After two years of watching the draw called out of the shotgun, it now comes with the quarterback backpedaling. That is a wholly different timing for the backs and particularly for the offensive line. For that very reason, the O-line took a step back in Day Three with their execution. On Monday they will have to make a quick recovery for the scrimmage.
"They had a lot thrown at them today - enough to go out and play a game almost," notes offensive line coach Steve Morton. "They didn't look ready today, but that's alright. We have guys at new positions, in pads for the first time this spring, and we threw a whole bunch at them. Monday we're going to throw them out there and just let them scrimmage. It's aggressive, but I think it will help them to get out of the teaching of a practice and let them just go play. Then we'll break down the film Tuesday and get back to the drawing board Wednesday."
This move by the coaching staff could conceivably backfire, but I like it. While spring is a teaching time, the expectation is not unreasonable that these players should be able to move forward in game situations with their new learnings. I expect the offense to get handled Monday in this scrimmage, but the mistakes they make should match the education they would receive from a pair of nominal practices.
The responses these players make in the scrimmage should also give us some of our biggest shake-ups on the depth chart this spring. With more than 70% of the spring still to come after this Monday scrimmage, the staff should be able to make early adjustments at positions and rotations after they cut up the action from the game film.
One area I still expect to see a good deal of change is the offensive line. Only one player today is starting today at the same position as we saw at the conclusion of the 2003 season, and a host of younger players have ascended the depth chart after position shifts and senior graduations. One of the key questions for Morton in evaluating Monday's scrimmage will be the play at his two tackle positions. Currently Jeff Edwards is on the right side and Jon Cochran is starting at left tackle. Cochran has enough experience in his career playing both sides that he can be considered ambidextrous for Morton. But Edwards has started this spring on the right side because he is a right-handed guy, in OL terms. Only one year in his high school and college career has seen him play on the left side of the line, so the logic was to make his move from right guard to right tackle to start this spring rather than a more traumatic jump to left tackle. However, Edwards has the mobility and agility to be a good pass-protecting left tackle in the long run. A key question for Morton this spring is where to best use the redshirt freshman from Atlanta (GA). An ambidextrous Cochran gives the coach the flexibility to switch this pair, and I think that is something on the table that Morton will be considering Tuesday as he assesses Monday's scrimmage film.
Another OL move to watch is freshman Mike Macellari, who now has three practices at left tackle under his belt after a fall full of defense. Macellari is highly improbable to move over to the right side, but he has run third string thus far this spring and could be poised to climb to the second team before long. His feet are simply fantastic at his size, and he shows flashes of tremendous promise. Monday will be a big test, but both the player and his coach are excited for the challenge.
"Mike is going to be OK," says an understated Morton with a big grin on his face.
"It feels a lot more natural to me," Macellari offers on his early performances at offensive tackle, as compared to the defensive tackle work he saw last fall. "On offense, if I don't know what I'm doing, I can think about it and figure it out. I just have a more intuitive feel than what I had on defense. Now I need time to learn all the plays. Once I get them all down, I'll be fine. I'm not worred about anything on the physical side. I just need to learn the plays."
While most young college linemen first excel at drive blocking and have greater struggles in the pass protection, Macellari reports the opposite experience this week. "My pass blocking is better right now," he offers. "My footwork is awful and I have to get my hips turned the right way at the right times, but Jonny [Cochran] is a huge help. He's been great helping me with my feet and stance after almost every rep."
Other assorted notes from Saturday:
- Left guard Ismail Simpson sat out a few series late Saturday while he had to get his eye stitched up, but neither of the freshmen guards stepped in to fill that hole. Morton instead put second string center Josiah Vinson in with the first team for those plays. Vinson had a pretty heavy load in the second half of the practice, playing first team at LG and second team at C, and it understandably took its toll. The redshirt frosh Texan was dragging after a long stretch of plays, but the take-home lesson for fans was the tell that Vinson has Morton's confidence at this time to backup possibly all three spots on the OL interior. Vinson earned a good deal of playing time last fall, and he started the last three games of the season at right guard after Jeff Edwards injured his left knee during the first quarter of the Arizona State game.
- Michael Okwo saw some time with the first team defense on Saturday, which is not so much a depth chart shift as it is a sign of the tight competition he and Kevin Schimmelmann will have this spring. Like many positions, this could be one that has some early answers after Monday's scrimmage. Okwo still shows the speed and playmaking ability that excited us this past fall, but with more strength and size through the winter lifting and conditioning workouts.
- As expected, Mike Silva has made the move inside and now is playing at middle linebacker.
- Nick Frank gave a lot of Cardinalmaniacs™ a scare when he was on the sideline on crutches for Day Three. Wearing a yellow jersey, and with a heavy wrap of his left knee, fans could only speculate about the extent and nature of his debilitating knee injury. Freshman Chris Horn moved up to fill the void in the second team defensive interior with Frank out, but that may not last long. Frank told me after Saturday's practice that he twisted his knee Friday in practice, but the team doctors examined it and did not believe he tore anything. An MRI was scheduled to confirm that diagnosis, but the New Orleans native says he expects to be back on the field in a matter of days.
- Tim Sims still has a lot to learn, but a couple plays he made Saturday solidify my confidence that he made a good move from wide receiver to cornerback last fall. That is not to say that he could not have been a bigtime playmaker on offense for this team, but he does have the makings of a very promising cover corner. We knew Sims was a good athlete, so it is no surprise that he makes a good break on the ball and can close quickly on his mark. But I am a little surprised at some of the plays he is making on the ball already. The freshman from Belle Glade, Florida is showing how smoothly he can rest one hand on the receiver's outside hip and then reach around to make the play at the last second in front of the offensive player. Sims has made a noticeable jump in his confidence and comprehension of the cornerback position since last fall.
- I'm still seeing a solid demarcation in the cornerback depth chart, with T.J. Rushing and Leigh Torrence taking essentially all the repetitions with the first team, while Stanley Wilson is runing second string with Sims. Last year, though, there was more of a even distribution between the three veteran corners for starts and playing time at the two positions. Wilson started seven games; Rushing started six; and Torrence started nine.
- Ryan Eklund is a valuable guy on this roster because of the combination of his veteran experience and his willingness to embrace a solidly reserve role on the team. He is also very well-liked by teammates. His future this fall, barring disastrous injuries to the quarterback position, will once again be a practice role running the scout team and aiding in running drills. But there was a thought this off-season to put the 6'8" slinger on the field in some specific receiving plays as a wideout. Saturday maked Eklund's debut, and he caught the first pass thrown to him. Cheers erupted from teammates on both offense and defense, but the redshirt junior fumbled the ball just a couple seconds later. The next ball thrown his way bounced off his pads. While there is a heavy contingent of players, coaches and fans rooting for him to have success, "Ek" won't have many more of those opportunities if he repeats those mistakes. Fellow reserve QB David Lofton also saw some time split out at receiver in select plays Saturday.
- Kudos to Greg Camarillo for a pair of acrobatic catches early in practice that showed dexterity and concentration. One of them was a ball tipped by a defensive back away from Camarillo, but the veteran receiver laid out to snare the ball before it reached the ground.
- If you think the shotgun has been completely abolished from the offense, then you might be disappointed when it makes an appearance later this spring. While it will not be the mainstay for the offense like it was in 2003, it will not be completely absent.
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