Spring Practice - Day Four

Faster than any time I can remember in Stanford spring football, we had a 30-minute scrimmage on just the fourth day of practices. That was also the first tackling of the spring, which got juices flowing on both sides of the ball. As expected, the defense dominated early, but then the offense bounced back with two big drives. Read on for the details and newest notes...

The highlight of Monday's practice was unquestionably the 30-minute scrimmage that wrapped things up. But before I jump into that, there were some notes from the remainder of practice worth mentioning:

  • Michael Okwo is taking almost equal repetitions with Kevin Schimmelmann at the weakside linebacker position. If I were to draw up a depth chart today, they would be listed as co-starters. This is probably the most tightly contested position on the defense at this time, and the performances by these two LBs in the scrimmages this spring will be an important determinant for who lands the starting job going into the fall. Of course, Stanford's linebacker rotation the last couple years has been one that heavily rotates two-deep at each position, which means that the #1 vs #2 guy is not as critical as some other positions on the field. But this is one is a fun battle to watch.
  • At middle linebacker, Mike Silva made the move from the strong side a few days ago when Timi Wusu was brought to the "Sam" position from strong safety. Silva spent a day getting his feet wet in the middle and now has made the jump ahead of Landon Johnson for the #2 spot at MLB. That was a predictable event, given the relative experiences of Silva and Johnson.
  • Trevor Hooper was still out of action Monday, and Calvin Armstrong still remains atop the strong safety position in Hooper's absence. I thought that Saturday's repetitions for Armstrong with the first team defense might be an exploratory move by A.J. Christoff to give the redshirt sophomore a chance to see how he gels with the starters at his new position. But Armstrong took every snap Monday as a first team guy, which has to make him the top surprise early this spring. The former reserve cornerback was pretty far off the radar of most (if not all) Stanford observers heading into this spring, but his move to safety is looking like a very smart one for both him and the team. One defensive coach says that Armstrong is moving up a steep learning curve in a hurry. Of course, the newly converted safety has two years more time on this team than Brandon Harrison, and that gives him advantages in physical maturity as well familiarity with schemes and assignments. The strong safety position suddenly is one of the deeper spots on this defense, and the competition will only heat up when Hooper returns to the field.
  • Over on offense, the fullbacks are not seeing a lot of time at their own position. Tailbacks and tight ends are instead getting more than half the repetitions in practice. I noted Saturday that Matt Traverso saw some significant time at fullback, and Monday it was Patrick Danahy and Michael Horgan who lined up in the offensive backfield. Though Brett Pierce is graduated, it looks like there is still quite a bit of two-TE formations in this offense. J.R. Lemon continues to see time in two-back sets with Kenneth Tolon, and a parallel lineup was employed at least once with Jason Evans as the lead back ahead of David Marrero in an offset formation. The first two years of BuddyBall have seen more single-back sets, partially due to preference and partially due to personnel. But there are factors at work which are clearly gravitating toward two-back sets. It is just surprising that Kris Bonifas and Emeka Nnoli are seeing sporadic repetitions in those sets. We still have three-quarters of the spring to go, but this is something to watch. Bonifas and Nnoli have some ground to make up.
  • David Lofton is making a bigger impact on offense in two ways. The first note is that the redshirt freshman appears to have made a move up the quarterback depth chart; he took snaps Monday before Ryan Eklund, for the first time this spring. Lofton also is taking a surprising amount of repetitions at receiver. He split out in seven-on-seven drills as well as the scrimmage. At one point in the practice, Eklund was on handoff duty with the nine-on-nine running drills while Lofton, Trent Edwards and T.C. Ostrander were throwing to the receivers against the cornerbacks. The trio of QBs took equal rep's in a regular rotation, which meant that Lofton was throwing once every three snaps. But rather than take a breather while Edwards and Ostrander threw, the redshirt freshman athlete would split out wide to run routes. It was my understanding that Lofton would be solely dedicated to quarterback work this spring, and I have voiced my opinion before how I believe it is a disservice to himself and this team do so. If he worked at it year-round, Lofton could certainly be one of the top four or five receivers on this team and find himself regularly in every game of the year. At quarterback, I have a hard time seeing him climb higher than fourth on this team, and almost certainly no higher than third - that would relegate him to the sidelines for almost every snap of every game this year. But if Lofton can pull off this double-duty and give the team a "slash" athlete like a young Randy Fasani was for Stanford several years ago, then all the more power to him. To be honest, though, this is a tall order. A part-time wide receiver is unlikely to hone his skills to the point that he can beat Pac-10 cornerbacks. This is another watch-and-see for the remainder of the spring.
  • Nick Frank is still on crutches. Nobody took themselves off the walking wounded list Monday, but nobody new joined the ranks, either.

On to the scrimmage. This final 30 minutes of the practice might normally have been spent with 11-on-11 work, but this half-hour marked the first scrimmage competition of the spring. It was also the first tackling of the year. Some observers have been surprised that the team would launch itself into a scrimmage situation so quickly, but the players were pretty excited to start knocking heads.

"I like it," says freshman quarterback T.C. Ostrander. "We were competing at one level, with lots of drills and teaching, but it's important to just go and play. That's why we came here - to play football and to become better football players."

Ostrander and the offense might have been thinking twice about their desire to jump into this scrimmage when they struggled mightily in the first few series. It took a good while before the offense could muster any play that gained positive yardage, with a collection of incompletions and losses. The running game could not push forward, while sacks and a false start penalty pushed the "O" backward. The defense was completely dominating early - whether it was the #2 defense versus the #1 offense or the #1 defense against the #2 offense.

"We simplified things a little and went to more three-step drops," Ostrander says of the adjustment made after the opening failures. "Once we all got on the same page, we were able to make a couple plays."

The first time the offense picked up any traction was when Ostrander and the second team were on the field. They picked up a pair of first downs before facing a third and long in the redzone. Ostrander got good protection and threw a rope to Marcus McCutcheon, which the redshirt frosh snared before getting pummeled by a defensive secondary sandwich. The pickup put the offense inside the five yardline, and David Marrero took the ball inside on the next play to move it inside the one yardline. Marrero again lined up in the backfield, this time in an I-formation behind fullback Emeka Nnoli, and everyone expected a power running play. A quarterback sneak would have made the most sense, but QBs are not to be touched in their yellow jerseys, making that a rare practice play. Ostrander dropped back under center and faked a handoff to Nnoli, who headed left. Ostrander than hit Marrero with a shuttle pass to the right, but he saw a trio of defenders ready to envelop him and reversed field. That didn't work, and the freshman tailback was tackled for a six-yard loss. The offense failed on fourth down and came up empty.

Trent Edwards had the next series and continued the offense's success story. The workhorse on this drive was Alex Smith, who caught four balls and looked unstoppable. The "O" also had a little help in the penalty column when Matt McClernan was whistled for a pair of penalties. The first was a personal foul for hitting after the whistle away from the play; the second was an off-sides call. I can't ever remember a personal foul being called in a similar spring scrimmage situation, but I like it. If Buddy Teevens wants to be serious about eliminating those killer 15-yard calls on Saturdays in the fall, then why not send the message today. Teevens had the whistle for this scrimmage and made the call. Even though the penalty yardage helped, Edwards was in a groove with his receiving targets and drove the ball again inside the five yardline. The offense again stalled, though, until a flukish fourth down play may or may not have delivered a score. Edwards dropped back to pass but had his attempt batted at the line of scrimmage. The ball came back to the redshirt freshman quarterback, who started scrambling to his left. He saw Greg Camarillo open at the edge of the endzone and rifled a pass complete through traffic. The offense celebrated, but NCAA rules do not allow a second forward pass on any play.

Some additional notes and lessons from the scrimmage:

  • The first team offense and defense just like we expect, with possibly one exception. Michael Horgan was lining up with Alex Smith for the first team offense, more than his share. Whether that means anything about the tight end depth chart or not, it remains to be seen. But at the very least, Horgan was being rewarded for an excellent practice. He showed soft hands and very smooth receceptions moving across and down the middle of the field. "I shouldn't say I'm surprised," says classmate T.C. Ostrander of the frosh tight end's surge. "But he's a good athlete and he has really picked it up."
  • The tight ends and backs are very heavily involved in the passing game at this stage in the spring, and
  • The SAM linebacker position performed excellently in the scrimmage, with Jon Alston picking up three sacks and Jared Newberry registering another. Alston did get the benefit of a very quick whistle from Teevens, though, on one of the "sacks." Alston was racing at top speed into the the backfield when Trent Edwards made a step up into the pocket - a deft, and effective move. I don't think Alston could have made the sack from that angle of trajectory after Edwards' move... for the record. Doesn't change the fact that he made his presence felt out there with some big plays.
  • I know some fans who have been wondering (read: complaining) that we have yet to see the 3-4 defense with four LBs on the field that was effective last year. Rest assured that it is still in place for 2004; it just won't come out until later this spring. Moreover, many of the "pressure packages" that will be seen in the fall will not be installed until August. There are other focus areas of new installation that are of more pressing importance for this defensive staff at this time...
  • Similarly, fans who are attending these practices should be aware that the offense on Day Four is a partial representation of the intended final product. The most obvious difference is the shallow depth of the receiving routes thus far. There was not a single ball thrown more than 15 yards deep in this scrimmage, and that is by design. The offensive focus to start this spring, in the passing game at least, is on using the middle of the field for short-to-medium patterns. What we see later this month should build upon this foundation.
  • The hit of the day goes to Stanley Wilson, who crushed a ballcarrier behind the line of scrimmage as he tried to bounce the play outside. Julian Jenkins caught him from behind and got his ankles, which started to bring him down as Wilson drove right through him.
  • Some good pressures from the front four included Will Svitek and Matt McClernan.
  • Mark Bradford still does not look to me like the player we saw last fall - yet.
  • Later in the scrimmage, Steve Morton flip-flopped some of his linemen up and down the depth chart to try different matches. Of note, Mike Macellari did get some work with the second team at left tackle. Morton should have plenty of film to examine Tuesday, and I expect him to make his first adjustments of the spring on Wednesday.
  • The running game had little success moving the ball in this scrimmage. I would have expected the ground game to have better success than the aerial attack at this early point in the spring.

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