There were four big themes to what I saw Wednesday on the practice field, so let's dive right in...
1) Depth chart shifts. I thought there might be a few position shuffles made after the coaching staff reviewed the film from Monday's first scrimmage, but there was just one switch apparent to me Wednesday. On the second team offensive line, Mikal Brewer and Josiah Vinson swapped spots. Vinson had been at center, but now moves to right guard. Without speaking with OL coach Steve Morton, this looks like an experiment that did not pan out. Brewer had spent the bulk of the fall at center, while Vinson started the last three games of the year for the Card at right guard. They switched places going into this spring, but now they are back to where they were in November.
Elsewhere on the field, there were some depth chart moves that may surprise fans. Several players who had run solidly on the first team through the first four practices this spring found themselves leapfrogged by second string mates. The idea is that every player at every position needs to feel the pressure to improve and perform at a high level; if you don't, someone pushing harder than you can take your spot in a flash.
"We're starting to see some depth at almost all positions," comments head coach Buddy Teevens. "Some of the depth is young, but talented and hardworking."
As I watched who lined up with the first and second teams in this fifth practice of the spring, I could see several changes. Evan Moore was passed by Greg Camarillo for the second starting spot at wideout. Patrick Danahy saw Matt Traverso move ahead of him for the second tight end slot. During Wednesday's practice, David Beall saw Josiah Vinson take a bunch of his repetitions at right guard for the last hour or so. The way players are employed on defense makes it harder to ascertain some of those moves, but one shocking swap had Babatunde Oshinowo playing on the second team defense, while Casey Carroll moved ahead. More on the confusing defensive line a little later...
Teevens furthermore says that this competitive pressure is not just a springtime gimmick. "No, this is what we're going to do all year," the Cardinal coach charges.
Perhaps the most interesting move came at the running back position, where Kenneth Tolon jumped ahead of J.R. Lemon. I did not think either back particularly excelled in Monday's scrimmage, but there is no question that Tolon had found a groove early this spring that was not there much of last fall. His vision looks improved and he is making better decisions where to take the ball - inside or outside.
"That's a credit to [new running backs coach] Jay Boulware," Teevens offers. "We're simplifying what we're asking the running backs to do, and letting them focus on doing those things really well. Kenny is clearer on what he should do, and his confidence is showing in his performance."
2) The offense surges. Monday's scrimmage saw a couple possessions of success for the offense, but they were otherwise shut down. Even more disconcerting was the lack of any meaningful success running the ball. Those successful drives were almost completely predicated upon the passing game. But Wednesday's practice closed with a scrimmage that saw quite a bit more success running the ball. If you are wondering what new plays the staff installed that day to engender the ground gains, the answer is "none." The running game is being kept rather narrow right now, with an emphasis on repetition and execution. That paid dividends Wednesday, for all components of the ground game.
The RBs made better decisions, with harder cuts and faster explosion through holes. The offensive line is working together better (though inconsistently) and blowing open bigger holes. I thought big difference, though, was Kris Bonifas. He saw more time at fullback in this practice than in any other this spring. Tailbacks had nice success running behind him, with Bonifas showing both speed and power seeking out defenders. It also so happened that Bonifas scored the one rushing touchdown of the scrimmage. Even though both fullbacks were out of action this past fall with medical situations, I think Bonifas is getting back up to speed more easily than Emeka Nnoli due to Bonifas' greater experience at Stanford. Keep in mind that Nnoli had no spring football last year and he missed time the fall of his senior year at Natomas High School. It's been two years since he's played a lot of football; he's a little out of sorts. The light hasn't come on yet. We'll watch to see when it does.
The passing game continues to heavily involve the backs and tight ends. Alex Smith once again was a key, but I thought Trent Edwards showed some progress today. He's directing traffic with his blockers a little bit more naturally, and he looks more comfortable moving around in the pocket. This throws are not consistent yet, but many are on the money. A real disappointment, though, was the number of dropped passes. Receivers and tight ends all had far too many balls bounce off their hands and chests. That can be understood the first practice or two, but not in the second week.
3) Defensive front taking shape. Some of the things we have seen thus far this spring have been a little confusing from the defensive front four, and it was noteworthy that we had not yet seen what we know as Stanford's "3-4" defense with an extra outside linebacker on the field. In that formation, we look for Jon Alston or perhaps a Michael Okwo to give the defense more speed and an extra pass rusher who can attack from the edge or drop back in pass coverage. Alston had yet to make an appearance in that role, prior to Wednesday. But there were some other things out there Wednesday that were at first confusing. Julian Jenkins was playing a lot inside, as a three-technique. Will Svitek played several series inside. Late in the practice, when the team was conducting a scrimmage, I saw what on the surface appeared to be a 5-2 formation, with three defensive tackles flanked by a pair of ends. Matt McClernan was in the middle, surrounded by David Jackson and Chris Horn, and outside that pair was Emmanuel Awofadeju and Udeme Udofia.
I spend a lot of practice watching personnel, and the collection of groupings I saw up front this day were pretty eclectic. But that is because I was looking through the glasses of last year's defense. The way we definte and group positions is different today. First of all, the old concept of defensive tackles and defensive ends is tossed out the window. The old "strongside" DE is now playing somewhat interchangably with the DTs - they all play in a three-point stance. The old "weakside" DE is now lumped together with the old "strongside" (SAM) linebacker - they all play from two-point stances and are known as "rushes" rather than ends or linebackers.
The personnel may line up in different formation for different plays, but most of the defense I have seen through these five practices has three DL, two rushes, one MLB and one WLB. This is a pretty interesting evolution from what we saw on defense last fall. It is clearly aimed at increasing the speed of the defense... time will tell if it works.
4) Time to quick-kick? Wednesday marked the most extensive special teams work I have seen during the middle of a practice this spring. A lot of kicking has transpired at the start of practice, or the kickers come out early, but for a good 15 or 20 minutes on Day Five, the punt teams got some good work. The bad news is that the longsnapping is very poor. Jon Cochran is listed atop that depth chart right now, and he throws a ball with a nice spiral and good pace, but it is consistently low. Either it reaches the punter at his shoelaces or it skips off the ground. Tom Quinn had a wealth of bodies out there attempting to snap, including Brent Newhouse, Matt Traverso and Patrick Danahy. All snaps came against a live rush, and trust me - the bodies were flying. But nobody snapped worth a lick, and that is as serious a concern on this football team as anything right now.
It's hard to judge the punters given how erratic the snaps were. Seriously. I will say that Michael Sgroi hit the longest balls with the best hangtime early, while Jay Ottovegio was hitting his first balls too low. The freshman punting specialist did improve visibly, though. He had more hangtime as he went through more repetitions, and he knocked one ball a good 55 yards down the field. Of the more experimental punters, Greg Camarillo looked the most promising. Right away, he kicked balls with good height and a nice spiral. If Sgroi needs to focus on his placekicking, I like Camarillo's potential to provide some solid emergency depth as a punter. But the work at this position and the long snapping needs a lot of work between now and the September 11 opener.
- Of final note, we have our second and third guests from the 2004 class (incoming freshmen) on The Farm attending practices. Last week through Monday it was Gustav Rydstedt and his parents, treking across the Atlantic from Sweden for their first ever visit to Stanford. Wednesday saw prep All-American center Alex Fletcher out on the practice field, soaking in as much as he can from the coaches and players. The fiery New Yorker will be in town for 11 days, through the morning of April 17, giving him a look at six practices. I knew that Fletch was coming out, but I did not know that walk-on quarterback Garrett Moore would be in attendance. The Arizona slinger from Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale has a nice opportunity in this class for himself, given that there were no scholarship QBs signed.
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