If you were late today to the practice field for the 10am workout that marked the midway point in the spring for Stanford Football, you might have missed the action. The Cardinal stretched out at midfield and then promptly huddled into two groups - offense and defense - for brief instruction and pep talk from their respective coordinators. At a time when you normally would have expected the players to break into their position groups for drills, they lined up on the field to start the scrimmage.
And when the scrimmage ended an hour later, the team huddled at midfield around Buddy Teevens to concluded the practice and then hit the showers. That's all there was today, folks. That meant it wrapped up an hour earlier than we expected, but the shortened practice was well worth the time spent in the hot Saturday sun to see the most extensive scrimmage action of the spring.
Unfortunately, I was not able to record a play-by-play as I had intended. Of the three practice fields, this day's practice happened to choose the one that field provides only endzone views. That precluded me from being able to accurately read yard markers, and killed the whole play-by-play. But there were still plenty of take-home notes to be had...
The very first series pitted the #2 offense against the #1 defense. Differentiating the #2 from #3 units for either side of the ball is difficult right now, given that many positions do not go three deep right now. Some injuries have depleted bodies, and the spring always brings the smallest roster as seniors are departed but freshmen can not yet enroll and join in. But when watching the offense, a few players are tell-tale signs that the #2 or #3 offense is on the field at a given time. I am pretty confident in saying, then, that Ryan Eklund took the field to start the scrimmage as the #2 quarterback. That will surprise many fans and observers, but Eklund has done a standout job the last couple practices at moving the ball with the #3 offense against the #1 defense.
The 6'8" redshirt junior QB delivered again today, moving the ball all the way down the field before the offense stuttered on the goalline. Eklund looked comfortable in the pocket, despite having the team's best pass rush coming at him and having at his disposal younger, reserve linemen to give protection. He obviously sees the field well at his size, and he made accurate and confident throws for the majority of the drive. I don't think many people gave Eklund a second thought for the quarterback competition this spring - I'll admit that I didn't. Granted, he benefits from the absence of Kyle Matter (surgically repaired shoulder) and runs second right now when he would likely be third, but Eklund has done too well this week to escape praise in this report.
He did unfortunately end with an interception in the endzone. Redzone efficiency was a mixed bag on this day, with the kicking game a significant culprit. Special teams only converted one of three field goals today. The first of the two misses came without a kick, as Derek Belch never put a foot on the ball after a poor snap and hold by the second team kicking unit. Leigh Torrence did scoop up the loose ball for the field goal block team and ran it the other way for a score. The next field goal attempt saw Michael Sgroi push the ball just wide right. Sgroi did put the ball through on the team's third attempt of the day.
Returning to non-kicking action, I felt like there was a surprisingly even balance between the offense and defense. The "O" moved the ball in several series, but also had a couple three-and-out affairs. You might expect that the defense should still have a marked advantage over the offense at this point in the spring for two reasons. 1) The defense always excels early in the spring because at the core their objective is to simply attack and stop the football, which can be achieved in the absence of a well-executed scheme better than a rusty offense working out its kinks. 2) This defense has most of its personnel back from last year, while the offense has new starters at seven positions and quite a bit of youth.
So why is the defense not flattening the offense at every turn right now? There are two differences I see this spring that counterbalance the above factors. The first is the rather radical changes that this defense is undergoing, more than I have seen at any time in the last decade of Cardinal football. I talked a few days ago about the redefinition of the defensive linemen and SAM linebackers. The result goes deeper than the classification of the edge pass rush for this defense.
"We have to improve playing our gaps right now," says fourth-year defensive end Will Svitek. "We all have different responsibilities now. I used to be C-gap and D-gap; now I'm playing the B-gap."
There are several formations and variations on this new defense, but when they line up in their base set, I don't know that anybody in the frong seven other than Jared Newberry is at the same spot on the field as where he lined up last fall. This means big changes up front, which are matched by some significant changes in the back end. The secondary returns all four starters from last fall, and the only missing piece right now is Trevor Hooper with his sore hamstring. But the coverage is being diversified.
For the last two years, Stanford's defensive backs have played man coverage with near religious rigor. For 2004, the Cardinal coaches want to introduce some effective zone coverages that give the defense greater versatility. That is a significant piece of work to install, and once again that puts the defense in as much of a learning mode as the offense.
Despite the big changes, Svitek is excited about the prospects and progress of this defense. "I think we're right where we should be," the redshirt junior DL opines. "There are substantial changes we're making, but we're adapting and just need to clean it up. I feel like we're playing better every day. These moves help with our team speed and put more guys in the box. This is more of a pro style defense. This is what the Baltimore Ravens run. We should be able to hide a lot more - disguise a lot of things. I think offenses will have a harder time reading us this year."
"For me individually, I have less responsibilities now," Svitek continues. "I'm now a four-technique with more of a two-gap concept. I think it's going to be good for me. I was on the bigger side for a defensive end, but a little small for a defensive tackle. I'm now in a middle-ground position that is perfect for me."
While Svitek and the defensive players are learning new schemes, placements and responsibilities at all 11 positions, the offense is focusing on a tighter range of plays than you would normally see in the spring. Rather than learning a large playbook with a few repetitions on each play, heavy work is being given to a core set of formations and calls. The productivity of each of those plays should be higher, and it's showing.
"Basically we've simplified," reports veteran wide receiver Greg Camarillo. "We master a few plays and execute them really well."
The narrowing of the playbook appears to have bred some confidence in the offensive players, ironically allowing them to improvise some plays outside that core constituency. A perfect example came in this scrimmage on a pair of back-to-back plays in the redzone for the first team offense. On the first play, quarterback Trent Edwards scrambled to buy himself some time while his receiving targets were covered. Freshman wideout Mark Bradford saw the play break down and freed himself up around the five-yardline, where Edwards found him. Bradford did the rest, taking fellow frosh Brandon Harrison to school with a nifty open-field move that blew past the safety and into the endzone untouched.
But the officials called a penalty on the play - apparently a lineman was illegally downfield late in the play after it looked like Edwards might have to scramble for yardage on the play. So the offense marched back five yards to try once again for third and goal. With a devilish dose of déjà vu, the Cardinal quarterback found himself staring down a blanketed set of receivers in the endzone on this retry. The play was supposed to find a receiver coming across the middle, but the defense had the interior congested. So Edwards looked to Camarillo and pointed with his free arm toward the outside.
"I just followed his direction," says the receiver. "He made an arm signal and I made the cut."
Camarillo headed toward the back corner of the endzone with a defender on his back hip, and Edwards hit the fellow Bay Area native beautifully for the score. It was the best chemistry - best connection - I have seen between a quarterback and receiver in probably the last two years of Stanford Football. It was one play, and probably should not be blown up to be more than that, but I took it as the best sign all scrimmage for the offense.
"It feels pretty good," Camarillo comments on the connection with Edwards. "That's the first time in a long time we've made a connection like that out here."
"I see confidence in the quarterbacks to stand in there," the former walk-on continues. "The [offensive] line is definitely protecting and giving the whole offense more time, and that gives us all confidence."
We continue to see the offense attacking the middle of the field, which is a welcome sign for Cardinalmaniacs™. Edwards hit both Evan Moore and Mark Bradford slanting from right to left for big plays, with Moore's going for a long touchdown.
One sour note in the passing game was a couple of dropped balls by Kenneth Tolon. One of them came in the flat on the left side of the field, inside the 10-yardline with open green between him and the goalline. That incompletion was eerily reminiscent of the drop by Tolon in the second quarter of Big Game last fall. He dropped a similar pass that would have gone for a touchdown, keeping the Stanford offense at just 10 points in a half where they enjoyed four Cal turnovers.
If this 2004 offense is indeed serious about passing to the backs and tight ends, those players have to make plays when their number is called. Tolon is making good progress in the ground game, but he puts the coaches in a tough spot when he exhibits these failures in the receiving game.
On a more positive note, J.R. Lemon had a handful of exciting runs today. He is running harder and faster than last fall, but his best carry showed that he could power for an extra five yards with tacklers hanging off him at the end of the run. David Marrero broke the biggest run of the day early in the scrimmage when he showed some patience to let a hole develop and then exploded through it and up the field.
On the offensive line, Mikal Brewer had a tough go at center with his snaps and with his blocking. I doubt it was a coincidence that late in the scrimmage he was moved to right guard and Josiah Vinson was moved to center. It will be interesting to see this next week where Steve Morton plays these two interior linemen. Prior to the late switch, Vinson had been sharing time on the first team with David Beall at right guard. Another perturbation on the line saw Mike Macellari get some time with the second team at left tackle.
Over on defense, the starting front seven is taking shape. If healthy, it looks like Babatunde Oshinowo will man the middle at the nose, flanked by Casey Carroll and Will Svitek. David Bergeron is a lock at linebacker, while Michael Okwo and Kevin Schimmelmann are both still getting time on the first team at the WILL 'backer. Jared Newberry is solid at one rush position, while Jon Alston took the lion's share of repetitions at the opposite rush. If you compare his snaps with the first team this day versus last Saturday, it looks like Alston is making his move.
In the back end, Stanley Wilson is making a move of his own. The fourth-year cornerback had been running second team for the first third of the spring, but he moved ahead of Leigh Torrence late this week and found himself starting in this scrimmage. He came through with a couple big plays, including an interception he picked off after the ball came off Marcus McCutcheon's outstretched hands.
The defense also succeeded in applying some pressure, with sacks coming from Udeme Udofia, Julian Jenkins and Landon Johnson. Freshman rusher Emmanuel Awofadeju deflected a pair of passes at the line of scrimmage as well.
- Rusher Taualai Fonoti was out of pads and out of action for the first time this spring, and he reports that he has an MCL sprain that will keep him out of contact the remainder of the spring. He is sporting a brace on his right knee and hopes to return to some drills before the end of April practices.
- Quarterback K.C. Patterson was in attendance for the scrimmage. The 6'3" junior recruit hails from Oakmont High School in Rosemont (CA) and has received interest from Pac-10 schools plus Colorado, Michigan and Notre Dame. His 3.7 GPA and 1220 SAT also grab your attention. The recruit talked with quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit afterward, when the Cardinal coach encouraged Patterson to attend their overnight camp in June. Will also be back on campus in May for the Nike Camp.
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