The emphasis that new running backs coach Jay Boulware is putting on blocking for his backs is so remarkable that I made myself spend a good chunk of Monday's practice watching those drills. The culmination came in one-on-one battles against the rushes (formerly known as the weakside DEs and the strongside LBs). I will first offer the caveat that J.R. Lemon was absent for most of this drill, as he was getting something wrapped at the training table. In Lemon's absence, there was a clear gap between Kenneth Tolon and all the rest of the tailbacks and even the fullbacks in blocking. Tolon never whiffed on a block, and with maybe one exception he kept the rusher locked up once he engaged the defender. It was fantastic stuff, and it was good enough to almost make me forget how bad Tolon's hands looked on Saturday. Blocking and running the ball have to take precedence over your receiving ability as a running back, even if there are West Coast Offense influences at work this year.
David Marrero was the weakest blocker of the bunch, and I have to say it looks like a nearly foreign concept to him. Fundamentally, he cannot engage a defender head-up right now. Unfortunately, the freshman speedster did not have a full opportunity in this practice to improve himself, as he went to the training table with a shoulder injury. That sidelined him the remainder of practice, and afterward an examination revealed a strained rotator cuff. Marrero will be reevaluated today for another look, and hopefully that does not reveal any tear. It is unknown how long he will be out of action.
Classmate Jason Evans had more success in the blocking drills, which surprised me a little. He remains the lankiest of the backs, even after a winter of strength training, but he showed several rep's where he was able to keep the rusher in front of him for a couple seconds. I see in Evans a kid who has it in him to be a very physical blocker, and he should only improve as his body fills out during his Cardinal career.
The fullbacks were pretty hit-and-miss, which is not unexpected after missing all of the fall with medical situations. Kris Bonifas lays down blocks a little bit better than Emeka Nnoli right now, who half the time looks unsure of his footwork and basic fundamentals. The freshman has a ways to go, but I saw a couple instances where he was pretty physical and powerful when he got into the chest of a rusher. There is potential there - just don't know how far away it is.
On the other side of the ball, this was also a nice look at a mix of youngsters and veterans in the rush group. The two players absent were Taualai Fonoti, who I previously reported will be out the rest of the spring with an MCL sprain, and Michael Lovelady (injury unknown). That left Jared Newberry, Jon Alston, Timi Wusu, Emmanuel Awofadeju and Udeme Udofia. It's no surprise that Newberry and Alston are the two best rushers, with Newberry showing the best open-field moves to blow by blockers. Awofadeju looked awesome once or twice with a raw swim move that knocked the blocker to the side, but he needs work on the technique as well as some other moves.
Though Lemon was absent from much of the blocking drill, I have to say that I am impressed with how he ran in the 9-on-7 and 11-on-11 work. I see a noticeable jump in how hard he is running, as compared to last fall. He is hitting the hole quicker and shows less hesitation in the backfield. He's starting to "run downhill" as coaches like to say. I am also impressed with the job Jason Evans is doing. In the fall, I saw a glider who could do very little once a defender made contact, but he is already becoming a little more physical in his running.
But enough of my yapping. Here is what Jay Boulware - the paid professional when it comes to Stanford running backs - has to say about his troops:
On the predominance of blocking in practices
"I try to emphasize all the fundamentals. Blocking is part of the game - both the pass and the run game. But there are other fundamentals just as important to us: reads, shuffling feet, catching and footwork."
On what he thinks of his group at this point
"I'm really pleased with the group as a whole - all have strong suits and fit together as a great unit. Some guys are versatile and give us a dynamic backfield. You have a big, hard-nosed back like J.R. Lemon - a big, physical guy who runs hard and can break plays for you. You have a quick change-of-direction guy in Kenny Tolon. You have an explosive player like David Marrero who can hit a home run, but you can also flash him outside at any of the three receiver positions."
On the fullbacks
"Kris Bonifas is doing excellent. He has had to get used to a good knee-bend position; he blocks too high. We have to train their bodies to get lower. He's a nice back out of the backfield, who can also catch the football for us. Emeka Nnoli hasn't played a lot of football lately and has some things to learn."
On where Tolon needs to improve
"It's every phase. I have a real good memory of what he did in 2001 when he had that big game against us [at Arizona]. I thought those two guys [Tolon and Brian Allen] were the two hardest runners in the conference that year, and I think Kenny can be that back and more. I think these guys have the ability to be as threatening as that group was. Kenny needs to run hard and get downhill - not dance around too much."
On where Lemon needs to improve
"He also needs to run the ball hard, but I think J.R. needs to establish an identity. He has the agility to make people miss, but he's more than that. I want him to be punishing - the hammer. He needs to use his power to set up his finesse.
Fast forward to the 11-on-11 action at the end of the practice, where I have to say the offense flat-out stunk up the joint. The first team offense went up against the first team defense to start things off, and Trent Edwards' crew went nowhere fast. The redshirt freshman threw his first pass for an interception, while his second ball should have been picked off it not dropped by a cornerback on the sideline. Receivers did not get open; the line did not protect; and the throws were inconsistent. It was bad stuff. Of course, the flip side of the coin is that you can say that the defense was playing very well. They sent a lot of blitzing pressure off the edges and up the middle, which succeeded marvelously. Babatunde Oshinowo was in the backfield early and often, as were David Bergeron and Jared Newberry.
The offensive display was depressing, but then a funny thing happened. The receiving targets suddenly started getting open and the quarterbacks were able to locate them (though some balls were droped). Bill Cubit had changed up what he was calling for the offense, with the QBs taking three-step drops and the plays developing more quickly. Against a defense that appeared to be playing zone coverage in the back end, it looked modertately successful. I did see receivers, backs and tight ends all dropping balls, which kept the chains from moving as much as the plays should have allowed, but it was an improvement.
Successful offensive adjustments have been rare the past couple years in this program, so I thought I would ask new WRs coach Ken Margerum afterward about the change-up... as well as the state of his wideouts group.
What did you guys do differently to get open better later in that 11-on-11 work?
"You take what the defense gives you. We had to react and make a few adjustments."
Halfway through the spring now, how far along are your guys?
What do you like so far that you've seen these last two weeks?
"I like the effort level a lot - and their willingness to learn. There is enough talent there, and the players have the skills to get it done. Now it's a learning curve, and we have to see how high up we can get on that curve."
What is your focus with these guys? What is your core emphasis?
"I really want to emphasize the fundamentals of route running - the footwork, the depth and the splits. We need to be sharper, getting to the right spots. I'm working hard on the fundamentals of routes - the art of route running. Sometimes that gets lost in all the talk about schemes and formations. It takes a lot of repetition and work. I hope they all stay here this summer and keep at it to continue the progress. It takes a lot of work - no way around that."
Who has surprised you through the first half of the spring?
"They're all blanket learning. The guys are doing well as a group. I guess if one guy has surprised me, it would be Marcus McCutcheon. He's caught up in a hurry and already he's right there with the top guys. He's an intuitive football player with a lot of ability."
- Part of the defense looking so dominant today goes to the credit of Michael Okwo. In several drills, including the 11-on-11 action at the end of practice, he was making plays all over the field. One of the intangibles about the great linebackers is how they get to the ball play after play, and Okwo has that nose for the ball. Only black mark was an interception he had right in his hands, but dropped.
- Over on offense, Josiah Vinson took all the snaps at right guard in the contact drills today, ahead of David Beall. The two redshirt freshmen had been sharing repetitions pretty evenly the last couple practices.
- But late in this practice, Vinson was taking the rep's at center for the first team in place of a gimpy Brian Head. The redshirt sophomore center was limping around through much of the practice, and I hear his other knee (not the one that was injured and surgically repaired in the fall) may not be well. I'll check into this and see how healthy Head is for the remainder of the spring, as well as his longterm outlook for the year. With Vinson at center, Beall took the snaps at right guard. In such a lineup, Stanford would have five sophomores starting on the offensive line. Bad for 2004. Promising for 2005 and 2006...
- Ryan Eklund is still getting the second team snaps at quarterback, and frankly T.C. Ostrander did not show anything Monday to argue that he should climb back up to that spot.
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