Friday afternoon's practice was held in Stanford Stadium, the first workout this spring held outside the regular practice field. The location was chosen to help give a little familiarity to the players for the environment, which they have not seen since November, where they will play today's 80-play scrimmage. Be there at 10 A.M. sharp to see the biggest scrimmage of the spring thus far, with the attention of not only the usual Stanford fans but also an invited group of Stanford Football alumni.
Given that this practice was a mere walk-through, with no hitting of any sort, it is hard to judge how healthy the players are. Injuries have been mounting the last couple weeks, though only one has been serious enough to merit surgery. For what it is worth, these players donned yellow jerseys Friday or were out of action:
That list is as good as any for predicting who will be playing and who will be on the sidelines for today's big scrimmage in the Stadium. A few players who had been out of action Wednesday put themselves back on the field Friday, and they could be potentially ready to go today. Defensive end/rusher Michael Lovelady was back on the field and looked fine. Tight end Patrick Danahy recovered from his knee injury and practiced with a brace, though he looked gimpy at times; I wonder if he will be cleared for this extended scrimmage or not. If both Smith and Traverso are out, Danahy's knee could potentially leave just Michael Horgan on the field. That would handcuff the offensive staff from utilizing any two-TE formations, though there are worse things than a heavy workload for Horgan. He looked fantastic on a couple catches Friday running routes. He moves so well and has exceptional hands. I'm still sky high on his future as a Cardinal, and he has four years of playing eligibility still ahead of him.
A very pleasant surprise at this walk-through was seeing freshman tailback David Marrero out of the yellow jersey and on the field. Earlier in the week he hurt his shoulder, and Wednesday he was out of action. The preliminary diagnosis Monday night after the injury was a strained rotator cuff, but there needed to be a follow-up examination. The fear of course was that there might be some tearing, which would require surgery and an extended lay-off. Watching him run routes at this practice was a pretty solid sign that the second examination revealed no such damage.
"It's a strained rotator cuff," Marrero confirmed after Friday's practice. "It's day-to-day right now, and it felt good today. We'll have to see how it feels tomorrow when I warm up, and if that will let me play in the scrimmage."
But another thing caught my eye as Marrero raced around the field in this walk-through: he was running all receiving routes from the slot or wide positions. When position units huddled up together, the frosh was working with the wide receivers. During the 11-on-11 late in the practice, he spent all his sideline time standing with WRs coach Kenny Margerum, clearly soaking up instruction and knowledge about receiving routes and technique.
To the eye, this had all the ear-markings of a position switch. That would not be a totally shocking development, given the dearth of wide receivers on this roster right now and the paucity of burners at the position. Marrero is the smallest of the tailbacks on the team, and that creates challenges for him in the blocking department, which is a tremendous focus of new running backs coach Jay Boulware. Heck, a vocal minority of Stanford fans have lately been clamoring for this change as well. So have their dreams come true? Did this switch just unfold before the last week of spring ball?
"Nah," the freshman in focus answers. "We had made a commitment in the off-season for me to see time in both the backfield and split out at receiver. I wanted to take advantage of this practice with no pads to learn as much as I could about the receiver position - get a feel for the routes and checks."
If Marrero is physically clear today to play, it will be interesting to watch how he performs out wide. This walk-through provided limited data about his abilities, though he did have a couple drops. The first came on a ball that was admittedly thrown behind him as he made a cut to the middle of the field. The ball came off his outstretched hands and was picked off on a fantastic play by a diving Michael Okwo. A later drop came with the ball in better position, but the frosh simply could not snag it.
But "hands" are not a primary concern right now for this double-duty offensive playmaker, or for the offensive coaches. There are a multitude of adjustments Marrero has to make when he oscillates between the positions, and they are not trivial.
"It's a whole different world being on the field at receiver than what you see when you are studying the position on film," the Florida phenom admits. "The changes of the plays at the line of scrimmage - the flops. The speed is a lot faster than it looks to make all the reads and adjustments. But once you learn all the routes, assignments and checks, there is a lot more you can do out there in open space. Running backs have to make people miss. It's very different."
A question we have been asking about his "normal" tailback position this last couple weeks has been about Marrero's blocking. Coach Boulware has made it publicly and repeatedly clear that "if you don't block, you don't play" on this team under his watch. The former offensive lineman puts great weight on pass protection, which is welcome news to the ears of Trent Edwards and company. But Marrero gives up size, wingspan and mass to every one his tailback teammates. He simply does not have the physical tools to as easily engage pass rushers. To compound the problem, Marrero was never asked to block in high school. The fullbacks handled that responsibility at St. Thomas Aquinas - if the Raiders ever passed the ball. In a predominately running offense, protection was rock bottom on the teaching list for their tailbacks.
So the question we must ask is: can David Marrero become a proficient blocker?
"What Coach Boulware has been emphasizing to me is that it's a leverage game, not a size game," the freshman responds. "I'm learning what my body can do well. Techniques are different for different people, and I can't expect to block the same way as a J.R. Lemon. Plenty of people in this conference have done it. Tyler Ebell isn't any bigger than me, for example."
We will then watch and wait to see how this 4.3 burner can ascend the learning curve for this important element of the Stanford backfield. In the meantime, he is dealing with that challenge as well as the shoulder injury, while learning two different positions on offense. For a player who was not thrilled with how the offensive staff schemed and employed him last fall, and who struggled with a knee condition as well, this does not appear to be the spirit-lifting spring that he needed - right?
"The more they throw at you, the more you feel involved in the offense," he opines of the large learning load he faces right now. "I just try to go out there for every day as if it's my last."
- In the defensive backfield, it was noteworthy that freshman Brandon Harrison took every snap with the first team defense at strong safety. He has trailed Calvin Armstrong all spring, but it looks like there has been a flip-flop on the depth chart. Saturday will be an important test for both, as returning starter Trevor Hooper remains out with a hamstring injury.
- Transfer applicant Jeff Zuttah from Michigan was on campus Friday for the first day of his Stanford official visit. He was a hugely touted All-American out of high school in the 2003 class but the Wolverines never medically cleared Zuttah to play. The Cardinal medical staff have looked over his medical records, though, and have given him the green light at The Farm with his sickle cell condition. This was the first time I have seen Zuttah in person, and he is a very impressive physical specimen. He easily weighs 280 right now but must not have more than a couple ounces of fat on his lean body. A mature 20 years old, this is one cut human being. I would send him straight to the defensive line, though Steve Morton will surely want to wage war to get this kind of freakish athlete on his offensive line.
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