It Begins Anew

Today marks the first day of practices for the 2004 Stanford Football season, as the Cardinal embark on a schedule of 28 practices in the next four weeks before the September 4 season opener against San Jose State. We will closely follow all the news and notes during preseason camp, with daily practice reports. Here is a primer on some of the pre-camp happenings and what to watch these next few weeks.

*  Though special teams typically comes last in the minds of fans, I think one of the very top concerns for this 2004 Stanford Football team is the punting game.  Gone are long snapper Drew Caylor and punter Eric Johnson, both of whom are currently in NFL camps.  While Jon Cochran has the snapping duties for PATs and field goals, the coaching staff would like to steer him clear of the long snaps for punting if possible.  His knees are a problem for him at times, and he is one of the last players on the roster you would want to run downfield in coverage, at more than 300 pounds.  The frontrunner for the long snapping position coming into camp appears to be senior outside linebacker Jared Newberry.  He is completely new to snapping but put in a great deal of time this summer to hone his new craft.  While he sprayed the ball quite a bit in the early going, his radius of precision has narrowed considerably.  The bad news is that he did not snap with punter Jay Ottovegio during the summer, with the redshirt freshman home in Florida.  Don't underestimate the value of the chemistry between a punter and his snapper - the long hours that Johnson and Caylor spent together last summer on the field were the number one reason the punting game was so successful that fall.  Newberry was able to work with Caylor and Johnson in the early part of this summer before the graduated seniors had to report to their respective NFL camps, and Newberry has since spent time snapping to Michael Sgroi.  Sgroi is the starting kicker for this team, but he also is the number two punter.

*  When you think of Jon Cochran, your thoughts naturally move to the offensive line, where there is a troubling lack of depth right now.  Cochran and Jeff Edwards are the clear starters entering camp at the left and right offensive tackle positions, respectively.  Behind them was supposed to be redshirt freshman Mike Macellari, who has fantastic athleticism and loads of promise at OT.  But he again broke his foot during the summer and has been wearing a boot.  It is unclear how soon he will be able to return to action.  Help is hopeful at the tackle position from transfer Jeff Zuttah, who comes to The Farm by way of Michigan.  But from my observations of Zuttah during July unofficial offensive line workouts, his footwork looks quite rusty.  He will have to climb the learning curve in a hurry this month with OL coach Steve Morton.  If you discount Macellari and Zuttah for the moment, the depth chart looks like this:  Cochran is backed up by redshirt freshman Amir Malayery, and Edwards is backed up by redshirt sophomore Tim Mattran.  Mattran has barely more experience than Malayery, with just a scant handful of plays last fall.  The depth picture looks a little better right now for the interior spots of the offensive line, so these tackle positions are the ones to watch most closely in camp.

*  As you focus your eyes on the outskirts of the offensive line, your eyes might wander and gravitate toward an unfamiliar bulk at guard.  The Ismail Simpson you see will look nothing like what you remember from spring ball.  The redshirt sophomore left guard practiced in April at 260 pounds but today is tipping the scales at 301 pounds.  "Ish" is not alone in his precipitous weight increase, as he is joined in kind by defensive end Julian Jenkins.  The junior pass rusher has jumped from his spring weight of 235 pounds to a current mass of 272.  What do these two linemen from opposite sides of the ball have in common?  Both are members of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity and were active in a number of competitive step shows throughout the state last winter.  Those step shows are intense aerobic workouts which brought their weights down before spring football.  Since then, they have rebuilt their bodies to impressive forms.

*  On the subject of Jenkins and weight watching, here are some of the masses of the returning defensive line lettermen:  Will Svitek - 295 pounds.  Scott Scharff - 285.  Casey Carroll - 285.  Nick Frank - 275.  Matt McClernan - 293.  And big Babatunde Oshinowo has lowered his weight a little bit to 318 pounds.  The positions for most of these DL are clear, but something to watch in the first week or two of camp will be how coach Dave Tipton uses Frank and Carroll.  One needs to play behind Oshinowo at the nose position while the other will need to play outside.  It's too tough to call right now who will play where.  And don't discount the importance of who plays behind Big Baba.  Though not a starter, that man will see plenty of action on the field this fall.  Tipton will again employ a heavy rotation of his two-deep across all defensive line positions.  McClernan is also in the mix for that number two NT spot.

*  Another great position battle to watch will be at tailback.  Depending on which part of last fall you scrutinize, or even which days of film you view from the spring, there are reasons to argue for both Kenneth Tolon and J.R. Lemon.  Tolon is the senior, and there often is something extra that switches on for players in their last year - especially if they have any pro football aspirations.  But Lemon was the most visible in attended workouts with his offensive teammates in July.  Someone else to be aware of is redshirt freshman Emeka Nnoli.  While the  #1 prep fullback in America from the 2003 class raised eyebrows in scrimmages and practices in the spring at the fullback position, he has dropped some body fat and is a lean 232 pounds right now.  He is preparing for not just the fullback spot, but also for work as a halfback and tailback.  Almost anything you can imagine for Nnoli - that could be employed during camp.

*  If you are wondering where was the name of sophomore David Marrero in that running backs discussion, then know that he has made the switch to wide receiver.  There should be spots where he lines up in the backfield this fall, but he should spend the majority of his time in practices and in positional meetings with receivers coach Ken Margerum.  One body who is not in the wide receiver mix right now is apparently David Lofton.  The redshirt sophomore admirably split time between wideout and quarterback in the spring, but he worked out exclusively as a signal caller in the practices I observed in July.  If you do not make it as one of the top two quarterbacks early in camp, you can find yourself starved for snaps when the season gets underway.  Lofton has his work cut out for him, as he battles with Kyle Matter and T.C. Ostrander to back up Trent Edwards.

*  The back defensive positions are more clear to us than the defensive line or most offensive positions.  And in many ways, the defensive backs and linebackers are the source of confidence that this 2004 Stanford defense can be pretty good.  The quantitative measure of "pretty good" is debatable, however.  Most players and coaches on the defense will tell you they expect at a minimum to be in the upper half of the Pac-10 this fall.  To put that goal in perspective, consider that the last time a Stanford defense finished in the top five in either scoring or total defense in the conference was eight years ago in 1996.  That Sun Bowl season, the Card ranked third in the Pac-10 in both total defense (yards allowed) and scoring defense (points allowed).  In the Rose Bowl season of 1999, Stanford was dead last in 10th place in both categories.  The only other time since '96 the Cardinal have scratched close to the upper half of conference defensive stats was in 2001 in the Seattle Bowl season, with Tank Williams and Coy Wire leading the way.  Stanford finished sixth in both defensive categories that season.

*  One time-tested tradition for observers at the beginning of fall camp is to closely watch the freshmen.  They are the greatest unknowns on the entire roster, simply because they have never been able to work with the Cardinal coaches in a Stanford practice environment.  Even those who attended camp in June 2003 and worked with the staff - they have changed considerably in the last year and remain untested against college athletes.  It was the first few practices last August that surprised us with the readiness and immediate abilities of Evan Moore and Brandon Harrison, for example.  We can't know what surprises are in store this month, but here is one note of value.  On the pre-camp special teams depth chart, three true freshmen already appear:  Alex Fletcher on PAT/FG protection and Anthony Kimble plus Wopamo Osaisai on kickoff returns.  That depth chart and those for offense and defense will see significant revision as soon as practices get underway, but it's worth noting.

*  Speaking of your first look at the freshmen, be prepared to not recognize Allen Smith.  He hovered around 315 pounds in high school but spent the off-season working Ron Forbes strength and conditioning program to retool his body.  After working off a lot of "bad" weight and dropping to 268 pounds in April, he has since slowly added lean weight and currently weighs 285 pounds.  He is quicker and stronger than he was in high school, and his body still is very much a work in progress.

*  You may remember from the spring how Capp Culver and his shoulder injury were unable to get into pads and into practices.  Well, his physical condition is such that he can no longer play football, and he has hung up his Stanford cleats for good.  Also gone from the roster, though not permanently, is Michael Lovelady.  The redshirt junior outside linebacker has been suspended for the 2004 season.

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