Preseason Camp Gets Underway

You've waited since April for this day to come, and Wednesday finally marked the beginning of the 2004 Stanford Football preseason camp. This first practice was helmets only, and the absence of pads precludes us from seeing most of what we need to see about the performance levels of these players. But we did take in several notes, and even a couple surprises...

With close to 100 bodies on the practice field, there are endless directions where I could first take these practice notes, but probably the lead news is who was not out on the field Wednesday afternoon.  I expected redshirt junior linebacker Michael Craven to not be at practice.  He attended a team meeting on Tuesday for some administrata, but he will not find out until Friday if his appeal to be reinstated to the University has been accepted or not.  Craven last participated in team activities on the field in the 2003 fall season; he was out of school spring quarter and spent that time as well as the summer at Foothill College getting his academics back on track.

But fifth-year senior tailback Kenneth Tolon was with the team all spring and ran afoul in his academic standing with the University at the conclusion of that academic quarter.  We found out yesterday that he, too, is undergoing a reinstatement process that similarly will be resolved on Friday.  Tolon cannot practice unless and until he gets a favorable decision, which explains why he was not on the field for Wednesday's practice.  Both Craven and Tolon will miss today's second practice, but their decisions should come down early enough on Friday that they would be able to suit up and participate in Friday's workout.

With Tolon out of practice, and a possibility that he could be lost for the year if Friday goes badly for him, it is interesting to examine the current running back situation.  As I reported yesterday, sophomore David Marrero has been moved to wide receiver, which is where he spent the vast majority of his time on the practice field Wednesday.  Marrero and Tolon were two of the top three backs in the spring, which means redshirt sophomore Gerald Commissiong is currently elevated to the #2 spot behind redshirt junior J.R. Lemon.  "The Commish" consistently took snaps second in the rotation behind Lemon throughout practice.  Also getting work are redshirt sophomores Jason Evans and Emeka Nnoli, plus true freshman Ray Jones.  Nnoli is now a hybrid back who can play anywhere in the backfield, but I would label him right now more of a tailback/halfback than fullback.

With Nnoli anything less than a full-time fullback, alarms may be sounding in your head.  After all, Nnoli was slated to compete fiercely with redshirt junior Kris Bonifas for that starting job.  Now that Capp Culver has medically retired from football, those two players appear to be the only returning roster members at the position.  But Wednesday's practice showed us that sophomore Patrick Danahy has now been converted to fullback from the tight end spot where he played as a true freshman a year ago.  Danahy lined up in the backfield with the first team offense a lot in this first practice of camp, roughly as often as we saw Bonifas.  They are different players, though, and you can imagine how they could be used differently.  Danahy is a better receiver and can move more fluidly in the open.  Bonifas is closer to a "true" fullback who operates optimally between the tackles.  Bonifas and Danahy are both sporting mohawk haircuts in a sign of fullback unity.

Returning the tailback position, I thought that J.R. Lemon looked excellent in this first practice.  Remember that players can only wear helmets - no pads.  As such, the plays run in an 11-on-11 environment are a distant relative from the true thing.  The absence of full contact and tackling makes it hard to evaluate almost everything right now, but running plays are the most difficult to assess.  That being said, Lemon showed great vision and hit his holes hard with a nice burst.  It will be exciting to see how he plays next week when the team goes to full pads.

A group on the other side of the ball that caught my eye was the defensive backs.  For a first practice, they looked like they had some of the least rust of any of the players on the field.  Having three fifth-year seniors in your starting four has something to do with that, but free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe thinks there is more to it.

"It felt great out there today," he reported after practice to The Bootleg.  "There is an attitude shift that is hard to put into words.  Guys are willing to work and put it into practice in a way that's different from the last two years.  And that helps the coaches out a lot.  The work we did over the summer had most of the calls that we have now, so it's like we had already started."

"The only thing that slowed us down today were the freshmen," Atogwe continued.  "We used to have freshman practices, but now they have to start with us.  They don't have a clue out there.  They just got the playbook, but no matter how much they read, you can't get the timing by looking at paper.  They have to put in the time on the field to get it.  They don't know the tempo or the pace; it's going to be frustrating for them."

That all being said, the fifth-year senior safety does hand out praise to the frosh cornerbacks, Carlos McFall and Wopamo Osaisai, from what he saw from them in their first Stanford practice.

"They're both very talented," Atogwe extols.  "They both can run and have good hips.  They're gifted, and it's exciting to see that kind of talent coming into our program."

Rewinding from the future back to the present, Atogwe names "cohesiveness" as the focus for the veteran defensive backs this camp.  They know the plays and coverages well enough and should not spend too much time in schematics education.  Their goal is to tighten up the feel they have for each other on the field, so that they are a seemless operation.  The senior safety also wants to see the aggressiveness turn up a notch.

"We want to get physical - play really hard-nosed defense," Atogwe describes.  "If we make mistakes, make them fast and recover quickly."

We need to see more practices to watch the depth chart shake out, but it is always interesting to see where the coaching staff has players situated at the start of camp.  Here are some of the more interesting positional depth charts:

  • At wide receiver, sophomore Mark Bradford and fifth-year senior Greg Camarillo consistently took the first team repetitions.  Expectations are high for sophomore Evan Moore, but he starts out camp running second team behind this pair.  The rest of the depth chart is too tough to tell at this point, but redshirt junior Justin McCullum and redshirt sophomore Marcus McCutcheon looked like they saw the most time in that second unit with Moore.
  • Nobody is surprised that redshirt sophomore Trent Edwards is at the top of the quarterback depth chart, and he took far and away the most snaps in this first practice.  When the practice concluded with 11-on-11 work, it was fifth-year senior Ryan Eklund who trotted onto the field with the second team offense.  Eklund did spend some time as the #2 man last spring after some nice performances, but this may also be a slight nod to his seniority.  I expect that to be short-lived, however, given his performance.  He threw an interception, had another ball nearly intercepted twice on one play, and he had another meekly thrown short and batted down at the line.  Kyle Matter is the guy you would presume to be in charge for the backup position, but the coaches will slowly work him into things during camp and carefully watch his repetitions.  He is still recovering from off-season shoulder surgery and was only cleared to throw a football this summer. 
  • On the defensive line, we at least initially are seeing sophomore Nick Frank play at the nose tackle #2 spot and redshirt junior Casey Carroll play at the end position.  Defensive line coach Dave Tipton is evaluating those two players at those two positions, so expect theirs to be a fluid situation.  The starting ends right now are fifth-year senior Will Svitek on the strong side and junior Julian Jenkins on the weak side.
  • The linebacker corps has the expected four starter, but the depth behind them is noteworthy.  Redshirt freshman Emmanuel Awofadeju holds the #2 spot at the "Sam" OLB position.  Redshirt junior Timi Wusu has put on some much-needed weight and holds an edge over redshirt freshman Udeme Udofia right now in backing up the "Rush" OLB position.  The inside linebackers on the second team are sophomore Michael Okwo and redshirt sophomore Mike Silva at the "Will" and "Mike" spots, respectively.
  • In the defensive backfield, the first team cornerbacks are shared by junior T.J. Rushing and fifth-year seniors Leigh Torrence and Stanley Wilson.  Torrence and Wilson would appear to be the starters right now, based on starting first team repetitions, but all three are in tight competition.  The starting strong safety today sophomore Brandon Harrison, with redshirt sophomore Trevor Hooper behind him.  Hooper missed the entire spring due to injury, so this battle still has a few weeks to play out.
  • On special teams, fifth-year senior Jared Newberry took the lead in long snapping, as expected.  Redshirt freshman Brent Newhouse was the second snapper, with redshirt sophomore Jon Cochran taking a couple snaps as well, for good measure.

There were some freshmen who had uncertain positions when they were signed last February.  Wednesday we learned where they are at least starting their Stanford careers:

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