Monday was the first of the NCAA's six allowed two-a-day practices. Once the norm of college football camps in August, these double-day workouts now comprise less than half of the practices that Stanford will hold before their season opener. This was also a day in full pads, which allowed us to see a little bit better how these players are performing. My attention first went to the trenches, where the offensive and defensive linemen squared off with great gusto.
In one-on-one drills, there were are a wide range of victories and defeats for several players. But a choice few stood out. On the offensive side of the ball, it was center Brian Head, the elder statesman of this young O-line, who showed best. He most often was lined up in battles against 320-pound nose tackle terror Babatunde Oshinowo, who is mostly considered the bellwether opponent against which Stanford linemen can measure themselves. Head contained Oshinowo in every battle I watched and never let his classmate get around him. Oshinowo forced Head to give up a little ground, but the nose tackle was not able to move the center fast enough back into the quarterback bag.
On the defensive line, two pass rushers stood out. Young nose tackle Nick Frank, who does not turn 19 years old until later this month, was firing off the ball and creating a lot of problems for the interior linemen. On the outside, it was defensive end Julian Jenkins who ripped up the offensive tackles with a variety of moves. One defender of special note, though he is not a DL, is Jared Newberry. He behaved like a down lineman in these drills and went head to head against the offensive tackles. The "Sam" outside linebacker may give up a good amount of size and weight, but he beat his blockers two or three times for every once that they could hold him back. That bodes well for the pass rush that Newberry will be asked to provide in his modified position this year.
In the morning practice, it was surprising to see that Frank held the first team nose tackle position ahead of Oshinowo throughout the workout. And for the most part, defensive ends Casey Carroll and Scott Scharff lined up with him. This looked like a nod to the nominal second teamers and a visible reprimand of the first team defensive line. The way Frank was playing, though, he at least looked like he earned it. If this move was hoping to light a fire under Oshinowo, Jenkins and Will Svitek, the coaches had to smile. They ripped holes through the second team offensive line they faced, blowing them off the ball, through much of the morning. Redshirt freshman center Mikal Brewer was the unfortunate recipient of the fiery Oshinowo, and he took a good beating. By the afternoon practice, the first and second team defensive line triplets switched back.
Over on the offensive line, we saw the first perturbations of this camp by position coach Steve Morton. He told The Bootleg after the morning practice that he would be incrementally working on some depth chart shuffles and some possible position switches. Sure enough, that afternoon we saw several instances where the third team and second team mixed. In the previous six practices, all five of the freshmen played strictly together on the third team OL. There are 13 returning players with which to construct the first and second team units, though Mike Macellari remains in a boot with a broken foot and is out of action for an indefinite period of time. The first team has consistently been (left to right): OT Jon Cochran, OG Ismail Simpson, C Brian Head, OG Josiah Vinson and OT Jeff Edwards. The second team is led (left to right) by: OT Amir Malayery, OG Preston Clover, C Mikal Brewer, OG David Beall and OT Tim Mattran. But typically halfway through their repetitions, the second team sees Malayery and Clover leave the field to allow OT David Long and OG Merlin Brittenham, respectively, to replace them (with Beall flipping over to left guard).
Monday afternoon, Brittenham and Long saw some time with the third team while some true frosh take their time on the second team. The first freshman to take repetitions in this camp with the second team was Michigan transfer Jeff Zuttah at right guard. A little later we saw Allen Smith and Ben Muth at the offensive tackle positions. While the offensive line is perhaps the last position group where you can expect true freshmen to make a first-year impact, Morton and the coaching staff recognize that this group, which also includes center Alex Fletcher and guard Bobby Dockter, is indeed special.
"There is a very fine group of prospects in that freshman offensive line - all the way across the board," the line coach says with a smile. "They have a chance to be special. Their struggles right now are all mental. They are seeing a lot of pressure from our defense, and we're installing new things for them all the time."
Fans will quickly ask why Fletcher, who was the highest rated recruit in the entire 2004 signing class, did not also bump up to the second team for repetitions Monday afternoon. The answer lies in two areas. First of all, Morton is putting a burden of special demands on Fletcher as a center; the coach expects that position to be able to read defenses and make calls. It will take Fletcher a little time to gain that ability, as he slowly gains experience against Stanford's defenses. It should also be noted that Fletcher had a couple of errant snaps on Monday, one in particular in each of the morning and afternoon workouts. It is interesting that his flubs came each time with Ryan Eklund under center. For some reason, Fletcher has better apparent chemistry with David Lofton and T.C. Ostrander. Despite all this, I would expect that we will within the week see Fletcher take some time on the second team at center, with Brewer playing alongside him at guard.
Speaking of OL positions, it looks like Morton is for now settling on Allen Smith at tackle and Bobby Dockter at guard. We also had some expectations in the spring and summer that Jeff Zuttah could play offensive tackle, but he has taken all his work in this camp at guard. In a simplistic view, Smith has longer arms for exterior pass protection that fits at tackle, while Dockter and Zuttah both have shorter arms that argue for the guard position.
Returning to the quarterbacks, the rotation is not quite what fans might expect behind starter Trent Edwards. Redshirt junior Kyle Matter has six Stanford starts under his belt, which is six more than any other reserve in this quarterbacking corps. But he has taken scant little repetitions in camp thus far. He throws in some drills, but has been almost completely held out of 11-on-11 action. The fourth-year signal caller is still working to regain strength in his throwing shoulder as he rehabilitates from off-season surgery last winter. The staff is very cautious about rushing him into too many throws.
"Kyle should be ready to go come September, but we are taking this opportunity to develop some of the other players," says Buddy Teevens. "We have to get a guy who can be consistent for us."
Teevens calls Matter the #2 quarterback for the Cardinal, but in actual practice repetitions sans Matter, it was David Lofton who has jumped up to the second team duties. Just a few months ago, he was splitting his time in spring football between throwing and receiving the pigskin, but he is taking this chance to focus and excel under center.
"David is a very intelligent guy," Teevens praises. "He understands what we are doing offensively, and he is also an excellent athlete who can make plays. David has been more consistent, and we will be excited to see more of that from him."
The third and fourth string duties appear to be shared right now by T.C. Ostrander and Ryan Eklund. Eklund has a clear advantage in experience at Stanford, but his productivity when he gets on the practice field has not clearly pushed him ahead of Ostrander.
Another area of interest on offense is the running back group, which is seeing players line up in various spots as tailbacks, halfbacks and fullbacks. J.R. Lemon has held the lead among the tailback/halfback work with the first team, but the man behind him Monday was consistently Emeka Nnoli. Nnoli is taking great advantage of his time and is improving in both his blocking and his understanding of the offense. In the afternoon practice, though, it was classmate Jason Evans that stole the show. In 11-on-11 live scrimmage action, Evans broke the only touchdown run of the day, a exciting piece of innovation on the part of the redshirt freshman. At about midfield, he took the ball behind his blockers on what looked like an inside running play to the right side, but then he made a turn on a dime and cut back to his left. He exploded up the field and was gone - all the way to the endzone. In the loudest and most emotional celebration of the camp, every healthy player on the offense raced down to that endzone to congratulate Evans. Though starting just his second camp on The Farm, he was cheered enthusiastically by fourth and fifth-year players.
If you are wondering where Kenneth Tolon fits in the RB picture, you will have to wait until at least Tuesday's practice. He worked out Monday morning in just upper pads, as he goes through the same induction period by NCAA mandate that his teammates went through in their opening days of camp. Sunday and Monday were his two required practices in just shoulder pads, after spending Friday and Saturday without pads. But he cannot participate in double-days until his sixth day of camp. That day will be Wednesday. Tolon and Michael Craven both watched Monday's afternoon practice in street clothes on the sidelines.
Speaking of Craven, there is still some experimentation that remains before we can ascertain his position on the field. He has thus far worked with Tom Williams as an inside linebacker, but the defensive staff is leaving open the option of using Craven at outside linebacker depending on team needs. In the meantime, he worked Monday morning at both ILB spots: the "Mike" position and the "Will" position.
Back on offense, the best player of the two practices was Evan Moore. In the morning, he led all receivers with a string of successful connections with Trent Edwards. Don't be surprised if you see more of that this fall. Edwards and Moore have good chemistry and are good friends off the field. QBs and WRs who have played the college game can tell you the importance of that bond. The best pass of the morning came when Edwards threaded a bullet through three defenders, finding Moore crossing more than 20 yards down the field. "Oohs" and "aahs" emanated from the sideilnes. In the afternoon, the passing game and receivers in particular were sloppy. Moore and classmate Mark Bradford helped to pull things out of a rut with a late surge of playmaking. Bradford put together several ankle-breaking moves after the catch that yielded him extra yards up the field.
While Moore is putting together a playmaking portfolio that engenders excitement about his and Stanford's future, it has to be noted that he made unforgivable mistakes. In the morning, he had a pass that hit him downfield for what would have been the longest gainer of a series, but the ball slipped right through both of his hands at head level. In the afternoon, he hauled in a bullet from Edwards that drew cheers from his offensive teammates... until he fumbled it to the ground without having been touched, as he turned up the field.
The best reception of the day deserves note because it may signal an inflection point for a veteran. Redshirt junior Justin McCullum has had injuries dog his Cardinal career, but he has also failed to display enough toughness for what he should be able to exert with his size at his position. He looks great catching the ball against air, or running crossing routes just under the defense. But consistently for the last couple years, he has struggled to fight and win contested balls down the field. On Monday afternoon, he laid out for a ball high and wide and snared it from a defensive back's clutches. I have watched fall and spring practices throughout McCullum's career, and I have little doubt that it was the best play he has yet made on The Farm. If that is the McCullum that Ken Margerum will have in his receiving corps this fall, then we could finally see the Washingtonian break out in 2004.
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