Laying It All on the Line

While questions continue about the development of Trent Edwards, the athletic abilities of the receivers and the scheme to be unveiled by Bill Cubit, more attention should be paid to the offensive line for Stanford's 2004 passing and offensive futures. While the youth is clear, so too are the individual stories of progress and hope. Here are two compelling stories from OL starters, plus more notes from Wednesday.

There is scarcely a Cardinalmaniac™ on this planet who is content with the production of the Stanford offense, and though our attention must turn to all matters of the football team during preseason camp, it is hard to steer your eyes away from the offense for long.  Then when you do overtly observe the offense, you spend at least half your time at a practice watching throwing drills against air or 7-on-7 passing repetitions.  Thus practice notes are almost always full of notes on the quarterbacks and receivers.  Your eyes follow the ball and look for playmakers to make plays.

But a time-tested axiom of this grandest of games tells us that the success or failure of the offense starts with the offensive line.  You hold your blocks long enough, and the QB will find his receivers.  You blow open holes large enough, and your running back will get free.  Athletic and consistent players at those "skill" positions can occasionally make plays in spite of blocking mishaps, and those talents can turn little plays into bigger plays when your line does its job.  But on the whole, you absolutely want the best offensive line you can put on the field.

This year we have a mixed bag on the O-line, and how you look at the group most likely mirrors your overall outlook on life and sports.  The bad news is that the guys with the most starting experience is a sophomore; there are no seniors; and there is just one junior.  Fast forward to the fall of 2005 and then 2006, and the current young talent on this line should mature into the best breadth and depth ever seen on The Farm.  But you'll get slapped right across the smacker if you tell a season ticket holder to wait another year for Stanford Football.  The good news is that the chemistry on this line is very tight, with four projected starters in the same class and now in their third year of working together on scout, second and now first team units.  And though they are young, all the first team linemen on this team have at least a couple of starts under their belt.  The abject lack of OL depth in the last graduating senior class forced them into service last year.  It was a rough baptism by fire more often than not, but even bad experiences can be good experience.

The best reason for optimism with this offense and O-line right now lies in an unlikely person.  Just under two years ago, three time zones away on Chestnut Hill, we all remember the bloody memory of then-redshirt freshman Brian Head getting mauled by Boston College's defensive tackles in the 2002 season opener after starting guard Greg Schindler injured his MCL.  Head was so badly abused in his debut that many observers wrote him off for the remainder of his Cardinal career.

Today, he is not only the unquestioned leader of this 2004 offensive but also the steadiest performer on this young group.  He has graded out in recent practices at or near 100%, making so few mistakes as to truly grip my attention.  Head is not the most athletically gifted center.  In fact, both Mikal Brewer and Alex Fletcher are better athletes than Head - without a doubt.  But Head is proving to be the most difficult foe for this Stanford defense to defeat in practices right now.  That should carry forward to this fall.

"He's on schedule," says offensive line coach Steve Morton in his trademark understated fashion.  "He's very consistent in his pass protection and dominant in his run blocking."

"I still don't have the most playing experience on the line," Head points out.  He tore his ACL and MCL in October at USC and missed the last seven games of 2003.  Redshirt sophomores Ismail Simpson (11) and Jeff Edwards (8) both have more starts than the redshirt junior.

"But I have been around here and I've worked hard going on four years," Head continues.  "People respect that and people look up to me."

The hard work is continuing for the elder junior, who is still improving his quickness and conditioning.  He had knee repair surgery less than a year ago and has been on a gradual course to increased strength and conditioning.  Head was not allowed to do power cleans for much of this year, and he is still playing catch-up to the missed time.

"I need to work on my quickness," the center admits.  "I wasn't able to do the winter conditioning."

Morton refocuses the question not on Head's fleetness of foot, but rather on consistent execution.  "This year I want absolute perfection from Brian," the coach charges.  "And he needs to play within his physical abilities."

Another starter on the line who understands physical limitations is redshirt sophomore right guard Josiah Vinson.  He broke his ankle at the start of spring ball in 2003 and was not anywhere close to 100% as he returned to practices that fall.  But given the disgusting depth on the offensive line, Vinson was needed on the two-deep right away.  He never got into condition, with the schedule and demands of continuing game preparation.  Even worse, he was a quietly wounded man throughout the season.  Vinson was needed on the field in spots during the first two months, but then when classmate Jeff Edwards went down in early November, the wounded warrior had to play much of the Arizona State game and then start the last three games of the year.

"I don't even like to look back at any of that film," Vinson says shaking his head.  "It was horrible.  I was playing on one leg."

"The toughest part of last year for me was being hurt," he continues.  "That really hurt my play a lot.  It was just constant pain.  Then I was playing in hostile environments.  I mean, I had done that in a way in high school, but nothing like Oregon or USC."

The happy ending to this story is that Vinson, who also spent much of his first year at Stanford on crutches, has been healthy all of 2004.  Without pain, and with a full off-season of strength and conditioning, he is a completely different player on the offensive line right now.

"He's not encumbered by the leg at all," Morton notes of his right guard.  "He had inconsistent playing time last fall.  The injury plus the inexperience slowed him down.  I say it's too much stinkin' thinkin'.  He's starting to look like things are natural for him."

Vinson echoes those thoughts vigorously:  "I'm so much more confident now.  This is my third camp; I've been around and seen it all.  It's not as overwhelming.  I feel like I know the offense.  The last two camps, everything was cloudy - even last year.  Now I'm much more free to focus on technique instead of where to go on what play."

No more "stinkin' thinkin'" - that about sums up the optimism you can hold for the 2004 offensive line.  With the leadership and consistency of Head, and the accelerated feel for the game of Vinson, the big bodies are off to a great start to this camp and this season. 

Wednesday practice news & notes:

  • After a sluggish Tuesday afternoon practice, the offense fired back with a purpose on Wednesday.  On Tuesday they had a hard time moving the ball in the air, primarily as they tried their first repetitions in the "spread" offense that was installed that day.  In both 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 work for each of Wednesday's practices, Trent Edwards led an encouraging air assault.  He made good decision with his throws, and hit for a high percentage of his attempts.  His reads were quick, which got the ball to his targets on time in their pattern.  A lot of credit, though, goes to the offensive line for their protection and the receiving corps for making plays.  While there were a number of dropped balls on Tuesday, with Evan Moore, Justin McCullum, Mark Bradford and Greg Camarillo all looking sharp.  We have seen for the last several years how good Camarillo's hands are, and both Moore and Bradford received praise in practice notes this week.  But McCullum deserves mention for another terrific diving grab that was almost as nice as the one I saw on Monday.
  • T.C. Ostrander and Ryan Eklund took more snaps than I expected, with David Lofton seeing surprisingly little work Wednesday afternoon.
  • The running game is getting a lot of work, and J.R. Lemon and Kenneth Tolon are rotating the work with the first team offense.  I failed to mention this from another practice this week, but one of the brightest signs for the ground game this fall was a play where Lemon beat speed demon OLB Jon Alston to the corner and turned up the sideline on a play.  I would also note that long after every other player has left practice, I am consistently seeing Lemon and Tolon leave the practice field.  They are spending time each afternoon after practice working on the blocking sled or hitting a bag.  Though they are locked in a battle for the starting tailback spot, they appear, this duo looks like the best of friends together.
  • Freshman offensive guard Bobby Dockter saw his first time this camp with the second team OL on Wednesday.
  • In the defensive secondary, it took three days of my seeing something to believe it.  But it is now without a doubt that Calvin Armstrong has been moved to cornerback.  You may remember that he spent the breadth of his young Stanford career at corner before he was moved to safety this spring.  The move made sense, given how Armstrong's best moments on the practice field have come with big hits.  To move him from safety outside to cornerback makes less sense, and it is a relatively unprecedented move.  Armstrong is sharing repetitions with Nick Sanchez and Tim Sims on the second team, and this move perhaps signals that the coaching staff feel there needs some competitive bolstering of CB depth right now.
  • It is also striking when you look at the current safety situation.  While the free safety spot has perhaps Stanford's best player on the entire team in Oshiomogho Atogwe, and the strong safety spot has one of the best battles of 2004 in Brandon Harrison vs. Trevor Hooper... plus Harrison can play free safety to backup Atogwe, those three players are the only scholarship safeties on the team right now.  Hard to believe, but with Armstrong's return to cornerback and Marcus McCutcheon's spring move to wide receiver, the safety depth looks suspect behind the top three.  The remainder of the depth chart are manned by promising but untested walk-ons Bryan Bentrott, Peter Griffin and Aaron Smith.  We often think of safeties as a low priority in the recruiting wars, but with Atogwe graduating this spring, perhaps this position is a bigger need than we thought in the 2005 recruiting class.

Injury updates:

  • We have previously reported that quarterback Kyle Matter is being held back from most of the throwing in the early part of camp, and that has continued.  He is still being nurtured by the medical staff and did not throw at all on Wednesday afternoon.
  • Wide receiver David Marrero and outside linebacker Timi Wusu have been both been out of action most of this week thus far with sore hamstrings.  Both are believed to be minor injuries and not the notorious pulls that can keep players out for several weeks.  Marrero could be back in practice as soon as today.  Wusu should be back sometime this week.
  • Running back Gerald Commissiong is Mr. Unlucky thus far in camp, having incurred two different leg/foot injuries.  He was just coming back from one foot problem on Wednesday and participated in full contact live scrimmaging in the morning when he suffered a new injury elsewhere on his leg.  He put the yellow jersey back on in the afternoon.
  • Fullback Kris Bonifas is in the same boat as Marrero and Wusu now with a yellow jersey on Wednesday as he rests his hamstring.
  • Freshman inside linebacker Pat Maynor has aggravated a preexisting shoulder injury and has been out of practice for a few days.  There is some thought that he might benefit from surgery to fix his ailment for the future.
  • Jerod Arlich injured his ankle in a passing pattern in the afternoon practice.  The ball was thrown short of him, and as he tried to reach back for the ball, his ankle gave out under his super-sized weight.  The freshman fullback did manage to walk off under his own power after a few minutes, and he gave a half of a grin as he left the practice field later.  At first glance, this doesn't appear serious but could keep him out of action for a few days.
  • The one truly debilitating injury on the roster right now actually transpired during the summer.  Second-year offensive tackle Mike Macellari broke a bone in his foot and has since been wearing a boot.  We have now learned that promising 6'6" athlete is to undergo season-ending surgery - likely on Friday.  It is a big disappointment to Macellari and to the Stanford team to lose him for the 2004 season.  The year will go on the books as a medical redshirt, and Stanford will apply to the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility.  Macellari took a redshirt last fall in his first year on The Farm. 

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