Movin' On Up

Fans are looking for team improvement in this 2004 season, and that comes in no small part from a collection of individual improvements. Players need to step up for the Cardinal on both sides of the ball, and several have made tremendous strides. Read on for the top three offensive players and the top three defensive players who have most surprised with their performances in the first month of the fall.

Offense

#3:  Justin McCullum - Coming into this season, I had McCullum pretty low in a pile of receivers on The Farm - most of whom were younger and pushing ahead of him.  The redshirt junior held tremendous promise the first fall I saw him on campus; in fact I wrote then that he should not have been redshirted in 2001.  Then he lost the 2002 season to a knee injury, and he languished in 2003 deep in the bottom of his position coach's dog house.  But with a new receivers coach on board in '04, McCullum was given a clean slate and responded magnificently.  His confidence is at its highest point in his four years at Stanford, and that confidence is shining through in his play.  His athleticism is more regularly demonstrated in playmaking situations, and that gave the offensive coaches the trust to him on the field this past Saturday.  McCullum delivered with a game-leading 115 yards, and now the 6'4" phoenix is moving up the depth chart.  You can expect to see him more and more in three-receiver sets against BYU

#2:  Brian Head - It was hard to know what to expect from the eldest of the young linemen.  After all, his knee surgery left him out of condition and out of practice when he pushed himself into participation in spring football.  It was a great feat that he made it through every practice in the spring, but we didn't see even a glimpse of the football player that arrived in camp four weeks ago.  Head demonstrated visible leadership during summer workouts, but his play has led the way thus far this fall for the young offensive line.  He is admittedly limited in what he can do athletically, but the redshirt junior plays very smartly within his limits.  He knows his blocks and he knows the offense - inside and out.  Don't look for him to dazzle with his explosive run blocking or his streaking pulls, but you can expect him to make by far the fewest mistakes on this line.  And mistake-free football is what you most want out of your linemen.

#1:  Evan Moore - We reported throughout camp the remarkable surge forward that this sophomore wideout was demonstrating, so it came as no surprise that he made several big plays in the San Jose State opener.  While Moore also looked awesome last August in camp, injury and coaching decisions left his promise somewhat unfulfilled in the regular season.  He will be the first to admit his failings in understanding the receiver position and the college game last year, as well.  But after basketball season and the chance to heal his ailing shoulder, Moore was expected to sizzle with classmate Mark Bradford in the spring.  Instead, he fizzled.  Absent any noticeable spring improvement, there was some concern that the 6'7" star would sag in his sophomore season.  But Moore recommitted himself during the summer, working with quarterback Trent Edwards.  More importantly, Moore and Edwards struck a strong friendship in the off-season that made their on-field work more productive and better connected.  This pair have been clicking in practices with clockwork regularity since official practices started in August, and the chemistry naturally carries over to Saturdays.  "When your quarterback is a good friend of yours, it's a huge advantage.  You can just throw anytime.  You learn each other's tendencies.  We don't even have to talk to each other," Moore explains.  "It's like night and day from last year.  Last year we had been with the offense just one month [before the season].  You think you know the plays until you get in the game.  Your confidence level isn't where it should be because you are always thinking about plays."

Defense

#3:  T.J. Rushing - The defensive secondary was lambasted last fall for their yielded big plays.  There were a number of contributing factors, but one of the most direct failings came in the freelance play from defensive backs.  While the saying is true that cornerbacks play on an island, they operate within a defensive framework.  When one player leaves his assignment - when he deviates from his role - the entire defense can be exposed.  Across the board, the three "co-starter" cornerbacks have elevated their discipline and consistency, but Rushing has made the greatest improvement.  He admits that last year he played with a youthful aggression that let him too often commit to plays based on instinct and guesswork.  When he was right, he made some highlight plays.  But when he jumped the wrong way, he was badly burned.  This year we are seeing a much more mature and consistent cornerback in Rushing, which should cut down on the big pass plays he allows.

#2:  Jon Alston - You can almost take the above description of Rushing, word for word, to depict the highs and lows of Alston last year.  Like Rushing, the outside linebacker is blessed with explosive speed, and he can make fantastic plays when he directs his gifts judiciously.  But when Alston took the field last year, he as often as not over pursued a play and put himself and the defense out of position.  His jump forward has come in his understanding of the 3-4 defense and how he plays his role.  Alston was at times a mental liability before, but he's now become one of the most valuable starters.  Watch his improved angles of pursuit, and his versatility in rushing the passer as well as dropping back into coverage.  He still has a good deal of learning ahead of him - don't take this writing to mean that he's "arrived."  But he has made impressive progress.  Alston is playing faster on the field than last year, while still making better and quicker decisions in his gap responsibility. 

#1:  Nick Frank - In the more extreme parallel of Brian Head's situation, we did not get to see hardly any of Frank with his early knee injury.  I thought there was the chance in the summer that the standout sophomore nose tackle might not be sufficiently recovered in time to participate in fall camp.  Instead, Frank came out more explosive than ever.  For a couple days of camp, he unseated big Babatunde Oshinowo and ran as the first team anchor of the new three-man front.  If you watch the one-on-one battles between the DL and the OL, Frank is the most consistently difficult man to stop.  His quickness is the most obvious trait that makes him a tough assignment to block, but Frank says that his effectiveness has jumped forward because of the education he has received from the veteran defensive linemen.  "I've improved my strength and can hold gaps better.  I got blown up by double-teams last year too often," he begins.  "But I've been working on my pass rush, and a lot of that is the tricks of the trade.  There are so many little tricks you can learn from the older guys, and I'm still soaking that all up.  I'm making improvements, but honestly to be where I need to be, there are generous improvements I need to still make." 


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