- One theme heard over and over last week from players and coaches was a "return to fundamentals." The defense wants to hone in on tackling and assignments, while the offense is seeking to prepare for their first "normal" defense of the 2004 season. San Jose State spent most of the opener in an eight-man front or the old Buddy Ryan "Bear" defense. BYU employed their famed 3-3-5, which resembles nothing the Cardinal will see anywhere else in the regular season this year. USC brings a nominal 4-3 front without all the oddities. That is not to say the defense is normal in its threat. Their scheme and direction under Pete Carroll is more than formidable, and their athletes are lethal. Just witness the lockdown they delivered in their last two games, allowing a total of 10 points. But the point remains that Stanford's offense is going to see something in the way of a 4-3 presentation that they have not faced since last fall. For that reason, this bye week was well timed, to get the offense used to a four-man front again.
- When you think about what USC's four-man rush did to Stanford's offensive line last year, it gives you the chills. And it also brings our focus (once again) to the Card's big nasties in preparation for this game. Fans have started to formulate the theory that the interior of the offensive line is reasonably sound for Stanford thus far, but the outside pass protection from the tackles is shaky. When you have Brian Head anchoring the middle, flanked by Josiah Vinson and 13-game starter Ismail Simpson, it is not unreasonable to place a little confidence in the interior. But when I asked offensive coordinator Bill Cubit who jumped out and pleased the most in the BYU game, he named sophomore tackle Jon Cochran. "He has really progressed well," the Card coordinator says. "I thought our guys did a better job protecting in this game. You look at Ish, Brian Head - they're all developing confidence and making strides.
- The starters on the OL may be moving in the right direction, but you still have to remain concerned about some of the depth up front. Should one of the Trojans disable a Stanford starter in the front five, the options among the reserves are somewhat limited. The staff took advantage of the bye week to help explore some of their reserve talent. Offensive guard David Beall and offensive tackle Jeff Zuttah were both out all week, which provided the impetus for some depth chart gymnastics. At tackle, we saw Tim Mattran practice most of the week on the right side and two true freshmen move up. Allen Smith and Ben Muth split time at the second team left tackle position all week, and that continued even in yesterday's afternoon workout. In the interior, rather than simply promote up another guard to fill in for Beall, the staff moved Mikal Brewer over a spot and brought freshman Alex Fletcher up to the second team at center. Preston Clover moved to center to fill Fletcher's void with the third unit. Clover also spent some time at center with the second team, with Fletcher back with the three's. The experience Fletcher and Clover received playing second team center is valuable for the depth at that position, but this move was more about Brewer. "We wanted to give Mikal Brewer a chance [at guard] in case somebody goes down," comments Cubit. "We want to have our best players on the field." This reinforces the notion that the staff has a high opinion of Brewer and want him ready to play any of the three interior OL positions. I do not expect that Brewer will stick at OG this week like he did during the bye week - his preparation is still primarily at center - but I do think this is something to watch down the road. Next spring or next fall, I wouldn't be surprised to see Brewer full time at guard.
- Another depth chart tweak had inside linebacker Michael Craven playing with the second team defense at times last week. Craven, who once upon a time was the #1 linebacker recruit in America out of La Quinta High School, has been mired at third string after the time he missed while he was out of school. The redshirt junior linebacker missed all of spring ball, did not participate in summer unofficial workouts, and was delayed in his start for preseason camp. As he plays a game of catch-up behind some experienced and talented inside linebackers, he has a tough ladder to climb. In particular, fans have wondered aloud how to get him on the field when he is nominally tabbed a "Will" linebacker behind both Kevin Schimmelmann and Michael Okwo. But remember the versatility of most of these ILBs, including Craven. His time spent on the second team defense last week was at the "Mike" position, playing next to Okwo in the defense.
- Scouting opponents historically has included changes of jersey numbers to better condition your players' recognition and responses to key individuals. Stanford had not employed any scout team jersey changes through the first two games, perhaps because there were no worthy individual threats on the Spartans or Cougars. The scout team offense this last week did put some players in new jerseys, though, to get the Cardinal defense focused on some Trojan threats. Jason Evans has donned a #5 jersey for Reggie Bush. Emeka Nnoli is wearing #21 while playing the part of LenDale White. Tight end Austin Gunder lost a little time to a minor ankle injury during the week but is suited up as #81 for an Alex Holmes scout. Finally freshman quarterback Garrett Moore is playing the part of Heisman hopeful Matt Leinart with a #11 jersey.
- Gunder appears to have passed a minor setback with the ankle injury, based on how he moved around the practice field yesterday, but Stanford did lose one player last week who will be out for some time. Freshman cornerback Carlos McFall injured his shoulder late in Thursday's practice and had to be taken off the field afterward on a cart. We'll let you know soon how long he is expected to be out, but he should not bounce back too soon. McFall was a borderline player who might or might not have played this year, depending on depth needs at the position, but this injury setback likely ends that question.
- Some good news on the injury front is that fifth-year senior defensive end Will Svitek is moving forward and looks possible to play Saturday against USC. He donned a jersey and pads yesterday for the first time since August, though he had a very light workout of participation. It will be interesting to see how much of practice he can execute Tuesday through Thursday, but even if he shows well, I would expect Scott Scharff to get the starting nod again. Svitek's best case scenario would be to have enough strength in his knee and regain enough conditioning to be able to play reserve minutes to help the thin DE rotation. Currently, just three players are shuffling to man those two end positions, and the addition of Svitek as a fourth would be welcome.
- A discussion of the Stanford offense, with its progress to date and its improvement still needed, is beyond the scope of this article. But one noticeable absence from the playbook against BYU was sophomore receiver David Marrero. With zero touches in the second game of the year, count me as one disappointed observer. I felt there were chances against a gambling defense like the Cougars' where Marrero's explosiveness could have broken big plays while still having Trent Edwards take a short drop and get rid of the ball in a hurry. That being said, it is hard to complain about the decisions made by the offensive staff when they hurt BYU like they did on the way to 37 points. There will be times throughout the remainder of this season, though, when Marrero will be the one and maybe only way to break a game-winning play. The question then is how does the offensive staff view the utility, importance and frequency of getting Marrero the ball. "We had sets for him in the BYU game," Bill Cubit answers. "It just happened that the other sets were advantageous for us given what BYU chose to do on defense, with personnel and formations. This game [against USC], David has a role again - an expanded one." We can't know for sure what or how Marrero will be used against the Trojans until we watch the game, but I optimistically look at a few facts. His string of healthy practices is now growing to the point that he is getting consistent enough instruction and repetition to start performing more of the wide receiver repertoire. Second, Marrero was used in practice during the bye week for a wider set of plays than just a constrained "package." Finally, I suspect that Stanford will not move the ball up and down the field against USC with any ease; the offensive staff will probably be hard-pressed for some answers to the Trojan defense, and it should be all too obvious that one of them is wearing "#3" on the sideline. Admittedly, it is hard for any wideout to get on the field when Evan Moore, Mark Bradford and Justin McCullum are playing so well right now, but it's a long season still to come.
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