Don't look now, but we are just two away from the start of 2005 Stanford Spring Football. April practices are always a source of excitement and great anticipation, but this year we are downright giddy with the start of the Walt Harris Era. So many position battles are wide open, and we expect a cornucopia of plotlines to unfold during the 15 practices that will span more than three weeks.
But before the first ball is thrown, before the first sled is hammered, we have roster rearrangements already underway. First, the bad news. Stanford will start this spring without two of their big bodies. Redshirt sophomore offensive guard David Beall has hung up his cleats and is done playing football, taking a medical hardship after wrestling with back problems (bulging disks) that prevent him from playing. Beall spent the majority of the fall out of pads, and he dropped weight to alleviate his pain - now looking more like a fullback than his previous incarnation as a hulking lineman. It is a tremendous disappointment for both Beall and the Stanford program that he never had the opportunity to get on the field and deliver upon the promise he carried out of high school. While he cannot suit up and hit any longer, the third-year student athlete is not walking away from the program. He currently is assisting recruiting coordinator Nate Hackett in reviewing film, and there is the thought of him helping new offensive tackles/tight ends coach John McDonell. Beall and McDonell know each other well from their recruiting relationship in 2001, when McDonell was Stanford's recruiter in the Northwest and had Beall as his first, second and third priority. If Jon Cochran and Jeff Edwards could swallow some coaching from their classmate and good friend, it could be a boon to the tackles - young and old - to receive Beall's insights and mentorship.
The other roster loss comes as more of a surprise, and without the complete explanation. Freshman fullback Jerod Arlich has quit the Stanford Football team, leaving the Cardinal offense and its backfield in a lurch. The fullback position has had problems staying healthy in recent years, so Arlich's departure is a painful one. He, too, was missing at the end of the 2004 season, given some leave to deal with some medical and personal problems, but come the winter, he could not bring himself to rejoin the team for the arduous strength and conditioning program.
That leaves just Kris Bonifas and Emeka Nnoli to man the fullback position, which Walt Harris has said to be integral to the revival of Stanford's running game. The last three years of Cardinal Football may have pushed the fullback position out of your football conscience, but Harris is determined to put power back in the ground game with two-back sets. Nnoli is questionable for for spring practices as he heals from off-season shoulder surgery, and that puts Harris in a pinch. Before ever stepping foot with Stanford on the battlefield, he has been disarmed at fullback.
The answer came as some surprise last month when we learned that sophomore defensive lineman Nick Frank was moving over to offense and giving the fullback position some CPR. Though he never played a snap at the position in high school, this is not the first time Stanford has conjured up such a vision for Frank. Late in the 2003 season, as a freshman, he spent some time in practices in the offensive backfield. The running backs coach then, and once again today: Wayne Moses.
"The fullback needs to be a hammer, not the nail," Moses once told me. In grabbing Frank from the toolbox, it looks like Moses is not opposed to using a sledgehammer.
"I've heard he's a very competitive guy on defense, but he's playing a position where he was probably too light," Harris says of Frank and the move to fullback. "For us to average 81 yards per game rushing last year, that's part of the reason we have a new coaching staff here. Our goal is to run the ball much more effectively than that. I'm not trying to be critical of the previous staff. Minus-40 yards of that came from the passing game – we did a little study on that. But we have got to run the ball to win the tough games in the fourth quarter."
"We're not trying to weaken our defense," the first-year Cardinal coach adds.
Tell that to Dave Tipton, who already lost two valuable fifth-year veterans to graduation and now has lost one of his four experienced linemen for 2005. We need to see how Frank as a fullback plays out in the spring, and then through the season this fall, but I for one have the bar set high for expectations of what Frank should do on offense. He would have competed for a starting job on defense, and at a minimum been the #1 reserve behind a trio of senior starters. There was a guarantee of major playing time for Frank on the defensive line in 2005 and 2006, while he now appears to be 'one of three bodies' at the mercurial fullback position. The best man should win the job at fullback, but it will be hard to swallow if Frank does not play a major roll there. The defensive line is too thin to take away a starter/lead reserve for anything less than major PT at another position.
One reason Harris was emboldened to make that switch is the promise of freshman Pannel Egboh. He was recruited to The Farm as a tight end/outside linebacker, where his size and athleticism carried great promise. But nobody could have predicted that he would have grown so much so quickly as he has experienced in his first six months at Stanford. Many of us remember that "freshman fifteen" we packed on during our first year in college, but even at our worst we could not fathom packing on the weight that Egboh has added. He has exploded from 230+ pounds to nearly 270, and he gained most of that during the fall. Like a dying man handed filet mignon for his last meal, the frosh Texan has devoured every morsel within sight. Egboh has eaten and lifted himself out of his outside linebacker position and into the defensive line. Coaches and teammates alike raved about the job he did on the scout team last fall and have him tabbed as one of the big sleeper/breakout players for 2005. He is one of the top emerging players to watch this spring.
Two other position switches to watch when Stanford takes the field for its first spring practice come on offense. Another new-yet-familiar body in the offensive backfield is sophomore David Marrero, who has returned to his natural running back position after a year at wide receiver. There was a good deal of excitement surrounding Marrero at the end of last spring, after he put together some eye-popping plays as a wideout. But he suffered for the second straight season with knee problems in the fall, limiting his practice time, speed and confidence. Minor surgery in December may have finally put an end to the sophomore speedster's pain, and the combination of that health plus his return to the backfield has him chomping at the bit for spring ball.
The wide receivers lost one body but add another with the arrival of redshirt junior Kyle Matter, who has spent the last four years at quarterback. He, however, last threw a ball in 2003. Matter has yet to regain sufficient strength after shoulder surgery in early '04, and he cannot take snaps under center for the second straight spring. Though most Cardinalmaniacs™ had the quarterback competition handicapped as a Trent Edwards-T.C. Ostrander battle, Matter's absence remains a tremendous loss not just for depth at the position but also for competition.
Rather than cry himself a river over the loss and scant depth, Harris (who is also Stanford's quarterbacks coach) has moved Matter to the receivers group to get him on the field.
"Kyle is not able to throw yet without pain, so we're going to have Kyle come to all the quarterback meetings until the receiver meetings start, and then he'll become a receiver in the spring," Harris shares. "By coming to the quarterback meetings, he will stay abreast of what we are teaching system-wise. If and when his arm gets better and he is able to throw again, then he will be in the quarterback mix."
"I like Kyle. Kyle is a competitive guy," the coach continues. "He is one of our best leaders, on and off the field, and we need to find a way to get all those kinds of kids into the game. Football means a lot to him, and our other players know that it means a lot to him. I think it would be great for our team to get him contributing to the success of our team in as many different ways as we can."
One final pre-spring shuffle appears in the defensive backfield, where both safety positions are up for grabs. Based on where the two have played the last couple years, as well as their size and relative athletic assets, we have viewed Trevor Hooper as a strong safety and Brandon Harrison as a free safety. The new Cardinal coaching staff has other ideas and have the two switched in the initial depth chart to start the spring. Hooper is expected to work out as a free safety, which has greater pass coverage responsibilities, while Harrison will play the strong safety, which is more of a run-stopper.
"Athletically, that's where we would start those two guys, and then let the cream rise to the top," Harris comments. He also names David Lofton as a prime competitor for the safety positions, which are open and should see some fierce competition this spring.
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