The Eve of Spring

As we sit on the eve of spring practices on The Farm, we have much to look forward to. With a new coaching staff and several positions turned over by graduation, the depth chart is wide open and exciting. To help you set the table for the next four weeks of football, here are some players and position groups to watch, replete with comments and philosophies from Walt Harris.

We got you halfway home two weeks ago with our article ("Pre-Spring Shuffle") reviewing some of the off-season activity of Stanford Football, including notable roster changes and position switches.  Now we're down to brass tacks.  Spring practices start in 24 hours, and there is a lot to watch in these first practices of the Walt Harris Era.

"We're excited about starting spring practice.  We've had what I would refer to as a challenging winter program, and I think the players would agree.  We've earned the right to start practice on Friday," Harris declares.  "We have a lot of things to teach, and we have to go as fast as we can.  All positions are open - I think that's one of the exciting things about having a new staff.  The guys before who didn't think they got a fair shake now have as good a chance as anybody.  We're starting at ground zero."

In a nutshell, that sums up the intrigue for the 2005 edition of spring football at Stanford.  The spring is always an enjoyable time because of the possibilities of position switches and emerging players rocketing up the depth chart.  But in this spring, the depth chart has been sketched in the lightest of pencil, with a new head coach and new staff who want to build the Cardinal team from the ground up.  After three straight losing seasons, there are scant few players - if any - who have laurels upon which they could rest.  This will be as wide open a spring as we can remember.

Harris does acknowledge, however, that he does not walk in without any scouting of his players.  He and his coaches watched some film of the returning players in the off-season, with more tape scrutinized by the defensive staff.  Two of the four defensive coaches are holdovers from previous regime, and the 3-4 scheme is being carried over as well.  In the context of those consistencies, Harris considers it fair game for his defensive coaches to watch how the defensive players executed last fall.  However, on offense, there is absolutely nothing carried over from the Buddy Teevens regime in the way of scheme, so Harris believes it inappropriate to watch too much of last year's film of his offensive players.

"We only glanced at a little [offensive] tape," the first-year Cardinal coach explains.  "We don't want to hold too many opinions.  Unless you're in the room, hearing what they were being coached to do, I don't think you know."

While Walt Harris' reputation as a quarterbacks and offensive guru, plus the stated tabula rasa approach to that side of the ball, will draw the majority of observers' attention to offensive positions this spring, there are some big stories brewing on defense.

While the depth chart took arguably the biggest hits in the defensive backfield and on the defensive line, there is a surprising question mark for the linebackers that needs answering tomorrow.  Two of Stanford's four starting linebackers graduated of course, and both Jared Newberry and David Bergeron are currently working toward the approaching NFL Draft, but there are also were two off-season surgeries that have a pair of 'backers out for spring ball.  Redshirt juniors Jon Alston (knee) and Timi Wusu (shoulder) are both expected to miss some or all of the spring.  The pair of veteran defenders were expected to be the #1 and #2 players at the "rush" outside linebacker position, where Alston started 11 games and the pair combined for 11.5 sacks in 2004.

We thought coming into 2005 that there was a glut of playmakers in the linebacking corps, but the "rush" position starts off taking a big hit.  Both players are expected to return to 100% by the fall, but the defensive coaches now have a scramble for how to man a two-deep at that position.  Harris says that outside linebackers coach Tom Quinn will have most of the control in those decisions, but likely tomorrow we will see redshirt freshman Emmanuel Awofadeju switch from his "Sam" position to the weakside "rush" slot.

Classmate Udeme Udofia was a reserve "rush" outside linebacker last fall but was moved over to the strong side ("Sam") in the off-season with his physical development.  Assuming Udofia sticks there tomorrow, that means we will have seen him and Awofadeju flip positions.  That is an oddity in itself, but beneath the surface those assignments convey something additional to us: Udofia is viewed as a stronger and/or more physical player by Quinn, while Awofadeju lags in those areas and rests upon his speed as his primary asset.

We have to expect that all the linebacker positions are a fluid situation this spring.  Figuring out where to best play Michael Okwo and Michael Craven, for example, remains a question.  It does bear noting that Udofia is likely the winner come the fall from these position assignments in the spring.  When Alston becomes healthy, and he is joined by Wusu, the "rush" position will become quite crowded.  If Awofadeju would indeed stay there in the fall, his playing time could be hard to come by.  Udofia, on the other hand, could lock down the "Sam" outside linebacker starting job this spring.  And if Awofadeju gets moved back in fall camp to the "Sam" position, he would find himself behind the curve after learning a markedly different position in the four weeks of spring ball.

It is also worth nothing that Alston and Wusu will not be completely absent from the practice field tomorrow.  They will spend time early in the session with conditioning, and afterward they will join their position mates in a coaching role.

"We'll try to add to our coaching staff with these guys," Harris comments.  "Once you have to teach somebody something, I think that only makes you better at executing that assignment - that technique or that fundamental - yourself.  We know those guys are really serious football players."

A third player-coach you will see is redshirt junior Brian Head, who had off-season repair surgery on his knee and was just this week cleared for a "light spring."  It remains to be understood what that means he will be doing, but for now you can add him to Alston and Wusu as an injured player who is out at least for the start of the spring.  Head is the recognized leader of the offensive line, where every one of 16 players from last fall is back.  While it is a disappointment that the veteran center will not be fully engaged with his new position coach, Tom Freeman, there is a silver lining.  You can rationalize that Head will be hurt the least of any offensive lineman by missing the repetitions of spring football, and instead his subtraction from the line will accelerate the much-needed development of younger players.

"You can never have enough centers," Harris maintains.  "Once you lose a couple and you don't have a backup, you're in deep trouble."

Redshirt freshman Mikal Brewer started two games at center in 2004 when Head went down, but Brewer is penciled in for the offensive (left) guard competition this spring.  We know that freshman Alex Fletcher will benefit as much as anybody from this opportunity, as he has a chance to climb the depth chart and compete for repetitions with the first team offensive line.  He was a nasty and physical force in practices while he redshirted this past fall, and his development during the winter strength & conditioning has him poised to do even more damage in the spring.  If Brewer does not take snaps at center, we will have to see another position switch or two to give adequate depth over the football.  One rumored possibility is redshirt freshman Amir Malayery, who has already played both tackle and guard, which would make this his third position on the line in less than two years.

Overall, the offensive line should be one of the most important positions for development and competition on this team this spring.  The offense may have suffered from both scheme and youth of late, but the paper-thin offensive line has been a dominant bugaboo for the offense.  And while we down the road may evaluate that some of the young linemen Stanford had to play these past two years actually had/have some talent, they have been competing against air.  We have lamented the one-deep at many of the offensive line positions in 2003 and 2004, but the danger was not just exposure to injury depletion.  The real problem was the fact that nobody was competing with and pushing the starters.

"It's very difficult to play really early in your career at any position, but particularly at quarterback and offensive line," Harris opines.  "I think those are the two most difficult positions to play.  If you are forced into starting at one of those two positions early in your career, then you had better have a lot of good guys around you.  Well, the other good guys were young guys, too.  The bright side of that equation, now is that we have guys who have 83 starts on the offensive line.  That position to me needs to show that they have played."

"I think it was unfortunate and unfair that those young men had to play so much early, but they did, and now we ought to be better because of it," Harris adds.

Jeff Edwards, Jon Cochran, Ismail Simpson and Josiah Vinson started a combined 43 games this past fall, but they were never pushed by anybody at their position.  Competition is the one great driver to bring out the best in a player, and this spring promises to bring more competition to the offensive line than we have seen in at least three years on The Farm.  Brewer, Fletcher, Preston Clover, Allen Smith, Mike Macellari, Ben Muth and more should light fires across all positions.

Another position group on offense where we expect heavy competition, with a load of players returning, is the wide receiver corps.  Greg Camarillo has graduated, but an exciting group of talent is back.  Redshirt juniors Justin McCullum and Gerren Crochet.  Redshirt sophomore Marcus McCutcheon.  Sophomores Evan Moore and Mark Bradford.  Freshman Anthony Kimble.  That sextet has tremendous potential and ability, and they should lead one of the stronger position units in 2005 on this football team.  Kimble is the one player yet to see any time on Saturdays, taking a redshirt this past fall, but he showed eye-catching athleticism and playmaking ability consistently throughout the year in practices.  He should push the veterans right away.  McCutcheon is another darkhorse to watch.  He has yet to catch a ball in a game in his Cardinal career, but we heard from a number of people this winter that he took control of the leadership of the receivers with exemplary workouts.  Teammates have high expectations for him to break out in 2005.

Moore and Bradford enjoyed breakthrough winters in their own right.  They individually each quit the basketball team before the start of the winter quarter and should benefit from the full-time spent with the football team.  You may have forgotten, but both Bradford and Moore had tremendously disappointing springs last year.  They may have faltered because of the time they spent with a round ball instead of a football leading up to the spring.  More than just strength & conditioning sessions, the football players get together for their own voluntary seven-on-seven workouts.  Those repetitions running routes and catching the ball are a key primer for the spring, and both of the frosh two-sport athletes looked every bit rusty without those rep's.  This spring they are hitting the ground running.

"Honestly, I'm glad after watching our basketball team do such a fabulous job - Coach [Trent] Johnson and his staff and his players - I was glad I wasn't here on that one.  I was here, but I wasn't anywhere involved in that decision whatsoever.  I didn't know who Mark Bradford or Evan Moore was at that time.  I know how much harder that made it for Coach Johnson.  It was such a tremendous accomplishment, what they did with so few players and that huge injury they suffered," Harris says.  "Purely from a football perspective, is that it worked out better for Football better than it did for Basketball."

Bradford looks like a physically different human being, with added weight and a chiseled body.  His 2005 should look much more like his 2003 than his 2004 campaign, particularly with the offensive revival that Harris brings as the three-time coach of Biletnikoff Award winners.  Moore should step into the spring in better shape and with better skills than a year ago, but the quarter away from basketball also gave him time for surgery and healing.  He had a bone spur on his toe which bothered him for football but did not affect him on the basketball court.  It was surgically removed, which kept him out of some early workouts this winter, but Moore forced his way back into the mix quickly and earned respect from teammates and coaches alike with his efforts.

"He gimped it out," Harris praises.  "I obviously have a lot of respect for a guy who plays coming out of surgery."

On the other end of the passing connection is of course the quarterback, which is yet another position that should benefit from Harris' leadership.  Without Kyle Matter in the mix, the depth of the competition for Stanford's quarterbacks will be thinner than we historically have seen.  But if you have to have just two signal callers, you cannot ask for more than Trent Edwards and T.C. Ostrander.  Both have a wealth of tools and talent lying at or just underneath the surface, and a lot of attention from fans and the media this spring will be directed at who emerges as Walt Harris' starting quarterback.  Harris however cautions that he has no set timetable for when he will name a starter.

"I don't want to have to make a subjective decision," he says of choosing a starting signal caller.  "I always hope it's an objective decision.  You keep track of the statistics.  How many times do they get the team in the endzone?  How is their accuracy?  All those things. And it becomes really obviously.  Unfortunately, it has been my experience that it never is that obvious, or not as obvious as you hope.  Then you have to make more of a subjective decision based on your perception of how the young man played and what his future potential is.  That comes from the experience of coaching the position, and hopefully I make the right decisions."

"I try to bring out the best in quarterbacks.  Competition brings out the best in people, I believe," Harris continues."  Whether they make the competition or I add to the competition, come Saturday there is going to be competition.  There are two ways to look at it.  Competition brings out the best, for one.  On the other hand, when you name a starter, you really put the leadership role in that young man's lap.  There is a give and take on both sides.  We'll just take it slow and see who emerges, honestly...  Until you are live and in person watching them spin the ball, you don't know.  I'm really intrigued by the competition."

So are we, Coach.  So are we.

Notes:

  • Four players were recognized by the coaching staff with awards for the top performances and leadership during winter workouts:  Junior T.J. Rushing, junior Julian Jenkins, redshirt sophomore Trevor Hooper and sophomore Patrick Danahy.  It is interesting to note that three of the four are players from the defensive side of the ball, which could be an indicator that, despite the graduation losses, the leadership may still be strongest this year on defense.  It is also noteworthy that Rushing and Jenkins were given the award.  They were the two lone players to play as true freshmen in the 2002 season, and whether it is cause or effect, they have developed into two of the top leaders on the team.  Danahy also played as a true freshman in 2003 and will be fighting this spring for time at tight end in the gaping void left by the graduation of Alex Smith.  Hooper is a player who took a step back last fall, starting no games after starting 11 as a redshirt freshman.  But he is tentatively moved to free safety in 2005 and has made a strong start for himself.
  • Redshirt freshman fullback Emeka Nnoli was 50/50 as to whether he would be cleared to participate in spring ball, after his off-season shoulder surgery.  But all indications are that he is healthy and cleared for tomorrow's action.  Nnoli has as much raw, untapped talent as any player in the offensive backfield, but a number of factors have conspired against him his first year and a half of football on The Farm.  Rated the #1 fullback in the nation out of high school, he has a physically imposing frame combined with exceptional explosion.  It is good news for the woeful fullback position that Nnoli can join the competition this spring.
  • There are six tight ends listed on the official depth chart going into the spring, but Walt Harris cautions against any assumptions about a wealth of riches at the position:  "I think that is an inflated number of real football players.  I think there are people there who are not ready to play because of athletic ability, strength or all of the above."

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