Saturday was another practice in shorts with no pads, which takes much of the physical element out of football, but right now there is so much teaching and installation going on that the absence of pads is not a detraction. For the offense, in particular, a complex and completely new scheme is being installed. On Friday we saw the base of the short passing game put into play, and Saturday saw several new twists. New running plays were added, while the passing game was extended to some new formations, including a three-receiver single-back set. The quarterbacks are being asked already to execute some option routes, where they have to make decisions based on specific reads.
The mental load that these quarterbacks are carrying, and the responsibility Walt Harris is thrusting upon them, cannot be overstated. The signal callers are both dizzy and delighted at the change they are undergoing with this new offense and their new position/head coach. While the progress will be very difficult, Trent Edwards and T.C. Ostrander are both smiling after practices because this is a good problem, and why they came to Quarterback U.
"It's really hard for them right now," says Harris of his quarterbacks. "Why? It's a whole situation - new offense, numbers, plays. Just completely different. It's going to take a while. By rule, we cannot coach them until practices begin, so they're way behind. Watching the tape of the University of Pittsburgh is not like doing the plays and getting coached, like they did this morning watching their film for the first time."
Reports are coming from players that heap the highest of praise upon Harris for both the genius and the perspective he imparts - in position meetings as well as on the practice field. But he is a tough and demanding coach who is very active and vocal in all of his demands. Harris is also not shy about broadcasting his high standards he is setting for his quarterbacks.
"We need to upgrade how much workload they put in on their own time of watching the offense. They have to upgrade that," he proclaims. "That's all volunteer stuff, but they need to upgrade that. Knowledge is lethal at their position, and lack of knowledge is lethal as well."
It is far too early to have any conclusions as to who will win the 2005 quarterback job for Stanford, and Harris has already said that he is not opposed to leaving the job open into fall camp, if there is not a clear winner at the end of this month's practices. But in reporting on the snaps and depth chart, it appears early that the ratio of repetitions under center is 2:2:1 for the respective three strings. On Friday, Edwards was given the nod to take first team repetitions, followed by Ostrander second and freshman walk-on Garrett Moore third. On Saturday, Ostrander was afforded the opportunity to work with the first team, while Edwards took snaps with the second unit. It will be interesting to see if two days of data is enough for one of the two quarterbacks to take a meritorious lead in today's third spring practice. For now, Harris is not naming anybody as a "leader" and instead keeps his analysis of the two competitors at a global level.
"I've watched Trent and T.C., and I've seen good things out of them," he comments. "I've also seen some things they need to work on, which is why we're practicing."
"I think they're both football players. To me that's the number once characteristic you've got to have at that position," Harris continues. "It's not height. It's not arm. It's not accuracy. It's not quickness of release. It's guys who are football players who see the field and good football decisions. They do the right thing. They scramble when they're supposed to - keep the ball on some plays when it's wide open to run, and both did that today. Show that they're natural football players. Now they have to learn our system. And the most important part of our system is making high-percentage decisions so that we can keep control of the football."
While Walt Harris is more eager to talk with you about the mental game than the physical aspects of the position, don't let that confuse you as to the type of work he is doing on the practice field. He is after all the quarterbacks coach and is deeply entrenched in every detail of their mechanics and technique. Saturday he already worked on some flaws he saw in Friday's tape in how the quarterbacks were throwing back to the left as they dropped back. He is meticulous with the details of how they execute the play-action fake. Saturday also saw teaching of how to run the screen play.
"But the most important thing I'm working on is their mind - the mindset of being a good decision-maker," Harris says. "If the receiver is not open, don't throw it. Throw to somebody else. If they're not open, don't reward them with the ball. If you do, and they're not open, then you're going to suffer because you're not going to play."
The good news is that several receivers are stepping up, which makes life easier for Edwards and Ostrander under Harris' guidelines. The standout performer of the day has to be sophomore Evan Moore, who excelled magnificently on the deep routes run in one-on-one passing drills. His cuts are sharper than anything we saw from him in the fall, and he looks stronger in the physical plays he is making on deep balls. Marcus McCutcheon also rates mention for some eye-catching plays he made - getting separation from his defender with deft moves in his routes.
The newest member of the receiving corps is redshirt junior Kyle Matter, who had played all but a few days of his football life at quarterback before this spring. You have to go back to his freshman year of high school - his first year playing football - to find the last time he spent any time on the other end of the passing game. Matter logged all of one half of one week at receiver during training camp his freshman year of high school before his coaches saw him throw a ball and quickly switched him to quarterback. Playing under center is his passion, and it was difficult for him to come to terms this winter with the position switch he needed to make. More than a year has elapsed since he had shoulder surgery, and he still cannot throw a football effectively enough to play the position, which ultimately necessitated the move to receiver.
"It was tough," Matter laments. "I was always trying to delay the decision because I want to play quarterback - that's my position. I didn't want to close the door on it. As it became more unlikely that I would be able to throw well enough to play quarterback, I started running routes at receiver and trying to ask questions from guys like Justin [McCullum] and Gerren [Crochet]."
Matter in particular credits McCullum for helping him with learning the receiving craft. The two are not just classmates, both heading into their fifth year, but also roommates and great friends. Matter spent much of the winter bouncing questions off his buddy to learn the details of the position, though the former quarterback says that the mental game is less than half the battle for him in adjusting to his new position.
"It's a lot physically," he says of the biggest challenge at wide receiver. "At quarterback, it's a tough thing mentally where you have to be the field general. At receiver, you are running your butt off, and when you are tired, you still have to get around guys and be physical. That's a whole side I have to get used to."
"I have a lot of confidence in myself athletically," Matter adds. "I'll get better once it starts to come together mentally. I'm thinking too much right now. Once I start to assimilate in my head, I'll be able to do some things. There are other guys ahead of me with a lot of experience, but we'll see what I can do."
It is too early to make an evaluation of whether Kyle Matter can make himself into a wide receiver capable enough of playing and making plays on Saturdays. He is just two practices into the new position, and he trained as a receiver only part of the winter. Moreover, it is unlikely that any amount of training will turn him into a burner, but the agility drills and conditioning that he ran during the winter did let him test the fastest he has ever tested at Stanford. Matter ran a 4.13 pro shuttle and 6.96 in the three-cone drill. Those numbers speak to his quickness, which can be every bit as important as speed for a wideout, if not more so.
But this position switch is not intended to be permanent. The hope for both Kyle Matter and Walt Harris is that the rising fifth-year senior can regain the flexibility and strength in his shoulder to return under center by the fall. While optimism is harder to find with more than a year gone by since his surgery, Matter has found treatment that might finally break through.
"I'm trying to stay hopeful. I've seen a ton of doctors and I've just started actually with a new physical therapist up in San Francisco who has worked with some of the Forty-Niners," he shares. "I'll go up there once a week during spring ball and hopefully more once spring ball is over. They have a lot of optimism for me to come back. They say this is the type of thing that should not end a throwing career."
"They're doing a lot of rotator cuff strengthening work - just some different positions and really isolating those muscles and getting them strong. In that, they are really trying to stretch my range of motion. That is what is really holding me back - I can't get back far enough to throw the ball hard enough, right now."
And so where would Matter put his chances of returning for the fall season to his native signal caller position?
"I'd like to think I have an 80% shot ore more of getting back at quarterback," he boldly states.
There were some changes on the depth chart already on Saturday that bear watching. The two most notable were at the offensive tackles and free safety spot. On the O-line, redshirt sophomores Jeff Edwards and Jon Cochran swapped positions. Edwards has played on the right side his entire time at Stanford, while Cochran has consistently played left tackle. There has been a question for two years as to whether they might each be built more appropriately to play on the opposite side, with the left tackle typically needed to be athletic and rangy for backside pass protection and the right tackle needed to be a stronger run blocker. Offensive tackles coach John McDonell should be applauded for at least giving Edwards and Cochran a chance to work on the left and right sides, respectively. The experiment might not work out, but it is a sensible one that we have wanted to see.
Over on defense, it was not a position switch but rather a depth chart experiment conducted on Saturday. We knew coming into the spring that there were three leading candidates for the two safety positions, and on Friday the two most experienced of those players ran with the first team: redshirt sophomore Trevor Hooper at free safety and sophomore Brandon Harrison at strong safety. Harrison stuck with the first team at his strong position on Saturday, ahead of redshirt sophomore Bryan Bentrott. But at free safety, Hooper took a back seat as second-string Saturday while redshirt sophomore David Lofton worked all practice with the first team. This is Lofton's first spring at safety, after bouncing between the receiver and quarterback positions his first two years. The battle for that free safety job will be one we will continue to monitor closely this spring.
Though not a depth chart shuffle, there are two position groups where the coaches are freely rotating players. The running backs are getting a good amount of work with each of the offensive units, and the inside linebackers rotated Saturday as well. The depth chart and repetitions were more rigid on Friday, but Saturday saw redshirt sophomore Mike Silva get ample opportunities to play with the first team defense alongside Kevin Schimmelmann and also with Michael Okwo. Freshman Pat Maynor also saw some chances to move up and play some time with the second team defense.
One more defensive note: we reported Friday that redshirt junior Calvin Armstrong took the lead at the second cornerback position opposite junior and returning starter T.J. Rushing. The player who looks early to have the lead on the third cornerback spot is freshman Carlos McFall, who had shoulder surgery after an early injury last fall but is strongly challenging upperclassmen just like he did last August before he was hurt. McFall spent time later in Saturday's practice playing in Armstrong's place.
- Recruits were in attendance once again on Saturday, including a return appearance by Maryland offensive lineman Andrew Phillips. A new face of note, who drove up early Saturday morning from Riverside, is running back Toby Gerhart from Norco High School. Gerhart has been one of the most prolific runners not just in California, but also in the nation, these past two years. This fall he will have a shot at breaking Lorenzo Booker's California career rushing record, which says about all you need to know on his abilities. Saturday was the first chance I had to eyeball Gerhart in person, and he has a good looking frame. The Norco junior is also a bigtime baseball player, and his plans keep him and his family at Stanford through Monday, when he will have a chance to meet with Stanford Baseball head coach Mark Marquess, after the Cardinal skipper returns from this weekend's series up in Pullman.
- Stanford will practice today (Sunday) for the third straight day, and pads are expected to come on for the first time.
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