Spring Ball: Day Three

Spring is an easy, fun-loving time of year for most of us, but for Stanford Football, April has started out with a flurry of work. Sunday marked the third practice in three days for the Cardinal, and this workout exhibited the highest intensity yet. Read on for notes, including thoughts from cornerback <b>T.J. Rushing</b> on the battles between his defensive backs and the receivers.

Sunday was the first day that players donned any pads during spring practices, suited out in upper pads while still wearing shorts.  There was no "live" action where tackling took place, but the contact and physical nature of the practice was a big step forward from the first two days without pads.  That brought out a ferocity Sunday, with bodies slamming into each other.  Along with that came a more spirited fire from both players and coaches, with heated hollers before and after every play.

Offensive players spent the day hitting bags and sleds, while defensive players had their fun hitting offensive players.  We saw more receivers and defensive backs dive for balls, reflective of the heightened energy throughout the field.  The best catches of the day went to a pair of younger players, with sophomore tight end Patrick Danahy and freshman cornerback Carlos McFall both laying out and digging out tough balls (Danahy looks very smooth as a receiving tight end thus far).  The running game was the biggest winner, though, with the arrival of pads to practice, with the ability to bring true contact to the blocking on the offensive line.  Interior line coach Tom Freeman and tackles coach John McDonell both had a mouth-full for the big nasties.

There are also two interesting twists on these practices under Walt Harris.  The mid-practice water break we have seen for years at Stanford practices is gone.  You can grab a quick drink between drills, but the period of rest halfway through practice is gone.  Also changed is the sprints we saw the last three years at the end of practice.  Stanford still has the same strength and conditioning coach in Ron Forbes, so he still demands the same sprints of Cardinal players... but now they come roughly 30 minutes before the end of practice.  Promptly after those sprints, the players move directly to 11-on-11 competition.

This fits in with the theme that was the center of Stanford's winter conditioning "Fourth Quarter" workouts.  Walt Harris saw a team that found ways to lose almost every tight game they played last year, while his Pittsburgh team won their overtime or 4th quarter contests.  His philosophy is that you play only to your perceived limit, and he spent all winter proving to the players that they could be pushed beyond what they thought their limits to be.  Sprints used to be the end of practices at Stanford, and now players have to hit each other 11-on-11 afterward.

As one former player told me while watching Sunday, "I'd hate it if that were me, but that's good for the guys."

There could be some backlash from these elevated physical demands that Walt Harris is bringing to Stanford Football.  Players are being taken well outside their comfort zones.  Instead, the energy and excitement is surging.

"It's really positive, but it's harder," says junior cornerback T.J. Rushing of the changes.  "No breaks.  No water breaks - none of that.  But, you know, the guys are buying into it.  Everybody is buying into Coach Harris' philosophy.  He's a proven winner, so it's easier to buy into his scheme.  And guys are doing it."

Another reason players are excited to buy in is the tools they are being handed by the new coaching staff.  On offense, the receivers are being empowered with reads and decision-making power.  It is no accident that Walt Harris has coached three Biletnikoff  Award winners with the power he gives them to react and ravage defenses.

"It's definitely more of a challenge," Rushing admits in the early-going covering Stanford's wideouts.  "Most of the routes the receivers are running are option routes.  They are reading what we are doing.  Instead of coming out of the huddle and just running a hitch, now they might call a hitch, but when they see we are sitting down and going to pick off the hitch, they keep going and run the fade.  It gives us a tougher job to defend them."

But the defensive backs are not left powerless.  They are led by new position coach and defensive coordinator Tom Hayes, who coached five years with the Washington Redskins.  He has his own bag of tricks he is teaching the Cardinal defensive backs, including how to watch a receiver's hips to anticipate the break.  They have sat down with their new coach to watch film of seven-time Pro Bowl and future Hall of Famer Darrell Green.  The defensive backs are also being made less predictable with Hayes' playcalling.

"He's giving us a lot more mixed up coverages," Rushing explains.  "Last year was predominately zone; now we get to run a lot of man and zone.  Mix it up a lot so the offense just doesn't know: 'Third and four - they are going to run zone every time.'  Now we get to mix things up on the offense."

"The first day, that was all he harped: 'Huddle, huddle, huddle,'" says the cornerback of Hayes' teaching.  "Now he says, 'Run to the ball, run to the ball.'  He pays attention to every little detail.  Instead of just telling us 'good job - you gave your effort,' he says, 'No, that was not good enough.  Get all the way to the ball, and then bend your knees and tag off.'"

There are a lot of green cornerbacks this spring, who can certainly use the attention to detail.  Rushing has been starting and playing big minutes his entire time at Stanford, but the rest of the cornerback corps has barely seen the field on defense.  The battle for the cover position opposite Rushing is one of those wide open battles we're watching this spring, and Rushing has an early report on the competitors:

"Carlos McFall is doing really well.  Nick Sanchez, Calvin Armstrong - it's still wide open.  They're still competing every day.  Calvin hurt his hamstring, so today was predominately Sanchez and Carlos.  Tim Sims still has a little bit more stuff to learn, and then he'll be up there competing with them."

Though Rushing is expected to be a rock at his cornerback position, there will be some growing pains for rest of the coverage in the defensive backfield in 2005.  Graduation losses hit not just the DBs, but also the linebackers and defensive line this year, so you could argue that the entire defense will drop off from the inspired performances we saw in 2004.  But if you ask Rushing, the defense should be just as strong.

"I think we'll be exceptional," the senior proclaims.  "Just look up front.  We lost some guys in the secondary, but the guys up front are going to make up for it.  Julian Jenkins, Jon Alston, Babatunde Oshinowo, Casey Carroll.  With those guys out there, we won't have to cover for four or five seconds at a time because they'll make a sack.  They've got our backs."

  • Rushing gave us a report card on the cornerbacks.  Here also is what he thinks about the toughest receivers to cover so far this spring:  "A bunch of guys are establishing themselves as quality wide receivers.  Justin McCullum has made great catches on me.  Just some spectacular catches.  Marcus McCutcheon, who I've told you before, is proving himself.  Not only is he doing it in the workouts, but now he is also doing it on the field.  And there is always Evan Moore and Mark Bradford; those guys are always going to be tough."
  • The quarterbacks continue to flip first-team and second-team repetitions.  Friday saw Trent Edwards take the lead, while Saturday put T.C. Ostrander at the helm.  Edwards returned to the first-string position under center, and we expect to see Ostrander there Tuesday.  I would not be surprised if they continue to switch throughout the entirety of spring, as Walt Harris evaluates his two star quarterbacks.
  • We reported yesterday on the flip for the offensive tackles, with Jeff Edwards moving to left tackle and Jon Cochran switch over to right tackle.  Cochran was at right tackle his first two years but moved to left tackle to replace Kirk Chambers in 2004, so he has less of an adjustment with the return to his old position.  Edwards is the fish out of water playing on the left side after the last three years at right guard and tackle.  But this experiment makes sense and should stick.
  • The competition among the guards might be the most heated on the offensive line this spring, and the early leader looks to be redshirt sophomore Josiah Vinson.  He moved from right guard to the left side this spring, but he isn't showing many signs of struggle with the transition.
  • Sunday brought a special group of visitors to the rail to watch this third practice of Stanford 2005 spring football.  The graduating senior class was in attendance to watch their former teammates.  A few were out of town, but most of the 11-man class (plus one classmate who left a year earlier) was there:  Will Svitek, Scott Scharff, Greg Camarillo, Ryan Eklund, Oshiomogho Atogwe, Stanley Wilson, Leigh Torrence and Nick Sebes.  They made it a full-blown event, including a standing gas grill and a host of food and beverages.  I have seen seniors each spring check out the "new" look of the Stanford team at some practices, but never en masse in an organized effort like this.  It is just one more testament to the tight bond and superlative leadership this class possesses.  Walt Harris brings a lot of things to the table to help upgrade the program, but he will be hard pressed to replace or reproduce what this class gave Cardinal Football.
  • For the second straight day, Riverside (Calif.) Norco High School running back Toby Gerhart was in attendance at Stanford practice.  He huddled with the team afterward in the middle of the field, where he was introduced.  The players responded with a rousing ovation.  That's a nice touch for a recruit to experience in April.

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