Spring Ball: Day Four

Tuesday brought Stanford back to the practice field - in full pads - after a one-day respite, and we expected to see some movement in the depth chart. Two notable shuffles came on the offensive line, while we were teased with what superficially looked like a move for a linebacker to the offense. The best surprise came when practice concluded with a full contact mini-scrimmage...

I came into Tuesday's practice expecting to see some depth chart shuffles after the coaches had a day of reflection and film evaluation since the first three straight days of practices.  There are a few points during the spring when a staff takes stock of their players and makes adjustments.  The moves I saw were less pronounced than perhaps I had expected, but that is due in large part to the ongoing rotations that are being employed at several of the more "open" positions.

The biggest change I saw moved freshman Ben Muth from left tackle to right tackle, and to balance the scales, frosh Allen Smith moved from right tackle to left tackle.  Furthermore, Muth ascended from third string to second string on the depth chart, moving redshirt freshman David Long down to the third team (at right tackle).  I have discussed previously the left and right tackle positions and argued in support of the move that put redshirt sophomore Jeff Edwards at left tackle, while classmate Jon Cochran returned to his old right tackle position.  The respective body types and athletic abilities seem better suited for Edwards on the left side and Cochran on the right, but I do not necessarily believe similar logic is in play for the Muth-Smith swap.  Instead, I think this is a move to balance the competitive landscape for the two tackle positions.

Through the first three practices of the spring, Muth and second-string left tackle Mike Macellari were both outplaying Long and Smith.  The depth and competition was stacked much more strongly at left tackle, while the right side was lacking.  Moving Muth to right tackle helps push Cochran while also providing better depth at right tackle.  It doesn't make much sense to have three of your four best tackles all playing on the same side.

As an addendum, I should mention that an important tackle reserve may be found elsewhere on the offensive line.  Redshirt sophomore Tim Mattran is playing the #2 center this spring because the Cardinal need depth at that position and are without redshirt junior Brian Head currently, but Mattran was the #3 tackle this past fall behind Edwards and Cochran.  When Head returns to action in August, I would think Mattran would be an emergency center but more reasonably might be used for tackle depth.  He's a good athlete and going into his fourth year in the program, which would probably give the coaches a little more confidence than either Muth or Macellari - both of which are babes in the woods who have never seen the field on a Saturday.

In other depth chart notes, the quarterbacks continue to rotate, and today was T.C. Ostrander's turn to take the lead with the first team.  The wide receivers battle is quite competitive, and it appears that the coaches are using the previous practice's performances to dictate who runs first string the next day.  Tuesday brought sophomore Mark Bradford and redshirt junior Gerren Crochet to the first team, with sophomore Evan Moore and redshirt junior Justin McCullum running second team.  The third pair was redshirt sophomore Marcus McCutcheon and redshirt junior Kyle Matter.  Those six have been consistently the top group thus far this spring, with other wideouts running behind.

Sophomore Patrick Danahy continues to take the lead at tight end, though there are more two-tight sets I'm seeing installed, and that also brings redshirt sophomore Matt Traverso to the field.  Redshirt freshman Michael Horgan is getting a lot of work as well.  Those three tight ends look to be significantly ahead of the rest.  Redshirt junior J.R. Lemon is still the #1 running back, followed consistently by freshman Ray Jones as the #2.  At fullback, sophomore Nick Frank was the first team guy on Tuesday, which is noteworthy.  The converted defensive lineman is running ahead of redshirt freshman Emeka Nnoli.

Over on defense, there is less mystery about the depth chart.  Positions are either manned by clear starters, or they have little mystery about their depth due to some injuries.  The defensive line depth chart remains totally unchanged from what I reported from the first spring practice.  The linebackers have the same starters, though the depth is artificially a little thin right now.  We knew the outside linebacker spots were in some trouble without redshirt juniors Jon Alston and Timi Wusu, both of whom are recovering from off-season surgeries.  That has given a good chance for new freshman walk-on Brandon Willetts (6'4" from British Columbia).  Willetts was getting repetitions at outside linebacker over the weekend, and Tuesday he ran some second-team work at inside linebacker.

The bigger news at inside linebacker was the appearance of redshirt junior Michael Craven, who did not start the spring healthy.  He has had mental, physical and academic difficulties throughout his four years on The Farm, and he is not even within shouting distance of the promise he held out of high school as the #1 linebacker in the nation.  But as long as he wears a Stanford uniform, he will be a mesmerizing focus of Cardinalmaniacs™.  Craven did just a little work on Sunday, but Tuesday was his first full practice of the spring, and I have to say the most encouraging note was not his athletic play, but instead his leadership in the defensive huddle for the second unit.  Craven is not known to be high on the maturity scale, but it would be a pleasant surprise if he grew up for his fifth year.

Craven also turned a few heads who saw him running some receiving routes during the early going in Tuesday's practice, but this is an instance where there is less than meets the eye.  The primary focus during that portion of practice was special teams work on another field, and some skill players who were not being used took that opportunity to work with the quarterbacks.  Linebackers are a staple on special teams, but Craven was not used and took the time to catch some balls.

The defensive backfield is the one defensive unit where there has been depth chart intrigue.  Junior T.J. Rushing still leads at the right cornerback position, while the left corner was manned by redshirt freshman Nick Sanchez on Tuesday.  Sanchez is the third cornerback to run first team at that spot in four practices this spring.  The redshirt frosh looks bigger and stronger this spring, and he looks like a more physical player in the contact allowed by pads thus far.  Redshirt sophomore David Lofton and sophomore Brandon Harrison were still atop the first team at the free and strong safety positions, respectively, Tuesday.  But there was a good deal of rotation between the first and second team safeties, with redshirt sophomores Trevor Hooper and Bryan Bentrott both seeing time.

If depth chart minutiae does not float your boat, then maybe you will find more interest in the brief scrimmage action held at the end of practice.  As previously noted in these spring reports, Walt Harris has changed practices by moving the sprints from the end of practice to 20-30 minutes earlier.  The sprints are followed by 11-on-11 competition, and with Tuesday the first day in full pads, Harris wasted no time in running the first "live" full-tackle competition of this spring.  Also noteworthy is the fact that Harris put the #1 offense against the #1 defense, and the #2's against the #2's.

I had modest expectations for how the offense would perform in this mini-scrimmage.  Harris had spent the day installing a lot of new passing offense, after a focus on the running game on Sunday.  Offensive players at all positions made mistakes throughout Tuesday's practice, as their head was spinning from the new plays.  Harris commented afterward, the new plays jumbled the learning of the previously learned plays - it's going to take time.  The most oft-uttered expression from Harris during Tuesday's practice was the exclamatory command, "Get it right!"  At one point, when Ray Jones did not properly use his shoulder in running the sideline at the end of a play in seven-on-seven passing work, Harris tore into him and then made the entire offense do up-downs while he barked at them.

Tuesday was a practice where the learning started to take a step forward, with the passing playbook multiplied several fold, but the offense took a couple steps back with their execution.  As such, I expected the defense to hold the upper hand, if not outright dominated, in the late scrimmage session.

To my surprise, the offense delivered.  On the very first play, J.R. Lemon picked up 14 yards on a running play to the left sideline.  Three plays later, T.C. Ostrander's first team offense found itself in 3rd & long and went deep down the middle of the field to Patrick Danahy for a 30+ yard pickup.  Lemon picked up more yardage on other runs, including one brilliant cutback to his left after nothing was available to the called right side.  The second team offense had success right away as well, with Trent Edwards tossing a screen to Ray Jones for a 12-yard pickup on their first play.  In parallel fashion to the first team, Edwards was soon faced with a third down and struck gold, this time finding Evan Moore for a long touchdown down the right sideline.  Edwards got a chance to throw with the first team offense as well, moving the chains with a nine-yard pass to Gerren Crochet and then a five-yard scramble on the next play.  Freshman walk-on quarterback Garrett Moore led the third team and promptly picked up a first down with a pitch to sophomore tailback David Marrero for 11 yards.  Ostrander returned and found Michael Horgan along the left sideline for a 25+ yard catch and run.

To be sure, there were some offensive failings and defensive victories.  Ostrander took a huge sack on the second play of the scrimmage, with junior defensive end Julian Jenkins running him down.  Edwards busted a play when he looked to the wrong side of the offensive backfield and took a big sack.  The tackling was strong by the defense, led by sophomore inside linebacker Michael Okwo.  Other good tackles came from Nick Sanchez, freshman defensive end Pannel Egboh and redshirt freshman outside linebacker Emmanuel Awofadeju.

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