Spring Ball: Day Six

Friday brought rain to the practice field for this first time this spring, but it also brought a pair of notable high school senior visitors. On the field, we couldn't help but notice a veteran wideout who keeps making noise this spring, ahead of more highly touted underclassmen.

Friday was one of the least eventful practices of the spring.  After two straight practices in full pads, the team wore shorts and had a lighter workout in advance of the Saturday full scrimmage to be held in the stadium.  All that full contact we had enjoyed watching Tuesday and Thursday was pulled back, while rain soaked us from above.

But there were a pair of California high school seniors in attendance that captured the attention of fans along the rail, as much as the action between the sidelines.  Erik Lorig was on The Farm Friday for his second post-Signing Day unofficial visit, as part of his third tour of colleges toward his famed college decision process.  The Rolling Hills (Calif.) Palos Verdes Peninsula High School senior, who is ranked by Scout.com as the nation's #8 tight end, kept a football cradled in one arm throughout the practice.  You might remember that Lorig was recruited at one time last fall by Stanford with more emphasis on the defensive line, though he ultimately expressed a strong preference to play offense.  Defensive players don't walk around with a football cradled in their arm...  Lorig spent the entirety of the practice with Will Powers, the San Mateo (Calif.) Serra High School senior who signed with Stanford in February.  Lorig and Powers also took their official visits together at Stanford the first weekend of January, so this was not an introductory meeting for them.  Powers did not deliver any hard sell to his SoCal classmate, but instead told Lorig to do what was going to be best for him.

Erik Lorig is infamous for his prolonged college decision, which has now stretched more than two months past the other 99 members of Scout.com's West Hot 100.  But don't read too much into the Friday unofficial visit.  Lorig was at USC's practice just three days earlier, and he was expected to attend a Cal practice the following day while in the Bay Area for the weekend.

Focusing on the practice field, the rain kept the football wet throughout practice, which made for some sloppy offense.  Balls went in and out of the hands of receiving targets all afternoon.  Players afterward lamented the wet conditions, but were quick to take the responsibility upon themselves for the dropped balls.  Rainy conditions are a rarity at Stanford during spring football, but Walt Harris is not one to take excuses.

Though it was a down day for the receivers and tight ends catching the ball, it was notable that redshirt junior Gerren Crochet was running first team at wideout for the third straight practice.  I admittedly discounted Crochet when I looked ahead to this spring.  The fourth-year player ranked just ninth on the team in 2004 with three receptions, and younger players were making rapid improvements to pull ahead of him on the depth chart.

Sophomores Mark Bradford and Evan Moore recorded 22 starts last fall, with redshirt junior Justin McCullum earning one start and garnering the third spot in the wide receiver rotation.  Redshirt sophomore Marcus McCutcheon had the strongest winter in the weight room and on the field in voluntary workouts, while freshman Anthony Kimble made big noise on the scout team last fall and was expected to challenge the older receivers right away this year.  Then you throw redshirt junior Kyle Matter into the mix, after a switch from the quarterback position, and it was hard to see how Crochet would catapult himself into a big role in this crowded corps.

But Crochet has done something this spring different than most of his first four years on The Farm.  He has dedicated himself to football, and he has kept himself on the field by staying healthy.  Crochet's previous springs have been balanced between the gridiron and the track, which has let his football experience suffer.  Maybe more damaging has been his history of injuries, including a long bout with hamstring pulls.  Crochet has spent as much time in fall camp and during the regular season with a yellow jersey on the sidelines as he has on the practice field.  He made strides this past fall toward greater care of his hamstring under the supervision of then-WRs coach Ken Margerum, who also ran track in college and understood the proper care needed for a sprinter.

As we conclude the second week of the spring in 2005, Crochet has been healthy in each and every practice, and he is running consistently on the first team ahead of Moore, McCullum and others.

"I've been given a better chance to stay healthy this spring, for one, because I'm not running track and doing double duty," the two-sport athlete explains.  "The biggest benefit is that I get to play consistently every day.  In the past, it's been that I was limited contact and had to get ready for a track meet that weekend.  Either I was saving something, or I couldn't go because I was hurt.  It's allowing me to be consistent with my speed and be consistent with my physicality.  I think I know how to take care of my body better now, too."

"A lot of it is getting used to your body," Crochet continues.  "It all stems from the strength program.  Your first couple years, you are still getting used to it.  A lot of guys who are doing one sport, especially, get little twinges and pulls.  You learn eventually how to better treat your body with workouts.  Then your fourth and fifth year, you get used to what your body can do.  That's where I am.  I've definitely gotten used to the strength program, and now without track I've leapfrogged where I was last year."

But being healthy is not by itself an explanation for how the rising fifth-year senior is performing ahead of athletes who have been widely considered better by observers coming into the spring.  His health has allowed him to get on the field, and on the field his veteran instincts and knowledge of the receiver position have borne fruit.  In particular, the offense that Walt Harris runs requires a sharp mind of his wideouts.  There are a lot of option routes they are asked to execute, which ask the receiver to read the defense and tailor how they run their route accordingly.

"This offense is really receiver friendly," Crochet claims.  "For a lot of guys, this is a niche for us.  Whether you're tall, fast or medium, there really is a place for everybody.  I've found my niche - we have a lot of deep routes and option routes.  I've kind of fallen into place there, and so have a bunch of other guys."

"And our defense is a good one to go against because they are the best I've seen in disguising their coverages," he adds.  "About 70% of our routes are option routes.  You find the open area and run away from the defenders.  Having four years under my belt really helps."

Crochet also credits his new receivers coach, Tucker Waugh, with giving him a fair shake.  Waugh has not held past performance gaps against the fourth-year athlete, and instead has pushed him to be his best in his fifth year.

"The number one thing he is challenging me with is just staying consistent," Crochet comments.  "Unlike a lot of coaches who give you lip service, when Coach Waugh tells you he thinks you can be one of the best receivers in the country, he really means it.  He knows about my speed but is challenging me to be as fast as I can be, not just as fast as the other receivers.  He's challenging me to block and be an all-around player.  He wants to see me put it all together in my last year."

The advantages that come for a wily rising senior in this offense are not limited to Crochet, of course.  Classmate Justin McCullum suffered through injuries and one position coach's doghouse before he broke out last fall with 26 receptions for 376 yards.  McCullum has saw some time with the first team early this spring, and though he is running with the second unit currently, he looks like the #3 man with his appearances in three-wide sets.

"I think it's nice because I'm going into my fifth year and I've learned how to read coverages pretty well.  I think that it tailors to me really well because I can read coverages better than most guys, with how long I've been here," McCullum credits for his success in this spring.  "I think I understand a lot of what is going on defensively.  I think [the coaches] see that and see that I can understand the defenses a lot more.  I played a lot in the slot last year - that's a lot of defensive recognition with where to go and who to block."

The 6'4" redshirt junior is also quick to praise the superior structure of this passing offense.  There are no illusions from this new coaching staff that they can send receivers on fly patterns with regularity.

"I'm not going to comment on the last offense," McCullum grins.  "But I feel like this offense is nicely tailored to our players.  It's nice to have an offense that really fits what we are doing."

"I think we run routes better than most groups of receivers," he elaborates.  "I think we are better fundamentally than a lot of receivers.  We're not blazers; we don't have anybody that runs a 4.2.  We're more complete, polished receivers.  This offense showcases that more than people who run down the field and don't know how to run a route or catch the ball."

McCullum admits the "polish" was off on Friday, however, with the rash of dropped balls in the wet conditions.  Those miscues do not detract from his optimism of where the Stanford offense is headed under Walt Harris.

"There are still a lot of mistakes from every position.  Once we eliminate the mistakes, I think there will be nothing stopping us.  We have the players on offense to have a great year," McCullum claims.  "One everything starts clicking, it's going to be really good and the offense is going to pick it up.  You see some signs already, with the fact that the offense is moving the ball in scrimmages.  Personally, it's just nice to have freedom out there with the option routes."

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