Spring Ball: Day Seven

Though not yet halfway through spring practices, the action for Stanford Football moved Saturday to the stadium for its first full scrimmage. The defense was on top overall, though there were some offensive bright spots in both the running and receiving game. There was one startling surprise for the quarterbacks, though, which is rarely seen in college football.

Saturday's practice brought the team into the stadium for the first time this spring, for a full scrimmage with Pac-10 referees.  Overall, it was a hard-hitting affair where the defense owned the first half and the offense surged in the second half.  The key to the offensive rally was the running game, which ran harder and more effectively after "halftime."  In particular, I saw the playcalling give a heavy emphasis to running the ball when the offense was inside the 30-yardline.

Redshirt junior J.R. Lemon led the way for the running offense, running hard between the tackles but also making cutbacks and finding open green.  Lemon has been the #1 tailback all spring, but a darkhorse to watch may be sophomore David Marrero.  The speedster spent 2004 at wide receiver but has returned to his natural position in the offensive backfield, and he had a lot of touches on Saturday.  He is most highly valued by Cardinal fans because of his home run breakaway speed, but Marrero ran hard between the tackles in one of his more physical performances since he arrived on The Farm.  Marrero scored the offense's lone running touchdown on the day.

The other big story on offense was the job done by the tight ends.  They were probably the strongest position group on the offensive side of the ball, hitting their blocks and being productive in the passing game.  There are a meld of different body types, skills and strengths in this receiving corps, which were showcased well on Saturday.  The top two standout plays from the group came by redshirt sophomore Matt Traverso, who caught one long pass inside the 10-yardline and also scored one of the day's two receiving touchdowns.  The other passing score connected with sophomore Mark Bradford.

The quarterbacks had an up and down day.  But as the running game got going in the second half, so too did the passing game.  The scrimmage started on an inauspicious note with redshirt sophomore Trent Edwards throwing an interception to classmate Trevor Hooper, who got the starting nod at the heated free safety position.  The quarterbacks may have had good reason to start a little skittish, as they were "unprotected" for the first time I have ever seen in a Stanford spring practice.  That's right, the Cardinal QBs did not wear their traditional yellow jerseys - for the first half of the scrimmage.  That meant they could be hit - and indeed they were hit - by defensive players.  Edwards and redshirt freshman T.C. Ostrander both donned yellow jerseys in the second half, though freshman Garrett Moore started the second half in a cardinal jersey when he saw his first snaps of the scrimmage.

Traditionally, quarterbacks are protected like a religious relic in spring practices.  One bad hit can yield a bruised rib or broken finger that could put the signal caller out of action and stymie the entire offense.  Worse yet, an injury could be sustained that could jeopardize the summer or part of the fall season.

Taking that yellow jersey off your quarterback is a big risk.  And Stanford would appear to be one of the programs least able to take such a chance, with only two quarterbacks on scholarship currently.  Losing either Edwards or Ostrander during the spring would be a significant blow to the installation of Walt Harris' offense.  Harris would undoubtedly draw fire if one of his slingers sustained an injury during these "live" snaps, but if he can get away with the limited practice, it is hard not to admire him for the ploy.

Quarterbacks never face any live bullets all year until they strap it up on a Saturday in September.  There is no substitute for a linebacker coming at you and running over you.  The age-old practice of having a defender run by you in the backfield cannot convey the urgency in getting rid of the ball.

I could not have been more surprised to see the quarterbacks without their yellow jerseys on Saturday, but then again, I should not be surprised.  Harris is a hard-nosed, old-fashioned ball coach who has been challenging and pushing his players since his arrival on campus in January - beyond anything I have ever seen from a Cardinal head coach.

And though he is the quarterbacks position coach, his crucible mentality is not limited to the signal callers.  Harris stopped the scrimmage Saturday at one point after a catch and run by sophomore Evan Moore in the open field, after Moore gingerly met a cadre of defenders.  Harris got right in his face and tore into the 6'7" receiver for not lowering his pads and trying to hit the tacklers.  Moore was promptly pulled from the field, and after a tongue-lashing to the rest of the receivers with the same message, redshirt junior Justin McCullum was tossed as well for his reaction in the huddle.

After three years of uneven discipline, there is swift and decisive tough love from Walt Harris these days on The Farm.

Harris may be offensive-minded, but he had to be pleased with much of what the defense did on the day.  They laid the wood with ferocious hits numerous times, with the best jaw-jarring shots coming from sophomore Michael Okwo, redshirt junior Kevin Schimmelmann and redshirt junior Babatunde Oshinowo.  Oshinowo met sophomore fullback Nick Frank near the goalline on one play with what can be truly called a colossal collision.  Like two freight trains meeting head on, the crack of the pads and helmets rang throughout Stanford Stadium.

Overall, the defense won this scrimmage.  They held the offense in check for much of the day until the late surge came running the ball, when there were some gaffes in gap integrity by the defense.  Though the offense had moved the ball somewhat surprisingly well in mini-scrimmages earlier that week, the defense was the victor in Saturday's full scrimmage.


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