We expected to see the team suit out in full pads for their last full contact practice before Saturday's Spring Game (Friday's practice will be a no-pads walk-through), but instead saw the team dressed out in shorts and only upper pads. That meant there was no revealing 11-on-11 "live" scrimmage at the end of practice, which is 70% of the appeal of a spring practice for fans. The afternoon still ended with a scrimmage, but without tackling it did not tell us much new.
That is not to say that Thursday was bereft of information. To the contrary, we witnessed what may be one of the biggest revelations of the spring. One of the most important and closely watched position battles for Stanford this spring was the quarterback competition. Redshirt sophomore Trent Edwards and redshirt freshman T.C. Ostrander came into this month of practice on equal footing for what was a wide-open battle. They spent the first three weeks alternating who worked with the first team and who worked with the second team offense. As long as the rotation continued, we knew the competition remained (roughly) even.
I was a little surprised to see on Tuesday that Edwards had the lead with the first team offense, after he had also run first string under center in Saturday's scrimmage. But Tuesday was the beginning of a new week, and I made no conclusions. But on Thursday, Edwards continued to run with the first team ahead of Ostrander. When I watched individual quarterbacking drills with head coach and position coach Walt Harris, I noticed that Edwards was receiving more repetitions.
After three weeks of competition, with a perfect rotation for the two highly acclaimed signal callers, we now have seen Edwards take the lead for the quarterback job. Harris explained at the beginning of the spring to The Bootleg that he could see the merits for naming a starter by the end of these April practices, as well as the advantages to leaving the competition open into August camp. An earlier decision would give the team and offense and more clear identity, while also giving that quarterback greater repetitions and a better chance to improve his skills and chemistry with the first team offense. The winning quarterback would also have the entire off-season to establish a firm leadership role within the offense. A later decision, on the other hand, would keep the fire lit under both quarterbacks and possibly push both of them to a higher level come September.
We will see after Saturday's scrimmage if Harris is willing to pronounce that Edwards is the starter coming out of spring practices, but what we are seeing this week tells us that the redshirt sophomore has a lead if not the lead.
There has been one other position where a pair of players have rotated practice to practice - at free safety. Redshirt sophomores Trevor Hooper and David Lofton have taken turns working with sophomore strong safety Brandon Harrison in the defensive backfield, but Hooper has been seen in both practices this week taking the lead at free safety. While you might read this to mean that Hooper has won the battle, defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Tom Hayes says it is too early to make such a proclamation. Instead, we have seen that Lofton has used some of his time this week to also learn the strong safety position, in addition to his free safety duties. The idea is that Lofton can get a strong enough handle on both positions so that he can flexibly play either. Hooper and Harrison have both played the free and strong safety positions at Stanford, and if Lofton can join them, Hayes will have a trio of players who he can plug into either position. This reminds us, in some ways, with how a trio of cornerbacks were used last year effectively as "co-starters."
One other depth chart note: I noticed this first on Tuesday and it continued on Thursday that freshman walk-on Brandon Willetts has moved to outside linebacker while redshirt sophomore Taualai Fonoti has swapped to the inside linebacker position. Both are running second team on a defense that has been scorched by injuries.
Thursday may have lacked lower body pads for full contact, but it was not a boring practice by any stretch of the imagination. I would expect in the fourth week of the spring to see coaches working with players on the execution of what they installed in the first three weeks of practices, but there have been new teachings this week of note. Here are a few that have caught my eye:
- The receivers, running backs and tight ends have been running through blocking bags all spring, with an emphasis on a low pad level for ballcarriers as they hit and run through tacklers. But a new twist this week has asked the skill players to employ a spin move when they hit the bag. It is a difficult maneuver, and one I have rarely seen taught so deliberately and with as much time devoted to it. Many of the players have difficulty with the move, but it is a skill that will pay off in extra yardage for both the running and passing games.
- The skill players continue to work with the quarterbacks on the fade pattern, which has been a strong emphasis throughout the spring. There is an automatic reaction for a receiver to turn around and leap toward the high-arcing pass, but Harris is drilling them on moving forward and catching the ball over their shoulder. Again, a difficult skill, but one that could clearly pay off in big plays come the fall.
- The entire offense worked Thursday on the "hurry-up" or two-minute drill. They conducted it early in practice against air, and then later in the scrimmage they went against the defense. The quarterback calls plays out to the receivers while the center calls the protections to the offensive line. I was pleasantly surprised at the crispness and speed which which plays were conducted, and in the latter session against a defense, the offense moved the ball quite effectively.
- Another offensive drill focused on the Hail Mary play, with a detailed prescription for where players stand in and near the endzone for the arriving long ball from the quarterback. This is a drill I have not often seen in the fall for a Stanford team, and maybe never in the spring.
- The defense is putting in more time with their nickel packages, and they are also working on the corner blitz. I would like to see this defense with a healthy complement of players, but I like the versatility and the ability to disguise within this defense. The calls and plays are not identical to last year, but there are a lot of similar reasons to like this defense once again in 2005.
- The defensive line has started to work more on "line games" - stunts, slants and twists. With a trio of rising seniors filling the first time defensive line, these line games are difficult to block. The offensive line has worked with their defensive counterparts in two-on-two drills, with a guard and tackle trying to maintain their blocks against the nose tackle and defensive end. On Tuesday, I saw the most of the offensive line really struggle in these drills. There were some improvements Thursday, though there is a lot of room to improve on the "hand off" between the two linemen against the line games.
A trio of talented recruits were on hand Thursday at practice. The most renowned was 6'6" tight end Konrad Reuland from Mission Viejo High School (Mission Viejo, Calif.). He is one of the elite tight ends in the nation, and he passed the eyeball test with flying colors. He is every bit of 6'6" and has a fantastic looking frame with broad shoulders. He looks like a basketball player and has a lot of growing still ahead of him. Reuland's visit, accompanied by both his parents, is an important one. They flew up that afternoon and back home that evening - solely for the purpose of seeing the Stanford practice and coaches. The great Bill Walsh spent a good deal of time early in the practice speaking with the Reulands upon their arrival, and Walt Harris had good time with them during and after the practice. It was a short trip that did not allow the family to stay for any extended time after the practice, but we will check with the SoCal standout soon to get his take on the visit. Reuland was offered a scholarship by Stanford earlier this month.
Also in attendance was wide receiver Daniel Lofton from Westview High School (San Diego, Calif.). Lofton is the younger brother of David, the redshirt sophomore safety, and the son of James Lofton, the Cardinal legend and NFL Hall of Famer. This third Lofton is not on a track for The Farm, however, with a reported 2.8 GPA. But many players' families arrived in town Thursday to catch practice for a multi-day stay through Saturday's Spring Game. The youngest Lofton man was with his sister and mother. A new and unfamiliar face was quarterback Colin Kaepernick from Pitman High School (Turlock, Calif.). The 6'5" 190-pounder has enviable size but an equally undeveloped body. He camped at Stanford last summer and is a name to watch in the coming spring combine and summer camp season.
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