Football's Summer Sizzle: Part I

The winter brought the "fourth quarter" conditioning program. Stanford spring football under Walt Harris carried a unique flavor and schedule to the practice field. So why would we expect anything less than a revolution in summer workouts? Here is a look at the voluntary practices and conditioning, including unprecdented organization and freshman participation.

This past week marked the start of Stanford Football summer practices.  Each year, these mysterious and misunderstood workouts quietly proceed on The Farm.  But who attends?  What happens?  Does it make a difference?

Unofficial practices during the summer months achieve three primary goals: continuity, chemistry, and improvement.  The heightened conditioning earned during the winter and spring quarters can be upended with just a few weeks "off the wagon."  A summer of lax training can torch an entire fall season, for even the most talented players.  Players who report to preseason camp in mid-August out of shape will spin their wheels through a month of crucial practices, as they struggle to get in shape.  Those practices are the springboard for the fall season.  Summer conditioning offers continuity, bridging the workouts conducted during the academic year.

Similarly, the four weeks of teaching during spring practices can be lost if players do not keep up their repetitions and study of the playbook.  A position coach cannot stand to reteach principles and plays during preseason camp, when so precious little time exists before games kick off.  Fall camp can be best leveraged to install and refine more schemes, only if players come out of the summer as sharp as they left the spring.

Ideally, the summer is not just a time to "hold your ground" in conditioning and mastery of the playbook.  The spring leaves everyone with wrinkles to iron out and shortfalls to remedy.  A truly successful summer program sends players out in better condition with a better grasp of the scheme and calls.

Maybe most important to these summer workouts is the chemistry-building that takes place.  Players shack up together in crowded living conditions, run their hardest sprints in the hottest conditions of the year, and dedicate more together time to football in the vacuum of their academic summer break.  These are hard and trying times, but under strong leadership from captains and with a critical mass of participation, there is a new sense of "team" that carries players into the fall previously unknown to them.

If you have ever talked to players on the 1999 Pac-10 champion team (2000 Rose Bowl), or the 9-3 team in 2001, they will shout the praises of what their summer did to launch them into the season as a tightly bonded band.

To that end, there is room for real optimism for 2005 Stanford Football.  The participation in these summer workouts is at a level we have not seen in several years on The Farm.  Of the 85 returning players on the roster - combined scholarship and walk-on athletes - we saw 81 at this first week of practices and workouts.  Two who are absent are excused because they are working with specialist coaches back home: redshirt sophomore punter Jay Ottovegio and redshirt sophomore kicker Derek Belch.  Redshirt freshman cornerback Wopamo Osaisai is nearby but is tending to a family medical situation; he additionally will run in the Junior Pan-Am Games later this month.  That leaves missing just redshirt freshman defensive end Alfred Johnson, who is a walk-on.  On top of these numbers, an inspiring majority of the incoming freshman class is on campus.  Players are buzzing and the coaches must be smiling wide at the blanket depth in this summer's participation.  Not bad for voluntary workouts.

The weekly schedule is shaping up thusly: players lift at either 3pm, 4pm or 5pm on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, followed by an evening conditioning session of running and stretching.  These workouts are led by strength & conditioning coach Ron Forbes, and NCAA rules permit him to conduct a maximum of eight hours of work per week with the players.  Nothing restricts players from additional runs and lifts on their own time, with out his direction.  Last Monday was the first day Forbes worked the troops, and it set the tone for the summer.  The "highlight" was a series of 14 200-yard sprints.  These are the times that try men's souls.

On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, the team conducts an organized football practice either before or after the challenging conditioning workout.  Friday practices will be added the last two weeks of the summer.  While strength & conditioning coaches are permitted to work with the players during the off-season, no coach is allowed to work with the players with any piece of football equipment - e.g. a ball, pads, tackling sled, etc.  These unofficial football practices are unsupervised by the football coaching staff, and as such they can vary greatly in their utility.  It requires great organization, leadership and focus from the team captains and leaders to keep 100 bodies on track.

The organization of these practices is the best I have ever seen in Stanford summer workouts.  They flow from position drills, to group (seven-on-seven; OL vs. DL) competition to 11-on-11 competition, very much like an official practice would be conducted.  The timing and execution of the schedule is tight, with little wasted time.  These are subjective observations, but there are two important factual notes on these practices that separate them from those of past years.

First, all players participate together.  In the past, linemen have done their drills on a schedule independent from the so-called "skill" players.  The line drills had no tie with the seven-on-seven sessions.  This year, there are separate drills in the early part of practice, but significant time is spent in 11-on-11 competition, which brings the lines together with the remainder of their teammates.  In the absence of pads and helmets, it may be difficult to see the need for Brian Head to line up over Babatunde Oshinowo.  This is not full-contact work, after all.  But the players in all position groups are excited by their better understanding of each other with the unified repetitions.  Running backs have real linemen moving in front of them, and the big nasties have live bodies darting between them.  Not even in the famed 1999 summer workouts did Stanford run 11-on-11 competition.

Second, the Stanford players are conducting two simultaneous sets of these 11-on-11 competitions.  There were deficiencies at some positions in recent years (most notably, the offensive line) that would not allow this, but recruiting has evened out and filled out the depth charts to allow a full complement of players at all positions.  The benefit that results is that more plays can be run for more players in a given period of time.  Not only a beacon of efficiency, this dual-level of repetitions gives the players a much more helpful practice each day.  Time spent standing and watching your teammates is not time best spent.

Frosh First Look

As is always the case, our eyes first gravitate to the incoming freshman class.  This is their first chance to condition with their teammates, while also gaining their first repetitions of the Stanford playbook.  The first frosh to come to campus this summer was Chris Marinelli, who already came and went.  The lone offensive lineman in the 2005 class, at a towering 6'7" and 302 pounds, is now back home in Boston with his family.  He expects to return to The Farm later this month.

Of the 17 scholarship members in this freshman class, 12 have now shown at Stanford this summer - 11 since Marinelli.  By comparison, there were no freshman on campus during the summer of 1999.  Here are the Class of '05 self-reported weights as of last week:

James Dray - 250
Chris Hobbs - 175
Blaise Johnson - 185
Matt Kopa - 271
Ben Ladner - 258
Erik Lorig - 250
Tom McAndrew - 251
James McGillicuddy - 302
Bo McNally - 202
Will Powers - 231
Tavita Pritchard - 185

The weights, and bodies, who grab your attention are Dray and McAndrew.  Dray has a big frame and carries 250 pounds like it is 230, and he looks every bit as quick in drills as he did on film from his senior year.  McAndrew already outweighs the top four outside linebackers on the returning Stanford roster.  If he can run at this weight and pick up the playbook, he could battle for depth at the "Sam" outside linebacker, where we assumed classsmate Will Powers would prove to be the prodigy.  It also does not take much foresight to see McAndrew helping the defensive line within the next year.

Kopa, Ladner and McGillicuddy are working hard with the senior linemen to pick up the nomenclature and calls on the defensive line.  The complexity of "line games" that the D-line will employ this year creates a difficult challenge for the frosh to get up to speed; however, fifth-year seniors Casey Carroll and Babatunde Oshinowo both stayed after Wednesday's practice for a good deal of time to help teach the talented young trio.  Do not underestimate the impact on a player's career that this special attention from seniors can create.

We need more practices before we craft our conclusions, and the real revelation will come in four weeks when official practices - with pads, helmets and coaches - begin.  But it is clear as day that the freshman tight ends, Dray and Lorig, are talented.  Dray has the speed and soft hands we saw in scouting his high school film, and he appears comfortable competing with and against college players.  At 250 pounds, he has the size and strength (sooner than we envisioned) to grapple with Pac-10 tight ends.  Lorig is a special athlete, with nimble and quick-moving feet that have players positively buzzing about him.  The tight end position is crowded coming into camp, but it will be a surprise if one or both of these frosh don't push and surpass some veteran position mates.

There is one sour note to Lorig's summertime at Stanford, however.  Because his infamous recruiting saga concluded after the closing of the National Letter of Intent signing period, he lacks the off-season official status as a scholarship holder that his 16 classmates who signed on Signing Day possess.  That does not restrict Lorig from conducting the football practices with the rest of the roster, but when strength & conditioning coach Rob Forbes shows up to lead team workouts, Lorig cannot participate.  Similarly, the rules prevent a walk-on incoming freshman from taking part in the conditioning workouts.  Cornerback C.J. Easter, for one, badly wanted to join the team for this time but instead has to wait until August 14 (report date).

In Part II, we go beyond the freshman class and give you our view on some of the more notable physical changes we are seeing in players.  Also notes on how the depth chart is already changing at several positions.

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