There is no time for small talk for Walt Harris. Stanford Football's new head coach met with the media after Monday evening's first practice of the Cardinal's 2005 fall camp and was greeted with ice-breaking comments from reporters about the unseasonably cool weather. Cracking nary a smile, he took the subject of the weather seriously, with an eye toward his season opener in less than four weeks.
"We need way more heat," Harris began. "Especially when we play in humidity. Annapolis is right by the water, so it will be more humid than normal - and hot that time of year. Holy mackerel. This is a tough one. We need to get way more heat."
The tone set with the media is much like the tone the new Cardinal head coach has set for his football program, and that was evident Monday on the practice field. No wasted time. No wasted joking. After a summer where every returning player (save four), through the breadth of the scholarship and walk-on ranks, sweated and toiled through on-campus voluntary football practices and conditioning workouts, there was a sense of relief, excitement, and urgency to renew official practices with the coaching staff.
"I think we had a good attitude here today. I think they were excited about practicing," Harris offers. "We were real rusty, especially in no pads. You don't play the game that way, so it's really difficult to tell. We need to get out practicing. We have some guys who need to sharpen up."
While Harris laments the NCAA-mandated absence of any protective pads in the opening days of fall camp, which are necessary for engaging in full contact, he is thankful that he escaped the first no-pads practice without any new injuries. The Cardinal did miss a few players in this first fall workout coming off a difficult conditioning test Monday morning that took some casualties. A pair of freshmen with old injuries also were unable to practice.
There was a challenge set forth by Walt Harris to his team at the end of the spring, to improve their conditioning and to demonstrate their buy-in to the new coaching staff and direction of the program. The Bootleg reported on the depth of participation, as well as the toil, that transpired during the voluntary summer workouts. Harris, by rule, was unable to attend or observe those conditioning runs and football practices, so today was a big day for the Stanford team. Did they look like a team who did what he asked and expected of them?
"I think what I saw today was the same I have seen at other places I have been, when there has been a big commitment during the summer," Harris answers in the affirmative. "I think they would be much more rusty if they had not put the time in this summer. That's a credit to our players."
"We had a running test today, and on a general note, the guys performed very well, which was gratifying and exciting," adds the hard-to-please coach. "Most of our guys really put the time in [this summer] with the conditioning. We also had some guys who got bigger and stronger. I think we'll see that when we put more pads on."
Tuesday will again put the Cardinal on the practice field in helmets-only, while Wednesday and Thursday will be conducted with upper-body pads. The NCAA's acclimation period expires Friday, when Stanford will first wear full pads. Saturday will be the first allowed two-a-day practice. Then the fun begins. Linemen become more than placeholders, and the running game gets tested in ways we can never see without pads.
Until then, we can only draw some overarching conclusions from these initial few workouts: the offense is sharper than we would expect after nearly four months away from the coaches; the playbook is already being expanded; and the starters we saw at the end of the spring are the same starters opening the fall.
Trent Edwards said there were between 10 and 15 additions to the offense - on just the first day of camp. That is representative of the aggressive installation that Harris has planned for the first of the three weeks of camp.
"We're trying to put most all of our stuff in, scheme-wise, on offense. Then we'll go back on Day Six and start to really fine tune it," he shares.
That puts a lot of heavy mental lifting on the shoulders of Harris' quarterbacks. Edwards, now starting his redshirt junior season, is the presumptive starter as camp begins, though Harris claims the job is still open. We saw a meaningful gap in both the performances and the number of snaps between Edwards and redshirt sophomore T.C. Ostrander at the close of the spring, and it was Edwards who took the lead during summer workouts. On Monday, Edwards received more work, though not enough to clearly convey a one-two at the signal caller position.
"Right now, I'm just keeping the way it was at the end of spring practice," Harris claims of his quarterbacks. "I don't think we've committed to a number one quarterback yet. We did give [Edwards] a few more rep's today, but that could change real quickly. Honestly, I think it would be good [to name a starter] the sooner the better for our team. Traditionally, I really like guys competing. I think it brings the best out of everyone."
In addition to the quarterback job, there are a few other positions where the starting spot remains up for grabs. Harris might tell you that every job is open until September, but performances and experience have most spots settled on the depth chart. The running back battle is the most wide open of any on the Stanford team. On Monday, fifth-year senior J.R. Lemon and redshirt freshman Anthony Kimble took the lead at tailback. Junior David Marrero is also expected to be a key combatant in that competition, though he was held out of Monday's practice for precautionary reasons and should return to action shortly.
"I don't worry about the guys who get hurt," Harris comments. "We have enough guys we have to coach who are practicing."
Another interesting position is tight end, where junior Patrick Danahy has a stronghold on the starting job, but an incredible depth of teammates are battling for the #2 and #3 spots that would see the field. On Monday, a full complement of eight tight ends took the field - a dizzying number. Included are two true freshman, Erik Lorig and James Dray. Both looked excellent in their opening Stanford practice and should have a real shot at playing time. The coaching staff did an admirable job managing the octet, divvying their time between receiving and blocking drills, but eight is not a sustainable number. There are not enough snaps to go around for that size of a group. We expect one or more position switches earlier rather than later in this fall camp, and that puts the heat squarely on the tight ends to compete right away.
On defense, one quietly competitive position is the Sam outside linebacker, which is seeking a new starter after the graduation of current Washington Redskins rookie Jared Newberry. Redshirt sophomore Udeme Udofia held the mantle of the starter throughout the spring, but fifth-year senior Timi Wusu will have something to say about that competition, despite missing the entire spring while recovering from off-season surgery. At least one freshman could figure in the mix as well, and while the recruiting rankings and local hoopla surrounded Foster City's Will Powers, it is Tom McAndrew who surged on the opening day of camp. At 6'5" and 251 pounds, McAndrew has been penciled by more than a few fans for a future on the defensive line, but on Monday he took much of the snaps as the second team Sam outside linebacker.
The defensive line is the most widely acclaimed group in the frosh class, and some observers hope and expect to see one or more of its ranks to step up into playing time this fall. It is difficult to judge players on the line of scrimmage before full pads are in place, but the early observations were positive for the group. While watching one-on-one battles between the offensive and defensive linemen, probably the most successful freshman was nose tackle James McGillicuddy. The big body everybody is watching is Ekom Udofia, who was not expected to have a physical readiness for this camp after a massive set of breaks and tears in his lower leg during a game last October. Throughout the winter, spring and summer, though, Udofia worked himself ahead of schedule - resolute that he would be healthy in time for preseason camp. The Arizona athlete lived up to his promise, with full participation on Monday. He is somebody we will track closely throughout camp.
Harris shrugged off questions about the freshmen, unwilling to offer forecasts after his first ever workout with them - without pads.
"We're in shorts. You don't play football in shorts," he quips. "I think there are some guys who have some athletic ability and look eager. It's fun to coach a lot of those guys, so we'll see. It's way too early."
For all the questions we cannot yet answer, data will come quickly. Harris has his team scheduled for 27 practices in 21 days, without any day of rest through the three weeks. Contrary to the rampant rumors that the new head coach is testing The Bootleg with his everyday regimen, Harris says that he needs his players on the field as much as possible.
"This is training camp. This is not the NFL. This is training camp. We don't have enough time as it is to get ready," he declares. "We're not worried about time off. We'll have plenty of time to bring their legs back when it's time to play. When we get to our final game preparation, we'll bring their legs back. Right now we have to get tougher and find a way to get the game close, then find a way to win those games instead of losing them. The tougher we can make it, within reason, we want to make it."
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