You are not supposed to be a leading performer at a position like the offensive line in just your second college football fall camp. You should not be the first player off the lips of your head coach. These things take time for the big nasties.
But Alex Fletcher is used to breaking the rules. He committed to Stanford just one week after Signing Day in his junior year, something previously unheard of in Cardinal recruiting. He played his way from lowly regarded New York high school football to the U.S. Army All-American Game, where he was voted a captain by his teammates and mauled opponents on the field.
Now the famed "Fletch" is finding how to rewrite the rules for offensive line expectations on The Farm. Not since Eric Heitmann have we seen a second-year player with as much physical ability and playmaking talent. Though he has yet to see the field in a college football game, Fletcher carries himself like a veteran. His head coach, Walt Harris, continually bemoans the strength of Stanford's run game, but this redshirt freshman does not flinch in projecting success in that arena.
"I'm very, very confident that we have guys who can go out and run the ball. Our offensive line, our fullbacks, our running backs - all can do the job," Fletcher declares.
"For young guys on the O-line, it's tough. I've been in their place," comments redshirt junior Jon Cochran. "But Alex has a great grasp of the offense, which helps him immensely. You can't help but be impressed by his tenacity and work ethic. He puts in hour after hour of film study to help himself."
Cochran and Fletcher are perhaps the most important focus for the Stanford offense this fall camp. They are seeking to repair the broken reputation and confidence of the right side of the offensive line. During the four weeks of spring practice, the right guard and right tackle positions were the source of unending frustration for the Cardinal coaching staff. The old adage says that one weak link can unravel an otherwise talented offensive line, but two deficiencies could crush all hopes for Stanford success this 2005 season.
Cochran was man too-often beaten at right tackle in the spring, eventually demoting him into a battle with a first-year tackle in Ben Muth. At right guard, neither of two players with a combined 25 starts could play five straight snaps without some mistake. Fletcher played center throughout the spring but has now slid over to the beleaguered right guard position and has held the first team slot through every practice in this camp. He and Cochran are forming a new chemistry on the right side, for which both players are excited.
"Jonny and I really just starting to put it together," says Fletcher. "We're becoming a cohesive unit, which is so critical on the offensive line. We've been working together all summer. We know each other."
"I think a lot of the credit goes to our work this summer," Cochran offers. "We put in a lot of hours as an offensive line, and the five of us can feel it paying off right now. Alex is a great asset, and with his addition to our offensive line, we have a tremendous opportunity for our team."
Offensive tackles coach John McDonell was as steamed as any member of the Stanford staff in the spring with the line play, but he sees the positive steps his charges have taken since.
"The main thing is that everyone is becoming more comfortable with the schemes, techniques and coaches. It was tough, with the newness of a new staff," McDonell maintains. "They're taking positive steps, but they still have a lot of work to do."
An encouraging point is how the five starters are working together in practices. They push each other through mistakes, and then pick each other back up. Fifth-year senior Brian Head has command in the huddle, while Fletcher - though the youngest of the linemen - is an inspiration by both voice and each play.
"Five offensive linemen have to work together as a fist," says McDonell. "Then, they are powerful as a group. But when just four men get the job done, they're a bust and don't look good."
"In the spring, if four guys made a block but one guy missed his block, it could be a disaster," Fletcher echoes. "We now have five guys who are more consistent - whether we're more confident or know the offense better."
One of the other strengths that has helped push the offensive line forward this fall is the presence of two masters of the playbook. Fletcher took the reins of the offense all spring, while Head has taken over at center - the O-line's engine - through the summer and into this fall camp. In this most cerebral of position units, two heads are certainly better than one.
To the outside world there may have been a perceived competition between Head and Fletcher this past off-season, but the two are profusely complimentary of each other. They work well together in practices and are a natural fit side-by-side on this line: Head brings the savvy and wisdom of four-plus years of experience, while Fletcher adds his athleticism and nastiness. Call them fire (Fletcher) and ice (Head), if you will.
"Brian is pretty far along," says Fletcher of his senior mate. "Brian is playing a position he's played his whole career. Everybody wants to know how he's adjusting to center, but I'm the one guy on this line who is at a new position this fall."
There is the real story this fall. We knew by the end of the spring that Head and Fletcher would play together this fall, but what we didn't know is how Fletcher would acclimate to the guard position, after playing center all his life. His transition, plus the battle and needed improvement at right tackle, is what would make or break this offensive line for 2005.
Cochran was the presumptive starter at right tackle to start the spring, but he was in a dogfight with Ben Muth by the third week of practices in April. The redshirt junior could lament his travails but instead understands how the competition can help push him and the team.
"Unfortunately, Ben Muth went down at the beginning of camp, but he's work his way back. We need that competition to give us the best right tackle we can get," Cochran comments. "I worked hard this summer to improve my footwork, and now I need to put that into games. I can still work on my pass blocking technique."
If you caught some of those spring practices, you know that Cochran's greatest difficulty was handling the quickness of defensive end Casey Carroll when rushing the passer. The fourth-year tackle hopes that the speed he sees each day in practice from that position, plus the outside linebacker rush, will help prepare him for what he could see in the Pac-10 this fall. After all, are there many players in the country as quick as Jon Alston off the edge?
For Fletcher, the transition from center to guard had questions but has been a wild success. Though he is a natural center, the New York native has the quickness and athleticism to let Stanford do a lot of things on offensive while he is at guard.
"The biggest difference between center and guard is that guys are not lined head-up," Fletcher explains. "You have to be more athletic to pass protect. It's not a big difference in drive blocking; run blocking is run blocking."
Though the position is a solid fit for the redshirt freshman, there is no shortage of critiques that interior offensive line coach Tom Freeman has to offer. Freeman is a famously vocal position coach who never holds back telling a lineman what he did wrong on any given play. Fletcher is a famously aggressive player, which sometimes works against him.
"Coach Freeman is working with me to help me take the right guard steps. Sometimes I move a little too fast. I need to slow down before I get to the next level. 'Move the big guys first' - that's what Coach Freeman always says. I can afford to stay on my block just a little longer," the converted guard allows.
"It's not about the plays. I know the playbook backward and forward. It's the little things; it's taking the right steps and being smart," Fletcher continues. "In high school, I did too much. I tried to block my guy, somebody else's guy and somebody else's guy. Coach Freeman says to keep your nose in your own business. If I get the guy across from me every time, I'll be in good shape. If I worry about blocking somebody else's guy, too, that's when I can get in trouble. But Coach Freeman won't let me do that."
Fletcher's maturity in how he understands and describes his responsibilities on this offensive line are matched by his physical abilities. It is difficult for fans to come to terms with the idea that a redshirt freshman is not only "ready" to play at the Pac-10 level on the offensive line, but play exceptionally well. There is a learning curve at this position that is unique in the game of football. Offensive line play is a craft that can be mastered only with experience. The best come into their own rarely before their third year. Indeed, Stanford's other four projected starters have three in their fourth year and Head in his fifth year. By all rights, we could be skeptical of Fletcher's prospects this fall, but he will hear nothing of the talk that he is "green."
"I'm not green. I don't believe in that," Fletcher fires back. "As a true freshman, absolutely, you could have said that. I was there physically, but not mentally last fall. Everybody else knew the playbook on that starting line. I came in and had to learn it later than everybody else. But under Coach Harris, we have a new offense. Everybody started green in the spring with this offense - whether you were in your fourth year or your first year. Everybody got the playbook at the same time. That put everybody on the same playing field, and now the best players play."
"Alex came in with the mindset to push to play last year," Cochran comments. "We had the guys healthy where we didn't need him yet, but even as a redshirt he put in the time to learn. My class lacked that immediate drive. The result of his work and his talents is that he has made himself an asset already for our team. The next four years, Alex Fletcher will be one heck of a player for Stanford."
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