Head coach Walt Harris has shown us yet another side of his self-confidence and disregard for external influences in running his Stanford Football team. Flying in the face of The Bootleg Magazine cover jinx, Harris on Sunday named Trent Edwards his starting quarterback for the foreseeable future. The Cardinal quarterback job had been open since Harris took the helm last winter, including all four weeks of spring practices and the first two weeks of this preseason fall camp. However, Edwards has been ahead of T.C. Ostrander for a good part of that time, as measured by Edwards' consistent opportunities to work exclusively with the first team offense. There has been only one practice through the first 18 of this camp where Ostrander has seen noticeable work with the first string offensive unit, and that decision by Harris followed only an Edwards fumble.
Some might charge that Ostrander has not had a fair chance in this race, without the opportunities to play with the first team offensive line or the best receivers, but he and Edwards rotated that role during the opening weeks of spring ball before Edwards moved ahead. Harris will also tell you that much can be proven when playing with the second team offense. If you can move the ball with a less talented or experienced surrounding cast, you can make a big impression. Harris will also tell you that it is a great credit to Ostrander that the decision to name a starting quarterback took this long - six combined weeks of spring and fall practices totaling 32 workouts.
"Obviously we could have done this a lot sooner if we had wanted to, but we couldn't. That to me is all about how well T.C. did," the head coach credits.
Out of respect for Ostrander and the job he has done, Harris talked with the redshirt sophomore before speaking with Edwards, when they were informed of the decision after Sunday's afternoon practice. The conversations were individual and private, rather than making an announcement in front of the assembled 100-plus players on the roster.
"I don't think it's that big of a deal that way," Harris explains. "I waited until after practice because we didn't have time before practice. I wanted to make sure that I explained to both of them what made the difference. I talked to T.C. first. I think one of the reasons we have had to hold back on [naming a starter] is because of the skill he has and the way he plays. I don't think it was ever clear cut. I think Trent is a little more ready and gives us a little better chance. But I told T.C. is just one play away from starting."
Being "one play away" is a theme Harris keeps repeating when talking about his two quarterbacks. The veteran football coach has seen his starting signal callers go down to injury before and understands the step backward a team can take if the next guy is not ready. Harris says he is happy and fortunate that Ostrander has playing experience already under his belt, playing in six games and making two starts as a redshirt freshman in 2004. That being said, the first-year Cardinal head coach has a plan whereby he expects to play Ostrander for at least one drive during Stanford's opening non-conference games.
So be prepared to see #13 come onto the field at some point in both the Navy and UC Davis games. His presence under center may elicit whispers of a quarterback controversy, but Harris will have that substitution planned. And he isn't much for whispers, anyway.
The next question is why Edwards has earned the starting role at the head of the Stanford offense. Much of the fascination in Walt Harris' arrival on The Farm surrounded his long legacy of developing or resurrecting quarterback careers. He is regarded as a "guru" at that position, and a creator of highly successful offenses.
What made this decision, then? Was it the footwork? The release point? The ability to complete the long ball?
Unsexy though it may be, Harris and his quarterbacks have consistently discussed the mental aspects of the position as the deciding factors for success in this offense. Though he does not to relish the talk of how complex his offense may be, Harris admits that it takes a deep understanding of the offense to execute it satisfactorily.
"Trent is a little ahead mentally in what we want to do. He has been more air-tight in executing our system on a more consistent basis," the coach explains. "I think overall, he gives us the best chance right now... I think Trent is just a little older. He's been playing longer. T.C. is going on his third year, right? Trent is going on his fourth year. I think that's kind of what it is - nothing more than that."
The challenge of this system, which Harris has described a hybrid of Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense, is the reads and options that a quarterback has to quickly make. There is a long list of prep All-American slingers who have looked like a million bucks in high school but have not been able to read the field at the speed of the college game, making his progressions. That hurdle is twice as high under Walt Harris, given that the different parts of the defense have to be read in a progression, at which point the quarterback must know what option route his receivers, running backs and tight ends will run in response. Harris balks at the description that his offense is so complex, but he admits that it is not facile.
"My theory on the whole thing is: if it is simple, it will be simple to defend. It's complicated, to some degree, because the defense is complicated. They don't just line up in cover three anymore like in the old years. They line up and give you all different kinds of looks, and that complicates it," he explains. "The defense doesn't play just one front; they play five, six, seven different fronts. They bring a combination of blitzes. Just to be able to line up there is complicated, and that doesn't have anything to do with what we're doing here at Stanford or anybody does anywhere else."
In a mentally challenging system, under a mentally tough head coach, Edwards played his way into this starting job. But that is not to say that the redshirt junior from Los Gatos (Calif.) is headed for the Downtown Athletic Club quite yet. There are still several areas where Harris and Edwards both know the quarterback still needs to improve.
"He's not Jim Plunkett yet. He's not John Elway yet," Harris quips. "[Edwards has to improve] how he handles the pocket. How he moves in the pocket. And making sure that he understands what we are trying to accomplish in the progression. In other words, learning not just outlet number one and number two, but that there is also a three, a four and maybe a five. He needs to understand and have confidence in all the guys out on each play, so that he feels good not forcing the football. Really, a quarterback is like a point guard. You've got to keep everybody involved in the game. He's got to look this way and then come back and throw it over here because when he looks this way, the defense all goes that way. Sometimes, it's hard to get him to get past looking at one side and come back over to the other side."
While there is work still to be done, it should be somewhat encouraging to fans that Harris named a starter Sunday, following the Saturday scrimmage in Stanford Stadium. He had said previously that he was giving himself through Wednesday's scrimmage and subsequent film review to name a starter. The fact that Edwards handled the two-minute drill on Saturday so masterfully, and that he put his first team offense in the endzone twice (versus no touchdowns for Ostrander) helped the decision to come sooner. Harris had admitted that one of this quarterbacks was ahead of the other, but without showing as much yet as he was capable, did not yet deserve to be named the starter.
We thus believe that Edwards has passed a threshold in the mastery of this offense, and all the skills that go along with running it. Though the running game needs work and the offensive line has great gains still to be made, the most important position on the field in the Stanford offense is apparently in capable hands. With less than two weeks until the season opener in Annapolis, that's nice to say.
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