Attending every one of Stanford's practices thus far in this 2005 fall camp, which is about to conclude, I have seen players in position drills, 7-on-7 work and 11-on-11 action. I have taken in the full-contact scrimmage sessions at the end of many practices, as well as the two extended scrimmages held in Stanford Stadium. The last great data point of this camp will come Wednesday afternoon in the stadium, though that scrimmage will be closed to the public and the media. Now looks like as good a time as any to review who in this camp has impressed the most with their improvements.
This list is not intended to represent the "best" players on the team. There are numerous outstanding players for Stanford who will contend for all-conference honors in 2005, but they do not make this list. Why? Because I already knew how good they were, through their demonstrated play last fall and spring. I also should offer up the caveat that this list is not representative of all the players who have made some improvements during the preseason. Most players on the roster are better football players today than they were at the end of the spring. My eye is also an imperfect judge, but after extensive observations and evaluations, here are the players who have surprised and impressed me the most with their step forward in this camp.
(in alphabetical order; * = indicates redshirt year used)
WR Mark Bradford (Jr.)
Already the most talented and accomplished of Stanford's receivers, Bradford has found another gear this year. His consistency in catching the ball dipped in the spring as he wrestled with the mental tidal wave that goes with this offense, but he has now moved past that. Bradford is back to playing with the confidence and speed of the game that we saw his freshman year, but at a higher level and with more physical tools. He is still not the burner for which some fans pine, but he has the best hands, best playmaking ability and can get the best separation from cornerbacks on this team. If he stays healthy, he should have easily his biggest year on The Farm, and one of the better seasons we have seen in several years from a Cardinal wideout.
ILB Michael Craven (Sr.*)
Don't expect this fall to finally be the year where the prep all-universe hype comes true. There are still some physical and mental limitations for the fifth-year senior that will keep him from reaching that high. He also has an almost insurmountable barrier to clear with Kevin Schimmelmann and Michael Okwo as the ILB starters - they are a stellar pair who should rarely if ever come off the field. But injuries always happen, and Craven could make his mark finally this year if and when opportunity comes. The former #1 linebacker out of high school makes this list primarily for two reasons: he started camp two-plus weeks ago healthy and eligible. How long has it been since you could say that for Craven? He is not laterally as quick right now as he might be later in the fall, as he continues to heal and strengthen his knee after his spring MCL repair surgery.
TE James Dray (Fr.)
Most observers who make it out to practices come away raving about Lorig, but Dray is the best prepared of the heralded frosh tight end duo to play right now. He has perhaps the best hands of the entire position unit, but he also brings an athleticism and mental wherewithal that allows him to respond to coaching and make himself a useful player. Tight end is one of the most difficult positions on the field to understand and evaluate as a fan because of the depth and complexity of tasks they are asked to do, but Dray excels in many of those areas already. Even a laymen railbird can marvel at his route running and pass catching ability, to boot. If the season started today and you wanted to play one of the two frosh tight ends, Dray gets my vote.
RB Jason Evans (So.*)
I first thought about writing this story when I saw Evans at the beginning of the second week rip off several impressive runs in an end-of-practice live scrimmage session. That was the best running I had seen from him in his two-plus years on The Farm, but he pushed himself further still this past Saturday in the stadium scrimmage. The problems for Evans have been three-fold thus far in his career: injuries, lack of physical development and lack of tough running style. He has pushed past all three thus far in this camp. But if Stanford were to play Navy tomorrow, I would still bring him off the bench in a reserve running back role. His consistency in how he runs is an issue. How much he brings to every practice is a mystery, and that places him behind Kimble for the moment. His progress is encouraging but certainly incomplete.
RB Anthony Kimble (Fr.*)
The newly converted tailback sparked great hope with his carries in the Spring Game, and he looked good during spring workouts, but how he would produce in this preseason camp was a great question mark. What we have received the last 20 practices from the Louisiana native can be described as "Hurricane Kimble." The 6'1" athlete is precisely what Walt Harris had hoped for - an elusive runner with quickness and an ability to make tacklers miss, while also being a smooth playmaking receiver out of the backfield. Kimble going into Saturday's scrimmage looked like a near-lock for the starting tailback job, but he took a small step back while Evans took a step forward.
DE Matt Kopa (Fr.)
There were certainly skeptics who assumed that this big-bodied athlete would head soon to the offensive line, where help is needed at the tackle positions. Kopa indeed is as much the monolithic physical presence as we expected - though possibly a little bigger than we realized - but he has surprised with his early play at defensive end. He plays lower and with more athleticism than maybe expected. Currently he is the highest on the depth chart of the freshmen in a heralded D-line class. It would take more injuries at the position to push him into playing time this fall, but his future thus far looks bright.
FS David Lofton (Jr.*)
It was just one year ago this week that Lofton made the move from quarterback to safety. While the enticing 6'3" athlete has been around The Farm for several years, he has bounced from position to position and never really stayed settled. Without question, Lofton is the most comfortable and accomplished at safety than he has been at any position at any time at Stanford. He has the size, range and athleticism to be a bigtime force in the secondary, but just during this camp has he started to play more naturally (and thus, faster) at the position. The light is starting to come on.
TE Erik Lorig (Fr.)
The other half of the wunderkind frosh tight end duo. Lorig is the most impressive athlete I have ever seen at Stanford as a freshman tight end, and the Cardinal have cranked out a long line of NFL players from that position, including some excellent athletes. His size, strength and quickness are beyond even the highest expectations anyone held for him out of high school. He's a freak. But he plays like a freshman for now. His mental grasp of what he has to do on every play can mitigate his athletic abilities. You might play him as a true freshman because you want to bet on his figuring it out sooner rather than later, or simply to get him experience and move him further along the curve than in-season practices can provide. His recruitment was infamously painful, but we now know that it was well worthwhile.
C Tim Mattran (Jr.*)
Mr. Anonymous on the offensive line has worked at every position for the Cardinal, with little to no fanfare. He is a versatile athlete with a strong football IQ. Mattran will not become an all-conference lineman, but he is somebody Stanford does not want to do without. His position this fall has been at center, which to the outside world looks like a crowded spot. Brian Head and Alex Fletcher are both standouts, and Mikal Brewer is a good athlete who has also spent time over the ball. But Fletcher is needed at right guard, while Brewer has been consistently disappointing in snapping the ball and making calls. Past history tells us that Head's knees are not likely to give us 11 games, so the center depth is important to explore. Mattran has been the most solid at that depth and has seen a lot of work over the ball in this camp. His calls and knowledge of the playbook has made him consistent and a surprise.
OLB Tom McAndrew / Will Powers / Clinton Snyder (Fr.)
I have a very hard time distinguishing any of this talented trio ahead of the others. They are all outstanding and all in the mix for playing time this fall. McAndrew was the first to grab our attention at the start of camp, as we marveled at his athleticism for his size - bigger already than any other outside linebacker on the team. Snyder was projected as a weakside outside linebacker at the "Rush" position because of his light weight, but he has shown me in practices that he can play on both sides and is a ferocious player. Powers was the slowest out of the gate with an injury to start camp, but he has come along nicely. I cannot make the call for which of these three to play, but I do advocate playing one of them. Given Timi Wusu's five-year injury history at Stanford and Jon Alston's proclivity for pushing himself beyond his physical limits, there is likely to be need for depth at outside linebacker. I also think it would help the depth chart down the road to not stack all three of these players in the same playing class.
NT Matt McClernan (Jr.*)
To be frank, McClernan had a poor spring. His poor play at nose tackle was one of the reasons so much expectation and hope was placed upon freshman Ekom Udofia this fall. Even before Udofia sprained his ankle during camp, McClernan already was changing our mind about that part of the defensive depth chart. He worked in the off-season on his hips, improving his strength and flexibility. The result has been a dramatic improvement in his pad level. McClernan is finally starting to play low and with more power. The light is coming on. He has plenty of work still ahead, but his gains are the single biggest surprise of this 2005 Stanford preseason camp.
FS Bo McNally (Fr.)
The lightly publicized Utah athlete is thus far the biggest surprise of the freshman class. There are four frosh playing right now in the defensive backfield, but McNally is by far the best performer today. He is a good athlete, a "quarterback" in the defensive backfield and makes plays on the ball. I have lost track of how many times I have seen McNally break up a pass or make some disruptive play. Tom Hayes is all smiles and also pleased with this addition to his backfield.
WR Evan Moore (Jr.)
The Bootleg was there for every practice of the spring and documented the travails for the 6'7" wide receiver fan favorite, as he adjusted to the demands of Walt Harris. Both Moore and Harris have tough personalities, so there was the chance that this could be a destructive and difficult relationship. Moore instead has opened his arms to all of Harris' teachings and subsequently thrived this fall. The jumbo wideout is playing more physically and giving more attention to his blocking, which is a point of emphasis for Harris and receivers coach Tucker Waugh. Moore looks flat-out dominant in many drills and practices. This is certainly the best total package we have seen him put together. A big year awaits.
QB Tavita Pritchard (Fr.)
Predictably, Pritchard struggled during the first five days of camp when the entire offense for the year was installed. Veteran signal callers can have a difficult time digesting Walt Harris' offense, so it was a tall task for Pritchard. The freshman still has a long, long way to go, but as soon as he reached that morning practice on the first Saturday of camp - the first practice after the installation was complete and the playbook was tightened up - Pritchard blossomed. He started to gain confidence and played at ease. His throws and his mechanics show the promise of a very fine quarterback. I would play him this fall as Stanford's third quarterback, if injury disasters pushed you that far down the depth chart. The question is whether you want him to be #3 and take only mental rep's during practices, or do you put him on the scout team and keep him active throwing the ball every day - running an offensive, albeit somebody else's offense.
CB Tim Sims (So.*)
We are almost two years past the position switch for Sims from receiver to cornerback, which he opted to make in early September of 2003. The south Florida native is an exciting athlete but did not show off his tools either of the last two years at his new position. Something has changed since the spring, though, and Sims is now starting to play looser and more naturally. He has great natural speed, but the speed at which he plays cornerback is catching up. After a ho-hum spring, Sims has broken out and taken over the nickel back position in Stanford's defensive this fall camp. He is also the #3 cornerback, which puts him "at ready" to spell either T.J. Rushing or Nick Sanchez. It would be a significant drop-off from either of those two to Sims, but he is gaining confidence and displaying more ability to make plays on the ball. If he continues to progress, this could be a good cornerback for Stanford the next couple of years.
OT Allen Smith (Fr.*)
Like McClernan, Smith had a poor spring. But the young offensive lineman has turned it around this fall and put himself into a position to challenge for the #3 offensive tackle on the team. He still has more mistakes in practices than the coaches can stomach, but he at times puts it together in ways we never saw from him last year. His athletic ability makes him a promising prospect, but Smith's progress in figuring out how to play these past few weeks gives us more than just blind hope - which was all he allowed last year.
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