While much attention has been paid to the offensive position battles for quarterback and running back during this preseason camp, Stanford's most fascinating unit to analyze is the tight ends. At the start of camp, we saw eight bodies on the roster at the position, which led us to predict that one of one or more quick position switches. The fullback and defensive line groups could use some help. However, the tight ends have had several players in and out of practices in this camp with a variety of injuries.
If you will permit a brief digression, the injuries are not unexpected. I have long maintained that the tight end position is the most succeptible to injuries of any unit on the football team. They are asked to block at the line of scrimmage with the demands of an offensive lineman, while also expected to run routes in the passing game. So often, fans scoff at the depth that schools stockpile at tight end, but the reality of this violent sport is that most teams will take multiple injury hits in their tight end group in any given year...
For Stanford, fall camp has already had casualties. The good news is that the Cardinal are today as healthy at tight end as they have been since the start of practices. The bad news is that junior Patrick Danahy, who finished the spring and continued throughout the summer as Stanford's clear #1 tight end, is currently injured. Walt Harris released that information to us, but no timeline was given for the Floridian's return.
Harris also commented that he held high expectations for his tight ends coming into this fall camp but has not yet gotten what he wants out of them. Part of that fault lies with the injuries, which have stymied progress for individuals while also disrupting the learning curve of the group. Additionally, there is a high standard that has been set by both Harris and Todd Husak. Husak is best known as the Cardinal's prolific signal caller from the 1999 Pac-10 Champion and Rose Bowl team, but he is back on The Farm getting started on his coaching career. The former college and NFL quarterback is a graduate assistant who has also been handed the big responsibility of coaching Stanford's tight ends, along with assistant coach John McDonell. Though Husak may be new to the coaching game, he has been quick to understand and set expectations for his players.
"I'm still pretty competitive. It wasn't that long ago that I was playing," Husak reminds us. "I just want the guys to push themselves as hard as they can. I set higher goals. I think over the last four years, our goals have not been set high enough. They have been accepting mediocrity. The quicker we abandon that, the better we will allow ourselves to be. Right now we are not allowing ourselves to be very good because we are not expecting enough of ourselves. I'm trying to raise guys expectations of themselves, both individually and as a team."
Though a generally mild-mannered guy, Husak has shown flashes of animation in practices. Earlier this week in a receiving drill, one of his tight ends repeatedly stepped out of bounds before making his cut up the field after a catch on a particular route.
"If you continue to make the same mistakes, then I'll tend to get a little fired up," Husak admits.
""If they don't make the same mistake twice, then they will be perfect by about Week Three because they have made about 90% of them so far," he adds with a laugh.
"It's just knowledge. The quicker we are more confident in the playbook, the better we are going to be able to go out and play our game without thinking about my route or my blocking," Husak preaches. "You know it, so you go out and do it. I've really been trying to drill the guys on knowing the plays - knowing them instinctually - so that they hear the play, they know what they're doing, and they just go execute it."
As with most parts of this football team, the tight ends are a work in progress. With eight players at his disposal, Husak has a range of abilities in his pupils.
"There are a few guys who are better blockers. There are a few guys who are better receivers," Husak says. "I think what they need to focus on is to take their weaknesses and make them into strengths. Hopefully by the end of the fall, we will have a group of complete tight ends, rather than subbing one in on passing downs, one in on running downs. Fortunately, everybody does something pretty well, so I can teach off that guy to three other guys who don't do it as well. Hopefully they are learning and working on the things we are teaching."
Getting more granular, here is what Husak has to say about each of his eight charges, in the third and final week of Stanford's 2005 fall camp:
Patrick Danahy (junior)
"Danahy is one of the hardest workers on the team and did a great job of setting the tempo and being a leader in the off-season. Hopefully he will be able to come back soon and provide us with another veteran presence in the huddle and contribute with his playmaking skills. He has a great ability to stay low and make plays after the catch because of his strength and speed."
Michael Horgan (redshirt sophomore)
"I think he is maybe our best combination right now of athlete, receiver and blocker. He does everything pretty well. He doesn't do anything exceptionally well yet, but he has that ability. He's a big, strong, fast kid and he's young. He has three years left. He needs to push himself, be 100% assignment-wise and then start making plays in the passing game. He's done what we have asked him, but he hasn't really excelled in one area. His hands are up there. He's solid. He makes a lot of catches, but there have been a couple plays in this camp where they would have been very good plays had he made them. He needs to make those plays and be an exceptional receiving tight end."
Matt Traverso (redshirt junior)
"When he is healthy, he is the guy we need him to be. He's good on his assignments. Very good on his technique and footwork. Our biggest plays in the scrimmages, both the spring and fall, have been through him - he's done a nice job catching the ball. We just need him to be consistent coming out here and practicing, and hopefully lead more through example. It's tough to teach other guys what to do when he's not able to do it. The more we keep him healthy, the better we will be as a group. I would say right now he's our best blocker."
Austin Gunder (redshirt freshman)
"The thing that is slowing him down is his footwork. I think he's done a great job catching the ball. He had three catches in our scrimmage last Wednesday. We just need him to be a more consistent blocker. We are looking at him right now as our F-back. He's doing some things well, but we need him to be much more consistent assignment-wise and technique-wise."
Patrick Bowe (redshirt freshman)
"Pat Bowe has done a great job for us. He's a walk-on guy, but he has really improved from the first day of spring until now. He just needs to keep working. I know by the time he is done here, he will be able to contribute quite a bit."
Dan McLennan (redshirt sophomore)
"He's a walk-on who has a lot of work to do. He came to us not very clued in on football, and hopefully he is learning some Xs and Os enough where he can help us out on our scout team."
Erik Lorig (freshman)
"He is maybe our best athlete. He doesn't know what he's doing right now, a lot of the time. But he's low; he's explosive; he's fast. He has great potential, but potential doesn't do a lot for you. Once he learns who to block and what routes to run, he's going to be an exceptional tight end. He needs to get that part down. I'm not going to be out there on the field on Saturdays, telling him what the play is. He has to put the time in to learn it. We aren't asking him to learn everything because that would be too much. We threw a lot at him early. Some things stuck to him, and hopefully we are going to be able to grow upon those things. Right now, he needs to grow knowledge-wise, but he has the tools to be an exceptional player."
James Dray (freshman)
"Jim has the potential to be a great tight end. I think he, better than anybody else, understands how to get open. How to find the zones and how to be physical. He has great speed. I think he can do a lot of things and has a lot of tools. I think he is more polished right now than Lorig, and I think he understands football a little bit better. The more we can keep him healthy, the quicker he will be able to play."
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