The business of training camp on The Farm has ended, while the business of preparing for the season opener at Navy has begun.
After Wednesday's closed scrimmage in Stanford Stadium, the Cardinal embarked on their first full-blown game preparation of 2005. While the defense had enjoyed pieces of education about the Navy offense for several days, Thursday marked the first day in which a scout offense and a scout defense were assembled on the practice field. Walt Harris has spoken with reverence and concern about the Navy offense, which employs a triple option, since the inception of fall camp three weeks ago. He indeed has publicly cautioned fans and the media that his defense's success against the difficult and unusual Navy option should not be taken as a barometer for the season. Reading between the lines, Harris has something between respect and fear for this game. His players are approaching the task with equal gravity.
"There are a lot of challenges," says fifth-year senior outside linebacker Jon Alston. "We'll have our first game, while this will be their second game. The option presents its own challenges."
"They are very disciplined," adds classmate and inside linebacker Kevin Schimmelmann. "You see the quarterback with the ball, and your instinct is to try and go tackle him." And then the ball finds its way to the pitch man, some 25 yards down the field.
Navy runs a unique offensive system, which mystifies opponents on a weekly basis. Not only is their option unlike anything you will face at any other time on your schedule, making the scout preparation a challenge, but also their option is run with great execution. It is a given that Navy players will be smaller and less athletic than the BCS opponents which they face week-in and week-out, so the Midshipmen compensate with preparation and precision. If you pull 10 Stanford players aside today and ask them to give one word to describe the Navy team, nine will answer with "disciplined." The 10th will be told to stay after practice and give you a 100-yard bear crawl.
In watching Stanford's scout offense the last few days, we also see that Navy can line up with wide splits between their personnel. Those splits negate the size advantages that Stanford would like to leverage at the line of scrimmage. Instead of the close-quarters battles you expect in a college football contest, confrontations are moved to open space. In that environment, quickness and wile can outmatch size and strength.
Moreover, wider Navy splits on offense spread the Stanford defensive personnel across the field. The triple option leaves a defender like Jon Alston guessing where the ball will go, and a lot of green to cover to get there after reading and reacting.
"It puts me further away from the ball," Alston explains. "When chasing the play down from the backside, I have a longer distance to go."
Stanford has a long way to go in a short amount of time to prepare for this Navy game, which carries great import for the Cardinal community. There is hope that Stanford can win its first game played east of the Mississippi River since the 1993 Blockbuster Bowl. There is hope that the Cardinal can return in 2005 to a postseason bowl appearance for the first time since 2001. There is hope that Stanford Football can be an entertaining and winning product now that Walt Harris is at the controls, but a treacherous schedule that will rank as one of the top in the nation puts a premium on every opportunity to grab a win.
Cardinalmaniacs™ will be hard-pressed to find many "gimme" games that can be confidently chalked up in the win column on this 2005 schedule. There are games in the "winnable" category, however, where the oddsmakers in Vegas will position the point spread plus or minus just a few ticks for the Cardinal. Though Navy concluded a 10-2 season in 2004, this Stanford season opener in Annapolis has to be marked as a winnable game. The challenges, only partially outlined above, are non-trivial, but a win is well within reason and reach.
To get there, the scout work that started late this past week and which continues into this game week must be strong. If you had the chance to watch Navy's opener yesterday against Maryland, then you were part of the national audience that was introduced to Mids quarterback Lamar Owens. The 5'9" 185-pound senior has the unenviable task of replacing Aaron Polanco, but Navy's new signal caller picked up 122 yards on 6.4 yards per carry and helped Navy control much of the game. The Mids led almost the entire game until the fourth quarter.
Part of the difficulty for Stanford's scout preparation in any week is finding athletes on the scout team who can replicate the playmaking and athleticism of their opponents. The Cardinal's mock-Owens has fallen to redshirt sophomore free safety Aaron Smith. Smith was a successful option and rollout passing quarterback for Point Loma High School in San Diego. Though two years removed from playing under center, Smith is a good athlete who quickly demonstrated in the first couple days of scout practices this past week that he can give the Stanford defense all they can handle.
The option backs who are playing with Smith in the scout offensive backfield are Ray Jones, Xxavier Carter and Ben Ladner. Jones' appearance on the scout team might be a surprise to fans who remember his playing as a true freshman for Stanford last year. The number three tailback in 2004, he has now dropped down the depth chart. Walt Harris has announced his top running backs, and Jones receives nary a mention. On the newly released official depth chart, Jones fails to appear on offense. He even trails J.R. Lemon, who missed almost the entire three weeks of camp with an injury.
On a more positive note, two tailbacks made great strides during the preseason camp and finished one-two on the new depth chart. Redshirt freshman Anthony Kimble finished fall camp as Stanford's number one running back, though he has yet to play a college football game and was switched from wide receiver on the last day of spring practices.
"He's continuing to improve - trying to gain a little more experience and a little more confidence," Harris comments on Kimble. "He was there every day working. You don't have to call on him to work. He works; he pays attention. He corrects mistakes; and he doesn't repeat mistakes."
The number two position is held by redshirt sophomore Jason Evans, who showed a couple sparks in the spring but came alive in the last week-plus of these preseason practices. Fans have been waiting for the light to come on for this highly acclaimed recruit, who held offers from the likes of Penn State, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Florida. He is now stronger, more powerful and running with a purpose.
The number three and four tailbacks were the top two runners for Stanford coming out of the summer. Junior David Marrero quietly emerged out of spring practices as the lone man atop the tailback depth chart, showing the best quickness and playmaking elusiveness of the backfield charges. But he spent August in and out of practices with injuries for which Harris has little patience.
"He needs to practice every day," the head coach charges. "Play up to his potential. Be consistent."
Injury essentially wiped out fifth-year senior J.R. Lemon's camp, after he had an excellent summer and started the first couple days of preseason practices in great spirits. Though discouraged by his inability to win the starting tailback job in the spring, Lemon doubled down his work ethic in the off-season and was ready to fight for the right to start in Annapolis.
"That's a hard one for J.R. and obviously hard for us because he hasn't practiced. It's hard to do all those things if you are not out there practicing," Harris offers. "He hasn't been practicing, so he's fallen short of the mark."
Lemon could start working his way back into practices this week, but he faces a large hill he has to climb. Harris says that the reality of Stanford's situation today is one of Navy game preparation and not Lemon's reintegration.
"Right now he's fourth on the depth chart," the coach coldly states. "We can't get everybody ready to play."
If you are a college football player, this is why you have to stay healthy and you have to perform during fall camp. During the thick of the season, NCAA rules limit the number of hours that can be spent on the practice field, and coaches squeeze every minute from those workouts to prepare for Saturday's opponent. Preseason camp affords time for teaching, progress and evaluation. But the depth chart is difficult to climb once the season gets underway. More often than not, it requires failures on the field or injuries by players ahead of you before you can move up.
That all said, there is some amount of looseness with which Walt Harris is handling his depth chart and starting assignments today. While he pronounced Trent Edwards as Stanford's starting quarterback last week, Harris has called players at other positions "number one on the depth chart." The absence of "starter" in those statements is mirrored by the rotations and repetitions seen in recent practices. For example, on Thursday and Friday the offense consistently employed a rotation of Kimble, Evans and Marrero - with one play each, one after another.
Harris says that Kimble has earned the right to sit atop the depth chart by his performances and consistency through camp, but the head coach also says that we should expect multiple runners to carry the ball Saturday in Annapolis.
"He's never played a game of college football, and for us, that is a concern. But he has worked his way to that position, so he gets that opportunity," Harris comments on Kimble. "It depends upon how the rest of the guys practice. Anthony has never played before, plus we're playing in a humid environment. The run game is a hugely important thing to us... We'll probably play more than one game. How many we play will depend on how they practice."
I asked Harris on Saturday the more global question of whether the players he has listed as 'starters' - those who sit atop the depth chart - will be the starters at Navy.
"Nobody can afford to have a bad week of practice," Harris answered. The pressure is still on as players compete for playing time and possibly still for starting jobs. Harris says that a new depth chart will not be released prior to next Saturday. He suggests watching in Annapolis for who takes the field.
Putting aside for a moment that great amount of mystery, there is still a good deal of information revealed by who the coaching staff has placed atop the depth chart at several positions. Kimble is joined in the backfield by junior fullback Nick Frank, which gives Stanford an all-Bayou backfield. Moreover, both of those projected starters are position switches which Harris has made since he arrived on The Farm. In 2004, Frank was a defensive lineman and Kimble was a receiver.
No position has had as much depth of competition this preseason as tight end, where redshirt sophomore Michael Horgan held down the first team spot for much of August. Redshirt junior Matt Traverso was expected to step into a much bigger role in 2005 but has battled injuries throughout this year. Harris' comments on his running backs reveal the importance, as well as the impatience, that he holds toward players' injury status. Traverso made a grand comeback, however, in the last week-plus of this camp. When in the lineup on an everyday basis, he surged and finished camp as Stanford's number one tight end. Horgan sits at the second spot, but should have a major role in the offense. Stanford may employ a number of two-tight end sets, with one "true" tight end and one f-back. The latter position has a greater receiving role and may line up in one of a multitude of positions. Horgan is the team's best player today for that position.
All told, Stanford is practicing a whopping five tight ends with the offense, while Patrick Bowe and Dan McLennan run with the scout team. Yes, that means that both true freshmen are receiving repetitions as well as mental work. When asked about the redshirt status of his freshman class, Harris says to look to the practice field.
"You could tell by the way we practiced - who was with what you might refer to as the 'varsity.' The ones that were over there all have an opportunity, but we're going to try to be very careful when we take the redshirt off and play a guy," the head coach comments.
"He has to be a guy who is going to be in the two-deep," Harris articulates of his criteria for playing a true freshman. "When we make that decision, we need to back it up. In different times in the past, that has happened and come back to haunt the future. If a player is pretty good now, he will be a lot, lot better next year with more eligibility. It's really going to be hard to play young guys unless they are ready and consistently execute what we ask them to do. That's a good part about our practices because you get a feel for whether a guy can do that or not."
"We basically have half the season to determine whether we play a guy or don't play a guy. Once we get halfway, then it gets hard to bring a freshman out. But we'll do what we have to do for the team. That's kind of the cut-off, after Game Six."
Both Erik Lorig and James Dray are still in contention for playing time this fall. Most of the freshman class has been moved to the scout team, but the door is open to the tight end duo plus a few others. All three of the frosh outside linebackers (Tom McAndrew, Will Powers and Clinton Snyder) are splitting their time in a rotating fashion between the scout defense and the "varsity" defense. Position coach Tom Quinn says that all three performed well in camp, but all performed so well as to make it difficult today to separate them from each other.
"We like them all. They all do something. Snyder has great speed. McAndrew has great work ethic. Will is really strong at the point of attack. They have all done a great job," the coach praises. "They might play, but they might not. It's hard because usually one guy takes a step back mentally or physically, but they all came in mentally ready to play and physically ready. It's been encouraging. This has turned into a deep position, when it was not too deep in the spring."
"I have so many guys who have been injured that I am going with the thought process that they all have to be ready to play," Quinn continues. "Any one of those three could go out and play and do a good job, or they could redshirt and be even better next year. There is nobody in this group where I say, 'Oh, I have to redshirt this guy.'"
We cannot rule out one of the frosh playing, but a position move in the last few days does make it less likely than a week ago. Fifth-year senior Michael Craven was switched from the "Mike" inside linebacker position to the "Sam" outside linebacker position. He stands number two on that depth chart behind current starter and redshirt sophomore Udeme Udofia. Though only three days old at his new position, Craven has early confidence from Quinn.
"He's strong and quick. He has good speed. He has a lot of natural ability. We have to get him to play disciplined. He's done well since he's moved. He's been good to coach," the fourth-year Cardinal coach comments. "He's done something that's similar to it. This is not like moving somebody from safety. He's just a couple yards closer to his guy. He was the next linebacker inside, so this isn't that foreign to him."
Still, is it not a tall order to ask Craven to learn and master this position, when he has wrestled for four years with discipline as an inside linebacker?
"He's strong, though," Quinn counters. "Strong and explosive. The low man wins, and he's usually the low man."
Training camp may have concluded, but there are still mysteries a-plenty with this Stanford Football team. Craven, the running back rotation and the freshmen all remain intriguing, outstanding questions. With just six days until the season opener in Annapolis, we are still on the edge of our collective seat. Stay tuned, folks.
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