On the Eve of the Opener

We have armed you with as much information as possible through our extensive reporting of the three weeks of preseason training camp. But this week of practices, leading up to tomorrow's season opener at Navy, brought us newer revelations, still. Read on for the most detailed outlook anywhere on playing time for the true freshmen, news on the travel squad, a wealth of injury good news, plus the defensive challenge preparing for Navy.

Each step of the 2005 preseason, we learned a little bit more about the readiness of individuals in this freshman class.  Since their signing back in February, the question of who could play as true frosh this fall has burned in the minds of Cardinalmaniacs™.  Last week saw the majority of the freshman class move to the scout team units of offense and defense, and Walt Harris told us that an important clue to who might play was held by who practiced on the "varsity" squads.  That left a select few individuals.

The number narrowed further this week.  On Tuesday, when the team resumed practices after a Monday day of rest (their first and only day without a practice since the August 15 beginning of camp), just three frosh practiced at all with their respective varsity units.  Last week both freshman tight ends, Erik Lorig and James Dray, practiced with the main offense against the scout defense as part of a tight end quintet.  Come Tuesday, Lorig left to join the scout squad, leaving just Dray.

We had written during camp that we believed Dray was better ready and able to play college football this fall, in most aspects of his game.  From his mental understanding of the position's responsibilities to his consistency to his hands in the receiving game, Dray looked superb.  Lorig has otherworldly physical tools and looks like he could be a very special player when his time comes, but he can better use the redshirt year to let his head catch up with the rest of his body for the speed and complexity of the college game.

<Dray quote>  "[Dray] remembers what to do.  He's pretty tight on his assignments.  To be where you are supposed to be, on a run play or a pass play, is huge.  That has as much to do with it as talent," Harris comments on Dray's high position on the depth chart.  "He's right there.  He's done a nice job at times, but he's still a freshman."

On the defensive side of the ball, all three frosh outside linebackers participated in both scout and "varsity" defensive work last week.  Position coach Tom Quinn told us that it was still too difficult to separate any of them from the others, given the high level of all three's physical gifts and mental preparedness.  Then on Tuesday, we saw a little separation.  Will Powers remained with the upper defense while Clinton Snyder and Tom McAndrew practiced with the scout team.  Power had a slow start to the fall, when he began camp injured, but he has come on strong.

That being said, Powers' work was limited primarily to mental repetitions.  With four healthy outside linebackers in front of him on the varsity defense, all in their third or fifth year of college football, his chance to take a snap in the two-deep was rare.  Come Wednesday, Powers actually spent more time with the scout defense.

One other frosh of note is quarterback Tavita Pritchard, who took mental reps all week with the varsity offense.  However, there is currently no need for a traditional passing quarterback on the scout offense, with Navy this weekend's opponent and their triple-option offense.  We will wait until next week to see if Pritchard or redshirt freshman Garrett Moore takes the reins of the scout offense.  We have noticed throughout the last four weeks that Pritchard almost always remains with the varsity offense, led by Trent Edwards and T.C. Ostrander.  When nine-on-nine running plays are practiced, it is Moore who stands under center and hands the ball off to the running backs.  Moore also is the quarterback who signals plays in from the sideline during scrimmage work.  We believe that Pritchard is the third quarterback for Stanford today, though there no intent to play him this fall unless a major injury situation arises at the position.  Regardless of whether Pritchard or Moore is the third signal caller for Stanford, neither take anything other than mental repetitions within the offense during Walt Harris practices.  The snaps are completely divided between Edwards and Ostrander.

An injury-induced quarterback quagmire aside, Dray and Powers are the two freshmen who today are the closest to playing this fall.  That being said, only Dray took real repetitions within the upper offense by the end of the week's practices.  The 6'5" tight end is either third or fourth at his position.  Matt Traverso is the starter, while Michael Horgan should also see heavy playing time.  There are two-tight end formations a-plenty in this offense, though it remains to be seen how many triple-tight end sets will be employed.  Austin Gunder is a capable redshirt freshman who would most likely take the field for those rare "jumbo" formations today.  To get Dray on the field, an injury would have to befall one of those veteran top three tight ends.

Moreover, junior Patrick Danahy, who controlled the tight end starting position all spring and summer, has been out with an undisclosed injury... but may be on the early road to a return.  On Tuesday, he still donned the yellow jersey, but Danahy attempted light position drills in the early part of practice.

By parallel, fifth-year senior outside linebacker Timi Wusu made a big step forward this week toward his return.  Wusu missed the entire spring and did not participate in voluntary practices during the summer.  He took nary a repetition on the field during fall camp, either.  But Tuesday and Wednesday, we saw him step into seven-on-seven defensive work.  Wusu looked like he moved freely and easily.  In fact, he recorded an interception on Wednesday and ran the ball back for a score.

If Danahy or Wusu tear off their yellow jerseys anytime soon, there will be greater insulation against Dray and Powers playing this fall, respectively.  Given the existing depth in front of the two frosh, with the possibility of more on the horizon, the probability of either playing is low.  Injuries will have to strike to necessitate their play.

"Right now our plan is not to play any freshmen, unless we have to.  Unless injuries force us into that," Harris declares.  "I know how important freshmen are down the road.  We have to be real intelligent because they have never been in a college game before - because they're freshmen.  As a true freshman, it's even harder and more challenging for them.  We're taking a low-key approach."

Injuries are an unpredictable beast, however, so both Dray and Wusu have traveled with the team to Annapolis for Saturday's season opener.  Rules permit Stanford to take an unlimited number of players on their roster, but a reportedly tight sideline area in Navy's stadium has the Cardinal leaving some players at home.

"We're not taking the whole squad," Harris told The Bootleg on Wednesday.

Most of the freshman class has been left behind.  The two aforementioned, however, have made the trip.  Harris is also traveling all four of his quarterbacks, which brings Pritchard along.  We do not know the complete and final count on who boarded yesterday, though we were told that a preference was given to some freshmen from the Northeast.  Nose tackle James McGillicuddy and offensive tackle Chris Marinelli, both from Massachusetts, made the trip, though neither is expected to be within shouting distance of playing this weekend or at any time this fall.

One reason so few frosh can sniff any thought of playing this fall is the rebound that the Stanford roster has made from their early-camp injury woes.  By the midpoint of camp, the injury hit to the two-deep on both offense and defense was the story of the preseason.  Since then, almost every player on the two-deep has returned to action.  Aside from Danahy and Wusu, only Casey Carroll remains out, with ACL repair surgery taking the fifth-year senior defensive end out for the remainder of the year.

Players who missed time in camp but have since returned include: center Brian Head, offensive guard Ismail Simpson, offensive guard Alex Fletcher, offensive tackle Allen Smith, offensive tackle Jeff Edwards, offensive tackle Jon Cochran, fullback Kris Bonifas, fullback Emeka Nnoli, tight end Matt Traverso, wide receiver Gerren Crochet, wide receiver Justin McCullum, running back David Marrero, nose tackle Babatunde Oshinowo, outside linebacker Jon Alston, cornerback Carlos McFall and free safety Trevor Hooper.

That list conveys the depth of how much injuries depleted this team recently, particularly on offense.  The biggest hits came on the offensive line, which at times has had to employ three redshirt frosh in the starting five.  The only starting offensive lineman to stay healthy throughout camp was redshirt junior left guard Josiah Vinson.  The final returns came this week from Edwards and Cochran, which lets us all breathe a sigh of deep relief.  The starting offensive line expected on Saturday is:

Cochran (right tackle), Fletcher (right guard), Head (center), Vinson (left guard) and Edwards (left tackle).  Should injuries rear their ugly head in the Navy game to the front five, here is what we believe to be the replacement pattern of depth.  If Head goes out, Fletcher could slide over but more likely is that Tim Mattran would play over the ball.  If the team dips to a third center, Fletcher is the man, and he has been taking snaps in practices in preparation.  Should either guard be lost, or if Fletcher is moved to center, the next guard is Simpson.  The next guard after that is Mikal Brewer, who is also the emergency fourth center.  At the tackle positions, we thought for a time that Smith might be the first man to substitute at either the left or right position, but now it looks like he is focused at left tackle behind Edwards.  Fellow redshirt frosh Ben Muth is the first man ready for the right tackle spot behind Cochran.

As nervous as we may be about the health of the offense, there is more imminent danger for the defense in this game.  Navy's offensive players are known for their cut blocks against defenders, which can not only take individuals out of the play but also out of the game.  Blocks below the knee are illegal when a second offensive player is already engaged with that defender, but legal cut blocks in open space can be a real nuisance.

"They come off the ball really hard and look to cut your knees, pretty much every play," explains Kevin Schimmelmann.  "If you see them coming and can put a hand on their helmet, you might be OK.  But if you look the wrong way for an instant, you can be taken out of the play."

"It's hard to get a good scout for that," the fifth-year senior inside linebacker adds, "because the coaches will not let our lineman make cut blocks in practices.  Our linemen are not as fast as their smaller, quicker linemen, either.  It's hard to get a good look, especially when our offense runs nothing like their option."

Another difficulty in scouting Navy was revealed when the Midshipmen opened their season last Saturday against Maryland.  For one, their new quarterback offers a different look than what Stanford had been able to scout from 2004 Navy film.

"The new quarterback is a lot more shifty.  It will be interesting to see how well he plays against the odd front," Schimmelmann shares.  "The quarterback last year made a lot of really, really good decisions last year and was really smooth and polished.  I think this guy is a better athlete and is a little more shifty."

Schematically, the Mids employed less wing motion in their triple-option offense last week than in 2004.  And the splits between their offensive linemen were noticeably narrower than what had been as large as two-yard splits last fall.  The Stanford offensive scout team had to make adjustments this week after reviewing the new film, which also changes the approach for Stanford's defenders.

"The wider splits last year allowed their guards in an odd front to come up straight on the linebackers without being touched because the linemen are so far away," Schimmelmann comments.  "With narrower splits, especially with our defensive ends crashing, they might be able to knock the line out of the way on the way to the fullback, depending on what play we're running.  It might make them easier to get to the dive."

"In tighter quarters, it's a little bit easier because the linemen don't come up on you as quick," he adds.  "When a lineman gets up on you, without a defensive lineman hitting him along the way, then he will get up to you real fast.  Then you have to drive him back into the hole.  When the splits are narrower, then you can hit them first.

  • After three long and hard weeks of camp, Walt Harris deviated slightly from his normal game week format.  He will almost always practice his team in full pads on Tuesday, and sometimes on Wednesday.  This week the players were in shorts and upper pads Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.  Thursday's practice was closed, held in Stanford Stadium from 9:30-11:30 AM before the team loaded up the buses at noon to head to the airport.
  • After Wednesday's practice, the Stanford team was addressed by legendary former Cardinal and San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh.  Though fans revered "The Genius" for his unmatched offensive acumen, his message to the 2005 Stanford squad centered upon a winning attitude and approach on the road.  To help let the young players know that his wisdom should be taken to heart, Walsh made mention of the 29-2 record he recorded during one stretch with the Niners.  "It's awesome when you can have a man who has accomplished what he accomplished," praised Walt Harris after Walsh's 10-minute talk to the team.  "He did an outstanding job, as you can imagine.  I looked around at the eyes of our players, and they looked like they were spellbound, listening to a Hall of Fame coach who has been around Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Steve Young and on and on."
  • For Wednesday's practice, a sound system was brought out to the practice field to blast recorded crowd noise for many of the offense's plays, with a variety of downs & distances and positions on the field.  The volume was imposing, reaching a maximum of 91 decibels.  My ears were ringing for a good while afterward.
  • The Thursday plan after the team arrived in Annapolis?  Sightseeing?  Team meetings?  "Go to sleep," says Harris.

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