Attrition is a fact of life in football. Injuries happen - sometimes such that a season or career can be snuffed in an instant. But 72 hours before the start of Stanford's first 2006 spring football practice, two senior starters have been lost. The absence of fifth-year senior tight end Matt Traverso and senior strong safety Brandon Harrison this spring, and possibly in the fall, is not due to any injury or ailment, however. The veteran pair were suspended Tuesday by Walt Harris for what he calls "conduct inconsistent with the goals of the Stanford Football program."
Harris is not specifying the nature of the violations by Traverso and Harrison, other than to say what they are not.
"I assure you it is not any violation of the policies that exist in the Athletic Department," the Stanford head coach comments. "It's not [a University issue]. It's the Stanford Football program."
Both players are expected to be on the field during spring practices though not in uniform and not taking place in any football drills. They may perform conditioning work (including this morning's 6 AM team run), but they otherwise are off the football team - out of pads and out of the locker room. While Harris is not detailing the nature of their suspensions, we have heard that it relates to their academic performances during the winter quarter. Harris also says that the danger of their suspension continuing into the fall is frightening real, with a good deal of work ahead to pull themselves out of this hole.
"That's up to them," the second-year Cardinal coach says on a return in the fall. "They have built a challenging road for themselves. That's all I need to say."
Matt Traverso is Stanford's most complete tight end, not only the team's most consistent and talented blocker the last several years but also was the leading tight end in 2005 catching the ball. His 19 receptions for 223 yards were not only tops among the tight ends, but they were also the second highest receiving numbers (both catches and yards) returning among all Stanford offensive players behind wide receiver Mark Bradford. Traverso had limited opportunities in his role his first years behind current Tampa Bay Buccaneers standout Alex Smith, but he broke out last year and was counted upon as a fifth-year player to be the leader at tight end in 2006. Matt Traverso is an 11-game starter.
The suspension turns attention to Stanford's other tight ends, which offer options and variety. Senior Patrick Danahy actually grabbed the mantle through the winter, spring and summer last off-season as the team's top tight end, while Traverso missed much of that time with injury. Danahy was slated to have the breakout year in 2005 until he fractured vertebrae in his back and nearly was lost for the season before a miraculous recovery allowed him to contribute in a reserve role in October and November. The ball is now back in his court as the team's most experienced tight end on the active roster. The only other tight end with any experience is redshirt junior Michael Horgan, who has excelled primarily in a receiving role and has been used each of the last two years in multiple-tight end packages. Redshirt sophomore walk-on Patrick Bowe, Jr. came out of the fall with a long road between himself and playing time, but the Traverso suspension plus the position switch of classmate Austin Gunder to outside linebacker gives Bowe the best chance this spring of his college career to prove he deserves playing time. Fierce competition will come from a pair of redshirt freshmen, however. James Dray and Erik Lorig both dazzled during preseason camp and then during fall practices with their receiving abilities and athleticism. Their talent is so compelling that they would have already been expected to push all the upperclassmen this spring, but the door has now opened wider for them with Traverso's suspension.
Brandon Harrison is Stanford's most experience defensive back, starting the team's last 22 games. He was Stanford's third leading tackler (67) in 2005 and the leading returner on the roster with solo tackles (50), while also leading the Cardinal in interceptions (3) last fall. From his first days on campus, he has been identified as a talent by the Cardinal coaches. He played as a true freshman in 2003, a rarity in the history of Stanford safeties, and then started every game in the 2004 and 2005 seasons.
Unlike the tight end outlook beyond Traverso, the safety corps could not stand for Harrison's suspension. This thin group already is expected to be without redshirt freshman Bo McNally for the duration of the spring, following his broken leg he suffered in November. Redshirt junior Peter Griffin was Stanford's fourth safety last year but was switched to linebacker this off-season, where the powerful and hard-hitting athlete could help. Now with Harrison out of the picture, Stanford Football starts the spring with just three total safeties on their roster: fifth-year senior Trevor Hooper, fifth-year senior David Lofton and redshirt sophomore walk-on Aaron Smith. All three are officially listed at free safety, though Lofton has been used interchangeably at both safety spots and is now the presumptive starting strong safety to start practices on Friday. Even with perfect health for this trio through all 15 spring practices (which is statistically unlikely), there is not ample depth for a two-deep at the two safety positions.
Stanford will have to make at least one and probably a pair of position switches. With eight cornerbacks listed on the depth chart, undoubtedly some help will have to move inside from those positions. With a new defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator on the job in A.J. Christoff, it is a shot in the dark to predict who will move. One guess, though it may surprise, is redshirt freshman walk-on C.J. Easter. The local product from San Mateo (Calif.) High School was a solid contributor at cornerback for the scout team defense during the fall, though he has added so much size and strength during the off-season that he is literally unrecognizable. For him to jump from a skinny-ass cornerback in the fall to a safety in the spring is hard to fathom, but it could happen for the now nearly 200-pound athlete. Another possibility would be to move Griffin back to the safety corps, though Walt Harris admits he would rather not do so for the promising new linebacker.
"We moved Peter Griffin from safety to linebacker. That might be a possibility - to have to move him back. We'd rather not," Harris says. "We think in the long run, [linebacker] would be a better chance for Peter to impact our team. But we'll see."
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