Spring Preview: Offense Part II

While the fate of the offense may largely rest in the hands of the offensive line, there will be great expectations placed upon the playmakers at the skill positions in 2006 for Stanford. Almost the entire roster of running backs, receivers, tight ends and quarterbacks has returned and should thrive in Year Two under Walt Harris. Several of those positions have open battles this spring, however...


Though Walt Harris talks of almost all positions being open on this team, he declared Trent Edwards as his #1 quarterback for 2006 almost immediately following the 2005 season.  The lone player to sit on the cover of the spring media guide is none other than Edwards.  The fifth-year senior enters this spring different from last April, when he entered a truly open quarterback competition with redshirt junior T.C. Ostrander.  The bigger story for Edwards this off-season was the on-and-off trouble with his shoulder, which he injured at the end of last season.  The good news is that he finished the winter on a strong note and threw extensively.  We expect no limitations to his work during spring practices, barring a new injury.

"He has made a turn for the positive here in the last four or five weeks.  We anticipate him being healthy," says Harris of Edwards.  "I think he built up, before he went on spring break, to around 80 throws in a row."

While competing for the starting job last spring, Edwards and Ostrander also were force fed a brand new and highly sophisticated offense to learn.  They along with the rest of the offensive personnel had obvious struggles climbing that learning curve, but this spring should be a period of great growth for both as they now attempt to master the reads and decision trees Harris asks for them in the passing game.  It will be interesting to watch Ostrander, who was a Top 10 quarterback in the nation out of high school and now entering his fourth season at Stanford, yet he has more or less already been assigned to a backup position behind Edwards.  That is a difficult competitive situation for Ostrander, though recent history has taught us that he will undoubtedly be pressed into action for more than mop-up duty.  Edwards was knocked out of several games last fall and has yet to finish any of his three playing seasons healthy on the field.

There is scant depth at quarterback on The Farm, which leaves a lesser publicized but still important battle for the #3 spot between redshirt sophomore Garrett Moore and redshirt freshman Tavita Pritchard.  The former is a walk-on who lacks the height or arm strength of his scholarship position mates, yet he is respected and well-regarded by his offensive teammates for the yeoman-like work he puts in wherever he is needed by the coaching staff.  He is a smart player who has a solid grasp of the offense and continues to develop his physical tools.  Pritchard enters this first spring looking for his first real exposure to Stanford's offense after spending the fall manning the scout offense of a wide array of Cardinal opponents.  He has made visible gains in the weight room and does not much resemble the pipe cleaner figure he presented when he set foot on campus last summer.  No position is more personal to Walt Harris than quarterback, which makes this spring and its interactions with Harris critical to Pritchard's future at Stanford.  We are keenly interested in how those two work together.

Running Backs

The running game was a sad affair last fall, with the Cardinal producing nary a 100-yard runner in any of 11 games.  The closest Stanford ever came to that minimal achievement was actually Trent Edwards in the Washington State game with a net 92 yards rushing.  Redshirt sophomore Anthony Kimble took the lead last fall at the position but was limited during stretches of the season with injury, and redshirt junior Jason Evans instead holds the title of leading returning rusher (four yards ahead of Kimble).  Those two will compete with redshirt sophomore Ray Jones and redshirt freshman Xxavier Carter in a wide-open tailback battle this spring.  This position ranks right there with the four outside offensive line spots as the most open battles of the spring on offense.

Kimble spent 14 of last spring's 15 practices at wide receiver before being switched in an experiment to tailback in the Spring Game, so this spring is an important learning opportunity for him at the position.  He won the job coming out of training camp last fall because he showed the greatest natural elusiveness to make tacklers miss him, but Kimble remains an exceedingly raw running back and overall inexperienced football player.  Evans is not far behind Kimble in the ability to make plays in the open field, and he too has nice hands catching out of the backfield.  He broke out, in a way, late during training camp and made some standout runs in flashes during the season - just starting to turn the corner in his career.  He has a chance to win this job and will look to build this spring upon that progress.  It is interesting that in Evans' third spring at Stanford, he has his third running backs coach (Buzz Preston).  Something also to watch is Evans' physical presence, after he missed his second straight winter conditioning with the team.

Jones was the lone player from his class who played as a true freshman two years ago, but that coaching staff is gone, and he found himself in lower esteem under a new set of eyes this past year.  Fortunately for his future, however, Jones was able to take a redshirt in 2005 and still has a possible three years of playing ahead of him.  He served the scout offense in the fall and now anxious jumps back into the Stanford offense in this open tailback battle.  Though there was some talk of his moving to safety, which certainly is hurting this spring, there is also a dire need to shore up the running game for the offense.  That being said, it would seem to be a long road to travel if Jones cannot make a dent in the depth chart this spring against Kimble and/or Evans.  Carter has the longest odds, based on what he showed in the fall, but he also has an opportunity with essentially nothing established or proven by the other Stanford running backs.

"We just hope that they stay healthy so that we can practice a lot of days with them for the entire spring practice," Walt Harris says is the key for his running back competition this spring.  "You only get better in football by practicing.  Some people get better shooting free throws by visualizing it.  You can't visualize how to become a better running back.  Repetition is the mother of learning.  They have to be out there.  That's what has to happen.  Hopefully we can stay healthy, and they improve."

Fullback receives less chatter, but senior Nick Frank ought to be as strong a lock to start as any position on offense or defense for Stanford this year.  He moved to offense after a lifetime of defensive line and blew everyone away.  His body is better suited to the 250-pound weight he carried in the fall, rather than the 270-plus he struggled to maintain as a defensive tackle.  Frank has great feet and some surprisingly instinctive play carrying the ball.  He is also surprisingly fluid as a receiver out of the backfield for the position, to say nothing of that ability relative to his experience level.  A healthy Nick Frank will make a difference in Stanford's win total this fall, but the bigger focus this spring is the depth behind him.  Gone is graduated Kris Bonifas, who was unheralded but a very capable backup last year.  Fullback has not been good for Stanford in recent years, as evidenced by three-quarters of the position coming only after switches from defense.  Like Frank, redshirt freshman Ben Ladner was moved from the defensive line last year, and this winter saw redshirt freshman and former inside linebacker Josh Catron switch to fullback.

Only redshirt junior Emeka Nnoli is native to the position, and he in fact was a prep All-American out of high school ranked as the #1 fullback in the nation.  Nnoli is akin to Michael Craven for Stanford - holding the highest acclaim at his position out of high school due to innate athletic playmaking ability but a great struggle to carry out assignment-sound football in college, as well as difficulty staying healthy.  One has to hope that the light will come on for Nnoli in 2006, and perhaps Buzz Preston can be the coach who holds the key to unlocking his great athletic abilities.  This is Nnoli's fourth year of college football, however, and the sands of time are racing down the hourglass walls.  Ladner has much to prove this spring as well, after he was a disappointing performer during the fall.  Ladner has at least an inch on the rest of the running back group, and a great deal of potential with his big frame and unusual speed.  Catron is a complete unknown, new to the position as the coaching staff tries yet another switch in the hopes of finding lightning in a bottle at a challenging position for Stanford.  Catron came out of high school as a walk-on but moved onto scholarship after a teammate went medical hardship last fall, pursuant to a promise the coaching staff made to Catron.  It's time to show that the scholarship is deserved.

Wide Receivers

At the top, there is perhaps no position of greater excitement for Stanford this year than wideout, with senior Mark Bradford and redshirt junior Evan Moore.  They have a chance in their second year with Walt Harris and this offense to be the most productive duo on The Farm since Troy Walters and DeRonnie Pitts in 1999 (combined 2,300-plus yards).  This system, their abilities, their skills and their quarterback combine for screaming excitement.  It is still not fully appreciated by many people just how much is demanded of a wide receiver in Harris' offense.  Not only are they asked to make quick reads of the defensive coverage after the snap, but they have to run one of two or three different routes after than instantaneous decision.  Harris is also a perfectionist when it comes to his receivers' routes, as well as the form he asks of them when making certain catches - especially the over-the-shoulder catch on the fade pattern.  These were all difficult for Bradford and Moore in 2005, and both also were hit by injuries.  Moore was lost for the season after his hip dislocated in the season opener, while Bradford battled an ankle injury that kept him out of games and then with limited effectiveness in Stanford's stretch run.  Both are healthy today and are in their best physical shape ever.

Equally remarkable is the abject lack of depth behind those two.  Only one other scholarship wide receiver is on campus, and fifth-year senior Marcus McCutcheon owns a career of three catches in college.  Though he might ostensibly hold some semblance of an advantage in the battle for the #3 receiver as the only other scholarship player at his position, McCutcheon has proven nothing and will be afforded zero favors this spring by the coaching staff.  He needs to fiercely compete and improve.  That competition will be difficult, given that the other four wide receivers on the roster are walk-on student-athletes without experience.  Redshirt junior Mike Miller and redshirt sophomore Kelton Lynn are probably the two more advanced receivers among that quartet, and they should be hungry this spring with their greatest opportunity and repetitions yet at Stanford.  Redshirt sophomore Nate Wilcox-Fogel and redshirt freshman Charlie Hazlehurst are both local boys from the Menlo School in Atherton (Calif.) who need to step up.  Hazlehurst has some speed and reportedly had an encouraging winter of workouts and conditioning, making him perhaps a dark horse this spring.

"We can't wait to watch it," Harris says of the wide receiver competition.  "We can't wait to find more guys who we think we can play, can possibly be starters, or can help us to win games.  We can't wait to find somebody like that.  We hopefully find somebody who has built his confidence and shown his skills that he can be a player in the game."

"You look through the number of scholarship players at that position, and I count three," the head coach continues.  "That position is some of the problems of a new coach going into someone else's program.  Like some others, that [position] is completely out of whack.  We do not have enough wide receivers on scholarship to balance our classes, to withstand graduation - let alone to have enough guys who can play.  We will play two receivers a lot and three receivers a lot, and we don't have anyone else who has hardly played at all as a third receiver - except one of them, and he hasn't played very much.  We're not talking about having someone be a backup or being able to help if one of the starters gets hurt.  We're very thin, as the saying goes, at that position."

Tight Ends

It seems like just yesterday that Stanford fans were half-joking about their obscene depth at tight end.  That number is down to five this spring, after fifth-year senior Matt Traverso was lost to suspension.

"The tight end position is interesting," Walt Harris comments.  "But any year you think you have a lot of guys at that position, something happens and all of a sudden you don't have enough guys.  Already it's one less.  There are some young talented players there, and some guys who played behind the other guy that are looking forward to his not being around these next 15 [practices].  I'm sure they're very excited to prove what they can do."

Senior Patrick Danahy is very experienced and a very well-rounded tight end, capable of filling Traverso's shoes.  He would have been "the man" last fall if not for fractured vertebrae that took him out of training camp and the early part of the season.  He has the athleticism to run, the hands to catch and best of all the blocking ability that Stanford needs.  The foursome behind him have less experience and more to prove this spring.  Redshirt junior Michael Horgan has great size and great hands as a receiving tight end, and he continues his development as a physical and consistent blocker while also tightening up his route-running.  Other than Danahy, Horgan is the only tight end for Stanford this spring who has real playing experience, having been used in "jumbo" formations with multiple tight ends in the red zone each of the past couple years.

Redshirt sophomore and walk-on Patrick Bowe, Jr. sees his greatest opportunity yet at Stanford this spring to make it onto the field.  Not only is there an opportunity at the tight end position, but the tight ends as a group may be called in numbers into the receiving game with the terrible depth for Stanford at wide receiver.  Bowe has yet to see the light come on in his development at the college level after having a standout high school career, but he has work in the receiving game ahead of him.  Also behind him are a pair of exciting talents in redshirt freshman James Dray and Erik Lorig.  The professed "future" of Stanford at tight end, this duo is the most gifted pair of tight ends that may have ever graced the campus in one class.  Dray is big but runs very well and has hands that might match Horgan's.  Lorig may be the best athlete on the entire offense, with quick feet and an explosiveness you do not expect from his powerful, strong frame.  Both served the scout offense during the fall but will be expected to make a splash this spring in the tight end battle.  Dray in particular could find a niche as a unique receiver/tight end hybrid, given the problems with numbers at wideout.  He was split out wide in some drills during the fall and could be a very difficult match-up for defenses.

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