Spring Ball: Day Two

There were two glorious revelations seen on the practice fields Saturday for Stanford Football. The first, admittedly most appreciated by those of us in attendance, was a bright sky full of sunshine after Friday's rain-soaked opener. The second was a novel twist on the Stanford offense we have not seen before from Walt Harris. It was something that raised the eyebrows of current AD and coaching Hall of Famer Bill Walsh in attendance.

Though players were still out of pads, Saturday was a day to be enjoyed with some much-needed sunshine pouring down onto Stanford.  In addition to the clouds opening up, so too did the offense.  After running mostly a two-wide offense on Friday, Saturday saw a good deal of the "third down" three-wide receiver formations.  Running plays with three wideouts is hardly newsworthy by itself, but with Stanford sporting its thinnest wide receiver ranks in recent memory, running "trips" on The Farm this spring will be an adventure.

To that end, a keen eye on Saturday was focused on the receiving corps and in particular the battle for the #3 spot.  As expected coming into these practices, there are three players currently out in front.  Fifth-year senior Marcus McCutcheon is the most veteran/seasoned/experienced, having heavy repetitions with this offense throughout the last year.  Some of the other wide receivers logged time with the scout offense in the fall, in contrast.  McCutcheon also saw gametime last fall as an extra wideout, though he seldom saw the ball.  Thus he could be considered the frontrunner.  However, during Saturday's scrimmage action he looked even at best in substitution order with Mike Miller.  Miller looks, through the first two days of very limited observations, to be the most improved of the "other" receivers past the "big two".  He is physically stronger and more confident on the field.  He shows good hands, as well, though footwork in his cuts is an area where he is still working.  It was noteworthy that in Saturday's final 11-on-11 extended scrimmage of 30 plays, the third wide receiver to come onto the field for the first team offense was Miller.

Elsewhere on Saturday's practice, Kelton Lynn made some plays that showed he is also in the mix.  His best play of the day also proved to be one of his down moments.  He ran an excellent comeback on the right sideline, separating sharply from his defender to make a clean catch.  Then Lynn made an even better move exploding back up the field away from the defender with an angle and instinctive movement that said: "playmaker."  However, has he ran up the right sideline for what would have been a touchdown, he had Michael Okwo catch him and poke the ball out from behind.  Ball security was an issue addressed in the mid-practice lecture to the entire roster just a day earlier by new running backs coach Buzz Preston, and it is an unforgivable sin to fail in an area addressed in those lectures.  For that lesson to have been the very first delivered this spring, it also accentuates its level of importance.

Beyond the battle of these three wideouts, Saturday reminded us again that the next best receiver for Stanford past Evan Moore and Mark Bradford might indeed be found in the tight end corps.  Numerous highlights were turned in by Michael Horgan, Patrick Danahy and James Dray.  Horgan and Danahy are playing predominately in the classic "tight" position at the line of scrimmage you expect for a tight end, while Dray is more frequently found in motion as something akin to a halfback.  He has a drop here and there and lapses like any player shaking off the rust from four-plus months since fall practices, but he overall looks like a veteran playmaker.  You can write down right now that Dray will be on the field this fall.  As much as Dray impressed on Saturday, Danahy turned in the play of the day.  He pulled in a perfect pass over his shoulder on the right sideline on a picture-perfect ball thrown by Trent Edwards, and then Danahy took off to the endzone.  After the long jog back to the offensive huddle, Danahy saw Walt Harris jog a good 10 yards with a big smile on his face to offer the most visible acknowledgement of the day from the Cardinal head coach.  There is no reason why Edwards and Danahy cannot connect for 40-50 yards per game this fall, and Danahy is just one of this team's dangerous tight ends.

Speaking of Edwards, he looks like he has elevated his body and his game to another level in 2006.  One advantage of watching players out of pads is the true look at the shape they have created for their bodies.  Edwards has added size and strength every year since his skinny arrival back in 2002, and he looks like he could help the linebackers this year with the upper body he offers.  Part of the benefit of a big upper body comes in Edwards' ability to deliver the football, but another advantage is manifest in his ability to take hits.  People talk about the nebulous "durability" of a quarterback without an understanding of the many physical and mental components that play into that.  Edwards and T.C. Ostrander the last two year in particular have deliberately developed their upper bodies with added weight and strength to better withstand hits.  That is a little discussed and macabre component to college quarterbacking, but it is a sobering reality - particularly given the pass protection of late on The Farm.

Beyond his physical presence, Edwards is making the quickest reads we can remember to start a spring.  Where he finishes the spring and how he starts the fall are more important, but the fifth-year senior looks to be in command of this offense.  More evident is the precision of his throws.  Edwards completed a career-best 62.7% of his passes a year ago, but he did not start 2005 spring practices placing the ball anywhere near the throws he made Saturday.  Not always completions, some of these passes are simply locating the ball in the spot where on the receiver could make a play.  But Edwards' initial displays are exciting.

For Edwards and Ostrander, there was something else that to cheer on Saturday.  Though they had been told to expect it Sunday or next week, the quarterbacks on Saturday saw their first exposure to the shotgun snap since Walt Harris came to Stanford.  This transpired for a few plays during some 7-on-7 work, and it reappeared for only a handful of snaps toward the end of the 11-on-11 scrimmage.  I do not honestly know if anybody outside the team on Saturday took notice of this event.  But it is a big deal for Harris, who is a a self-proclaimed Bill Walsh disciple and like Walsh has eschewed the shotgun throughout his coaching career, to introduce that to Stanford Football this year.  It is still in the infant stages of an experiment, but Harris is looking for any advantage he can offer his quarterbacks for a quicker read of the field and chance to make a play before he feels the pass rush.  Walsh, currently the Athletic Director at Stanford, was in attendance on the sideline on Saturday, and Harris has more than just a professional respect for the legendary coach.  To put the shotgun formation onto the field in front of the genius from whom Harris built his offensive scheme and philosophies was undoubtedly a weighty moment.  We will be closely watching over the next three weeks to see the evolution of the shotgun in Harris' offense, both in its frequency and its success.  The early returns on Saturday were positive.  Ostrander afterward remarked how comfortable he felt seeing the field from that vantage.

The other half of the shotgun snap, which is less appreciated, is the job done by the center.  During 7-on-7 drills, a field assistant simulates a snap for the quarterback and in the case of shotgun tosses the ball.  But the live test for the shotgun during its handful of plays in the 11-on-11 scrimmage was more important.  As Harris described earlier in the week to the local media, the disadvantages of the 'gun snap include: 1) the extra fraction of a second required for the center to bring his snap hand all the way back up to block, 2) the telegraphing of an almost guaranteed pass to the defense and subsequent advantage given to their pass rush, and 3) of course the increased danger of an errant snap which could at worst generate a turnover and at a minimum destroy all the advantages for the quarterback in his accelerated read of the field.  We will watching how Edwards, Ostrander and the other quarterbacks perform from the shotgun when it is employed this spring, but the real pressure falls on the center.  His execution of a precise and consistent snap is paramount to the advantages of the formation, and there is great pressure on his ability to quickly recover from the long motion of the snap and pass protect.  Without pads, we cannot yet assess the center's ability to pass protect after a shotgun snap, and that is difficult in general to evaluate without true live competition.  But we can say that the snaps were executed well on Saturday.

Credit Tim Mattran and Preston Clover for the sound snaps.  Mattran in particular is the man who will make or break the shotgun experiment for the Stanford offense this spring/year.  The coaches have a lot of confidence in his ability to execute what he is taught, and Mattran reportedly put in work this off-season on his shotgun snap.  As we previously reported, the fifth-year senior center is the only offensive lineman who has been declared as a starter going into the spring, but with that reward comes great responsibility.  The bar has been set very high for Mattran, and we saw that right away on Friday.  In the past, the start of spring or fall practices would have some grace period to work out the rust and kinks in the center-quarterback exchange.  Not this spring.  Mattran put the ball on the ground in one single missed snap on Friday, the first day of spring practices which also suffered from constant rain throughout the two-plus hours.  Afterward, Mattran was one of two players compelled to perform the infamous and grueling 100 yards of bear crawls.

There were some other great highlight plays during the afternoon, including an Evan Moore jump-ball reception against Carlos McFall that was perfectly played by both, but Moore came up with the ball one-handed while falling to the ground.  Michael Horgan hauled in a deep ball down the middle of the field on another play.  But the best competition came in the 30-play scrimmage between the offense and defense at the end of the practice.  While the absence of pads, and thus full hitting and tackling, took away from much we could learn (especially on running plays), here is the play-by-play:

  • Trent Edwards play-action pass complete to Michael Horgan
  • Quarterback sack of Edwards by Udeme Udofia
  • T.C. Ostrander pass complete to Mike Miller, running behind the block of Marcus McCutcheon
  • Quarterback sack of Ostrander by Trevor Hooper
  • Tavita Pritchard quarterback scramble
  • Run by Ray Jones up the middle
  • Run by Jason Evans to the left
  • Edwards screen pass complete to Evans, running behind the block of Matt McClernan
  • Run by Xxavier Carter
  • Inside draw by Josh Catron
  • Edwards pass incomplete, intended for Evan Moore, broken up by Nick Sanchez
  • Run by Anthony Kimble up the middle
  • Ostrander screen pass complete to Nick Frank, taken up the right sideline after the catch
  • Run by Ray Jones to the left
  • Inside draw by Frank
  • Run by Jones
  • Edwards quarterback scramble
  • Run by Evans
  • Run by Kimble to the left
  • Quarterback sack of Ostrander by Matt Kopa
  • Edwards pass complete to Moore down the field
  • Edwards pass incomplete, intended for Michael Horgan
  • Ostrander pass complete to Mike Miller
  • Ostrander (from shotgun) screen pass complete to Jones
  • Run by Carter
  • Pritchard (from shotgun) quarterback scramble
  • Edwards pass incomplete, intended for Mark Bradford, coverage by Will Powers
  • Edwards pass complete to Bradford on the sideline
  • Ostrander pass incomplete, intended for Miller, broken up by Carlos McFall
  • Ostrander pass incomplete, intended for Kelton Lynn

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