One of the biggest stories that has transpired for Stanford Football during this 2006 off-season has been who has not been on the field for the Cardinal. Just a couple days before the Cardinal began their spring practices, a pair of experienced and talented seniors were suspended from the team by head coach Walt Harris. Tight end Matt Traverso and safety Brandon Harrison both are smart kids but both coasted too carelessly through their winter quarter classes, drawing the wrath of and suspension from Harris.
The typical story in college athletics of an athlete flunking their way out of eligibility did not play out, however. These Stanford student-athletes remained eligible following their respective winter report cards, which is "all that matters" in most programs. But Harris saw in Traverso and Harrison a pair of seniors who he felt were teetering on the edge of something disastrous. A repeat of their lackadaisical academic effort shown in the winter, if left unchecked, could easily in the spring cross the fine line that would flunk their way out of playing eligibility come the fall season. Moreover, these two seniors could endanger their Stanford degrees as they yawned their way into their final quarters of classes on The Farm.
Walt Harris did the unthinkable by suspending Harrison and Traverso. In a program already challenged for depth due to the University's admissions standards, Stanford pulled a critical veteran talent away from both the offense and defense. And this suspension was no slap on the wrist. The senior safety and fifth-year senior tight end not only missed all 15 practices, but they also have been locked out of team meetings, strength & conditioning workouts and even the locker room. These suspensions were also indefinite, with no hint given to Traverso or Harrison if or when they might rejoin the team.
The Bootleg has learned that the suspended Stanford seniors have made marked changes in their academic performances in this nearly completed spring quarter. Final exams are currently underway on The Farm, and final marks in Harrison's and Traverso's classes are not yet complete. But given their success through the breadth of this quarter, coupled with their renewed academic focus, all expectations are that the two student-athletes are about to finish with strong sets of spring grades. More to the point, we are told that those turnaround marks will be soon followed by the seniors' reinstatement to the Stanford Football team.
How important is this news? Stanford can play with just about any team on its best day, but rarely does a college football team enjoy its best day. Injuries and errors come too easily in this complex and violent sport. While other teams turn to their next player at a given position after an ankle sprain or stinger and scarcely skip a beat, the Cardinal suffer the greatest drop-off of any team in the Pac-10 after losing a starter. That is not always the case at every position, but it is a time-tested truth many times over. Thus, before we examine the individual values of Traverso and Harrison, the return of highly experienced and successful fifth-year and fourth-year players is the best news Stanford has enjoyed in a good while.
Matt Traverso plays at tight end, where Stanford on paper arguably has some intriguing depth. An outside observer might call his reintroduction to the Stanford roster "gravy," but that vastly understates his value. The 6'5" athlete is unquestionably Stanford's best blocking tight end, and better blocking for the Cardinal this fall - in both the run game and the passing attack - is paramount to improved offensive success. Moreover, with serious depth questions at wide receiver for Stanford in 2006, tight ends must contribute in the receiving game. Traverso finished 2005 as one of the Cardinal's best downfield targets, hauling in 11 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown in the last two games. The Sacramento (Calif.) native is also the second highest returning receiver, with his 223 yards and 19 receptions last fall second only to wideout Mark Bradford.
Regardless of what potential some of Stanford's less experienced tight ends may hold, Traverso is a proven playmaker in every aspect of the tight end position. It is also worth remembering that he suffered with a shoulder injury throughout almost the entirety of the 2005 off-season. Traverso was neither sharp nor optimally conditioned when he started the season in September. Granted, he is again disadvantaged by missing spring practices, but that does not mean has gone without catching a football since November.
Keep in mind that "practices" are not on hold after April and before August. While NCAA rules allow for official football sessions for 15 spring practices and then again for three weeks of preseason training camp, unofficial workouts continue throughout the interim. Players organized and ran afternoon practices throughout May (currently on break during final exams and resuming in a couple weeks). While Traverso and Harrison were officially off the team, there could be no official oversight during these football workouts. Both of them fully participated in seven-on-seven sessions sharpening skills and rehearsing the offensive and defensive playbooks.
That brings us to an interesting observation with Harrison during recent unofficial practices. His value to the team is obvious given the dearth of safeties and defensive backs on the roster. As Stanford started spring ball sans Harrison, only two healthy scholarship safeties were on the depth chart. In that light, Harrison's value is clear. He has started the last 22 games for the Cardinal in the defensive backfield, making him the most experienced returning player in the Stanford secondary. He led the team with three interceptions in 2005 and was third on the roster with 67 tackles.
And now the twist. Not only was it a novel sight to see Harrison working in the defensive backfield during May unofficial practices, but also it was a surprise to see him lining up as a cornerback. You heard it here first - some unofficial experimentation with the Cardinal 6'2" senior lined up wide, backpedaling while covering Stanford wide receivers.
A fleeting experiment or a sign of things to come this fall? We will not know until August, when defensive coordinator and secondary coach A.J. Christoff can return to the controls for practices. Any flirtation with Harrison at cornerback does tell us three things today, however:
1) Our apocalyptic assessment of the safety positions at the start of April was perhaps premature. The last half of spring ball, redshirt freshman Bo McNally made a surprise return to action. The Salt Lake City (Utah) athlete was the biggest surprise of the 2005 recruiting class with the way he performed in fall training camp and then on the scout team, until he broke his leg and was finished - we thought through at least April. Not only did McNally unexpectedly help himself by partaking in the teaching and repetitions of spring practices, but he also looked awfully good. Though he has yet to play a down of college football, McNally impressed enough that Harrison playing somewhere other than safety could be sanely considered...
2) Cornerback depth may now be the greater concern for the 2006 season. Believe me when I say that safety will be a most unsafe position for Stanford starting in 2007, given that Harrison and two other Cardinal (Trevor Hooper and David Lofton) are seniors in their final season of eligibility this year... But the cornerback corps has just one player today who has any meaningful playing experience: Nick Sanchez. Stanford has today the least amount of experience in their coverage personnel seen since 2002, after Ruben Carter, Ryan Fernandez and Brian Taylor all graduated. Tim Sims and Carlos McFall are the top candidates to play opposite Sanchez, but neither dazzled during the spring.
3) The notion of play Harrison, a three-year safety in college, out at cornerback cannot be entertained based on need alone. There is the question of ability and skill set as well. Some part of that is in the eye of the beholder. Former defensive coordinator Tom Hayes saw Trevor Hooper as Stanford's best coverage safety and thus played him at free safety. Christoff believes in teaching and playing safeties to man both positions, but he positioned Hooper primarily at strong safety this spring. Harrison may also possess the speed to play cornerback. Though he (and Traverso) were not in pads on the field during spring ball, they worked every minute in grueling conditioning drills. Both punitive and productive, those sessions helped to put the pair into prime shape. To wit, Harrison recently ran a very impressive 4.40 in the 40 during post-spring testing.
If all that does not markedly reshape your outlook on the approaching season for Stanford Football, then hold onto your socks. The most unexpected sight of all that we saw at the tail end of May was a third "new" player partaking in unofficial practices. With only the two players suspended for the spring, who could be the third addition? None other than speedster Wopamo Osaisai.
The former Cardinal cornerback came to The Farm with much hype (courtesy of yours truly), due to his exceptional speed as well as formidable strength and size for the position. Osaisai was most acclaimed coming out of Pinole (Calif.) Valley High School as a track athlete, and the balance of that sport with football in college was not easy for him to balance. As a true freshman, the sprinter rewrote Stanford's record books and started what was sure to be one of the all-time great track Stanford careers. That same year in football, Osaisai redshirted and learned the ropes of a sport he started only recently in high school. Redshirting is not a traumatic experience for most college football players because of its widespread utility to make both mental and physical adjustments between the high school and college games. Osaisai was ready to step into a bigger role this past fall as a redshirt freshman on the gridiron, but he never once saw the field on defense.
Osaisai did make tremendous contributions on special teams, however. His exceptionally rare combination of speed and physical aggression made him an irreplaceable gunner for Stanford's coverage teams, where he recorded seven tackles and made some game-altering plays. That role, however, felt limited Osaisai's heart compared to his star ability and opportunities in track. He quit the football team in January to run track full-time.
Just a few months later, Osaisai has left track (for the time being) and returned to football. The full story behind this intriguing reversal and change of heart may not come to light until the fall. What we do know is that the move transpired sometime in May. One day Osaisai suddenly appeared on the field with the rest of the football team, conducting seven-on-seven drills. To clarify that we are not reading too much into participation in an unofficial workout, The Bootleg has learned that Osaisai met with Walt Harris, asked to return to the team, and was accepted back.
It is hard to measure the level of impact that Osaisai could have on Stanford Football in 2006, given that he was away from the team for four months. With a new defensive coordinator and secondary coach in A.J. Christoff, the scheme to be employed this fall is certainly different from what Osaisai last played under Tom Hayes, and Osaisai missed that installation in April. It should be noted, however, that Osaisai was a freshman under Christoff during the 2004 season and will not be a fish completely out of water when training camp starts in August. Moreover, Christoff was the coordinator and position coach who recruited and made the decision to offer Osaisai coming out of his junior year of high school. The attitude of a coach toward his player, and the relationship the two of them enjoy, can be an important contributor to that player's success. It is also worth pointing out that Osaisai quit the team prior to Christoff's return to the Cardinal coaching staff.
There could be a learning curve on special teams as well, given that a new coordinator is on the staff. We believe, however, that much of the special teams schemes are being installed in August, as we saw less of that in April. More to the point, Osaisai's natural abilities and techniques he learned last fall should carry strongly into whatever kick/punt coverage scheme is installed. Given the graduation losses that Stanford has suffered after a stellar special teams campaign in 2005 - including kicker Michael Sgroi, coverage standout Timi Wusu and dynamo returner T.J. Rushing - Osaisai quitting the team in January was a devastating blow. If the redshirt sophomore is willing to embrace a special teams role, that at a minimum could make a meaningful impact with his return.
Osaisai also offers the possibility of helping out with the Cardinal cornerback crisis, as mentioned above. It is too much to forecast his winning the #2 cornerback job, or even the #3 job in the nickel package, simply by this decision. There was some reason he did not see the field on defense last fall. Additionally, he missed all of the instruction during April's spring practices that could have been so important for him. But Wopamo Osaisai has something special that sets him apart from all of the other corners on the Cardinal roster - his blinding speed. Shortly after rejoining the team, Osaisai took part in the team's post-spring testing and ran a 4.31 in the 40. His technique and consistency may need serious work when camp begins in August, but make-up speed can correct many mistakes. Osaisai has jet engines unlike any other on this defense, and that gives him a chance to help Stanford this fall.
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