Alex from Foster City (Calif.) asks:
In your opinion, which of the 2006 incoming frosh are most likely to see the field this fall?
That is the $25,000 question this time of year, isn't it, Alex? Or at least, one of them. As is always my answer to this question, which is asked every year - you have to consider both need and ability. Two of the more obvious positions of need for Stanford are wide receiver and running back. The 2006 class has candidates for both.
I'll start with the low-hanging fruit of wide receiver. Stanford has five freshman at the position, though we suspect one or more of them will find a home at another position on the football field sometime this fall. It would be dangerous to speculate on those switches before we (and the Stanford coaches) can watch them operate in a college football practice environment and in Stanford's offense. We will handicap those five's prospects of playing as true freshmen this fall, however, based on available information.
The first is who has come and who has not come to campus this summer to work out with the team and get a start on both the conditioning and repetitions of the offense. Stephen Carr and Austin Yancy were the two who did not make the trip. Let it first be repeated that summer workouts are theoretically voluntary (though the entire Stanford returning roster is attending). Incoming freshmen are not beholden to travel, eat and sleep on their dime when they have yet to officially start (Fall Camp starts August 7). However, with such an incredible opportunity and need at wide receiver, one would expect most or all of the quintet to put every ounce of effort they can afford into preparing to play this fall. Also consider how difficult the receiver position is to play in Walt Harris' offense, which can take months or more to learn. For those reasons, we have to believe that Carr and Yancy are behind the eight ball, so to speak, relative to where they can and should want to be this summer. If either of them proves to be physically able and an exceptionally quick study, they could surprise and still play this fall.
Richard Sherman, Marcus Rance and Mark Mueller all made the effort to try and help themselves toward that end, by attending at least some part of this summer's workouts. Unfortunately, neither Rance nor Mueller were not medically cleared/able to take part in the football practices. That significantly mitigated their advantages and experiences while on campus. Moreover, it cautions as to their health status and physical condition and readiness to start training camp and the season. We will revisit that question the first few days of camp in August, but color us pessimistic for this pair right now.
As we previously reported, Sherman is in a unique - indeed, a first-of-its-kind - situation in that he has been given the chance to attend summer school at Stanford. Not only does that give him a head start , both in building credits and acclimating to Stanford's academics, but that also moves him from an unofficial to an official capacity on campus. He has a dorm room and meal plan, unique amongst his class. He has been at Stanford since late June and will remain all the way through training camp (summer finals actually take place during camp). Sherman is attending every football practice, every weight lifting session and every conditioning workout this summer. He will be the most acclimated and prepared freshman at the start of preseason camp in perhaps the history of this program. Finally factor in Sherman's natural talent, which is melding and improving with repetitions in the Stanford offense this summer, and he is as good a bet to play this fall as a true freshman as we have seen in several years.
Could Stanford need two freshman wide receivers to play this fall? That depends upon how healthy Sherman, Mark Bradford and Evan Moore stay through the first half of the season. It also depends upon the improvement and performances from Marcus McCutcheon, Mike Miller and Kelton Lynn - the next top three wideouts. For a Carr, for example, to play, he needs to be better or as-good-and-improving as most or all of that trio. This is one of the questions we will be watching like a hawk in August.
At running back, the picture is more confusing. At wide receiver, there are depth questions, but the two starters are clear and they combine as the best duo Stanford has seen since Walters/Pitts in 1999. At running back, there is no starter yet determined. I cannot tell you today with much certainty who are the top two or the top three running backs. That is a result of such a spotty performance from the running game last year. I will spare repeating all the ghastly statistics and rankings for the 2005 Cardinal ground game, but the two returning "incumbents" averaged less than 30 yards per game and totaled 260-some yards each. Is it too bold to talk about a freshman like Toby Gerhart passing one or both of Anthony Kimble and Jason Evans, as well as '05 redshirt Ray Jones, for the #1 or #2 tailback job? Maybe in another year, but none of the returnees have come close to proven anything yet.
Gerhart belongs in the running back conversation right now. In a normal year, I would say that he needs to win a spot in the top two to burn his redshirt. However, with this position so up in the air, we do not know at the end of training camp how close or how separated the #1, #2 and #3 will be. With so little proven in games by Stanford's running backs, August may help determine the starter for the season opener, but proof of play on Saturdays in September will quickly trump and either shuffle or solidify that post-camp depth chart. The mind become dizzy upon considering the number of scenarios that could play out the next two months to either compel or curtail the chances of Gerhart playing.
How has Gerhart looked in summer workouts? He was in attendance through last week, leaving Thursday to return home to Norco (Calif.). He looked in excellent physical condition, and he put in as much time and work as he could to become familiar with the team and the offense. However, running backs are tested less and are more difficult to evaluate during summer practices than wide receivers or quarterbacks. There are no pads allowed, per NCAA rules, during unofficial football practices. Thus very few running plays are run, and very little can be learned from those that are called. Backs feign protection against a phantom pass rush, or they run out in patterns and do learn some of the receiving game for their position. We are flying too blind today to confidently call whether Gerhart will play or not, and must reserve judgment until we see him in camp. It should also be noted that tailback Tyrone McGraw has also been at some summer practices, and he has some real quickness to him. It would be hard to imagine him playing as a freshman ahead of Gerhart, however, given the disparity in their size and overall game.
The other position where I can see a true freshman playing this fall is on the defensive line. No other position unit, in my mind, for Stanford this year has as many questions of experience, talent and depth as the D-line. The concern is exacerbated by injuries, as well, which we will partially cover below in another section. The good news is that there are four defensive linemen in this freshman class, and all four spent some time this summer at Stanford. All four look good physically - some even surprisingly so. The bad news is that the most difficult positions for freshmen to play straight out of high school are on the line of scrimmage, where raw athleticism and talent may have let them dominate as preps, but there is little substitute for size, strength and explosiveness that comes with years of maturation and strength & conditioning in college. An 18-year-old defensive end will almost assuredly struggle against a 22- or 23-year-old Pac-10 offensive tackle.
Derek Hall is big and rangy and has a bright future ahead of him - possibly even at offensive tackle - but he looks the least physically ready and mature of the frosh foursome. Brian Bulcke was the least publicized, regarded and recruited of the quartet, but eyeballing him in person this month was revealing. The Canadian is built like a brick house, and that sentiment of surprise was echoed by a lot of people on the team. Defensive linemen are even more difficult than running backs to evaluate in a no-pads environment, so we are anxious to see what he does when contact goes live in August. Sione Fua and Levirt Griffin are the other two D-linemen, and they are the biggest currently at 301 and 290 pounds, respectively. They both want to play and are working furiously toward that goal. We can't wait to watch them in pads.
Matt from San Francisco (Calif.) asks:
A number of potentially important players for the 2006 Stanford defense either missed spring practices with injury or came into the spring with lingering injuries that limited their contributions. Are there any health updates or strength & conditioning updates that The Bootleg can provide heading into summer workouts?
If I had a nickel for every time I heard directly or read on the message boards the despair derived from my off-season football reports that disclose injury and surgery information, I would be a rich man today. Football is a violent sport, and that is more so the case today than every before, as players become bigger and the game becomes faster. I sometimes wonder if Cardinalmaniacs™ wouldn't be better off without those reports. It's like the sausage factory - do you really want to learn the gruesome details that go into producing the product you ultimately consume?
But Matt asks the question, and I'll oblige. There is a mixed bag of news. In the category of "all better and now full-speed or improving" we have Ekom Udofia, Udeme Udofia and Bo McNally. The younger Udofia might be Stanford's best defensive lineman this year, though the redshirt frosh has no college playing experience. He broke his hand in the winter, missed some upper body weight lifting as a result, recovered, but then broke (or badly injured) fingers during the spring. That is behind him, and he is in finely tuned condition. The elder Udofia is the probable starter at "Sam" outside linebacker and a valuable fourth-year player on this inexperienced defense. He started the spring healthy but suffered an injury to his shoulder. He is recovering, taking part in workouts, and should be 100% for camp. McNally is a redshirt frosh and thus off the radar when most people assess the Stanford secondary, but he is a valuable player who will factor either at the safety position or in nickel/dime defensive packages. We expect more likely than not to see him in a significant role for Stanford this fall. He looked super last year in camp and was a tremendous scout team performer but then broke his leg and finished the year on crutches. He returned to action midway through the spring and quickly worked his way back into the mix. Again, McFall showed us that he is a playmaker, despite missing instruction, repetitions and conditioning earlier in the spring. He looks good this summer and should have no problems starting an important training camp.
In the category of "not injured but not fully recovered" we have inside linebacker Fred Campbell and defensive end Pannel Egboh. The former is another bright young talent in the redshirt freshman class, while Egboh was an upstart last year as a redshirt frosh and hoped to be a leading performer on the defensive line this year. Each suffered a nasty broken leg/ankle last year - Campbell at an all-star game concluding his high school senior year, and Egboh in the waning moments of the win at Washington State in October. Campbell is further along, running and taking part in 11-on-11 with the team. He does not look 100%, but he is getting there. Egboh has not joined his teammates in any 11-on-11 work this summer and likely will not. He is still in the rehabilitation phase of his return, though he is making progress. Not only does Egboh have a shortfall of strength in his left leg, but he also is fighting serious pain. He should have his strength and much of his conditioning back by the start of the season. Unfortunately, he will likely have to play this fall through the pain - not something about to leave him soon.
In the category of "still injured or incapacitated" we have nose tackle James McGillicuddy and inside linebacker Mike Silva. The former is still another key redshirt frosh, expected to be an important reserve behind Ekom Udofia in the middle of Stanford's defensive line. He missed the first half of the spring, recovering from a broken pubic bone suffered in the winter. McGillicuddy returned to finish spring practices in April, but a discovered torn patellar tendon had to be repaired in May. That is the relevant issue for him today, which thus far has kept him out of conditioning runs and 11-on-11 work this summer. He should receive news this week on whether he is cleared for running, which would put him on track for full participation in training camp. The second setback this year for McGillicuddy is bad news, but the good news is that he is better conditioned today (305 pounds) than when he could do nothing in the winter (330 pounds). Silva is the biggest mystery of the entire defense, and the summer provides few clues, unfortunately. Migraines kept him out of all four weeks of spring practices, taking away a valuable and underrated fifth-year senior from the linebacking corps. Regardless of what Silva runs or how much he participates in the summer, it means little for his fall prognosis. The issue with migraines is contact. Absent pads and helmets, there are no true collisions during the summer. Either Silva will play through the problem this fall, or it will keep him on the sideline. We cannot tell which today, and training camp may not fully inform us either. Tune in September 2 in Eugene.
Bob from Sunnyvale (Calif.) asks:
Could you tell us the Osaisai story? What happened in Track, why did he feel he had to be Track only?
It's always about track, isn't it, Bob? First, let's rewind to January when Wopamo Osaisai quit football to run track full-time. Up to that point, he a two-sport athlete at Stanford, which was the full expectation for himself and by the respective Stanford coaches when he was recruited out of high school. True, there was a head coaching change in football that may have changed those expectations and may have been to blame for Osaisai giving football the boot. However, it was instead the change at his position coach that frustrated him. Osaisai was recruited and coveted in high school by A.J. Christoff, who also coached him his first year (2004) on The Farm. Christoff loved Osaisai's speed and believed that he could coach up the cornerback technique for this raw but promising talent. Moreover, Christoff firmly believed that Osaisai's make-up speed was so spectacular that in the earlier stages of his development, the track star turned football player could survive some of his mistakes and still be in position to make a play when the ball reaches his receiver.
But Christoff took off for the San Francisco 49ers after Osaisai's freshman season (which was redshirted) and was replaced by former Washington Redskins coach Tom Hayes. There are a number of important differences between Hayes and Christoff which affected Stanford in 2005, but Osaisai in particular felt the impact. The speedster never once set foot on the football field on a Saturday during his redshirt freshman season on defense. He played and made tremendous contributions on special teams as Stanford's top gunner, but Osaisai most wants to play cornerback. Even taking into account some of his shortcomings and the stage of his development with the craft, Osaisai probably should have been given some chances in some game situations. Seeing none, Osaisai felt he was out of favor with Hayes and would not get a fair shake as a cornerback. With an already superstar college track career underway with quick work rewriting the Cardinal record books, Osaisai quit football to run track full-time.
The greener grass on the other side of the fence turned out to taste not so sweet, however. By the end of the 2006 track season, Osaisai had some differences with the Stanford coaching staff on training methodology. Push came to shove, and they parted ways late in the spring. The good news for Osaisai is that Hayes was hired away by the New Orleans Saints and Christoff had returned to Stanford - he saw a second life for him in football. Osaisai talked with Christoff, was enthused by the opportunity, and then asked Walt Harris to return to the team. Osaisai immediately joined the team in late May for unofficial practices and has continued with the full breadth of football and conditioning workouts. The bad news is that Osaisai did not rejoin Stanford Football until after April, which means he missed four critical weeks of practices. He has not been coached in football since 2005. That should lower expectations for Osaisai's prospects in the cornerback competition when training camp opens next month. How quickly and how effectively Osaisai can absorb and implement Christoff's coaching will determine his chances of being in the defensive backfield rotation during the season. Ironically, Osaisai quit football only weeks before Hayes left and Christoff came back to The Farm. Had he stuck around, the speedster would have been reunited with his first coach at Stanford and probably made a good deal of progress in the spring with his cornerback craft. Instead, he now trails as many as four or five cornerbacks in today's putative depth chart.
That may mean a lot of special teams and not a lot else for Osaisai this fall. Can he be happy with that? While we love the kid and marvel at his raw talent, we have to cast a cautious eye toward his future after two episodes already in college of parting with a program. One can only hope that he can embrace his role, his coaches and his teammates going forward, even though the rocky roads. As to the question of if and when he will run track again at Stanford, we are told at this time that Osaisai and the program are taking a break from each other this next year.
Joseph from Mountain View (Calif.) asks:
Is T.C. Ostrander considering a revival of his pitching career in a dual sport role?
I'm not sure if this is a serious question or one posed tongue-in-cheek. To seriously answer the question: "No." Ostrander has not thrown a baseball in a long time, and he is pouring all of his focus, effort and energy into improving himself as a quarterback after finishing spring practices on a down note. That being said, he loved pitching and playing baseball. The idea of playing again brings a smile to his face, and heck, his arm has become a good deal stronger since his high school days on the diamond...
I'll take this opportunity to comment on Ostrander's football latest. He started the spring well, but during the second of the spring's three full scrimmages, his fortunes plummeted with two interceptions and a third ball nearly picked off. The redshirt junior regressed during the last half of spring ball by stepping outside of the offense at times and taking just a few too many chances with the ball. Walt Harris publicly called out the quarterback after the Spring Game to the gathering of Bay Area beat writers, broadcasting to the world that T.C. Ostrander disappointed him and needed to become a quarterback rather than just a "talent."
Ostrander agreed 100% with his head coach's assessment, and he understood the tool of public criticism. Harris employed that the previous spring against Evan Moore, and the supersized wideout turned around 180 degrees into his current incarnation as one of the game's lethal weapons. Harris also called out Mark Bradford this spring, and we are seeing a remarkable change in the senior receiver. Ostrander is smart enough to understand this, and he is also responding well. He is mentally more focused than ever on executing the offense during summer practices, and his decisions as a result are improving. One detail in particular has Ostrander trying to keep himself from stepping into any of this throws this summer. The motion of stepping forward delays the speed of getting rid of the football, and that speed is important in a live game with a live rush and defenders who will hammer you. During any football practice, a quarterback takes no hits and cannot feel a truly "live" rush. Summer is even more so the case, with no pads and all kinds of time to throw.
The test for Ostrander will come in August, when Harris can coach him again during fall camp practices and evaluate whether his quarterback has addressed his spring shortcomings. We think it will prove to be a positive result, if Ostrander continues on his current track.
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