The Summer's Top Five Stories

This evening kicks off the start of Stanford's 2006 preseason camp. Before that action is underway, we review and discuss for Cardinalmaniacs™ the five biggest non-injury stories of the summer. They will help you catch up on the Card, while also setting the table for some of the most important stories to watch during this camp.

Michael Horgan Quits

The last 'hit' we report for Stanford Football of the summer was actually the first to go down.  The tight end told Walt Harris at the end of the spring quarter that he was quitting the football team.  That news took us by surprise for several reasons.  First, Horgan had never shown signs of being a malcontent.  He had a good attitude on the team, and he applied himself.  Second, Horgan was a meaningful member of the program who demonstrated ability on the field in 2005.  He caught 10 passes for 69 yards last fall, both second among Stanford tight ends.  Horgan started one game, at Arizona, where he caught a touchdown that ultimately was the winning score in a narrow 20-17 win for the Cardinal.  More recently, Horgan had a standout spring game with three catches for 34 yards, including an 18-yard touchdown.  Finally, tight end was a frighteningly thin position for Stanford in the spring, which gave him many opportunities and might have been a forecast of the position group in the fall.

That being said, the rising tide of the redshirt freshmen in the spring was undeniable.  James Dray and Erik Lorig were both exciting and both regarded as the future for Stanford at the position after the current senior duo graduate.  Horgan was by no means secure as the 'heir apparent' at tight end.  If those two youngsters continued their upward trajectory and all bodies remained healthy and eligible, it would not be difficult to see Horgan this fall as fourth or fifth on the tight end depth chart - an deflating position for a redshirt junior.  Also a serious student, Horgan sat at a crossroads while staring at his approaching senior academic year on The Farm.  He chose the path without football.

What does Stanford lose without Horgan on the gridiron this fall (and the next)?  A solid receiving tight end who had not often been a primary option but was regularly employed in multiple tight end sets.  He might be 'replaced' by the new wave of redshirt frosh, but Horgan will be missed when injuries hit this season.  And they will hit.  They always do at tight end.  That will be felt even more acutely in 2007, but our focus is squarely upon the '06 campaign at the moment.

When Horgan quit at the end of the spring, Stanford was already down one tight end, until his status changed in July.

Suspended Seniors Reinstated

It took nearly a month after we reported in mid-June that Matt Traverso and Brandon Harrison were on track to rejoin the team, but they finally received the green light on July 10.  The fifth-year senior tight end and senior "free safety" (we'll revisit that shortly) were suspended from the football team through the entire spring, after their respective winter quarter grades presented a threat to their upcoming graduation goals and also forecast a potential threat to their eligibility.

The pair was exiled from the locker room and barred from official team practices, meetings and activities.  Their time off the field was dedicated to a rebirth of their academic ethic, while the hours of April during Stanford's spring practices were spent dressed in black enduring a grueling regimen of hard conditioning work.

We were hearing in June at the end of the spring quarter that both student-athletes had righted their respective ships, and after final grades cleared and some reviews were given, Walt Harris welcomed Harrison and Traverso back to the team.

"It's good to have [Traverso and Harrison] now back on our football team because they did what they needed to do in order to be back on our football team," the head coach comments.  "I also think that they had a spin-off effect on the rest of our football players.  I'm really proud of this: we had 50 players [in the spring] who had over a three-point in the spring quarter.  We had 36 football players go over a 3.2.  The emphasis on academics from the football staff is high with our football players.  I like what we are seeing from what happened in the spring with those two senior players.  I think that had a positive effect on the rest of our guys.  I think that our players know that academics are important."

Their returns are a boon to both the defense and offense for Stanford.  Harrison is the Cardinal's most experienced defensive back, while Traverso is the most experienced tight end on the roster.  We will talk more about Harrison in a bit, but Traverso's return is particularly relieving at the tight end position in light of Horgan's quitting football.  Traverso brings both leadership and talent at a position that was used prominently in Harris' passing offense last fall, while also critical to blocking.

That is not to say that Traverso immediately returns to the top of that depth chart.  Far from it, in fact.  Harrison is also expected to rejoin the team this evening for his first official Stanford practice since 2005 - at the bottom of the depth chart.  If not out of fairness to their position mates who worked all spring and earned their positions on the depth chart, it is logical to add these two to their position groups on the bottom rung as they get to know and become known by their coaches.

"We have new coaches at their positions, so I think they start at the bottom," Harris says.  "I don't think they'll stay there very long.  But because we have new coaches, I think it is only fair that they have to prove themselves to their coaches.  How long that takes, I don't know."

We should also note that both of these seniors have been enrolled in summer school to continue their path toward graduation.  Harrison has a nine-unit load, while Traverso is taking 10 units.  The latter should have approximately 12 units left to earn his diploma in the fall.  Harrison never took a redshirt year, but he will have a manageable task of 38 units during his senior year to graduate in the spring.

Congratulations also go out to Traverso with his nomination to the 2006 John Mackey Award "Watch List" as one of the nation's top tight ends.

Brandon Harrison Moves to Cornerback

Though Harrison was brought back to the team in July, we saw him already in May working at a new position during unofficial team practices.  The 6'2" 224-pound senior has been lined up outside in coverage as a cornerback after spending his first three years on The Farm at safety.  The move may seem illogical at first glance.  After all, it is more common for a young cornerback to be moved to safety, often after being unable to demonstrate the speed or backpedaling needed at the position.  Moving Harrison in his fourth year in the reverse direction seems odd.  But cornerback just might be a better fit.  And of course, the bigger wide receivers Stanford will face on the schedule this fall (e.g. 6'5" Dwayne Jarrett, 6'5" Patrick Turner, 6'4" Jeff Samardzija) could be better covered by a Card with some size.

"We're trying to get our four best athletes on the field at the same time," Walt Harris says of the move in the Cardinal defensive backfield.

We will wait to ask defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator A.J. Christoff more about the move during camp.  For now, we can offer observations throughout numerous unofficial practices of May and July where we saw Harrison perform surprisingly well as a cover corner.  Moreover, Stanford's wide receivers have testified to Harrison's skills and ability against them.

Another aspect of the Harrison move that made some scratch their heads was the already tenuous depth at the safety positions for Stanford.  Sans Harrison in the spring, it was a frightfully thin group, though there was always the hope and expectation for the Cardinal that he would return.  Now he returns, but at a different spot.  Harrison's old position is receiving some help this week, however, with redshirt sophomore Carlos McFall moving to free safety.  McFall was seen in spots on special teams last fall, and we have liked him from the beginning in practices.  His hindrance has been a recurring shoulder injury which sidelined him for stretches of time in both 2004 and 2005.

The good news to report for McFall in 2006 is that he has yet to sit out any official or unofficial practice with a shoulder injury this year.  That may mean he can be a factor for Stanford in the defensive backfield this season.  It now looks like his mark will be felt at safety.  He joins fifth-year senior David Lofton and redshirt freshman Bo McNally in a battle at free safety that will be one to watch the next several weeks.

Speaking of position switches, a brand new move we expect to see today is redshirt junior Peter Griffin to the "rush" outside linebacker position.  For those not nimble in the nomenclature of the Stanford defense, that is the spot manned the last two years by Jon Alston, who today is with the St. Louis Rams.  The heir apparent appears to be redshirt freshman Clinton Snyder, which trades little in athleticism but much in experience.  Redshirt junior Emmanuel Awofadeju provides some depth and competition at the position, but the fourth-year athlete has yet to blossom into the player he was hoped to become.  Griffin is a player who the Cardinal coaches are high on and should be a factor in the linebacking corps this fall.  This is the second move of 2006 for the walk-on from Memphis (Tenn.), who spent his first three years on The Farm at safety before shifting to inside linebacker.

We also hear that there is an offense-defense swap that may be unveiled this week, if not today.  Stay tuned...

Freshmen at Summer Workouts

It is nothing new for incoming frosh to make some appearances at Stanford during the summer, for an advanced introduction to the playbook, locker room, conditioning sessions and teammates.  This year brought most of the 2006 signing class to campus - 14 out of 19 by our unofficial count:

quarterback Alex Loukas
running back Toby Gerhart
running back Tyrone McGraw
wide receiver Richard Sherman
wide receiver Marcus Rance
wide receiver Mark Mueller
offensive lineman Andrew Phillips
offensive lineman John Kyed
defensive lineman Sione Fua
defensive lineman Levirt Griffin
defensive lineman Brian Bulcke
defensive lineman Derek Hall
linebacker Sam Weinberger
cornerback Tyler Porras

Chalk that up to a rising level of commitment being felt within the Cardinal program.  Additionally, it is widely perceived that the roster and several depth charts provide a number of enticing opportunities for true freshmen to play this fall.  Walt Harris and the Cardinal coaches communicated to the signing class throughout the last year that they should prepare themselves to play.  This summer's attendance is evidence of the response.

Last year at this time, Harris was cautious whenever asked about true freshmen playing right away.  Indeed, every member of that entering class took a redshirt year.  It is a different tune that the Cardinal head coach is singing this August, however.

"We're wide open - maybe more wide open than we were last year - to playing some of our true freshmen and giving them an opportunity to see if they can play," Harris admits.  "We're going to adjust some of our practices so that our freshmen get a little more coaching than they did before."

Like a starting gun, that statement sets us off on the race to follow this year's freshmen and find who might play this season on Saturdays.  There are several position groups with obvious opportunities, including wide receiver and the defensive line.  Running back could also see Toby Gerhart compete for playing time, and his opportunity may be accelerated this first week.  Reportedly, redshirt sophomore Anthony Kimble has not yet flown back to Stanford from his home in Louisiana, where he has a debilitating ailment.  The Cardinal tailback, who finished the spring #1 on the tailback depth chart, may miss most of this first week of camp.

The focal frosh of the summer was Richard Sherman, who was Stanford Football's first incoming freshman to be enrolled in summer school.  That has allowed him to be housed and fed on campus since late June.  Not only is the 6'3" wide receiver the most fully acclimated frosh ever to enter Stanford training camp, but he also was able to attend every summer conditioning workout and unofficial practice.  Moreover, the kid looks like every bit of the talent that we thought while he was recruited out of Compton (Calif.) Dominguez High School.  He is big and fast, and he has worked with a visible hunger to devour the playbook and learn the complex Stanford offense.  Sherman wants badly to succeed and to help, and his work ethic has impressed the Stanford veterans on offense as much as his speed and athleticism.  Sherman may not yet have the experience of working with Walt Harris and Tucker Waugh on the practice field, but his education is well underway.

"I think that the experience has started," Harris opines.  "That's why everybody else, especially in the Pac-10, has had as many freshmen as possible enrolled in summer school and working out with the other players.  At all the other schools, that's a given.  We've got one guy, which should help him.  Of all the young guys that are coming in and vying at that [receiver] position, he's the only one who has been up here.  I would think that is a real positive for Richard."

Mark Bradford Comes Alive

While Sherman is just beginning his Stanford story, that of senior wide receiver Mark Bradford is coming to a close.  The promise held for him coming out of high school was high, and that did not diminish after he recorded more receiving yards than any freshman in school history.  However, the 6'2" athlete has had uneven success since, including a lackluster spring this year that earned the ire and fire of Harris.  The rap on Bradford throughout his time on The Farm has been his "light switch" work and performances in both practices and games.  Sometimes on, sometimes off.  Bradford has yet to show that he wants and is able to work hard every day at his craft and to maximize his tremendous talent.

At the end of this spring quarter, however, the light went on for Bradford.  Maybe it was Harris' public and private condemnations.  Maybe it was the urgency and emergency of a 21-year-old starting at his last chance to write a strong résumé for his fast-approaching professional football career upon which he hopes to embark.  Regardless of the reason, Bradford became this summer visibly more focused on his routes and on each play of practices.  He became a consistent leader by example in the weight room.  And best of all, Bradford became a fixture in the film room.

In watching him closely since his first days on campus in 2003, we have never seen this Mark Bradford.  His physical condition, his concentration, and his consistency as a playmaker are eye-opening.  This is the real deal, and he looks sensational.  If he keeps this up through the breadth of camp and into the season, you will be talking about Bradford in the same breath as the Pac-10 and college football's elite wideouts.  And more than the emergence of Sherman or another up-and-coming receiver, a 100% showing of Bradford this fall could mean much to Stanford's success.

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