Fall Camp Opens Upbeat

The two great topics of consternation for Cardinalmaniacs of late for Stanford Football have been injuries and youth on defense. Stanford spirits turned quickly on Monday with the open of the Cardinal's training camp, however. In almost all areas, we found good news. Wounded veterans returned to action, while the freshman class found a special schedule to accelerate their learning.

Our first order of business each year when training camp opens is to report the first-team players up and down the offensive and defensive depth charts, as well as position switches.  But the two big concerns for 2006 Stanford Football have run deeper.  A slew of holes opened on defense with graduation losses and injuries this off-season, but some of the latter may be looking up.

Per NCAA rules, no pads can be worn by players during their first day of fall practices, which means light contact and a poor proving ground for injured players on the mend.  However, it was a shot in the arm for the Cardinal to have two of their most talented defenders on the field Monday after missing the spring and remaining questionable through the summer.

The great surprise was seeing redshirt sophomore Pannel Egboh line up with the first team defense at left defensive end.  The 6'6" 278-pound athlete is most often described by teammates and coaches as a "freak of nature," and the youngster was just beginning to scratch the surface of his ability last fall when he earned his first start at Washington State.  In the final seconds of the Cardinal victory, Egboh was blocked low and suffered a terrible broken ankle/lower leg.  He missed the entire spring and was gimpy throughout summer workouts.  We have expected little from him this year as he fights not only great pain but also a lack of strength in his left leg.

In the absence of pads and any serious contact, linemen are lightly tested.  But it is an encouraging sign to see Egboh fully participate in this first fall practice, as well as a vote of confidence by the doctors and the coaching staff to put him on the field - with the first team, no less.  That tells us that the defensive coaches have every intention of putting Egboh in a position where he can not only contribute, but also start for Stanford in September.

A little less surprising, but maybe more newsworthy, was the appearance of fifth-year senior inside linebacker Mike Silva at Monday's practice.  Following a bad concussion he suffered during the season last fall, the veteran 'backer stayed out of all contact work through Stanford's four weeks of spring practices with migraine headaches.  To be bothered with that problem so long after the season has boded poorly for Silva's prospects this fall.  As with Egboh, we will wait for evidence that Silva can continue through practices of full pads and live contact, but he has been cleared for full participation to start camp.

"Silva is cleared to go," Walt Harris reports.  "We think he's cleared up on the concussion part, but he still has a family history of migraines.  We've kept him out of everything for a long time now.  I think if he does have a headache, it's more the family history of migraines than anything that has to do with the concussion."

Adding Silva and Egboh back to the defense is huge news for Stanford, and there might be more injury good vibes to report soon.  Over on offense, the Cardinal lost their starting center Tim Mattran to a stress fracture in his tibia in July.  With that diagnosis and his current progress, the fifth-year senior may miss the season opener at Oregon.  Walt Harris, however, says that there may be a change as early as today or tomorrow after a new examination.

"He's going to get a bone scan, and we might get a different diagnosis," the Cardinal head coach reveals.  "They think it may not be what we thought it was...  We don't know yet, but anything might be better than a broken bone or a stress fracture."

While the possibility of a new diagnosis and revised timeframe for Mattran's return to the offensive line is exciting, there is also good news in the form of his replacement.  Redshirt junior Preston Clover is taking over the reins in the middle of the first team offensive line while Mattran is out, and he is perhaps the most improved Stanford lineman thus far in 2006.

"He has been quietly improving himself in the year and the one practice since we've been here," Harris offers of Clover.  "It's great when one guys down and someone else has a chance to have an opportunity to play."

Not only is he improving in his mental mastery of the position, as well as his snapping consistency, but also Clover has taken seriously his physical form.  At 304 pounds to start this camp, it is the largest and strongest we have yet seen for the one-time high school soccer.

The first scene we saw on Monday for the offensive line, however, did not include most of the starters.  In fact, it was a strange sight to behold at the start of practice when a fraction of the roster players on both offense and defense were on the field.  Instead, drills were conducted with the entire freshman class, plus an assortment of other youngsters.

Walt Harris had hinted last week to us that there would be some new scheduling and strategies for handling the frosh in this training camp.  Much more so than last year, there are obvious needs and high prospects for several first-year players to suit up this fall.  As a result, the Cardinal coaches are creatively crafting some practices to first bring out the green group for more focused, individual and basic instruction.  The veterans take the field some amount of time later.  Both groups work for a total number of hours allowed that day by NCAA rules.

"We took our freshmen out and worked with them for a period of time and then brought our other guys out, so that we could fit under the three-hour time limit.  We had a chance to work with just the freshmen plus some other guys who were new position guys," Harris describes of Monday's opening practice.  "I think that will help a lot.  Plus it gives some hope to the younger guys.  There is so much football - the mental part of the game - and you are suddenly hit with it.  It's overwhelming.  We don't want to lose any of those guys.  This way helps them to get better quicker."

"We're integrating the freshmen and teaching them our schemes," the coach continues.  "Then we get a chance to watch them.  We're planning to play some of them if we have to.  And we want to, if they're ready."

Some of them may indeed be ready.  Nobody can take too seriously play, particularly near the line of scrimmage, out of pads.  That being said, some of the best plays we saw Monday came from young players.  Freshman wide receiver Stephen Carr had a fully extended sideline snare that looked fluid and easy.  Fellow frosh wideout Richard Sherman caught eyes throughout the evening with his speed and ease reaching long balls.  Freshman running back Toby Gerhart hit and exploded through the hole on one run that turned a sea of heads.  Redshirt freshman tight end Erik Lorig had the top overall Stanford play of the day with a long pass that looked to be incomplete when broken up by a pair of converging defenders, but the athletic 260-pounder brought the ball back with one arm to thundering applause.

"It was a good start.  I thought they had good enthusiasm," Harris says of the opening day of Stanford's fall camp.

The one damper to this upbeat opener was the absence of redshirt sophomore tailback Anthony Kimble.  The starter at the end of the spring, Kimble had a strong off-season of conditioning and repetitions in the offense.  At the close of the spring, when Stanford conducted its testing, the 6'1" runner was clocked not once but twice with a 4.34 time in the 40.

On the first day of the Cardinal's fall camp, however, he is bedridden back home with a bacterial infection that first manifests as a skin rash.  Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is no stranger to the athletic arena, infamous for infecting through the cuts and nicks common in sports and spreading via shared towels and whirlpools in the locker room.  MRSA made headlines in the 2002 thru 2004 seasons when it repeatedly struck the USC team.

Kimble is not rejoining the Stanford squad until he is not only recovered, but also no longer a risk to spread the staph infection.

"He has been in the hospital with IV's back in Louisiana - in Baton Rouge," Harris says.  "I think he is progressing well and is scheduled to fly out here on Wednesday."

We do not know when Kimble will be cleared to join the team and start practices.  Whenever that day comes, he will have to progress through the five-day NCAA acclimatization period that the rest of the team is conducting this week.  In more ways than one, Kimble will be behind the curve.

Despite the absences of Kimble and Mattran, however, Stanford Football moves on.  Here were the first-team players who lined up for the Cardinal on Monday's opening day of training camp:

Quarterback: Trent Edwards
Running backs: Nick Frank (fullback) and Jason Evans
Wide receivers: Mark Bradford and Evan Moore
Tight end: Patrick Danahy
Offensive line: (left to right) Allen Smith, Josiah Vinson, Preston Clover, Alex Fletcher, Jeff Edwards

Safeties: Trevor Hooper and Bo McNally
Cornerbacks: Brandon Harrison and Nick Sanchez / Tim Sims
Inside linebackers: Michael Okwo and Mike Silva
Outside linebackers: Clinton Snyder and Udeme Udofia
Defensive line: (left to right) Matt Kopa, Ekom Udofia, Pannel Egboh

We will have more to say on the depth charts at several positions, and the battles to play out, in the coming days of camp.  With 21 straight days of practice for the Cardinal, we are just getting started.

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