"I think we've had a better than average focus," assesses Cardinal head coach Walt Harris after the first four practice of Stanford's preseason camp. "We'll know a little bit more in a couple days when we've been playing football in full gear."
"We've put in a lot of stuff on both sides of the ball. That puts a lot of pressure on them mentally. Sometimes when you're thinking, you're not cutting loose like you normally would do if you have fewer things to do," the coach continues. "We're about where we thought we'd be in training camp. We've had good enthusiasm, which is the most positive part of it."
Enthusiasm ought to have been difficult to find this week, given the unthinkable injury hole in which Stanford started camp. One of the areas hit hard has been running back, where redshirt sophomore Anthony Kimble was in a hospital back home in Louisiana with a bacterial infection while his teammates opened camp on Monday. Bad went to worse this week, with subsequent first-team tailback Jason Evans falling to injury. The redshirt junior missed Wednesday and Thursday, leaving Stanford with no healthy tailback on the roster who set foot on the field during the 2005 season.
Walt Harris still found a way to smile coming off the practice field Thursday, however, because of a couple of sights. The first was the return of Kimble to modest participation in Stanford's preseason camp. He donned a yellow jersey and could wear no pads, while his teammates were practicing in their second day of upper-body pads. Kimble was still able to take part in some drills where he did not take a hit. We expected to see him languish as he recovers from his Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus infection. But the speed was surprisingly evident for the redshirt sophomore runner, who timed twice in the spring with a 4.34 in the 40.
"It was great to see Anthony Kimble out there today," Harris beams. "He looked fast - faster than he did before, and that always helps in this game." "I'm sure he's not really 100% healthy, but it was good to see him in the non-contact stuff. We hadn't had him. For coming from the hospital to the practice field, that's pretty good."
When it came to contact drills, however, the Cardinal were for the second straight day behind the eight ball. Redshirt sophomore Ray Jones took the lead again at tailback, but repetitions also went to senior Nick Frank. The 6'2" 250-pound Frank is starting his second year at fullback for the Cardinal, after two years on the defensive line. If the transition from nose tackle to the offensive backfield was not shocking enough, Frank worked Thursday for the first time this camp as a tailback.
"He's learning how to be a running back. Whether it be a fullback or a tailback, he's learning how to be one," Harris says. "We talked with [running backs coach] Buzz [Preston], and Buzz thought it would be a good idea to give him work at that position."
"Anthony is out right now. He'll be back soon. J.E. is a little banged up. That's kind of a worst case scenario why I'm back there," Frank offers on the matter. "But that can happen during the season, so he wants me to get back there, get to work and be ready to help out there - be comfortable back there."
"That's going to be a situational thing," the senior adds. "A couple guys are banged up, so we're preparing for the worst in that situation. Coach is relying on me to be able to come in and help if something like that happens."
There is some truth to what Frank says, but also too strong a dose of modesty. His use as a primary runner, rather than as a fullback, would likely be situational this fall. There could be certain defenses, down-and-distance's and clock situations that uniquely fit putting a bulldozer at that position. But those opportunities would not come solely as a result of other running back injuries. The big back has talent and merits carrying the football.
"He's taking the ball and literally running with it," Harris praises. "He'd done a nice job for us. He's a load, so you have to get a guy like that the ball."
"He works at it. He's a good athlete," the coach continues. "He'll do some more things for us this year, I believe, too. We're excited. We wish he had two more years. The biggest disappointment was when I found out he was not a redshirt junior."
The most exciting part about Frank is that though he is a senior, he is just coming into his own in the offensive backfield. He amazed last fall when he started 11 games despite no prior experience as a fullback. Frank caught six passes for 45 yards in a stunning debut at Navy. His season high running the ball came against UCLA, when he carried 13 times for 61 yards and found the endzone.
With that season of experience, and an entire off-season to work at his new craft, Frank is now able to improve and fine tune running back skills rather than learn them from scratch.
"I'm getting more and more comfortable now, so things are really starting to click this camp," the senior says. "I've worked the most with the inside zone plays, but I'm expanding that now. It's still taking me a while to get comfortable with the outside stuff - different footwork and different steps. I'd like to say I'm a between-the-tackles type of runner, but if need be, hopefully I can stretch the defense out and cut it up."
There is an additional positive dimension to the scene we saw Thursday at Stanford's practice. Not only was Frank working out of the rear rather than the forward of the I-formation, but that also put redshirt junior Emeka Nnoli as the first string fullback for those repetitions. Nnoli was the ranked as the number one fullback in the nation out of Sacramento (Calif.) Natomas High School in the 2003 recruiting class. He has been plagued by a blood condition and injuries while on The Farm, and he has too often looked lost in the offense. This fall, however, the 6'1" 242-pounder may be turning the corner.
"Another thing about giving [Frank] some rep's at tailback, I think Emeka has done a better job, too. I think he's picked it up," Harris offers. "You wouldn't move Nick to tailback unless you thought you had a solid contributor at fullback, and I think Emeka has improved. We're very thankful for that."
"I think Emeka had an improved spring over the fall. I think you have a really good coach coaching him," the coach explains of Nnoli's improvement. "I think he got healthy, and I think he got back into shape. He had a lot of injury problems for a long time, and I think he got out of shape. When you're out of shape, you don't care about anything but just making it through. I think that all had something to do with it."
More News & Notes
- On the subject of running backs and the running game, the absence of Kimble thus far in camp, and now Evans as well, has given a good deal of repetitions early for freshman Toby Gerhart. Wednesday and Thursday practiced in upper body pads, which allowed for some hitting. That also allowed us to get a little look at running styles in a contact environment. Gerhart sure is a load, packing a big punch when a defender meets him. I am not sure the last time a true freshman on The Farm has provided that kind of physical package right away at running back. We are also seeing early signs that Gerhart might already be one of the better blockers among the running backs. Though his playmaking ability with the ball will be visible and a key, if Gerhart proves to be a top blocker in the coming weeks, that could be his ticket to playing time this fall.
- No sooner did we write about the depth chart than it saw some shake-ups during Thursday's practice. Specifically, we wrote about why redshirt sophomore Alex Fletcher was sticking at guard despite an injury and depth shortfall at center. One of the reasons we cited was that playing redshirt junior Preston Clover at center plus Fletcher at guard helped put Stanford's best linemen on the field, but Clover is now the Cardinal's newest injury casualty and was out of action Thursday. With Stanford's starting and number two centers both out, that forced Fletcher to take the first-team center job, which will likely continue until Clover or Tim Mattran returns. "We are trying to find our five best guys," says Walt Harris. "I think he will be solid if that's the way we have to go."
- Taking over at the starting right guard position is fifth-year senior Ismail Simpson, who is gutting it out despite some ailments. Simpson started camp disadvantaged, and we thought he might be done for a while when he was carted off the field on Tuesday, but the gritty senior is putting everything he has out onto the field to play and contribute in his last season of football.
- Speaking of Tim Mattran, he had his new bone scan on Thursday. We will look for the official word today, but we hear that his diagnosis has been revised. The fifth-year senior center could begin some light work in practice within days. If he does, and if he stays healthy, Mattran could much more comfortably be penciled in as the starting center for Stanford's opener at Oregon.
- On the defensive side of the ball, we saw the first evidence of a depth chart move at outside linebacker. The first three days of camp, redshirt freshman Will Powers and redshirt junior Emmanuel Awofadeju shared time and competed at the second string "Sam" outside linebacker position. Redshirt junior Udeme Udofia was all alone in the starting slot. Come Thursday, Powers moved up and took some of first string work.
- Freshman wide receiver Stephen Carr returned to practice Thursday after being injured on Tuesday. He is now wearing a sizable elbow brace. Carr's return doubles the Cardinal's frosh scholarship numbers at wideout, after having just Richard Sherman on Wednesday. The other three freshmen at the position are still out.
- Freshman offensive tackle John Kyed looked very promising the opening days of camp, already drawing some praise from teammates and coaches. However, he tore his MCL on Wednesday and was on the sideline on crutches on Thursday. There is no timetable yet available for when he will return from the injury.
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