Gerhart Gone Wild

Friday was a day for which we had been waiting all week. After four days in shorts, the Cardinal were allowed by NCAA rules to finally don full pads and engage in full contact drills. At the end of the afternoon practice, Stanford's first scrimmage session of this 2006 preseason camp unveiled a bright young talent in the backfield. Tailback Toby Gerhart took The Farm by storm on Friday.

The biggest story so far this fall for Stanford Football seems to be the injury hit parade.  A dark cloud hung over the Elliott Practice Fields on Friday after redshirt junior wide receiver Evan Moore joined the leagues of the walking wounded.  The 6'7" wideout, expected to be a major weapon in the Stanford offense this season, was writhing in pain on the sideline after a tackle during the Cardinal's first day in full pads and thus practicing with full contact.

Emotions evolve rapidly in this arena, however.  Within an hour, the heart of the collective Cardinal community was not only relieved, but also racing with excitement.  The relief came in the news that Moore merely sprained his left ankle.  Though the Stanford starting wide receiver did not return to practice and is questionable for today's start of two-a-day practices, Cardinal head coach Walt Harris called the injury "not real serious."

It was hard to bear the sight of Moore on the training table, where he has spent too much of his time already in college.  The super-sized receiver ended both his freshman and junior seasons with serious injuries.  But attention turned quickly back to the practice field when the team conducted their first live scrimmage session of this 2006 fall camp.  We took note of the wide receivers who took the field, given Moore's absence, and even the rotation at tight end.  But the sight of true freshman Toby Gerhart on the field for the first play with the first string offense was a surprise.  The 6'1" running back has seen an increase in his work this week with not only redshirt sophomore Anthony Kimble recovering from a bacterial infection, but also the mid-week injury to redshirt junior Jason Evans.  However, redshirt sophomore Ray Jones picked up the slack as the first team tailback Wednesday and Thursday.  Come Friday, Gerhart was given the chance to be the lead runner in the scrimmage session.

"We've seen Ray, and Ray so far has worked hard.  We were just trying to put Toby in there for a couple plays and see how he runs," Harris explains.  "We wanted to see him."

If not a test, the scrimmage at the conclusion of Friday's afternoon practice was indeed an opportunity for Gerhart.  The Cardinal's two top tailbacks are out, and the freshman will see no better chance to prove himself during this training camp.  Hailed as a prime candidate to play this year as a true freshman, Gerhart offers a different physical presence and running style from any other player at his position on the Stanford roster.  But those feelings from the Cardinal community were all hope and speculation.  On Friday, observable performance and proof of productivity began in dramatic fashion for Gerhart, as he was the shining star of the Stanford scrimmage.

The freshman carried the ball six times for 37 yards, according to The Bootleg's unofficial scrimmage statistics.  Beyond the box score, however, Gerhart was a revelation with his running style.  He showed the power to run ahead after collisions, bouncing off tacklers or carrying them.  Gerhart ran with a forward lean as well as flashes of explosiveness both between and outside the tackles.  The highlight play of this preseason Cardinal camp saw him bounce to the right side, blast through tacklers and race up the sideline for a 24-yard gain.

Gerhart also showed us his receiving ability out in the flat, looking surprisingly fluid catching the ball.  The career record holder in California rushing racked up 3,233 yards as a senior at Norco (Calif.) High School but was never thrown the ball.  Gerhart caught one pass for a loss of five yards in 14 games.  Friday he caught two passes for 14 yards in the brief scrimmage.

"I think he ran well.  I think he ran physical and he ran hard," Harris praises of the frosh running back.  "He catches the ball, and I hadn't really seen him in passing situations."

"I like him.  He's strong," the coach continues.  "He's got a lot to learn, but for us right now, he looks like he might have a chance to help us somewhere."

Beyond the gains Gerhart made running and receiving, there was another visible effect from this freshman on the field.  Perhaps at no other time thus far in five days of fall camp has there been as much excitement and yelling from offensive players as when Gerhart made plays during this scrimmage.  Offensive linemen and tight ends were shouting like the fourth quarter of a Pac-10 title tilt, bursting with confidence and literally bouncing back to the huddle.  They saw a running back not only explode through their holes, but also make plays happen with his combination of power and speed.  It is not a stretch to say that Gerhart made those blockers better as the scrimmage unfolded.

It was an awesome sight and the single most optimistic event in a Stanford Football practice in 2006.  Though it would be premature on the first day of full pads to call Gerhart's redshirt burnt, we could see some smoke and smell the first fumes.  At the very least, Stanford's returning runners were served notice that their jobs are not safe.

That is not to say that the freshman was flawless.  He was caught behind the line of scrimmage on one play for a loss, though truthfully that was a blockbuster play by senior inside linebacker Michael Okwo - second in splendor only to the 24-yard gainer by Gerhart.  But Walt Harris says that the emerging frosh tailback has areas he can improve during this camp.

"He needs to learn the speed of the game and obviously learn his assignments better," the coach comments.  "And run lower, so that at the end of the tackle, his head is ahead of his butt instead of his butt being ahead of his head at the finish...  I know he did one time for sure.  A lot of times, that's where you get twisted down in the pile, too.  He needs to run lower so that he doesn't get knocked back and twisted."

Scrimmage Play-by-Play

1st team offense vs. 1st team defense

1st & 10 @ own 40:  Toby Gerhart run for four yards
2nd & 6 @ 44:  Gerhart run for loss of two yards (solo tackle by Michael Okwo)
3rd & 8 @ 42:  Trent Edwards pass complete to Matt Traverso for 14 yards
1st & 10 @ opp. 46:  Gerhart run for seven yards
2nd & 3 @ 39:  Ray Jones run for two yards
3rd & 1 @ 37:  Jones run for two yards
1st & 10 @ 35:  Edwards play-action pass complete to Josh Catron for seven yards
2nd & 3 @ 28:  Edwards play-action pass complete to Gerhart for six yards
1st & 10 @ 22:  Edwards screen pass complete to Marcus McCutcheon for nine yards
2nd & 1 @ 13:  End of first team scrimmage

2nd team offense vs. 2nd team defense

1st & 10 @ own 45:  Jones run for eight yards
2nd & 2 @ opp. 47:  T.C. Ostrander pass incomplete, intended for James Dray
3rd & 2 @ 47:  Gerhart run for two yards
1st & 10 @ 45:  Ostrander swing pass complete to Gerhart for eight yards
2nd & 2 @ 37:  Ostrander pass complete to Mike Miller for seven yards
1st & 10 @ 30:  Gerhart run for 24 yards
1st & Goal @ 6:  Gerhart run for two yards (solo tackle by Fred Campbell)
2nd & Goal @ 4:  Tavita Pritchard pass complete to Miller for four-yard touchdown

More News & Notes

  • Though Gerhart stole the show, fifth-year senior quarterback Trent Edwards quietly threw a perfect 4-of-4 for 36 yards.  Redshirt junior T.C. Ostrander was 2-of-3 for 15 yards, and redshirt freshman Tavita Pritchard came in at the end to complete his own pass for the only score of the scrimmage.  The only incompletion was an Ostrander ball low to redshirt freshman tight end James Dray in the middle of the field, and it was not clear from our angle whether he successfully scooped the ball off the ground or not.  The quarterbacks in actuality may have thrown a perfect scrimmage...
  • Thursday's changes on the offensive line held on Friday, with redshirt junior center Preston Clover out and redshirt sophomore guard Alex Fletcher having to slide over to that position.  Don't look for Clover back in action too soon with his knee injury.  "Preston Clover is out for a while," Harris declares.  "I don't know when he'll be back."  We hear that the knee injury is neither Clover's ACL nor MCL, and his timeline for a return is approximately three weeks.
  • On a more positive note for the offensive line, fifth-year senior center Tim Mattran made a fashion statement by shunning yellow and declaring cardinal to be his color for the remainder of this training camp.  Mattran's injury jersey was off for the first time this week, and though he did not take part in any contact drills, Friday marked a change in his previous prognosis.  Mattran was believed to miss most of training camp and possibly the season opener at Oregon with a stress fracture in his tibia.  A new scan late on Thursday gave a different diagnosis.  "He has been cleared to start some form of slow workouts," Harris shares.  If Mattran returns to the offensive line soon, that would give the Cardinal back their full starting five.
  • Redshirt sophomore defensive end Gustav Rydstedt was out Friday, which gave us our first glimpse of the frosh defensive end depth.  Freshman Levirt Griffin took all of the second team repetitions at the left end position.  The youngster looks big and strong, and he has a chance to play this year on a defensive line hurting for depth.  Griffin might be just a little too big for this stage of his physical development, however.  The coaching staff would like to see the 290-pounder a little leaner in the coming weeks.
  • Also seeing significant time from the freshman class was Sione Fua at nose tackle.  He rotated and pretty evenly shared repetitions with redshirt junior Mike Macellari in the middle of the Stanford defensive line.  It is telling that Fua has made that quick of a move on the depth chart in just the first five practices of this 27-practice training camp.  The odds are improving for him to play this fall.
  • We wrote yesterday about Walt Harris' praise for redshirt junior fullback Emeka Nnoli.  He saw a great deal of work again today, including the opportunity to line up with Gerhart when the first team offense began the end-of-practice scrimmage.  His highlight of the day, however, came much earlier in the afternoon.  The 6'1" 242-pound bowling ball has been a hopeful extra weapon in the running game since he first set foot on The Farm, but Friday showed a flash in the receiving game.  Nnoli split out and caught a deep pass streaking down the right sideline for a gain of 20-plus yards.  I have watched nearly every practice all of Nnoli's years at Stanford and never seen that.  For a kid who has had more than his share of medical misfortune, and no measurable success when on the field, it warms one's heart to see his improvement and his rising confidence.
  • With Evan Moore out of practice for that scrimmage, who lined up opposite senior Mark Bradford at wide receiver?  Redshirt junior walk-on Mike Miller.  While the first string offense complete three-fourths of its passes to backs and tight ends, Miller also saw the field some plays with the second unit and caught a pair of passes for 11 yards, including the sole score of the scrimmage.
  • As expected, fifth-year senior tight end Matt Traverso is making his move up the depth chart.  Traverso was suspended by Walt Harris for the spring quarter after a disappointing transcript during the winter, reinstated only one month ago.  Though he started 10 games last fall and surged with 11 catches for 140 yards in the final two games, Traverso found himself at the bottom of the tight end depth chart to start this preseason camp.  Friday found him moving up, though.  Traverso was the first tight end on the field during the scrimmage, sharing time with senior Patrick Danahy through the breadth of the first string offense's 10 plays.
  • We have reported on the tremendous benefit to freshman wide receiver Richard Sherman of being enrolled in Stanford summer school.  By affording him room and board from late June through the start of this preseason camp, summer school gave Sherman a chance to attend classes, conditioning workouts and summer unofficial practices.  Friday was a rare day where summer school provided a conflict for the freshman, however.  He missed the first half of the afternoon practice while taking a final exam.

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