Offensive Line Adapts

Less than a week through its fall camp, Stanford on Saturday already had three of its five starting offensive line positions rewritten. With new faces in new places, there are understandably uneven results. But the Cardinal have adjusted and adapted, fielding a new crew and still managing positive results that draw praise from their offensive line coach and run game coordinator.

For the first four days of Stanford's fall camp, our eyes went to the air as Stanford primarily passed the ball.  Once full pads were allowed on Friday, the running game received immediate attention with the chance to test in a full-contact environment.  The first scrimmage session was a rousing success for the offense, continuing its progress made during the spring.  Saturday was more uneven for the ground game, with a mixture of successes and failures.  Still, we can see the forward momentum of the offensive line and the running game for the Cardinal in 2006.  Afterward, interior offensive line coach and run game coordinator Tom Freeman gave us his unvarnished opinion on the progress.

"It was good," Freeman says of the first two days of running the ball in live action.  "We have a great competition at tailback, and that is paying dividends in the way they're running, in their approach to the game and in paying attention to what Coach [Buzz] Preston is saying to them.  And we've done some things schematically that we think takes advantage of what our kids can do best.  It looked good yesterday.  Obviously we had a couple good ones and a couple not-so-good ones today.  We've done some things that we think help us, and we're going from there."

"It's another year in the system.  They're all a year older.  They're all a year stronger," the coach continues.  "I think there's more trust and belief in what we're trying to do.  Yeah, I think it's paying some dividends.  We just have to hurry them along a little bit - maybe more than we would like to.  But I believe that we're making some strides."

The blockbuster story for Stanford Football on Friday was true freshman tailback Toby Gerhart, who grabbed hold of the opportunity for heavy repetitions in practice and in the scrimmage with the Cardinal's top two returning runners out injured.  The frosh running back rumbled for 37 yards on six carries.  Gerhart saw fewer touches Saturday afternoon but still looked strong with 21 yards on his first four rushes, before he was tripped up by one of his offensive linemen in the backfield on the fifth carry.  Redshirt sophomore Ray Jones also moved the ball on the ground.  It was an encouraging two days for an offense that has just started fall camp, a time when the defense typically dominates.  Moreover, this work was more impressive given that Jones was a redshirt player on the sideline last fall, while Gerhart was still in high school.

"We've been successful running it.  They're grasping it," Freeman says of his linemen.  "I think they understand that we've got to run the ball better.  I think the thing that has helped us more than anything is the great competition we have at tailback right now...  They feed off each other.  Those great tailbacks can make you real good linemen, too."

It is unexpected to hear Freeman in a jovial mood, considering the carnage of injuries on the offensive line.  Before the start of training camp, Stanford lost fifth-year senior and starting center Tim Mattran.  Then his replacement, upstart redshirt junior Preston Clover went down with a knee injury.  Suddenly, redshirt sophomore right guard Alex Fletcher had to move to center, where Stanford's top two options were gone.  Fifth-year senior Ismail Simpson was promoted from the second string at left guard to fill Fletcher's starting job at right guard.

If that were not chaos enough, fifth-year senior starting left guard Josiah Vinson is now out of commission with a concussion.  That flipped Simpson to left guard on Saturday, and vacated once again the starting guard slot.  We'll give you three guesses who lined up with the first team offense at right guard, and you'll go down swinging on three strikes.

Fifth-year senior offensive tackle Jon Cochran moved "into the phone booth" on Saturday, with his 6'6" 315-pound frame working for the first time in college at guard.  After four-plus years at Stanford working as a tackle, this is a dramatic move.  The position shift is likely temporary, but given the Cardinal's depth at the interior offensive line positions and their poor luck thus far this fall, Cochran could be called upon some time to play at guard.  This is more than a fanciful experiment to plug a short-term hole.

"He's doing a nice job," Freeman says of Cochran.  "He knows that we've got to find five guys that can help us play in there.  Jon jumped in there and did some very nice things.  He's a bigger body than the rest of those kids playing in there.  I would like to see Jon develop in there.  Absolutely, that would be nice."

The first reaction for fans upon reading about these depth chart gymnastics is to contemplate the offensive line implications for Stanford when the season starts.  But there is another story buried beneath.  Stanford is a football team looking to develop its players at their designated positions, with the hope that each can progress and produce competition.  But what happens when injuries tear those plans apart, forcing the coaches to move players around like jigsaw puzzle pieces on a table?

"Until he got hurt, we thought Preston Clover was off to a real nice start," Freeman says.  "We're very pleased with what Mikal Brewer is doing.  Ismail Simpson is fighting through a lot of pain, and he's going well.  Chris Marinelli, a youngster, he's playing well.  They're starting to come - some a little faster than others.  Preston getting hurt really messed up the rotation.  We've got guys playing three positions, which is unfortunate."

The first crisis came at center, where Alex Fletcher was a consensus All-American coming out of high school, yet the redshirt sophomore is starting his second season at offensive guard.  Fans have made much of the prep superstar playing "out of position."  And then suddenly he was a center again.  Though an active topic of conversation for alumni and observers, the fluidity of Fletcher playing guard and center is nothing unusual in the eyes of his position coach.

"He's a guard, but he has to play both.  There is not a Division I team in America that doesn't have somebody playing two positions," Freeman offers.  "With 85 scholarships and those kinds of things, plus it is very unusual at [offensive line] for a freshman to help, so you're always thin at numbers.  Alex is a guard who has the capabilities of playing center.  We have Tim Mattran and Preston Clover who we thought were going to be our centers, and they're out.  Mikal Brewer and Alex Fletcher have both done a great job in there.

"After last season, we felt that Tim Mattran was our best center, so I wanted Tim Mattran playing center.  Now we're trying to get our next four best players, and Alex is one of the best four.  That's why he's playing guard."

Okay, so why move a long-time tackle like Cochran to guard, rather than play somebody more experienced at that position?  What separates the guards from the tackles, and what is in Cochran that makes him the best candidate to cross over?

"In the tackle position, you need to have guys who can play out on the proverbial edge, that are athletic," Freeman answers.  "Not that Jon isn't, but Jon was the logical choice to move inside of those guys because in the long run Jon has more experience than if we tried to move Allen [Smith] or Ben [Muth].  We needed a guy.  I asked Jon, 'How long would it take you to get up to speed at guard?'  He said, 'Not long.'  He's been here for five years.  If you're a good tackle, then you know what your guards are doing and what your tight ends are doing.  He's done a nice job.  He really has.  We're really pleased for him."

To be pleased after your offensive line has been blown to bits by injuries, Freeman must like the direction his players are headed.  Just one week into the preseason camp preceding a 14-week, 12-game season, this unit should be a fun story to follow.

Scrimmage Play-by-Play

1st team offense vs. 1st team defense

1st & 10 @ own 40:  Trent Edwards run for loss of two yards (trips coming away from the center)
2nd & 12 @ 38:  Ray Jones run for four yards (Michael Okwo tackle)
3rd & 8 @ 42:  Edwards pass complete to Jones for seven yards (Pannel Egboh tackle)
1st & 10 @ 49:  Toby Gerhart run for eight yards
2nd & 2 @ opp. 43:  False start penalty on the offense of five yards
2nd & 7 @ 48:  Edwards pass complete to Gerhart for three yards
3rd & 4 @ 45:  Edwards pass complete to Mark Bradford for five yards
1st & 10 @ 40:  Gerhart run for four yards
2nd & 6 @ 36:  Jones run for loss of one yard (Bo McNally tackle)
3rd & 7 @ 37:  Edwards pass complete to Bradford for 15 yards
1st & 10 @ 22:  Jones run for loss six yards (fumble, Jones recovery)
2nd & 16 @ 28:  Edwards pass complete to Bradford for 28-yard touchdown (Brandon Harrison coverage)

2nd team offense vs. 2nd team defense

1st & 10 @ 50:  Gerhart run for five yards
2nd & 5 @ opp. 45:  Gerhart run for four yards
3rd & 1 @ 41:  Gerhart run for loss of four yards (trips over teammate)
1st & 10 @ 50:  Tavita Pritchard run for one yard (play-action roll-out)
2nd & 9 @ opp. 49:  Jones run for eight yards
3rd & 1 @ 41:  Emeka Nnoli run for loss of two yards (Will Powers tackle)

More News & Notes

  • The Cardinal are thin enough in the offensive backfield with the current collection of injuries and ailments that the last play of Saturday's scrimmage lined up redshirt freshman 6'3" 261-pound fullback Ben Ladner in the "I" formation behind redshirt junior and fellow fullback Emeka Nnoli.  We were stunned as the formation lined up and had no clue where the ball was going to go.  It mattered little, though, with redshirt freshman outside linebacker Will Powers blowing up Nnoli in the backfield so fast we could not see where he came from.
  • On the subject of the offensive line shuffle, there a couple of ripple effects on the second team after these position moves and promotions.  Cochran moving to guard opened up the second string right tackle slot, where redshirt freshman Chris Marinelli now lives.  The promotion of Simpson to the first team opened a hole at left guard on the second unit, which was filled by second team right guard and fifth-year senior Matt McClernan.  The new guard on the two-deep is... [drum roll]... freshman Andrew Phillips.  Phillips is making mistakes and has plenty to learn, but he has the makings of a very good guard for the Cardinal.
  • In case you are counting, that is a second perfect throwing performance for fifth-year senior quarterback Trent Edwards.  After a 4-of-4 start for 36 yards on Friday, Edwards connected on all five attempts Saturday afternoon, this time for 58 yards and a touchdown.
  • Some may have expected to see freshman Toby Gerhart at the head of the tailback rotation Saturday after his breakout scrimmage Friday.  But that was just one day - the first day in pads - for the newcomer.  Redshirt sophomore Ray Jones held the #1 tailback job on this second day of full pads.
  • Saturday was the sixth day of Stanford's fall camp, which allowed them for the first time to conduct two-a-day practices.  However, it was just the fourth day of camp for redshirt sophomore running back Anthony Kimble, who joined the Cardinal on Wednesday after a bacterial infection had him in the hospital back home in Baton Rouge (La.).  Not yet through the NCAA's five-day acclimatization period, Kimble could not partake in both practices Saturday.  He worked in the morning but sat out the afternoon session.  Kimble's sixth day of camp will be Monday, which will allow him to join his teammates in both the morning and afternoon for that double-day of practice.
  • At the end of Friday's scrimmage, redshirt junior quarterback T.C. Ostrander pulled his hamstring.  There is no timetable for the Cardinal's #2 signal caller's return to action.  In the meantime, redshirt freshman Tavita Pritchard is at the controls of the second string offense.
  • Redshirt junior Evan Moore sprained his ankle on Friday, as we previously reported.  He sat out the morning practice on Saturday but tried to run for some receiver drills in the afternoon - unsuccessfully.  The good news is that his ankle only 24 hours later felt well enough that he wanted to try and give it a go.  Ignoring an exacerbation of the injury, look for Moore back with the offense soon.
  • Fifth-year senior inside linebacker Mike Silva sat out some of Saturday's action.  Don't be alarmed.  What was noteworthy was the resultant movement on the depth chart at the "Ted" linebacker position in Silva's absence.  Redshirt freshman Fred Campbell moved up to the first team defense.  Who appeared in Campbell's spot on the second unit?  Freshman Sam Weinberger, who early looks like a good get for the Cardinal.

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