Lessons of the Second Scrimmage

This is not the normal progression we see during a fall camp. Typically the offense struggles early while the defense dominates, and later the offense starts to come together. Thus far in Stanford's 2006 training camp, the offense has had all the highlights and the defense has been down. Then on Saturday during the Cardinal's second full scrimmage, roles reversed unexpectedly. Here is what we saw.

New scrimmage situations

The first Stanford scrimmage last Wednesday put the ball a few different places on or around mid-field and primarily put players to the test of extended live contact, with the challenges to the offense and defense of down-and-distance football.  On Saturday the breadth of game dynamics was increased as numerous situations were simulated of both field position and clock.  The very first series of this second scrimmage put the ball one yard outside the offense's endzone, forcing the offense to first move the ball out of danger and then possibly start marching down the field.

Other typical situations we see in scrimmages which were added Saturday included the two-minute offense (with 1:20 left on the clock) and the red zone offense.  An interesting wrinkle with the hurry-up drill was the implementation of the new NCAA rule that winds the clock as soon as the officials signal that they and the ball are ready.  While the hurry-up drill by nature requires no-huddle work by the offense as they move down the field after completions and runs, they previously could collect themselves when they first take the field and discuss multiple plays and upcoming scenarios in the huddle.  Now, precious time winds down right away and forces the offense to be collected before they ever leave the sideline.

One new situation I cannot remember seeing explicitly covered in a fall camp scrimmage previously was the "overtime drill."  In college football, and overtime takes the clock out of the game but presents new gaming dynamics and permutations as each time takes turns with the ball at their opponent's 25-yardline with regular first-down rules to score or turn over the ball.

The public focus during training camp seems to be player health, positional battles and implementation and execution of scheme.  It is also important to return the minds of these players to the differing dynamics that go with each clock, down and distance situation of each play of the game.  To that end, this scrimmage was an important progression for this camp.  It may seem rushed to put all of this into place only three days after the first scrimmage, but training camp is a race.  Believe it or not, we are today at the beginning of the final week of the Cardinal's camp.

New-look offensive line rotation

More than other practices during training camp, we spend every second of scrimmages between plays watching substitutions and the player rotation from series to series.  This gives us our most detailed understanding of the Stanford depth chart at a time when positions are in great flux.  The offensive line is always the first place our eyes focus, and the results were revealing on Saturday.

The starting first-team line was (left to right) Jeff Edwards, Alex Fletcher, Tim Mattran, Ismail Simpson and Allen Smith.  No great surprises there, as that has been the first unit lineup most of the last week, since Mattran returned to regular action and fifth-year senior left guard Josiah Vinson was lost.  But Mattran pulled himself out of the scrimmage soon after it started on Saturday and did not return.  With fifth-year senior guard Matt McClernan and redshirt junior Preston Clover also out, that put a pinch on the interior line rotation.  Redshirt sophomore guard Bobby Dockter still remained and rotated normally with Simpson on the left, but the right side felt a squeeze.  Fletcher had to take a great number of repetitions at center in Mattran's absence, which moved fifth-year senior Jon Cochran into more work at right guard.  Only redshirt junior Mikal Brewer provided additional depth at center and guard, which left three players to rotate almost the entire scrimmage at the first and second team center and right guard positions.  It was a long and hard scrimmage for the trio.

Without a two-deep at both positions, they semblance of a "first team" and "second team" offensive line was lost.  Additionally, there was some mixing and matching across other positions on the offensive line that paired what we typically consider to be first and second string personnel on the offensive line.  The cause behind all of this is a painfully injury-prone camp for the offensive line.  The result is that the coaching staff is having to not only spread players across multiple positions, but they also are working more combinations of personnel to test and develop chemistry.  Typically this is the time in fall camp when the coaches would like to solidify the starting five and optimize their play together.  The chemistry of two adjacent linemen, with how they "feel" each other while blocking on a given play, is critical to the unit's success.  That offensive line Cardinal chemistry is under great stress today.

If you are a depth chart watcher, the two outcomes of note Saturday were that Fletcher spent the most time on the field of any lineman and spent the most scrimmage time at center yet this camp, while Cochran logged every one of his snaps at right guard.  After four-plus years of work and battles at offensive tackle, Cochran is fast-becoming a full-time guard.  That is a surprising and wholly unexpected development on the Stanford offensive line.

The offense falters

Trent Edwards had his worst scrimmage of 2006 - for the fall or the spring.  He missed targets he had been hitting with Swiss precision the previous 12 days of training camp, sailing some balls high at the sideline and underthrowing other balls on medium-depth routes.  It should be said that the video game-like percentages we had seen from Edwards the first two weeks of camp were so incredible that they raised our bar of expectation to a ridiculous height.  His "off" day might be a fair performance for another Pac-10 quarterback at this time in August, but Edwards has conditioned us to expect something near perfection.  That is a testament to skyscraping level of performance he has shown thus far this year.

Edwards held onto some balls too long, took some additional sacks and misfired on some throws.  There was obviously some responsibility on his head for the offense's Saturday struggles.  But other factors also conspired.  Mattran's loss and the resulting scramble in the offensive line rotation had a ripple effect upon the entire offense.  Moreover, senior wide receiver Mark Bradford similarly started the scrimmage but soon departed to the sideline.  His loss to the passing offense was visible and had to have hurt Edwards greatly.  While there has been frequent discussion of the feared impact for this offense if redshirt junior wideout Evan Moore were to go down, Bradford is equally irreplaceable, if not more so.  Moore is the big play target to pull in the deep ball over coverage, and a go-to guy in the red zone.  But Bradford is the key for the passing offense to move the chains down the field.  He is the first option on Edwards' reads and has the ability to get open more regularly this year than any Stanford receiver since DeRonnie Pitts in 2000 (though with better playmaking ability).  It did not help that Moore had a decidedly "human" performance Saturday, to boot.

Whether it was a cause or effect of the passing game's struggle, the running attack never get off the ground.  There were gains, but the performance was nothing like what we had witnessed in so many short scrimmages this camp, as well as the Wednesday full scrimmage.  The first team had previously moved with ease behind the slashing and dashing of redshirt sophomore Anthony Kimble, but he looked suddenly more ordinary on Saturday - more like the average Stanford running back of 2005.

It was also noteworthy that the offense yielded several sacks for big yardage.  Under the rules of these scrimmages, it is still difficult to gauge how much of that is real and how much is the quick whistle and lack of a live tackling environment for the quarterback.  Regardless, it was striking to see the number of second and third downs in horrifically long yardage situations.

One bright spot for the offense in the scrimmage, which started several days earlier, was the rise of walk-on wide receiver and redshirt sophomore Kelton Lynn.  He has been locked in a battle with Mike Miller and Marcus McCutcheon for playing time behind Bradford and Moore, though the 6'2" speedster has started to break away.  He was called onto the field as Bradford's replacement Saturday, and he obviously did not fill those shoes.  Lynn showed his improvements, however as well as flashes of his playmaking ability.  His highlight came on a sideline pass that he took deep down the left side for 30-40 yards, which would have been the most outstanding offensive play for the day had it not been called back on a Patrick Danahy holding penalty.

The defense rises

Before we give the offense too much of a pounding for taking a step back relative to their Wednesday scrimmage performance, we have to give a great deal of credit to the defense.  They blitzed with greater success, and through both their aggression and execution found their way into the offensive backfield to cause the problems with the passing and running games.

Redshirt freshman nose tackle Ekom Udofia, redshirt junior outside linebacker Udeme Udofia and redshirt freshman Clinton Snyder were terrors throughout the day for the first team defense, fighting off blockers and making quick angles to the ballcarrier.  The defense needs playmakers in the same way that they key the offense, and these players highlighted a front seven that made big impact plays.

In the back end, it was striking how much improved the deep ball coverage was by Stanford's defensive backs.  The long-toss touchdowns of Wednesday's scrimmage were celebrated for the offense, but I also saw poor playmaking on the ball in contested situations by the Cardinal's cornerbacks.  Only three days later, those same players looked unrecognizable, breaking up most of the attempts deep and/or in the endzone.  Credit is due in particular to redshirt junior Tim Sims, redshirt sophomore Wopamo Osaisai and redshirt freshman Kris Evans.  If your eyes follow the offense, you might have come away from Saturday's scrimmage with a serious bout of depression, but the step forward by the Cardinal's corners was one of the most positive developments of this camp.  To achieve this without Stanford's one experienced and proven cornerback, redshirt Nick Sanchez (still out Saturday with a head injury), is still more remarkable.

There were also four interceptions by the defense, and turnovers will need to be prevalent for this unit during the season as they try to mature through youth and injuries.  Particularly encouraging was the break on the ball made by senior cornerback/safety Brandon Harrison, who is working at two positions this camp and learning how to play outside in coverage for the first time since he was in high school.  He made a nice read and break on the ball on the sideline and beautifully snared it with his feet just in bounds.

Many of these putative defensive improvements can be debated.  Did the offense suck wind and allow the defense to appear upgraded?  Or did the defense make strides against an absolute standard?  Every sack, pressure, or run-stuff could be laid at the feet of the offensive line, Edwards or Bradford's absence.  This is hard to definitely answer in intrasquad scrimmages, but I saw evidence of one skill from the defense that looked visibly improved on Saturday.  They tackled far better than on Wednesday.  It was a stated goal by both Walt Harris and A.J. Christoff following Wednesday's scrimmage that the defense must tackle better, and the turnaround after only two days of practice was evident.  It is difficult to put your finger on who or how the defense wrapped up effectively, but this was a surprise - particularly in light of the loss of the defense's best playmaker, senior inside linebacker Michael Okwo.

Special teams uptick

After numerous field goal misses by the kickers throughout the first couple weeks of camp, they had perhaps their best day Saturday.  Only one field goal was blocked with no other misses.  The block should be a black mark, and perhaps the fact that Saturday appeared successful in spite of that is telling of how down kicking has been this fall.  But it did not look like a snap, hold or kick issue.  The mistake was in the protection, which itself is cause for concern but we believe is more easily corrected than a shaky kicker.

Also, if you have not seen these scrimmages in the spring or fall, the endzone is moved 10 yards out from the goalpost, to keep away the risk of a player colliding with the base.  That means that "PAT" kicks after touchdowns actually come at field goal distances of 30-plus yards.  In addition to the stalled red zone drives that sent the field goal units onto the field, every PAT was effectively a field goal attempt.  Redshirt sophomore Aaron Zagory saw most of the kicking opportunities, and his conversions Saturday have him still ahead of redshirt junior Derek Belch.

Redshirt junior punter Jay Ottovegio also made a couple appearances Saturday, after no punting was included in the first scrimmage.  His first punt of the day instead proved to be a pass, as Stanford ran a fake that scored a 62-yard touchdown.  The punt return unit was stunned as fifth-year senior free safety David Lofton caught the ball in the middle of the field, headed the sideline and went for the score.  Stanford employed almost no trick plays in the 11-game 2005 first season under Walt Harris, making this a most unexpected sight.

The second time Ottovegio took the field, the offense had stalled on the opponent's 44-yardline.  It was a short field situation, where Ottovegio hopes this year to master his placement.  The ball looked to our eyes initially like it was mis-hit at first as it headed toward the right sideline around the 20-yardline.  Then it hit the ground, straightened out and rolled perfectly toward the endzone.  The coverage team easily surrounded it and down at the five-yardline (it would have rolled to the goalline if the player had not misread the revised chalk markings on the field).  I can never tell on these punts how much is luck and how much is supremely crafted skill for a deliberate roll.  Punting is some combination of both, and the veteran Ottovegio probably has as much of the latter as the former.

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