Players on the Rise: the Vets

Training camp is a time to shake off the rust after a long off-season, but it is also a period for learning. While we turn our eyes frequently to the youngest players on the roster when searching for giant leaps of progress during fall camp, some old dogs this August showed us that they can learn new tricks. We highlight four veterans here who are headline stories this camp with their surges.

#1: Emeka Nnoli
Redshirt junior - fullback

All of the turnaround stories we have seen on The Farm in August have been welcome to see, but none have been as warming to witness as the emergence of Emeka Nnoli.  A host of factors conspired to keep him down his first three years at Stanford, but the former #1-rated prep fullback in the nation is now coming into his own.

"I feel like I've made a lot of improvement since camp [started]," Nnoli notes.  "It's taken a long while - all the injuries, coaching changes, learning plays and whatever.  I feel good about this camp and that I'm making strides."

"First of all, all of the mental errors have gone down," he continues.  "They have gone down a lot.  My main problem was just focusing and taking each play play-by-play.  Not making the mental problems that go with football and instead being physical."

A significant part of Nnoli's difficulties in college came from his medical condition.  Upon his arrival at Stanford in August 2003, the Sacramento (Calif.) native showed kidney problems that passed too many proteins into his urine and left too little in his blood.  A sufferer of Nephrotic syndrome, Nnoli was not cleared for any hint of football activity that fall.  Not until 2004, after several tries with different blood pressure medicines, did he start his college football career.

That was just the beginning, rather than the end, of Nnoli's learning process.  It has been a continuing education for the 242-pound fullback on his body, his diet and his special needs.

"I'm still on high blood pressure medication and some other things to control it," he describes.  "But everything is pretty much normal.  It still affects me once in a while, just with conditioning.  I get tired faster than other players do.  It's little things like that.  I have to keep myself hydrated because I tend to cramp up faster than other players do."

"I think the biggest thing is keeping myself under control with the things that I eat and watching my weight," Nnoli explains.  "For the last three years, just monitoring how I eat and the things that I take into my body.  Coach tells us all the time to make sure that we're eating well and eating right.  For me, I have to eat well and eat right because with my condition, if I don't, it will go downhill for me fast."

That means cutting out sausages, most eggs and a lot of red meat.  That means more chicken, big bowls of oatmeal and plenty of bread.

As his body has weighed less on his mind, Nnoli has begun to find the football player that excited us all so much in high school.  But something else has spurred him this month to dramatically improved football on the practice field.  Before, Nnoli was a liability - as likely to head left when the play called for his block to the right.  He was a shell of his former self and needed somebody to build him back up.  Nnoli says that man is new running backs coach Buzz Preston, whom he credits more than anything or anyone else for his rebirth.

"I think it's Coach Buzz.  He had a lot of confidence coming in.  He knew I could do it," Nnoli says.  "He worked with me; he worked hard with me.  Extra time and during the summer studying film.  He gave us during the summer a CD for watching running back drills.  He just took time and prepared me so that I could have a good summer camp."

The confidence Preston projected proved infectious, and now Nnoli is playing with confidence of his own.

"Having confidence lets you know that you can go out and achieve whatever goals you are trying to achieve.  Just going out and executing on each play," the fullback offers.  "The biggest thing is gaining trust by the coaches.  Before, maybe some of the coaches didn't trust me to be out there on the field.  Now, I think I'm getting a little bit of trust from the coaches - the head coach and my position coach.  Trust from them goes far."

Nnoli is now an trusted asset, both in pass protection and in run blocking.  He also shows flashes running with the ball and catching it out of the backfield, including a two-touchdown performance in Stanford's second scrimmage this camp.  He is an explosive athlete, and build like a brick house.  More importantly, he is making plays.

"It feels good," Nnoli smiles.  "It takes me back to my high school days, when I did catch and run with the ball and did pretty well with that.  It feels good.  I'm just glad that I'm providing for the team and actually contributing to the team.  I knew that I had the skills and athletic ability, but it was just the mental thing that was holding me back.  Now I'm glad that I'm able to contribute to the team."

We did not honestly know that this day would come, however.  His struggles were so pronounced that he looked like he would be a permanent fixture at the bottom of the fullback depth chart.  Nnoli's lackluster production and consistency was in fact a driving factor for the move of Nick Frank to fullback from the defensive line.  Though the move of Frank was fortuitous, giving the Cardinal one of the very best fullbacks in the nation today, it was another sign of decline for Nnoli and his prospects.  He shared our pessimism, as well, and thought long and hard about asking to be moved to linebacker.

"Before, it was a struggle.  It was kind of frustrating at times," Nnoli allows.  I was thinking about switching positions, but I told myself to just stick in there and play fullback.  It will come to me sooner or later.  I'm glad we have Coach Buzz.  He's a great coach."

"I was thinking about it in my head," he says of the leap to linebacker.  "That was the stuff going through my head at the time: 'Is this the right position for me?  What should I do?'"

That is in the past now.  Nnoli is a fullback, here to stay.  He appears on the Cardinal's new depth chart second at his position, which does not sound like a great turnaround story.  Rarely does the second string fullback see the field unless the starter is injured, but Nnoli might surprise with appearances on the field early this season... with Nick Frank.

The pair of power backs have been working together in "heavy" formations that put both fullbacks together in the backfield.  When it is employed and how well it works, we will not know until the season starts on Saturday in Eugene.  But it is a formation that has Nnoli and Stanford excited for its possibilities.

"I think they feel that with two big backs back there, in short yardage we can push for that first down," he opines.  "I think it will change things up on the defense.  The defense will be used to watching Jason [Evans] and AK [Anthony Kimble], who are little scatback types of guys.  Me and Nick back there, we're just going to force it down their throat.  It will be a nice change of pace for the opposing defense."

#2: Jon Cochran
Fifth-year senior - offensive guard/tackle

The unsavory theme pervasive throughout Stanford's preseason camp has been the rash of injuries that have debilitated too many positions, on both offense and defense.  The offensive line, which was already a position group in great need of work this month, has been particularly hard hit.  During one scrimmage, there was a time when the five-man unit had to man their two-deep with just seven players.

Necessity is the mother of invention, it has been often said.  Hard times for the Cardinal in the interior of the offensive line this month, with two centers out and one or more guards injured, compelled the coaching staff to move big fifth-year senior from tackle to guard.  That move plugged a hole at right guard, created by redshirt sophomore Alex Fletcher sliding over to center.  Cochran's move looked like a stop-gap measure, experimental at best.  For almost every down of the past two weeks, however, Cochran has been a fixture on the first team offensive line at right guard.  Sunday, he stood alone atop that guard depth chart and stands to be the starter at that position this weekend at Oregon.

"It's felt great.  I was a little apprehensive at the start of it," Cochran comments.  "But it has been really natural, moving inside.  The techniques are a little bit different, but it's definitely more suitable for what I can do on the field.  And I feel like I can best help our team at that position right now."

If the Cardinal become healthy at one more offensive line positions this week in practice (e.g. Tim Mattran returns at center, sliding Fletcher back to right guard), we could see a shuffle that moves Cochran out of the starting lineup.  But we don't think it likely.

Thus, we will see tested on Saturday another one of the creative and admirable position moves that have been a highlight of the nascent Walt Harris era.  Cochran at right guard would make for three of Stanford's starting 11 offensive players who were moved to their new positions by Harris since his arrival - the other two being Nick Frank at fullback and Anthony Kimble at running back.  Cochran's switch from tackle to guard is not as dramatic as those that gave birth to the backfield, but it may also prove a clever reallocation of resources.

Stanford has not protected that well against the outside pass rush the last couple years, so it was somewhat surprising to see depth at the offensive tackle positions this fall camp.  Cochran's shortcoming has been the lateral footwork to defend against an "edge" rusher, where the tall tackle faces a marked quickness disadvantage.  Playing him in the "phone booth" at guard mitigates that liability, while still leveraging his size, strength and years of accumulated offensive line experience.

"I'm the largest of our offensive linemen, so going against the quicker guys on the outside was - I don't want to say it was a struggle," Cochran says.  "But it's definitely more suitable to go against the bigger 300-plus pounders inside."

"They always rush from the outside, for the most part," he says of pass protection at tackle.  "With the interior guys, they can rush either way, so you have to stay more square and more balanced.  The next part is also keeping my depth in the backfield to a minimum to create more space for Trent [Edwards]."

That all sounds good in theory, but Cochran will be greatly tested on Saturday, starting at guard after playing four-plus years at tackle in college.  He has just a handful of practices under his belt, and Oregon is proclaiming a desire to send a fierce pass rush aimed at disrupting (if not sidelining) Trent Edwards.  That is a dicey first test for Cochran, but he says he is ready for the challenge - thanks to help from his teammates.

"My confidence is great," he declares.  "It was shaky at first, but the more I play, the more comfortable I have become.  Both Alex Fletcher and Ismail Simpson have been great helps to me.  They have aided me in working on techniques throughout camp."

It is also rather ironic that Cochran will start next to classmate and close friend Jeff Edwards (right tackle) on Saturday.  The two have manned either opposite tackles or competed at the same position for most of the last four years.  The exception came early, when Cochran was at tackle and Edwards at guard.  Now the two embark upon their fifth and final year as mirror images of how they began.

"We're going out the same way we came in," Cochran smiles.  "That's a lot of fun."

#3: David Lofton
Fifth-year senior - free safety

We covered much of the David Lofton story on Saturday, when he was named a starter to open the season by defensive coordinator A.J. Christoff.  We have all appreciated the 6'4" athlete for his natural physical abilities during his time at Stanford, but that had not translated into a defensive playmaker because he could not consistently tackle.  That was very evident when watching the Spring Game, not just for Lofton but for the entire defense.  We saw that weakness again during the first scrimmage of this training camp.  There was perhaps a little too much quarterback still in Lofton his first two years on defense, but he has apparently turned the corner this month.

"It's definitely the tackling part," Lofton allows.  "My being a long guy, coming to balance, getting on top of your feet and being sure of yourself when you get ready to tackle - that has definitely helped me."

"David has always been a great athlete," offers fellow senior defensive back Brandon Harrison.  "From the moment he moved from quarterback and receiver, that we got him at safety, he has been a great athlete.  He has those long legs and great range, making plays sideline to sideline in the air."

"But what I think - not just with David, but including David - on defense we had some issues with tackling in the spring," Harrison continues.  "He has done a great job of improving on that and being more consistent in that area.  We drill it to death every day in practice.  Everything that we do is a tackling drill.  Every passing drill or team period, we always put an emphasis on making the tackle at the end of the play.  I think he has made a huge step right there, and now he is just a consistent player all across the board."

He is starting to play the part, and is certainly is in his final year looking the part of a safety.  At 234 pounds, Lofton is a good 15 pounds bigger than when he started the 2005 season.  Constant attention from Christoff, plus a body he can better leverage to wrap-up ballcarriers, has combined to give Lofton more confidence that he can be a playmaking safety.  No longer is he a "converted quarterback."  This fall, Lofton is believing in himself as a college safety.

"I feel like my focus is definitely up, so that always helps with confidence," he explains.  "This is really my third year learning Coach Christoff's defense, even though we had the year off.  Still, it's becoming more familiar, learning the defense more and being on the defensive side of the ball for three years that has my confidence up there."

#4: Tim Sims
Redshirt junior - cornerback

A story somewhat parallel to the Lofton tale is that of cornerback Tim Sims.  He, too, was converted to the defensive backfield from offense.  Sims was a wide receiver throughout high school.  He was recruited for offense and started there at Stanford, but he moved across the line of scrimmage in his first year.  Like Lofton, the transition has been difficult.  Like Lofton, this preseason has seen him make tremendous gains.

One divergence in these stories is that Lofton lacked a physical component to his game, while Sims' shortcoming has been mostly mental.  The maturation process now has the fourth-year player's head catching up with his body.

"It's being more focused and concentrating more," Sims explains.  "When I was younger, I didn't focus all the time.  I would come out and make a lot of mistakes.  Now I'm more focused, and I come out to practice every day working hard.  It's getting older, basically.  Knowing that time is running out - you've got to get it done."

With better focus has come greater confidence, much like Emeka Nnoli's story.  Teammates have said for the last year that Sims has the tools to become a strong Pac-10 cover corner, but his confidence is the single greatest barrier to success.

"That is definitely a big factor.  When I first moved, I really wasn't confident but now I'm really confident," Sims says.  "I know what I can do, and I'm confident in my ability.  I don't expect to get beaten.  I expect to make plays."

His coaches and teammates expect him to make plays this year as well, which is something that could only be said with hesitation previously.

"I feel like he has progressed a lot.  He's a much better player than he was last year,"  comments fellow cornerback and Belle Glade (Fla.) product Nick Sanchez.  "He's started to come on really strong.  He's tackling well.  He's playing his coverages right.  He's making breaks on the ball.  I'm really confident right now with Sims in the game.  I feel like he's made a lot of strides since he's played corner."

"I think Tim is a completely different player than he was last year.  He's a lot more confident," Sanchez says.  "Last year, we kind of threw him into the fire.  We thought that he was ready.  He was playing pretty well, and then in the Oregon game, he caught a few bad breaks and they caught a few balls on him.  I think that hurt his confidence a little bit, and he's a really proud guy.  I know coming into this week, he's ready to show Oregon what he's really got this year."

The Oregon game last year at Stanford Stadium was a complete disaster for Sims.  He had made some strides at his position during the preseason and early games, allowing him to see the field semi-regularly as the Cardinal's third cornerback in nickel packages.  When the Ducks came to town and spread Stanford's defense, Sims was Kellen Clemens' whipping boy.  The Cardinal corner was torched, sometimes in humiliating fashion when he would fall down or make the wrong angle on a ball.  Sims was pulled in favor of middling reserve Calvin Armstrong, who played the nickel defensive back in Sims' stead the rest of the season.

It is an appropriate test for Sims to be confronted by Oregon and their spread offense to start this 2006 season, after he has made such great strides since his infamous swoon last October 1.

"That game - it was a tough one for me," he admits.  "They did a lot of complex things for me.  I can't really say that I was fully prepared.  I made some mistakes, and I don't plan on making them this time."

"It wasn't about the plays," Sims explains.  "For me, it was making mistakes.  'Aw, I was supposed to do this, or I was supposed to do that.'  I don't have a problem if somebody makes a good catch.  'Okay, that was a good catch, but I played good coverage.'  I have a problem when I don't use good technique or I slip and fall.  If they make a good throw and a good catch, I'll just move on to the next play."

In the new depth chart released at the end of Stanford's training camp, Sims and Sanchez are listed as co-starters atop one cornerback position, opposite of Harrison on the other side.  It is ironic that two longtime friends and residents in a tiny town in South Florida are jousting for a single position 3,000 miles away.  More than just an unusual plot line, that commonality has fostered great competition among the two friends this camp.

"He kind of didn't know too much about defense.  I was helping him for a while, then once he got his feet, we started going after it," Sanchez says.  "That's kind of good, though - competing against one of your friends.  When he makes a good play, that makes you go out there and want to make a good play.  You want to see him do well, but you don't want anybody to do better than you.  It's a fun competition."

It would also appear, at face, to be one of the big stories to see resolved this week: Will Sims or Sanchez start against Oregon?  Given the spread offense that the Ducks employ, the answer may simply be "yes."

"We have been practicing a lot of nickel and a lot of dime stuff," Sanchez explains.  "There are going to be plenty of DBs on the field.  At least this week, there probably is not going to be anybody too worried about playing time because there will be a lot of us out there most of the game."


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