One of the big question marks coming into the 2006 Stanford Football season was the depth at wide receiver behind standout veteran starters Evan Moore and Mark Bradford. That duo is as daunting as any in the Pac-10, but the lack of production or experience for the entire Cardinal receiving corps behind them looked problematic. And as we saw in Stanford's opener last weekend, there are plenty of plays and opportunities in the offense that call upon a third receiver when operating with a single-back, three-wide set.
Fifth-year senior Marcus McCutcheon was that third wideout at Oregon but suffered an injury to his right knee that has him out until sometime in October. After McCutcheon left the game, Stanford played four other wide receivers beyond Bradford and Moore. Walt Harris has publicly voiced his attention toward the battle for that third receiver slot, so we turned our eyes toward the quartet this week.
We also talked with wide receivers coach Tucker Waugh after Wednesday's practice for his take on the focus foursome. While the McCutcheon injury and lack of proven experience from his remaining options ostensibly ought to furnish creases across his brow, the assistant coach instead was beaming with excitement and optimism. He sees improvement and potential in all four, and he is enjoying the current battle in which they are pushing each other to new heights in their development.
"It's exactly where I want it because there are four good guys to pick from," Waugh says. "They are fighting it out, and that is how you become a good football team or a good position unit - to have great competition. We've got it for that third spot right now. I would be fully excited to put any of those four guys into the game at any time. I feel that they are that well prepared. It's a great situation right now because they would kill somebody to have that job, and that's what you want."
The oldest of the group is redshirt junior Mike Miller, a walk-on who received his most extensive playing time in college last Saturday when he replaced McCutcheon as Stanford's slot receiver in three-wide formations. He did not record a catch, but he has earned his position on the depth chart backing up Moore and currently taking many of the first-team repetitions in the slot due to his less publicly appreciated abilities.
"I don't know that I've ever been around a guy who played and practiced better without the football than Mike Miller. That's what he has going for him," his coach comments. "I can absolutely count on him to do everything exactly like we want him to do it, all of the time. He is Mr. Consistent."
In a nutshell, those comments are code for Miller's blocking acumen. While rabid football fans roll their eyes when blocking is discussed as a skill for wide receivers, a lesson could have been learned last night in watching the kickoff of the 2006 NFL season. One of the best wide receivers in the League, and the best on the field that night, Hines Ward totaled a quiet 53 receiving yard and one touchdown. But the Pittsburgh Steelers controlled a good amount of the game running the football, despite the retirement of decade-plus Steelers staple Jerome Bettis. Ward led the way blocking on many of the plays that allowed Willie Parker to rack up 115 yards.
Returning to the Stanford story at hand, the Cardinal had several blocks botched by wideouts last Saturday in Eugene, torpedoing running plays that were executed well by the offensive line and running backs. Fans interpreted plays blown up near the line of scrimmage as obvious failures by the offensive line, but Harris and Waugh both confirmed this week that some receivers should shoulder a significant portion of the blame. And that is where Miller shines: being in the right position and executing on this blocks, as well as running his routes.
The area where 6'1" receiver has to improve is catching the ball. His consistency hauling in receptions is not inspiring in practices, which may limit either his playing time in games or the confidence for Trent Edwards to throw his way.
"He just needs to be as consistent as possible in making all the plays when the football is coming at him," Waugh offers.
The next wideout who saw the field last Saturday behind Miller was redshirt sophomore Kelton Lynn. Also a walk-on, the Colorado native has size like Miller but differentiates himself with his speed. We took notice of Lynn during training camp in August more than at any other time in his college career, displaying better playmaking ability down the field and after the catch.
The speedster put that into play at Oregon. In the fourth quarter he relieved Bradford as Stanford's flanker, and he made his mark on a 'go' route he ran down the left sideline. Edwards threw the ball to Lynn deep, and a helpless Duck defender was forced into a pass interference penalty to avoid the big play. Lynn left the game without a completion in the stat sheet, but the play was representative of his step forward in 2006.
"He is a night-and-day different player," says Waugh of the transformation. "He had flashes last year; now he is consistent. Right now he is the backup to Mark Bradford, and I have no qualms about him doing anything that Mark would do. We can put him out there in any situation."
Following that play by Lynn, we immediately saw two true freshmen take the field at wide receiver for the first time in their Cardinal careers. Richard Sherman and Austin Yancy follow in the footsteps of Moore and Bradford, who played together as true freshmen in 2003 and set the table that season for their college tenures.
When healthy, we could easily see Sherman and Yancy climbing the ladder during fall camp. The high number of repetitions we saw last week for them in practice made it no surprise that they played at Oregon.
"Both of those guys have come a long way, obviously with the help of Coach Waugh and Coach Harris," Edwards offers. "The only thing they haven't done is be game tested, and that's what they started to get on Saturday. They got some plays late in the game, and those guys are going to need to help us since Marcus is out."
"Both of those guys are very similar to me," the quarterback continues. "Both of them seem like they have a lot of energy. They run hard and are very coachable, as well. Both guys have very good hands, a feel for the receiver position and a feel for zone and man coverages. That's something that you need to do as a receiver, and both of those guys I think have picked up our system very quickly and with the help of Coach Waugh should be able to help us out."
The two true frosh saw only token action in Eugene, which calls into question for some observers whether it was prudent to burn their redshirts. But this is only the very beginning of a long season, stretching more than three months. They are the #5 and #6 receivers today on paper for Stanford, but that is not where the Cardinal coaches expect them to be later in the season. Moreover, Waugh shares that they were destined to play in the Oregon game regardless of McCutcheon's injury.
"They were there for a reason. We planned on using them," the receivers coach declares. "For them to practice every day for a 14-week season, that's a lot of time for them to get better. By the end of the year, we expect them to be completely experienced and polished players."
"It was just the fact that they had earned that spot in the two-deep lineup," Waugh explains of the decision to play the freshmen pair. "It was out of a fairness factor, really. They had earned those jobs, so we put them in."
What specifically does Waugh see in the two youngsters that has earned this confidence and respect?
"I don't know that I have ever seen a guy who is more intent on playing and contributing right away than Richard Sherman," the coach comments. "That motivation has been there since the day he got here in the summertime, working out with the guys. He is miles ahead of where a normal freshman should be. He can run. He can catch. He's a tough kid. He blocks. And he's good run-after-the-catch guy, which maybe makes him a little bit different from Austin."
"Austin is an outstanding blocker," Waugh states. "He is becoming a better route runner. He catches everything in sight and is a great leaper. I'm really excited about both of them."
After conversing with Waugh, and seeing his eyebrows and voice dance while discussing these up-and-coming receivers, we can't help but feel some of the excitement as well. However, 'potential' is a word unloved by college football players, connoting practice production and nothing further. Starting tomorrow at San Jose State, fans and coaches alike will want to see gametime production from one or more in this group. Nobody cheers the Thursday All-American, and this foursome has a combined one reception in college (a six-yarder by Yancy).
They are the names nobody knows. It's the "Mark Bradford and Evan Moore Show" to most of the world on Saturdays, but watch for these four as key pieces to the Cardinal puzzle in the remainder of the season.
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