How deep into crisis mode is Stanford at wide receiver today?
The Cardinal had only three wideouts on scholarship coming into this year. Only those three on the roster had caught a pass in college and recorded any meaningful experience. Mark Bradford, Evan Moore and Marcus McCutcheon are all out of action, with the first done for the season and the latter two unknown when they will return in October or later.
That left the Cardinal to play two true freshmen and two walk-ons this past Saturday, after Moore could not stay on the field with what has been found to be a stress reaction in his right foot. One of those frosh, Richard Sherman, has battled a couple of different ailments the past week-plus.
Stanford is seeking to stock its nearly empty wide receiver cupboards, and the answer we saw last night was a surprise. Tuesday's practice was already an unusual one, starting at 6:30pm rather than the normal 4:00pm time. Tuesday officially welcomed all Stanford freshmen to campus to being their orientation, and they all were welcomed at Convocation by University president John Hennessey at 4:15pm. With six true freshmen playing already on this team, including two starters, practice was moved to the evening.
We expected darkness and cooler temperatures, but nothing prepared us for the sight of redshirt freshman quarterback Tavita Pritchard lining up at wide receiver. Based on the repetitions he received and the quality of his work catching the ball, it already appears that Stanford's #3 signal caller is their #5 wideout.
What exactly does that mean? Stanford likes to have six or seven wide receivers for any game. For the season opener at Oregon, when the Cardinal could travel just 65 players in accordance with the rules for a Pac-10 road game, they brought seven wideouts. Behind the foursome of Sherman, Austin Yancy, Kelton Lynn and Mike Miller, Stanford needs help and Pritchard is answering the call. He is adding depth. That does not mean he is likely to line up outside on Saturday against Washington State. The Cardinal would probably have to take another hit or two in its receiving corps, which frankly would not surprise us given the nightmarish misfortune at that position this year.
We cannot call this a position switch for Pritchard because he is still Stanford's third quarterback. He still wears a quarterback's yellow jersey in practice, still throws some balls and still remains the next guy after Trent Edwards and T.C. Ostrander. The question when it comes to practice repetitions is where Pritchard can best use his time. After early throwing drills, Stanford gives almost all of its repetitions during seven-on-seven and "team" sessions to Edwards and Ostrander. Pritchard primarily takes mental repetitions when he is solely a quarterback, but as a #5 or #6 wide receiver, he sees loads of repetitions.
It is an intriguing sight and another subplot to watch for this football team. The Bootleg is all about following the intricacies of variegated stories at Stanford. It would be marvelous to see Pritchard pull off a Randy Fasani story, who coincidentally dropped by Tuesday to talk to some people and watch practice. But it is a crisis for the Cardinal for Pritchard to be called into this double-duty. That is a sad and sobering reality.
In another note on offense, we saw the return of a familiar jersey to that side of the ball. #34 was in the offensive backfield Tuesday for the first time since training camp, when Ray Jones was initially in the running back competition. He was passed by freshman Toby Gerhart and also trailed Anthony Kimble, which made him an available athlete to help when Stanford was struck by Michael Okwo's injury. Jones moved to the weakside inside linebacker to help plug that hole, though in the following weeks he did not meaningfully make a dent on the depth chart. Jones was working on the scout defense once the season started, and now that Okwo has returned, his value on defense is further reduced.
While Stanford is not hurting at tailback, they did take a huge hit at the end of last week when senior fullback Nick Frank found news that a congenital condition with his spine necessitated his retirement from football. Emeka Nnoli has jumped ably into that starting job, but the remaining fullback depth is dicey with a pair of untested redshirt freshmen who a week ago were on the scout offense. Answering the call, Jones took repetitions at both fullback and tailback on Tuesday, and it was no mystery why he was smiling jogging off the practice field at the end of night.
One more offensive observation: toward the end of practice, we saw a spectacular play deserving of mention. Senior tight end Patrick Danahy ran a route down the left sideline for a high pass by Edwards tossed toward the endzone. Danahy leapt to the sky and reached with his left hand to tip the ball back to his body. He hauled in the pass, which was itself an athletic feat. Danahy then tumbled toward the endzone, while momentum tried to carry him out of bounds, and kept enough of his balance to tip-toe inside the cone before toppling to the ground.
It was a play that ignited thunderous cheers and celebration from the offense, which is itself as important as Danahy's display. There is a real risk of this team collapsing if they cannot sustain their fire in the coming weeks, when the schedule cranks up a few notches. Stanford needs to get healthy and they need to fix problems with turnovers and special teams. But they need playmaking sparks to energize a beaten battalion before a true downward spiral takes things out of control.
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