Whether it is a symptom or the disease, one of the core failings for Stanford thus far this season has been field position. Through a combination of poor defense, sputtering offense, turnovers and special teams, the Cardinal have been consistently starting deep in their own territory. That was never more obvious than in the first half of last week's Washington State game. The Stanford offense started its first three possessions on its own two-, one- and 11-yardlines. Those possessions gained a combined three yards and ended with a quick-kick punt, safety and another punt. Washington State, meanwhile, started each possession of the first half beyond the 20, six times beyond their 30 and twice in Stanford territory. Unsurprisingly, the Cougars led the Cardinal 22-0 at the half.
"One of our team goals is to win the field position game. The shorter the drive, the percentages are with you to score more often - or allow the opponent to score more often, the shorter distance you have to defend. We work very diligently at trying to educate our guys at that," says Stanford head coach Walt Harris. "You always want your defense to defend the long, and you like to have your offense have the short field. When we have had the short field on offense this year, I think we have had some success."
The good news is that Stanford shored up much of its special teams coming out of the locker room to start the third quarter. For just the second time this year, the Cardinal ran back a kickoff for more than 30 yards, and that starting field position to open the second half at the 35-yardline resulted in Stanford's first score of the day.
Overall, Stanford had an average starting field position in the second half at their 40-yardline, as compared to their first half average start at the 13. Washington State started in the first half with an average field position at their 43, but in the second half sat back at their 21. In a bad ballgame, that special teams turnaround was a small bright spot.
"That got better," Harris assesses. "We were covering lanes. We did a nice job of covering those punts. Our punter did a better job. Our field goal kicker did a better job - his toe is feeling better. We need to kick it a little bit better when we're kicking off, but I saw some improvement. That's exciting. Right now, we're looking for all the good things."
One catalyst that helped spark that special teams surge was redshirt sophomore Ray Jones in his new kickoff return role. He ran back the opening kick of the second half 31 yards, which was middle of the road a year ago but this year goes atop the special teams highlight reel.
"It was nice," Harris says of Jones' debut. "It's been tough for us to get it past the 20 this year. He did a nice job directing traffic, along with Jason Evans, getting his blockers in the right spots."
One of the reasons this is a welcome sight is that it also involves a player who otherwise has been invisible this year on offense and defense. Jones started the preseason at running back and had a great number of repetitions early in training camp, but he moved to inside linebacker after Michael Okwo broke his thumb. Jones never got off the ground at his new position, languishing on the scout team behind freshmen two years his junior. Last week, we reported that Jones returned to offense and the backfield, albeit in a different role than he previously knew. The 6'0" 218-pound athlete is providing fullback depth now that Okwo is back and Nick Frank has retired from football. Jones is also taking repetitions in practice at some tailback duty, making him a "utility" back for the Cardinal.
It would appear that Jones' best opportunity see the field on offense is at fullback, when examining the depth charts, though Harris says the redshirt sophomore is not quite ready for primetime to rotate with starter Emeka Nnoli.
"Right now, he's not well-versed at fullback," the coach comments.
Another player getting his chance in a special teams return role is redshirt freshman cornerback Chris Hobbs. The diminutive defensive scout team contributor has been Stanford's punt returner the last three games. Harris has doled out praise to Hobbs for cleanly fielding punts so far this year. The Cardinal coaches were seriously concerned that they might not have an available player on the roster who could catch and secure the ball unfailingly.
On the other hand, Hobbs is yet to return any punt this year. While it is admirable that he has not turned it over, Stanford's aforementioned special teams and field position needs require something positive returning punts. Stanford is the only team in the Pac-10 this year who has yet to return a punt. Ranking 10th in the conference in punt returns is not helpful, when the Cardinal are already ninth in net punting, eighth in kickoff returns and 10th in kickoff coverage.
Senior cornerback/safety Brandon Harrison left the Washington State game last week after a tackle on the Stanford one-yardline. He was unable to leave under his own power, with what first appeared to be an ankle (right) injury but later also presented a knee problem. Harrison practiced in a limited capacity this week but is still a question mark for Saturday at UCLA.
"He's practiced but is not 100 percent," says Harris of Harrison. "It will probably be a gameday decision whether he plays and how much he plays."
Fifth-year senior wide receiver Marcus McCutcheon is on the mend from his knee injury suffered during the season opener at Oregon. He took the first significant step toward returning to practice this week by being cleared to run in a straight line. McCutcheon did not undertake any cutting or change-of-direction movements this week. He was limited to running the conditioning sprints with the team at the ends of practices. The veteran wideout is not with Stanford in Los Angeles this weekend as part of the 65-man travel roster allowed by Pac-10 rules for road games.
We expect to see McCutcheon working his way back into practice next week and for him to travel to South Bend for the Notre Dame game, should he not suffer any setbacks. Though he came into the season as Stanford's #3 wide receiver, McCutcheon would immediately add veteran leadership and experience to a decimated and young wide receiver corps. The Cardinal currently have a top-four playing rotation at the position comprised of walk-ons and true freshmen that had experienced only scout team or high school action prior to this month.
The other wideout watched closely for his injury recovery is redshirt junior Evan Moore. He unknowingly suffered a stress reaction in his right foot the week before the Navy game and was unable to play on it that evening. He learned the diagnosis and full extent of the injury then and has worn a boot since. Moore for the next week used crutches, but the injury has improved such that he ditched the crutches this week.
Moore reported to us at the time that the injury was to the fourth metatarsal bone in his right foot. We have since learned that was a miscommunication, and instead it is the third metatarsal. Apparently, that is a better injury in terms of recovery and prognosis. What difference that makes in Moore's return timeline - we cannot say.
One important development that took place on Sunday brought the Stanford wide receiver across the country to Durham (N.C.) for a 24-hour trip. Moore met with certified orthotist Harvey Johnson, who worked at Duke Hospital in the 1990s and several years ago started his private practice. Johnson specializes in custom creating foot sleeves that redirect pressure to healthy areas of an injured foot. Many of his patients, which included former UC Davis basketball player and Evan's older brother Ryan Moore, have been able to play high-impact sports with stress fractures while wearing his sleeve.
While Stanford fans have bemoaned their perceived unfair share of foot injuries to Cardinal basketball players, the number at Duke has at least matched those on The Farm. Johnson has treated the likes of Elton Brand, Carlos Boozer, Daniel Ewing, Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley and Monique Curry. Even more men's and women's athletes from across the country have gone to the Durham doctor for his help.
Since being fitted for the custom sleeve for his right foot in Durham, Moore is already able to walk in a shoe with greatly reduced pain. He has continued this week to wear the boot to maximize the healing, but don't be surprised if he starts to practice next week. The sleeve could additionally accelerate the time between his first practice and first game, which makes a Notre Dame return a surprising possibility.
While we scrutinize the walking wounded wideouts who we know will not play this weekend, every bit as much attention should be directed toward true freshman Richard Sherman. He was effectively out of the lineup last Saturday against Washington State, bumped down the depth chart and held out of action until Stanford's final garbage offensive possession at the end of the fourth quarter.
Why? The freshman had some outbursts in practice that week, displaying some frustration and immaturity after losing his starting job to redshirt sophomore walk-on Kelton Lynn. Sherman came on strong in relief at San Jose State with six catches for 71 yards and a touchdown, earning the starting nod the next week against Navy. But Sherman was pulled early in the home opener after whiffing on a crucial block. Lynn substituted for the freshman and never looked back, hauling in six catches for 72 yards. It was Lynn who was announced shortly thereafter as the starter at the 'Z' receiver position for the Washington State game, and Sherman responded poorly.
"I'm sure he didn't like it. Nobody likes not starting. That's why you practice all the time," Harris offers. "What an older player might better understand is why he is not starting or why he did not play a lot versus a younger player. I think an older player has a better appreciation of what it takes versus a younger player."
The good news is that Sherman got his head right this week and returned to the wide receiver rotation in practices. He had too many drops for my taste (and probably the coaches'), but he is back on the right track.
"He's a really good young man. He figured it out," Harris says."
Lynn is again expected to start this week. He caught five balls for 65 yards, including Stanford's lone touchdown, last Saturday. But look for Sherman to see the field. Stanford needs one of them to emerge against the staunch Bruins defense, and you can expect the "hot hand" to play more minutes if one does demonstrate success.
One huge concern that crept up in the Washington State game was Stanford's pass protection of the quarterback. After allowing just six total sacks in their first three games, the Cardinal were sacked eight times by the Cougars. Many of those came by Mkristo Bruce against Stanford's left tackles, which is the fault of the blockers as well as predictable passing situations due to down-and-distance. Walt Harris also critiques that fifth-year senior quarterback Trent Edwards needs to better sense pressure coming from the left side:
"The quarterback has to feel it better. The hard part for him is that a lot of the sacks were from the blind side. That's why the call it the 'blind' side. You are blind to the side, but he needs to feel the pressure better. There is a fine line to coaching that position, or playing that position, of being too aware of that rush where you have jittery feet and not enough awareness of the rush. There were a couple times that the guy was right next too him, and I don't think he realized it. He has to go. One of the best things that he does is he really scrambles. I know that he scrambled for a couple first downs for us on third-and-long."
Edwards indeed is proving effective when he takes off and runs. If you take away the 11 sacks for 64 yards, Edwards has run the ball 26 times for 135 yards or a 5.2 yards-per-carry average.
One question asked this week of Walt Harris was how much encouragement comes for him when looking to the future, given the number of young players who are on the field for Stanford right now. Harris gave the answer we expected:
"Honestly I am not giving myself much chance to think a year from now or two years from now. When we are playing guys, as we go across our [depth chart] who are two-year lettermen or three-year lettermen and still have two years to go, that will be exciting when that day comes. But right now, we're not in that predicament. We don't spend much time thinking, wishing or hoping. We're spending our time trying to get it right and trying to get our guys motivated so that they understand they have to get it right."
He later went a step further when talking about the class of true freshmen that are currently playing. Historically, true frosh who play at Stanford are special talents and are expected to go on to great college careers. Harris points out that given the current Cardinal roster, a freshman may be playing out of necessity rather than due to incredible talent.
"If they're in the starting lineup, then they're the best we have to offer. Just being in the lineup - we have a couple of those guys - says a lot about what they're doing in relationship to who they're competing against. Whether what they are doing is good enough to distinguish themselves in a Pac-10 game or against our opponents - I don't think any of them have been able to consistently distinguish themselves, yet."
It's something I have noticed in practices this season, but I have been reticent to make the criticism. A number of scout team players are not practicing with much intensity. In particular, I have watched offensive skill players slow down well short of finishing their plays, almost never running full-speed.
It is hard for me to make the criticism because the scout teams are populated by walk-ons, freshmen and depth chart cellar-dweller upperclassmen. Those are players who may understandably lack either the fire, motivation or maturity to bring intensity to practices. Those are the players who have almost no chance to see the field on Saturdays. The freshmen understand that they are redshirting; the walk-ons are paying to not play; and the upperclassmen have no hope with younger players ahead at their positions.
But Walt Harris broached the subject of sagging scout team play after last week's loss. He said that the coaching staff identified the problem and started that Thursday in addressing it. We asked Harris this week if he could expound upon how he can hope to motivate a group of players who have the least cause for motivation on the team.
"First, you have to let them know that you are not pleased," the coach comments. "Honestly we think that we are a pretty tight group of guys. We're all in the same family, so we are calling on everyone to do their part to help us do better. If we continue to get better, then wins come around. We're just trying to make them understand that even though they are not playing in a game, you have a big part to do. And at this time in your career, your job is to help prepare the offense, defense or special teams."
"I think it goes back to our low numbers, and a lot of those guys are young guys," Harris adds.
On Thursday, Harris updated us by saying that the scout team players "did a better job and gave us a better look" this week in practice. We will see today whether or not Stanford's offensive and defensive players are better prepared for their respective opponents.
For the record, here are some of the Stanford scout players and who they tried to embody this week:
Alex Loukas and Nicolas Ruhl both as #7 quarterback Ben Olson
Matt McClernan as #60 guard Chris Joseph
Andrew Phillips as #71 guard Shannon Tevaga
Tyrone McGraw as #28 Chris Markey
Ryan Fisicaro as #36 Kahlil Bell
Ben Ladner as #32 fullback Michael Pitre
Austin Gunder as #86 tight end Logan Paulsen
Stephen Carr as #9 wide receiver Marcus Everett
Robert Polk as #8 wide receiver Junior Taylor
Marcus Rance as #18 Andrew Baumgartner
Chris Hobbs as #3 cornerback Rodney Van
Kenny Long as #1 Alterraun Verner
Tyler Porras as #11 safety Dennis Keyes
Blaise Johnson as #14 safety Chris Horton
C.J. Easter as #23 cornerback Trey Brown
Nick Macaluso as #51 linebacker Reggie Carter
Thaddeus Chase as #42 linebacker Aaron Whittington
Brandon Willetts as #17 defensive end Justin Hickman
David Jackson as #75 defensive tackle Kevin Brown
Alfred Johnson as #77 defensive tackle Kenneth Lombard
Derek Hall as #44 defensive end Bruce Davis
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our website, as well as our full-length feature articles in our glossy magazine. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up) and The Bootleg Magazine (sign-up)!