Commensurate to the excitement and hope that the Stanford defense brought Cardinalmaniacs™ last week in Los Angeles was the abject despair and disappointment that the Stanford offense yielded with their shutout performance and profusion of turnovers. It was a known quantity coming into this season that the defense would be young and have struggles. The special teams would certainly step backward without personnel and its standout coordinator hired by the NFL. But the offense, and the passing game in particular, was supposed to be the mainstay and salvation for Stanford Football in 2006.
Obviously a number of things are going wrong - or not going right - on the Cardinal "O" of late. But to these eyes, the number one shortcoming that is handicapping the offense and causing other problems is at wide receiver. That is a stunning statement considering that Stanford was slated to start its most talented twosome at that position seen in several years, but senior Mark Bradford played just one full game and redshirt junior Evan Moore made it through just two games to start the season. Those losses have been exacerbated by the knee injury to fifth-year senior Marcus McCutcheon in the opener at Eugene, which took away the one scholarship returning reserve behind Bradford and Moore.
Left with just walk-ons and true freshmen, the Cardinal receiving corps has struggled. Those green reserves who have now been thrust into starting and important roles are not as big, as fast, as strong, as savvy or as skilled as their elder counterparts. Receivers in recent weeks have either not been able to create separation from their defender or they have simply been stoned at the line of scrimmage. Several other times there have been dropped passes or misplays on ball that head their way.
McCutcheon went down in the opener and Bradford on the second play of the second game. Moore made only a few appearances on the field in the third game before he had to retreat to the locker room. Since the manifestation of Moore's stress reaction injury, Stanford has scored just 19 total points in three games. Much heat has been laid on the offensive line, and that is logical given the 15 sacks they have yielded the past two games after allowing only six in the first three games. But a great number of those quarterback crushes have been coverage sacks, with time for fifth-year senior Trent Edwards to look downfield, but the pocket collapsing after no passing option was apparent.
"There are times where my eyes are going to the wrong area, and I'm not reading the coverage properly," Edwards admits. "That can also be said for the receiver corps. When we are blocking and I am looking for the right person, they just don't get open. That's another area of concern, too. It's not just the line's fault. It's the receivers' fault and it's my fault."
For his part, Edwards says he is returning to the basics and wants to move through his progression of reads a little deeper and a little faster. The Cardinal quarterback tells us that he wants to move his eyes to the high-percentage option of dumping off to his running backs, which he admits he has "gotten a little bit away from."
But Edwards is too often playing a game of nine-on-11. Stanford's starters at UCLA this past week were two walk-on wide receivers: redshirt sophomore Kelton Lynn and redshirt junior Mike Miller. Their individual stories of progress are outstanding. It is obvious how far they have both come in just the past year of coaching and mentorship under Harris and wide receivers coach Tucker Waugh. Both delighted us in their contributions against Navy three weeks ago, when Moore fell from the lineup. Lynn caught six passes for 72 yards, while Miller had in the first half three catches for 31 yards. For a pair of players suddenly thrust into the spotlight, the future appeared hopeful.
But that tandem have combined for just eight catches in the two games since. The reality is that Navy cornerbacks are not the level of Pac-10 cornerbacks. The athleticism and ability of the opponents Miller and Lynn have faced the last two weeks was a marked jump, and that will continue tomorrow at Notre Dame and throughout the rest of the season.
"We don't have our top runners out there," says Walt Harris of his receiving options. "If you aren't as fast, that means it takes you longer to make your routes... That's what we're having to deal with, and we just have to play our cards better. If we can get better field position, it would help us."
Getting better receivers back on the field would help Harris as well. Stanford might have that hope realized when they play tomorrow under Touchdown Jesus. Both Moore and McCutcheon have worked this week in practice for their first time since their respective injuries, which has immediately provided an emotional lift to the offense. The addition of experience fourth- and fifth-year receivers has also buoyed their younger understudies.
"It's nice to have those older guys back out there practicing, setting the example for those young guys," Edwards describes. "It's pretty easy to get away from the way the position is supposed to be played when you don't have a person in front of you older than you, knowing how it's supposed to be played and demonstrating how to do it. I know that Marcus and Evan have helped those guys out a lot while they haven't been able to practice, but having them physically out there practicing helps the young guys a lot."
That on-field mentorship during drills could be manifest tomorrow in South Bend, but the more obvious and tangible benefit would come from McCutcheon and/or Moore split out wide at the line of scrimmage.
McCutcheon is returning from an MCL tear, and this is his second week of activity attempting to come back. Last week he stood on the sideline during all drills but ran in a straight line as part of conditioning sprints. This week he was cleared for lateral cuts and movement, which nudged him into actual wide receiver work. The fifth-year senior wore a yellow injury jersey on Tuesday, took part in position drills and then sporadically was worked into some 11-on-11 offensive repetitions against the scout defense. When McCutcheon caught his first pass in that competitive environment since the start of September, cheers and applause came forth from his offensive teammates on the sideline.
He built on that day's success by taking off the yellow jersey on Wednesday. McCutcheon was worked into the regular rotation of wide receivers. Based on what we saw with our eyes prior to yesterday's closed practice, there is a better than 50/50 chance that McCutcheon will play on Saturday. Walt Harris told us on Tuesday that he thought it unlikely the fifth-year senior would be available, but that was before two encouraging days of successful practice.
Moore is not as far along. He was still wearing a boot last week, though the 6'7" wideout was fitted with a special orthotic sleeve by a private practitioner in Durham (N.C.) that directs weight and pressure away from the ailing third metatarsal bone in his right foot. That has allowed Moore to walk and jog without pain ahead of schedule, which resulted in his suiting up in pads Tuesday for the first time in three weeks. Moore conducted only light wide receiver position drills early in the practice and did not take the repetitions in 11-on-11 work later like McCutcheon did.
On Wednesday, however, Moore gave it a go. He attempted receiving routes against defenders but found particular difficulty in running a "go" route down the right sideline. He hobbled a little afterward, and his repetitions scaled back. By the end of practice, he was on the sideline every snap, hanging his head with disappointment.
"I know it's been bothering him a lot mentally that he hasn't been able to be at 100 percent and not being able to help the team out in any way," Edwards offers on his close friend. "Standing there on the sideline I know has been very, very difficult for him. Being a competitor much like myself, it's something you never want to experience. I know he's doing everything he can this week to prepare himself physically to play."
Edwards says that Moore is such a competitor that a return this week, against the medical odds, would not shock him. He does however offer only guarded hope.
"I would be pleasantly surprised," the quarterback comments on the prospects of his receiver's return Saturday.
Without seeing what transpired yesterday for Moore on the practice field, we have to cast a grim outlook for his prospects of playing at Notre Dame. It looks like next week against Arizona might be a better chance for his return to action.
"I don't know if there is a timetable. I don't know if he is healthy yet. We don't know," Harris maintains. "It's the pain exam every time he does something more than walk in a boot. He's tried to do some running, but he doesn't feel really good about it. He needs to feel really good about it in order to go out there and play."
Another return, of sorts, in the works is freshman Richard Sherman. He jumped onto the scene at San Jose State in replacement of Bradford but struggled with his responsibilities the next week and was benched in favor of Lynn against Navy. The youngster took the demotion poorly, and his attitude plummeted. That further curtailed his role in practices week before the Washington State game, when he played only at the end of the fourth quarter in garbage time.
The good news is that Sherman screwed his head back on and had better practices last week. He found a bigger role in the second half of the UCLA game and had three catches on Stanford's best drive of the day, before a ball was intercepted against him on the goalline. The improvements are welcomed by his head coach.
"As he continues to practice well, he will be rewarded with more playing time," Harris shares on Sherman. "He did do some nice things in the game - competed hard and gave us a little something extra when he caught some passes. Right now that's what we really need: a little extra effort and extra execution."
The irony, however, is that Sherman and McCutcheon both play the "Z" receiver position. That is also the position of Lynn, who has been the better performer of the two walk-ons. When Stanford goes to three-wide formations, two of the trio can take the field, but there is needed help at the "X" position that Moore manned to start the season. That position is for bigger, stronger and more physical receivers who can operate on the short side of the field in limited space. Miller and true freshman Austin Yancy will have to step forward to keep the field balanced and the Irish defense honest tomorrow.
"I think Austin is trying to get accustomed to the speed of the game, the responsibilities you have, executing the routes and the depths, the techniques of reading the coverage and getting open," Harris comments. "Mike Miller has a much better grasp of all that, but Austin has some really good qualities. So we're trying to bring Austin along, and he played quite a bit."
Miller also injured his finger last week at UCLA, which put Yancy on the field more.
"Hopefully he grew and matured and will continue to grow in that direction," says Harris.
One other avenue that could offer hope in the receiving game is at the tight end position, where fifth-year senior Matt Traverso has battled a shoulder injury and also not seen eye-to-eye with Harris. The veteran tight end caught seven passes for 85 yards and a touchdown last year against Notre Dame and was a huge part of the near-upset. His head coach offers some hope that Traverso might be on the mend in more than one way this week.
"Hopefully," Harris answers when questioned about Traverso's return this Saturday. "He practiced better last week. We had a good meeting with him, and I think he is in a good frame of mind to try to improve and make it happen."
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