Our least favorite practices of spring ball and fall camp are always the first. Due to NCAA rules, players cannot wear pads, and football is a game that needs to be practiced and played with contact. Even for the 12 of this month's 15 spring practices where Stanford is allowed to wear full pads, only four times can live tackling be permitted.
When 2007 spring football opened at Stanford on Wednesday, there was no need for pads - or helmets or cleats for that matter - to see the dramatic change that has swept onto the practice field for the Cardinal. We had heard anecdotes about how Jim Harbaugh and his staff ran practices at San Diego. High energy and positive reinforcement. But nothing could have prepared us for the breakneck pace with which Stanford practiced Wednesday. Repetitions in every aspect of the game moved new bodies in place of the previous at the soonest moment humanly possible. We saw it in passing drills, blocking drills, line drills and and array of special teams drills.
"The tempo of practice is faster. Guys were getting in and getting out. The coaches were trying to pick it up," observes fifth-year senior quarterback T.C. Ostrander. "As an offense, we're not waiting around for anybody. The defense has a new defense to install, but we're not waiting for them to line up. We're just going out there and firing as quick as we can, and I think that is going to help us when it comes gametime."
"I thought the tempo was really good," says Harbaugh of his first practice on The Farm. "We actually got off the field 15 minutes earlier than we scripted. That's because the tempo was so good. We were playing so fast."
While we were amazed, Harbaugh was hardly satisfied with the pace. He has set a goal of increasing the tempo by two percent in each practice this spring.
"By the end of spring ball, we will be 30 percent better than we were today. That would be the goal after 15 practices," the coach calculates. "We are not going to stay the same as we were today. We need to get even faster and better at what we do."
The remarkable tempo of the practice was not engineered merely by design or instruction. The youthful and energetic coaching staff, all of whom are younger than the 43-year-old Harbaugh, was seen all over the practice field demonstrating and prodding the pace. With what we saw from the running, leaping and gesticulating of the coaches, there may be an expanded dimension to our injury reports this month.
Harbaugh proclaimed earlier this week that April at Stanford would be the "toughest spring ball in the history of spring ball." That might be digested as Harbaugh hyperbole, but he may very well be right. The number of repetitions that can be achieved in this style of practice is higher than we have seen before, which will benefit but also tax players.
"There was not any rest time. There was a lot of excitement and a lot of energy," says sixth-year tight end Matt Traverso. "It's a challenge to keep up with Coach Harbaugh because he still wants to be playing. You can just tell from his demeanor that he wants to be the one under center."
Beyond the sheer velocity of drills and repetitions in practice, this coaching staff has brought an explosive and vibrant energy that is inspiring and pushing players in a positive direction. With some parts of the previous coaching staff employing a somewhat negative approach to their criticism, this is an obvious change. From the smiles we saw on players' faces throughout and after practice, it appears to be a welcome one.
"There is just more excitement and more positivity, which isn't to say they won't jump all over us if we do something wrong. We can tell that they're trying to get us better," Ostrander observes. "It's a way different feel, and I think a lot of guys on the team are responding to it in a really positive way."
All eyes on this first day were on the offense, which has in Ostrander a new leader under center. For the first time in his career, the Atherton (Calif.) native starts the year without looking up at Trent Edwards on the depth chart. Ostrander has had plenty of playing and starting experience in his Cardinal career, but now he finally can receive the lion's share of teaching and repetitions as the team's top quarterback. The fifth-year senior took approximately half of the snaps on this first day.
Harbaugh is not only his head coach, but he is also Ostrander's quarterbacks coach. The two worked like peanut butter and jelly this off-season, but Wednesday marked the first time they were allowed to introduce a football to the picture. Harbaugh walked away impressed with the first day of Ostrander under center this spring.
"T.C. I thought had a really good day," the coach comments. "Mentally, he's way ahead of everybody right now - getting us in and out of the huddle, knowing what he's doing and taking command at the line of scrimmage and in the huddle. He has a really good presence with that right now."
This was also the debut for the rest of the Cardinal quarterbacking corps with Harbaugh, including redshirt sophomore Tavita Pritchard, who saw a few snaps in his first season playing last fall but has thrown a single pass in a college uniform.
"He's a coordinated quarterback," says Harbaugh. "Just the way he drops. He has a quick twitch about him that I like, and he throws a good ball."
"They all have the tools," the coach continues. "Some of the other guys did some good things, too. I think Alex Loukas has a very good arm, and he's very athletic. Mentally, he's just getting to know this offense and how to play quarterback... I was impressed with the way all of our guys throw the ball. For the first real look at them throwing live, it was impressive. We have stuff to work with there."
For Ostrander, the emphasis in Harbaugh's first day of teaching included better stepping up into the pocket as well as moving more quickly through his progression, and then running when his options are exhausted. Both areas of need Harbaugh observed on Wednesday were things he also saw in Ostrander's game film, and both contribute to his taking hits and ultimately turning the ball over. Decision-making and ball security are paramount for Harbaugh in this offense.
Also noteworthy was the absence of the yellow practice jerseys of which we are so familiar for the quarterbacks. This was a no-pads, no-contact day of practice, but the jerseys will stay the same color when full pads come to the practice field on Saturday. With the exception of Ostrander.
"I never liked that," Harbaugh says of the differently colored protective jerseys for quarterbacks in football. "Tavita, Alex and the other guys will take some live hits in the spring. I don't anticipate T.C. getting hit this spring, but for those guys who have never been hit at the college level, there is some really good learning when you get hit with live bullets. There will be times when they get hit."
The conventional wisdom that puts quarterbacks in brightly colored safety-designation jerseys is to protect them. Injuries happen in practices, but the all-important quarterback is often the most irreplaceable (and fragile) player on the roster. Harbaugh, however, says that he never sustained a significant injury when he took hits in the practices of his playing days. He is willing to roll the dice with his Stanford quarterbacks in practice, save Ostrander, given their complete absence of game experience at the college level. Pritchard, Loukas and the rest don't the speed and ferocity with which Pac-10 defenders can attack, and Harbaugh would prefer that learning take place in April rather than October.
"You learn to get rid of the ball quicker. Move around in the pocket," he says. There is a sense of urgency with stepping up in the pocket. It happens more real. They're on you faster, and you realize that you have to get rid of the ball or get out of the way of a guy."
The style and substance of the messages and practices that Harbaugh has for his quarterbacks and players is different in many ways from what we saw under Walt Harris. The respective ages and years of coaching experience might color the coaches different to the players, but attention is highly tuned to Harbaugh from the start.
"Just looking back at his career, with what he's done in the NFL and in college, it's great," offers Ostrander. "You have to respect everything that comes out of his mouth because he's been there before in many different situations. His body of knowledge is so great. He can give us a lot of hints and things other coaches might not know about."
Harbaugh sought some help from Stanford Football's past in delivering messages on this opening day of 2007 spring football. Former All-American offensive tackle and 15-year NFL veteran Bob Whitfield attended the entire practice and addressed the team at its conclusion. He also stood closely by during offensive line drills, with a close eye and some helpful words for the tackles, where Stanford has struggled in recent years. Whitfield attended not just as a wise former player, but also with some forcefully delivered words to the players to not allow the 2006 season to ever be repeated.
Harbaugh also opened practice with Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh addressing the team.
"I've been here for four years now, but every time I see him I still get that awestruck feeling - 'That's Bill Walsh.' Just like Coach Harbaugh, you have to listen to everything that comes out of his mouth and hold it because it's worth so much," Ostrander says.
"They were riveted," Harbaugh says of the players during Walsh's speech. "He had two messages, really. The first one was if a coach is talking to another player, make sure you are hearing that coaching point. You're taking that mental rep. Some of the best coaching goes on when a coach is talking to another player. Also, a message to the guys on the lower half of the roster that even though they may be on the third or fourth string right now, don't look at it like, 'I'm never going to get in there.' Come out here each day and try to be the best player you can possibly be. That's individually what you're trying to do each day, especially now in spring practice."
"The receiver corps is swimming a little bit on what to do, but that will get better," Harbaugh notes.
"We've been working through some of these plays on air, but it's always different when you're going against live bullets with a football and a defense out there," Ostrander comments on the passing offense. "I think we're starting to get on the same page with the receivers. We have a pretty new bunch of guys out there. Mark and Evan aren't really out there yet. That's the best thing we can do right now - get everybody on the same page and get everybody used to each other."
Harbaugh overall praised the execution on the offensive side of the ball, which was sharper than we could have expected for the first day of the spring. That is due in no small part to great attention paid during winter conditioning to the playbook. Rather than simply running sprints, many of the drills Stanford conducted this winter looked remarkably like a football practice - only without a football. Lining up and running plays on Wednesday was easier for players as a result.
"There was some volume in today's practice, which was good, but there should be quite a bit of retention from what we've done the last eight to 10 weeks of conditioning and meetings," Harbaugh observers. "We've done a lot of work up until this point, so they know what they are doing. Some of it was lost with spring break and finals the last two weeks. Some of the retention wasn't there that I was hoping there, but there was a lot of retention."
The base offense installed on Wednesday included three running plays and approximately 15 passing plays. As promised, there is a great deal of shifting and motion seen in Stanford's sets, which is both appropriate and exciting to see.
"All that we can promise is that promise is that there is going to be a lot of effort, a lot of work and a lot of sweat," says Harbaugh. "That's all that we can promise ourselves right now because we have a ways to go."
Perhaps the standout of the day on offense was redshirt junior running back Anthony Kimble, who Harbaugh praised earlier in the week as the fastest player on the team. Kimble already made tremendous strides in his physical abilities last year, but he has raised the bar this off-season. His explosiveness and speed after making cuts sets him apart for the other returning running backs. While all eyes are on Ostrander, Bradford and Moore in the passing game, Kimble is a weapon to watch.
Other source of excitement on offense was the return of Traverso to the team. While waiting for the decision on his sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA, the tight end slipped with his enrollment for the winter quarter.
"Eligibility-wise, I'm going to be just fine. There are no repercussions," Traverso tells us. "Everything is in the clear at this point."
"That was a real positive," says Harbaugh of Traverso's return on Wednesday. "Matt is trying to push and get back there even a little bit faster than we anticipated. He's in a little better shape than we thought because he hadn't done anything over the entire off-season. We want to make sure that he is entirely physically ready before we turn him loose, but it's good to have him out here."
"The first step is to make sure he's healthy, and then get him in shape," the coach continues. "He's eight to 10 weeks behind everybody else. But he has experience and has played well in the past here. Mentally, I think that this is what he wants to do, and that wasn't a decision he had quite made up until now."
Traverso had shoulder surgery on November 6, and though he was largely held out of today's practice on the sideline, he says that his shoulder is not the issue.
"Right now I would say that my shoulder is as close to 100 percent as it's going to be. It feels pretty good. I haven't had any pain in a long time," he shares. "Right now my hip has some inflammation in there still, but I haven't had any pain there in a while. They're just being cautious and making sure that I'm in shape before I come out here and go full bore."
"If it were up to me, I would be out there today, but that might not be the smartest thing," Traverso admits. "I'm shooting for next week, but I'm not sure what the trainers are shooting for. Every time they ask me: 'I'm feeling great!' no matter what."
Whether every joint and muscle feels great for Traverso, his heart is pumping at 110 percent upon his return to the team and a second chance to have the senior season he so hoped to enjoy last fall.
"It's a dream come true. I walked into the locker room on Monday," he pauses. "I've been in and out all winter, but it was the first time I felt like I was back on the team. I haven't felt like part of the team in a while. It's nice to have my teammates back."
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