There have been a lot of surprises in the last week of Stanford's spring practice, but the biggest one may be the format of the concluding Cardinal and White Spring Game. In recent years, it has been a simple succession of prescribed drives and starting yard markers with the offense battling the defense. Jim Harbaugh has conducted the first two live scrimmages of this spring in precisely that manner, but he is putting the "game" back into Spring Game.
There will be kickoffs to start field position, with the first (or second) offense driving against the first (or second) defense until finishing with a score, turnover or punt. After the first units of offense and defense finish a drive, the second units will take the field where the ball rests after the turnover, punt or kickoff. And so forth.
Score will be kept between the two "teams." The first-string offense is effectively teamed with the second-string defense. The second-string offense joins forces with the first-string defense.
"I think it will have the feel of a real game, just that all the offensive guys will be in red and all the defensive guys in white," says Harbaugh.
Today's 4pm scrimmage is the third and final live tilt of the spring, and it will bring a number of players into action who have not yet participated in a scrimmage. Just before last weekend's (second) scrimmage, fifth-year senior wide receiver Evan Moore and sixth-year senior tight end Matt Traverso were just starting to practice. This final week of the spring, both have gone full throttle in contact drills and team periods. Both have looked good catching the ball.
Monday marked the first time this spring that we saw Moore with fifth-year senior Mark Bradford and sophomore Richard Sherman line up together, coming in the three-wide set during the two-minute drill. Moore showed that he was back by scoring a touchdown in that two-minute drill. Then on Tuesday, he hauled in a big touchdown reception of 25 yards on the first play of the first overtime period practiced this spring.
"Evan was really good. Evan is a heckuva player," says head coach Jim Harbaugh. "It's good. All positive for our team. I thought Traverso did some good things out there."
Also in action today will be fifth-year senior Mike Miller, who had a big first scrimmage with five catches and a touchdown but was out the following week injured and missed the second scrimmage. Redshirt freshman wideout Mark Mueller has worked his way into the rotation this week as well. The 6'2" speedster from Colorado has been a mystery man for Cardinal fans since his recruitment as a senior in high school, known more for track than football. Mueller also played running back in high school, which makes his transition to wide receiver one we have been anxious to watch. He was marginalized by injury all fall, however, so today's scrimmage gives fans their first glimpse at Mueller.
With Moore, Miller and Mueller all healthy and able to play this week, Stanford will have a wide receiver rotation that goes seven deep today. That number helps to illustrate why three wideouts were moved to the defensive backfield to start the week.
While the wide receivers are building strength and numbers by the day, the running backs have been hanging on by a thread. Leading tailback and redshirt junior Anthony Kimble injured his elbow in the first scrimmage and was finished for the spring. Only in Friday's walk-through (no pads, no contact) has he come anywhere near a football the past two weeks. Redshirt freshman Tyrone McGraw was out to start the spring, recovering from knee surgery. He worked his way into practices the second week and showed some flashes in the first scrimmage, but he hurt his knee and was out the next week and a half. McGraw the last couple days has come back, and Thursday he made all in attendance take notice.
"He looked special," praises Harbaugh. "He has to block and he can catch a little better, but he can do some special things."
While Kimble and McGraw were out, Stanford had just two tailbacks - one of which was the starting fullback. Fifth-year senior Emeka Nnoli has had to take double duty and a slew of snaps the past two weeks in the offensive backfield. The converted fullback actually led last weekend's scrimmage with 18 carries, and he has shown the coaching staff a different dimension carrying the ball for the Cardinal: a big back with some burst.
"It's a little different," Nnoli explains. "I'm learning a new position. The steps, the running game and the different pass protections that the tailbacks do."
"It's tough, but at the same time it's an opportunity to show that I can run the ball at tailback as well as block at fullback," he says. "I'm about 245 or 240 [pounds], so breaking out of a few runs is a confidence booster that I still have the speed there to outrun some people. I feel good out there."
The offensive line was not feeling so good early this week. The big nasties started the spring 11 strong, but that number dropped to 10 within days as redshirt freshman tackle John Kyed broke a bone in his hand and subsequently had surgery. The 10 remaining linemen still allowed a comfortable two-deep, once fifth-year senior Preston Clover moved from guard to right tackle (and redshirt junior Bobby Dockter flipped from right to left tackle).
Then the second scrimmage struck, taking down fifth-year senior guard Mikal Brewer. He has been the first-team left guard essentially all spring, minus a few repetitions. Even a broken hand early in spring ball did not derail Brewer, who came back quickly with a huge playing cast. This scrimmage injury was to Brewer's neck, which took him out of action to start this week. Redshirt junior Gustav Rydsted hyperextended his elbow in the second scrimmage and was also out. The offensive line was suddenly looking pretty thin, and then they lost another.
Redshirt junior and starting right guard Alex Fletcher had a bout with redshirt sophomore outside linebacker Clinton Snyder after the whistle on a play Monday. Fletcher's actions were called out immediately by Harbaugh and offensive line coach Chris Dalman, with Harbaugh then booting Fletcher from practice.
What did Stanford's offensive line look like with just seven players? Clover became the first-team right guard, while redshirt freshman Andrew Phillips took the reins at left guard. Sixth-year senior Tim Mattran had to take some second-team snaps at center while redshirt freshman Bert McBride helped at guard. Dockter also took guard snaps.
"He has to keep his poise," Harbaugh says of the fiery Fletcher. "Otherwise, he could take a 15-yard penalty or get thrown out of the game. That diminishes our chances of winning. That's unacceptable. It doesn't matter what happened or transpired, he just hurt our football team. You have to be able to keep your poise."
Fletcher had good talks with both Harbaugh and Dalman afterward. During the team's Tuesday post-practice huddle, Fletcher asked Harbaugh if he could address the team, apologizing for his actions and preaching to younger players not to repeat his mistake.
Fletcher has practice well and without incident since. Brewer has also come back to practice. Rydstedt has a reputation of ignoring pain and injuries, and he tried to go the early part of Thursday's practice before being forced to withdraw. He still has the intent of playing in today's Spring Game, though we are hesitant to say that he will or can do so successfully.
At the same time this week, the defensive line has been building greater strength and numbers. The Cardinal crisis we described at length in the early days of spring - now gone. The defensive line today goes nine strong, which (gasp) means they have more than a two-deep rotation. With the switch last week of redshirt freshman and former middle linebacker Brian Bulcke to defensive end and the Monday return to action of classmate Levirt Griffin, the defensive front is at full strength.
Griffin's return was a critically important one, given the thinner depth for Stanford at defensive tackle. Griffin at the end of the first week suffered a hamstring injury, which kept him out most of the next two weeks. What we (and the medical staff) did not know from Griffin is that he also injured his hip. He finally returned to contact drills on Monday, which allowed redshirt junior Pannel Egboh to slide over to his more natural defensive end position.
Through the next two days of practice, Griffin's play became stronger and stronger. His standout play on Tuesday, signaling to us that he was truly back, was a big stop of fifth-year senior running back Jason Evans on 3rd & Goal in a goalline series. After Thursday's practice, we were hearing that Griffin could be Stanford's starting 'three technique' this fall.
Egboh continues to play both end and tackle, which is both a blessing and a curse. His versatility stamps him as the defensive line's most valuable player, but he is also bouncing between positions without a settled home these last few days. The first-team defensive line we expect to see start today's Spring Game has redshirt sophomore Erik Lorig and fifth-year senior Udeme Udofia at defensive ends, plus Griffin and fifth-year senior Chris Horn in the interior. Do not be alarmed by Egboh's absence. You should see him play snaps at different spots on both defensive lines.
More News & Notes:
- For all the anticipation of sophomore running back Toby Gerhart doing double-duty between football and baseball, he has been almost wholly absent from the football practice field. The (bad) luck of the baseball schedule has kept Gerhart on the road or at Sunken Diamond for all but one of football's practices since the first week of spring ball. That came this Monday. With the baseball team playing today against Oregon State, that will make 11 of 15 football practices sans Gerhart this spring.
- You may see him returning punts. You might wonder whether he will play wide receiver or cornerback. The answer for redshirt sophomore Chris Hobbs is "neither." He grabbed our attention by switching jerseys from offensive to defense at the start of this week, but a shoulder injury has kept him out of action. Hobbs actually impressed while he was healthy earlier this spring at wideout, but the improving depth on that side of the ball and declining number at cornerback have highlighted a need and opportunity for him on defense.
- Also out today is fifth-year senior outside linebacker Peter Griffin. He suffered a serious ankle injury in the last scrimmage, while playing on the first-team defense. Griffin is also a multi-phase starter on Stanford's special teams.
- Injured on Monday was redshirt sophomore tight end Ben Ladner, which sadly may have ended one of the great feel-good stories of the spring. After moving from fullback in the off-season, Ladner had exploded onto the scene with his new position and new attitude toward football. A player rolled up on his leg Monday and sprained his ankle. He tried to move on the field during Friday's no-pads practice but had trouble, making him doubtful for today's Spring Game.
- Backup punting this spring behind starter and fifth-year senior Jay Ottovegio has been redshirt freshman Leon Peralto. The walk-on from Hawaii is small in stature - not even the 5'10" at which he is listed - and was easy to dismiss last fall with what he showed in practice. Peralto is radically improved this spring, however, and has been booming punts. He looks like he has been hard at work and benefited from his first winter in the strength & conditioning program. When Peralto was missing on Monday (attending his sister's wedding), who was Stanford's #2 punter? Not fifth-year senior and starting quarterback T.C. Ostrander, who has been a backup punter the last few years but has not put his foot to a single ball this spring. Instead it was fifth-year senior kicker Derek Belch. Figuring out the third-string punter is pretty low on the priority list of our information gathering this spring, but the lesson learned is that Ostrander as the Cardinal's starting quarterback appears to be now retired from his punting reserve duty.
- Peralto has also stepped up in the kicking game this spring. Redshirt junior Aaron Zagory, who was Stanford's field goal and PAT kicker last season, has been missing in action since the first few days of spring practices. His abdominal strain has kept him off the practice field since, which has thrust Belch into the lion's share of Stanford's kicking. In last week's scrimmage, Belch took every kick. But this week we saw Peralto take a few swings. Like his punting, Peralto's field goal distance and leg strength is markedly improved from the fall. He impressed in his biggest test this spring, hitting a 39-yarder at the end of a second-team offense two-minute drill to finish Thursday's practice.
- Stanford's roster grew by one in the last week when freshman Daniel Hurwit walked on to the team. The former South Eugene (Ore.) High School wide receiver is joining the defensive ranks and is slotted to play cornerback.
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