Though Stanford has yet to don full pads yet in their fall camp, the Cardinal are already busy shuffling their players to find the best positions for them to play. We earlier this week discussed some movements in the linebacker and defensive line units that reorganized several players in the front seven 24 hours before camp kicked off, but Thursday marked the first position moves of this camp that took players across the line of scrimmage.
The most notable saw redshirt sophomore Will Powers move from middle linebacker to tight end. Powers, who hails from nearby Foster City (Calif.) is one of the most visible young players for local fans, enjoying consensus prep All-American honors at Junipero Serra High School. The 6'4" 235-pound athlete played arguably out of position in his redshirt freshman campaign a year ago as an outside linebacker in the Cardinal's 3-4 defense, though he showed some flashes and recorded four starts in his debut season.
In the new 4-3 defense installed this year by Stanford, Powers shifted to middle linebacker to try and answer one of the Cardinal's biggest question marks.
But Jim Harbaugh suggested to The Bootleg more than a week ago at the Bay Area College Football Media Day in San Francisco (Calif.) that Powers could soon be playing on offense.
"I told Will that I want him to be a tight end," the Cardinal coach smiled. "He would be one heck of a tight end."
On the fourth day of Stanford's 2007 preseason camp, that vision become a reality as Powers changed jerseys and started his first day as a tight end on The Farm.
"Today during lunch, Coach Harbaugh approached me and brought up the switch to tight end," Powers relates. "He just said that he wanted me over here on offense, and he asked me to consider it."
"Basically what brought about the decision to switch is there are only two criteria you need to make a decision on this team," he says. "The first criterion: is it going to help us get better? That's the first criterion. The second criterion: is it going to help us win? If the answer is 'yes' to both of those questions, then the decision is quite easy. Coach Harbaugh has a vision, and he feels that this is a component of that vision. I have a lot of trust in his decision-making, and I'm jumping all the way in the boat with him."
"He's just one of our best big athletes, and we have to get him on the field," Harbaugh explains. "It's a determination that I think he can play quicker at tight end than 'Mike' linebacker. That's not because he's not doing a good job at 'Mike' linebacker. In this position, he's now one of our better guys."
Powers may be a fish out of water at first, not having played on offense since his senior year at Serra in 2004. He jumped into practice last night just hours after making the position switch.
"I really don't honestly know any of the plays yet," Powers chuckles. "They kind of pushed me out there and told me what to do, but I'm picking it up slowly. Hey, whatever helps the team win."
Though his honors coming out of high school came at defensive end, including Defensive Player of the Year for the Far West region by SuperPrep, Powers was also a potent threat in the Padres' passing game when his number was called. He racked up 224 yards and four touchdowns on just 10 receptions his senior season in the WCAL.
Powers hopes that his last two-plus years of experience on the Cardinal defense will also add something to his new presence in the tight end corps.
"Playing defense the last couple of years, I bring a different feel and approach to the game than an offensive-minded person," he opines. "I bring a unique understanding of the defense to the position. Not that I will always know exactly what the defense is going to be in, but I am able to see offense from a defensive perspective. That should help me run better routes and be in a better position to block than without that knowledge."
Switching Powers from defense to offense did not come without a counterbalance. True freshman Chike Amajoyi jumped from running back to outside linebacker. He debuted on defense Thursday night as a "Will" linebacker.
"I think we now have potentially the most athletic linebacker we've got - someday on the whole team," Harbaugh offers on Amajoyi. "Andy Buh is really excited about him... If you talk to Andy, he'll probably tell you that he is as athletic or more athletic than any linebacker he's got. And Chike was really excited about it. I gave him the option of fullback or linebacker, and he was very decisive about linebacker."
Amajoyi came to The Farm with an eye on offense, but there was always the prospect of his helping at linebacker. Not since Michael Okwo have the Cardinal corralled such a highly regarded two-way performer in California. Amajoyi not only ran for 2,580 yards and 29 touchdowns as a running back last fall at San Bernardino (Calif.) Aquinas High School, but he also recorded 80 tackles and an interception on defense at this same linebacker position.
"If you haven't noticed, we have seven tailbacks in our lineup right now," Amajoyi smiles. "We're a lot deeper than we've been in a while. They're hurting at fullback and linebacker right now. What the coaches figured to get me on the field earlier, they gave me the option of staying there and moving to fullback or coming over to linebacker. Let me play where I can have the biggest impact and where I feel the most comfortable."
"Right now, I figured since I played linebacker in high school, I could help the defense a lot quicker than I can help the offense," the freshman offers. "We have a lot of tailbacks. We have Owen Marecic, who just came in and who is a very good fullback just from what I've seen so far. Playing these last couple days with him in pads and seeing his highlight tape, he hits really hard. I figure he's got the fullback locked down. The linebackers look like they need it a little bit more. I talked with Coach Buh, Coach [Willie] Taggart and Coach Harbaugh. I called my family, and I decided that the best fit for me would be to switch over to defense at linebacker."
When Amajoy was recruited by the Cardinal, his heart was set on playing offense. That could make this move a bittersweet one for the 6'0" 220-pound freshman.
"Not at all," he replies. "Being here all summer, it really opened my eyes to how the team works. I've been thinking about playing linebacker for a while now. Seeing how the team works, I think I can affect things a lot quicker. I might actually get on the field at linebacker this year. So I definitely think it's a good switch for me."
And how was Amajoyi's first day at his new Stanford position?
"I picked up on the base stuff today pretty quickly because I did play pretty much the position in high school," the frosh reports. "Most of the basic stuff, I got. The reads and everything. Right now, it's just going in and learning the different coverages, like the more complex blitzes that the 'Will' linebacker has to know before I can get out there and compete for that spot. But right now, I'm just trying to absorb everything that Coach Buh tells me. I haven't even been a linebacker for a full day yet [laughs], so I just want to get everything I can in, work as hard as I can and improve every day. Be the best player I can and try to help the team any way I can."
Amajoyi was all smiles last night when discussing his move to linebacker, making no secret how much he is excited about playing on defense. Already on the first day, he took much delight in laying the wood to a few of his former position mates.
"It's a lot of fun," he grins. "I got a good hit on the fullback - it might have been Owen. I need to look at the film to see how good it was. It's fun to be out there, and I think it's going to be a lot more fun as camp goes on and we get into the season."
With Amajoyi added to the outside linebacker ranks, one more move transpired on defense. Classmate Johnathan Frink slid over to the middle at "Mike" linebacker, where we had originally projected him to play.
"Frink is a true 'Mike' linebacker," Harbaugh offers.
Back on offense, there was another interesting wrinkle in the backfield. Redshirt sophomore Ben Ladner, who has looked excellent this year after switching to tight end, is now broadening his role. The Cardinal are thin at fullback, with fifth-year senior and returning starter Emeka Nnoli on the shelf. Redshirt freshman Sam Weinberger was also out on Thursday. Ladner took some repetitions at fullback, but he also saw a lot of work at tight end. Not a position switch per se, Ladner can now be described as a "hybrid" player in Stanford's offense.
"He now is that 'U tight end' who can be a fullback too," Harbaugh offers. "He definitely gives us a guy who can get in there and be a fullback."
Other News & Notes:
* There was a great collective Cardinal exhale Thursday evening when fifth-year senior quarterback T.C. Ostrander trotted out to practice. 24 hours after leaving the field with a sore hamstring, Stanford's starting quarterback followed up his pledge to return to action. On a cool evening that saw Stanford practice for nearly three hours, Ostrander practiced without incident from start to finish. "I think it's something that we can manage," says Harbaugh. "We'll be as smart and diligent as we can with his treatments."
* While Stanford's #1 was back in the saddle at quarterback, our attention was riveted by the competition behind him. Wednesday evening saw redshirt sophomore Tavita Pritchard and redshirt freshman Alex Loukas take heavy work in Ostrander's absence. They split their snaps equally, reflecting the dead heat of their competition for the #2 job. On Thursday, however, there was a clear gap in their work. Pritchard enjoyed a sizable advantage in work during team periods, the first evidence we have seen this spring or fall that one of the two signal callers has moved ahead of the other. "Tavita has been completing a high percentage of balls," Harbaugh explains. "That definitely nudged his reps up."
* The team added a two-minute drill to their team work Thursday night, and the first team offense started with an impressive drive down the field. It ended however with Ostrander throwing an interception in the endzone. The pass was intended for sophomore Richard Sherman, but classmate Austin Yancy leapt in the air and beat him to the ball. It was an impressive play that continued an impressive camp for the sophomore free safety.
* The day's best scoring play goes to true freshman wideout Doug Baldwin. In another team period, he recorded a long touchdown catch-and-run. Pritchard threw the ball and hit his target on the money.
* Fifth-year senior wide receiver Evan Moore stayed on the sideline for most of Thursday's practice. "We're just going to be really smart and cautious with him," Harbaugh offers. "He may practice and be off. Then practice and then off." Who took his snaps in the first-team offense? Redshirt junior Kelton Lynn. On that subject, here is how we have thus far seen Stanford's wide receiver personnel break down between the "X" and "Z" positions. Fifth-year senior Mark Bradford is the lead "Z", followed by redshirt freshman Stephen Carr, redshirt junior Nate Wilcox-Fogel and true freshman Sean Wiser. Moore and Lynn at the "X" position are joined by Richard Sherman, redshirt freshman Mark Mueller, true freshman Doug Baldwin and true freshman Ryan Whalen. Stanford employs a three-receiver set with the "Zebra" position (slot receiver), where Sherman is the starter, followed by Lynn and Wilcox-Fogel.
* All of the above notes are focused on offensive and defensive personnel, but we must recognize that a solid half (or more) of the time in Thursday's practice was dedicated to special teams. Jim Harbaugh has talked a big game about the importance of special teams this year, but he has certainly backed it up with the emphasis he and his staff have given in practices - not just this fall camp but also that we saw in the spring. Kickoff return, kickoff coverage, field goals, punt block and punt protection all received heavy work Thursday night.
* Fifth-year senior punter Jay Ottovegio saw a lot of work for his leg Thursday, but he took a break during most of the punt block work. Kelton Lynn and true freshman Kellen Kiilsgaard both jumped in and reprieved some specialist work from their high school days. Two blocks were made by Mark Bradford (who also scooped and scored) and redshirt sophomore Clinton Snyder.
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