We've harped on the health of Stanford's cornerbacks since the spring, when two key players missed all 15 practices. It looked like the group was finally getting healthy at the start of this fall camp, and then suddenly, their three top veterans were all on the shelf. The silver lining in their collective absence has been the wealth of practice repetitions for a younger crop of inexperienced players. Though even the veterans need work in the new defense installed by this coaching staff.
Of those three injured vets, redshirt junior Wopamo Osaisai stands to gain the most from practices this preseason. Osaisai spent his youth playing soccer and only just before college did he delve seriously into football. While an impressive physical specimen, possessing that rarest combination of speed and power in a cornerback, his knowledge an experience at the position is still in its infancy.
This made the return of Osaisai to the practice field Saturday night, following a Monday knee injury, a source of particular excitement for the Cardinal defensive coaches. The redshirt junior not only returned, but he also quickly grabbed hold of his spot on the first-team defense.
"I'm really pleased to have Wopamo back," says defensive coordinator and assistant head coach Scott Shafer. "He didn't have a serious injury, but we wanted to be smart and make sure we didn't aggravate it."
The only thing aggravated Saturday night were Stanford's offensive players, as Osaisai made an immediate impact in his first practice back. He broke up some passing plays in drills, and he made his presence felt during the team's live scrimmage period at the end of practice.
The very first offensive play of the scrimmage was a run, which Osaisai stopped. A little later the offense sprung a big play down the right sideline. The ballcarrier looked certain for the endzone, but Osaisai ran the play down on an angle and blasted the player out of bounds. Just as impressive as the athleticism from Osaisai to catch the play was the ferocity of the hit.
"I think he's got fresh legs compared to some of the guys he's covering, who have been running routes the last four or five days. You have to factor that in as a coach," Shafer offers. "The thing I am encouraged by is that Wopamo didn't really start playing football until his junior year [of high school]. He took this summer and really improved upon his fundamentals in coverage. You can see that, and that's probably more impressive than him just going out there and being fast and aggressive: his technique."
That is important to hear because admittedly, Osaisai did not enjoy a strong spring. That surprised us, given the breakout redshirt sophomore campaign he enjoyed last season as a six-game starter. Where was the carry-over from the fall to the spring?
"This is a lot different scheme than what they played in the past," Shafer explains. "There are a lot of things that are the exact opposite of what they were being taught to do - technique, fundamental within the framework of coverage. He wasn't really too different from [wideout-turned safety Austin] Yancy, to be honest with you, because he's so new to the system and new to football. Being just a two-year high school player, he hasn't been playing since he was six years old, like a lot of these kids have."
Osaisai was playing soccer instead as a six-year-old.
"And you can see that in his feet," Shafer adds.
The challenge for Osaisai is his dearth of football experience. Because he was exposed to so little football before college, he lacks much of the foundation upon which he can build when changing schemes or coaches. That meant in some ways starting over for Osaisai when Shafer and his defense arrived this winter.
Which makes his healthy return to these preseason practices all the more valuable.
Other News & Notes
* In that live scrimmage session, the player with the long offensive play just shy of a touchdown on the right sideline = freshman fullback Owen Marecic. He caught a swing pass out of the backfield, and he showed some wheels mowing down the sideline for 30-plus yards. But at least half the credit for the play belongs to redshirt sophomore tight end James Dray. It was his block that sprung Marecic for the big gainer.
* The other big play of the scrimmage session was redshirt junior running back Anthony Kimble. He headed to the left on a sweep, and it was pure speed that took Kimble racing past defenders in the second and third levels of the defense up the sideline... Unfortunately redshirt junior nose tackle Gustav Rydstedt was earholed on a block and knocked unconscious. In possibly the most frightening scene we have seen at a Stanford practice, Rydstedt lay motionless on the field for a long time while team trainers and the equipment manager worked on him. An ambulance arrived on the scene and later took the Swedish native to Stanford Hospital. Rydstedt regained consciousness before he was taken from the field.
* Following the theme of Kimble's successful run, we highlight the work by sophomore running back Toby Gerhart in Saturday morning's goalline session. He gashed the stacked front of the defense like kids running through Disney World turnstiles. In an evening team period, we saw a another kind of run from Gerhart that impressed us differently. The 6'1" 228-pounder made a slashing run through the line, and then when he reached a linebacker in the second level, he quickly cut and was gone to the races. Gerhart's quickness and speed are both clearly upgraded this year.
* The offense's success in the goalline period Saturday morning was also the defense's failure. The practice overall was not a good one for that unit, and they received a long message after practice from defensive coordinator Scott Shafer. Whatever he said worked because the defense came back with a much-changed fire in the second practice, showing up in all periods throughout the evening. "Since Day One, we always talk about the three controllables on defense. That's attitude, effort and enthusiasm," Shafer explains. "When they came out to practice in the morning, they were a little flat. We start out with a goalline 'thud' period, where it wasn't live. It's hard to practice a goalline period that's not live. You know, we wanted to get in their head a little bit. They came back and responded in the short yardage period. But then I wasn't happy with the effort. I talked to them about it, told them the truth and explained why we were upset with them. We challenged them, and they came back with a great practice."
* 24 hours after we wrote that redshirt freshman offensive lineman Andrew Phillips was improving at snapping the ball, now that he has picked up the role as second-team center, he had several fumbled exchanges with the quarterback on Friday. While sixth-year senior and starting center Tim Mattran is expected to only be out a short time, he does have a track record of injuries. The depth for Stanford at center has to improve, and at the top of that list is Phillips' snapping.
* Elsewhere on the offensive line, redshirt sophomore Chris Marinelli appeared in the evening practice for his first one-on-one sessions of 2007. The rust was visible, especially during his first reps, in his speed, reactions and the forcefulness of his punch. But that can only be expected. What is more important is that Marinelli is returning to practice. The 6'7" Bostonian started five of the last six games for Stanford in 2006, but the right tackle position this spring was underperforming in Marinelli's absence. The Cardinal can now hope to shore up right tackle through better competition this fall camp, with Marinelli working back in the mix.
* Another player held out at the start of camp who we saw Saturday participating for the first time in some contact work was redshirt freshman running back Tyrone McGraw. Notable though is the fact that McGraw did not perform that work on offense. He was working on special teams as a gunner on the punt team, which obviously is a different type of one-on-one engagement and contact as compared to that of a ballcarrier on offense. This looks like a first step for bringing back McGraw, who had his knee scoped after the spring. The next telling sign will be his appearance in some fashion of offensive work.
* Another day, another sighting of that lethal bootleg by quarterback transfer Jason Forcier. We also have to point out that redshirt sophomore Tavita Pritchard is demonstrating his own dangerous running ability in this camp. Pritchard has made major changes in his strength and quickness since he arrived on The Farm, and that is showing up in more than arm strength. If you have not been out to the practice fields this fall, you might be surprised at Pritchard's athleticism on the run. We also saw big gainers on the ground from redshirt freshman Alex Loukas in the spring. Among the Cardinal's top quarterbacks, the only one not taking an active role in running the ball is fifth-year senior T.C. Ostrander. That is somewhat ironic, given Ostrander's high frequency and success scrambling back in his high school days. What has changed since? For one thing, Ostrander packed on a lot of weight two years ago to better help him sustain the pounding of his position. At 230 pounds, he was nicknamed "The Beast" by teammates and understandably was a much less mobile player. Ostrander decided this off-season to trim back down to a more normal quarterback playing weight with his 6'3" frame - now at 217 pounds. There is also an element of self-preservation, where Stanford's premier starting quarterback can ill afford to take too many risks running in the open field. But it will be interesting to see this fall if he reprieves his role as a scrambler, which can change the way a team has to defend Stanford's offense.
* During that morning practice where the defense had almost no success stopping the goalline offense, one exception was a corner fade passing attempt. Redshirt sophomore cornerback Chris Hobbs had the coverage and made an exceptional leaping play to tip the ball, which one would not expect for a 5'9" player against that pass.
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