Stanford ended its fall training camp this past week on a high note, with the Cardinal players and coaches quite pleased with their second and final live scrimmage, held in Stanford Stadium on Thursday.
"It was really good. Really good. Over 120 plays, with a lot of tackling," says head coach Jim Harbaugh. "We got a lot of great game situations covered and a lot of live scrimmaging. I thought it was very sound. I was most pleased with that."
"They were very sound assignment-wise," he adds. "Maybe one or two alignment penalties - one on offense I can think of and one on defense. They were locked in. It was good. I was very pleased... There was some crispness and sharpness that I liked."
In complete agreement is fifth-year senior quarterback T.C. Ostrander, who helped lead the offense to its best performance of the preseason at its conclusion. His work in Thursday's scrimmage sent shockwaves throughout the Cardinal community, completing 20-of-23 passing for 197 yards. Ostrander's only three incompletions were a pair of throwaways and one ball that reached a receiver who slipped and fell.
"I thought that it was great, as far as the speed at which we executed," Ostrander offers. "It was just the crispness - I think that's a good word to describe the offense. It was probably the best I've seen since the new staff has been here. That's good news for us, going into Week One."
"I thought it was a good camp," the quarterback continues. "One of the major goals we have had was to keep our energy level up the whole time, and not let us come out and have a down day. I think we achieved that for the most part. We were always growing and getting better. I think the end result is that we're ready to play."
Offensive coordinator David Shaw and Harbaugh, who will call the plays for the Cardinal on Saturdays, both felt that Ostrander's scrimmage was his best performance they have seen.
"He played at a very high level. I was really pleased with him," says Harbaugh. "I wasn't surprised. If there is one guy who is locked on around here, it's T.C."
"I was pleased with the tempo. I love the way T.C. is playing right now," Shaw beams. "He's entrenched in the offense. We have a lot of verbiage, but he's spitting out the plays extremely well in the huddle. He has a command in the huddle, and he has a command of the offense. That's exactly what we wanted for him for the season, to truly, truly dive into the offense, find the completions and move the team."
The question of course is what clicked with Ostrander at the end of camp that produced such superlative play?
"The big thing was getting to the check downs," Shaw offers. "Also not holding the ball - not waiting for the big play. If it's there, we take it. If it's not, we take the check downs. We scramble if we need to. If we need to throw the ball away, we throw the ball away. But there is a rhythm with which we want to play, and [Thursday] he showed us that rhythm."
"I felt the most natural in there on Thursday," Ostrander agrees. "I kind of got to a point where I felt so comfortable in the offense, that you stop thinking out there. I was never hesitant. Your feet take you through your reads. It just felt really comfortable because I knew what everybody else was doing. I knew what to expect from the defense. There wasn't a whole lot going on during the plays. It was more execution."
This is the goal that any football player aspires to reach. Ostrander was making plays because it was natural for him, and not because he thought hard and made a particularly good decision. Just like linebackers or running backs, the ability to "play fast" for a quarterback is what can make him a monster.
"T.C. looked great. He looked awesome," gushes fifth-year senior wideout Evan Moore. "He had it going. Everything was clicking. We were running the ball well, which was opening up the passing game. Guys were catching balls. He was putting it right on them, but guys were still catching balls well. He did a great job. It was the best we've looked all camp, which is timing up really well going into game week. I feel like T.C.'s confidence in this offense is as high right now as it's been, and that's a good thing."
While the quarterback play and passing offense shined brightly in the scrimmage, the show may have been stolen by the running backs. The Cardinal's one-two punch of redshirt junior Anthony Kimble and sophomore Toby Gerhart both dazzled.
"Both of those guys are starters. I am really pleased with both our running backs right now," praises Harbaugh. "Kimble and Gerhart, or Gerhart and Kimble - however you want to say it."
While Harbaugh deflects the notion that either player is #1 or #2 for the Cardinal, he says that does not mean they will split their snaps on Saturday in any kind of random fashion.
"There will be a plan there," the head coach smiles.
"Our running backs, Toby Gerhart and Anthony Kimble, have been steadfast this entire camp. They are two of the brightest spots of our offense," says Shaw. "It was great [Thursday]. A.K. broke a long one. We blew the whistle a little early, so we couldn't see if he would have scored or not - I think he would have scored. Toby ran with a power and decisiveness that got him all those high school records."
These reviews may come as a surprise to those outside The Farm, who contend the Cardinal's running game to be the weakest in the Pac-10. College Football News ranks Stanford's running backs dead last, and individually slot Kimble as the 13th best runner in the conference. But we have all August seen marked improvements from both tailbacks over their 2006 form.
"Those guys are getting better," says running backs coach Willie Taggart. "It's really good to get Toby out here to see what he can do. He's really shown us why he led California in rushing in high school. I'm looking for him to have a great season - him and A.K. both."
"I'm giving guys both equal reps. I'm trying to keep them both fresh and not wear them out," the coach continues. "We're going to use both of them, regardless of who starts or not. They're both valuable to us, and we're going to need both the entire season."
"Our backs have been very, very receptive to our scheme," says Shaw. "Anthony Kimble came out and had an outstanding spring. I think that surprised us a little, that he was that mature. That he was that intelligent football-wise. And that he possessed the speed and explosiveness that we saw first-hand. Then with Toby, we saw last year a freshman going out and trying to survive in the Pac-10. Toby had an outstanding summer and showed up here at camp ready to roll. He's been strong. He's been decisive, and that's the big thing we teach our backs - we're not going to be dancing in the hole, picking and choosing. We're going to plant our foot in the ground, get our shoulder squared and get positive yards. The two of those guys have been a great one-two punch in camp."
"The biggest thing for me and Toby is understanding the scheme," Kimble explains. "Especially how we're going to attack the defense and attack UCLA."
"Our plan is to just wear teams down," the running back shares. "Coach [Chris] Dalman talks to us all the time about how in the first quarter, you might be getting two or four yards. But we're just going to try to wear teams down. Then in the second half, the big ones are going to pop."
"Toby is looking really good," Kimble adds. "You can definitely see a lot of difference in his game from a year ago. He's definitely looking a lot quicker and a lot faster. We're improving and trying to improve every day."
"I think it's going well," Gerhart allows. "I wanted to be more elusive this year and try not to be so power-oriented. I think I'm doing alright with that. When I get the opportunity, I try to make an open-field move. I've made a few corners miss and a few safeties miss in practices. But when it comes down to it, if I need to go over someone, I'll go over someone."
And like any good running back, Gerhart knows that the success he and Kimble are able to enjoy comes from the front five who plow the way. Their improvements have received a good deal of credit for the recent surge in Stanford's running this camp.
"I think a lot of it has to do with the attitude up front," Gerhart says. "The O-line is playing more together and playing a little more aggressive, nastier. That's what Coach Dalman is trying to instill in them... I can't complain one bit about the holes. I think they're blocking good. I think it's much improved from last year."
"I think they're having fun," he adds. "They don't get the glory. They're in the trenches, and no one notices them. 'Oh, there's the running back making a touchdown,' or 'The quarterback makes a nice play.' Nobody pays attention to the O-line. I think at this point, the quarterback and the running backs, we try to encourage them and keep their morale high. It's high energy right now, and that turns into opening holes."
And then there is the X-factor still to be unleashed in the Stanford offense. Beyond what fans might imagine at the top end of expectations for Ostrander and the passing game, or the best possible scenario of Kimble/Gerhart slashing and bashing through the defense behind the offensive line - there is the added weapon of running back Tyrone McGraw. The closest thing on the Cardinal roster to a "video game," the 5'9" tailback has a burst of explosiveness that has not been seen in a Stanford runner arguably in decades. The damage he can do taking the ball outside or cutting back into the open field could turn 3rd & 8 into an 83-yard touchdown tear.
But McGraw has had health issues and has not consistently kept himself on the practice field this year, which leaves a a question mark where the Cardinal offense could have an exclamation point.
"We want to see him out there, and I constantly talk to him about how he can help this football team," says Taggart. "But the only way he can help us is by being out there. He's going to have some pain because this is a physical sport. You're going to have to play with some pain, so you put the rest aside and come out here and do it."
"He has some plays where you just say, 'Wow! If this kid can just come along. If he can just be here everyday, we have something special,'" the coach exclaims. "Hopefully he gains that confidence in himself and gets away from thinking about his knee and his hamstring. I think that's more of the problem: being worried about injured again instead of just playing like you normally do. Hopefully he does that, and we'll be alright."
The good news is that the pieces of Stanford's offense are getting healthy, McGraw included, and the performances in Thursday's scrimmage suggest that they are all coming together. With the season opener just days away, it's a fun time to be peaking.
"We're never satisfied at anything," Shaw reminds. "Everything has to be sharper. Our receivers blocked well in the scrimmage and can get better. They didn't drop a single pass - no dropped passes - but there were not enough yards after the catch. Yes, we made the plays we should have made, but we have to get more. We can't be satisfied with catching the ball and then getting tackled. This offense, throughout its history, has relied on yards after the catch."
Okay, the Cardinal coaches may argue it a little premature to say that the offense has reached its zenith. But they are undoubtedly playing their best ball yet this fall, which is better than the alternative.
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