Our long national nightmare is over
For three months, we have been left without Stanford football. Don't get me wrong, National Signing Day was nice. But did anyone throw on a helmet and head to the field on February 4? I think not.
But we're back now, if only until early April, and the Red Zone Report will be with you along the way. It's spring practice, when the coaches will set their initial depth chart and get their first look at returning players after a winter of gym workouts.
A disclaimer before we get to our first report: while I tried to attend every minute of every practice, it was not to be. So, my observations are only from my time along the fence. Someone could have excelled (or not…) while I was away; I don't know. This is based only on what I saw.
In terms of organization, I'm going to focus on broader themes that I saw develop over the days. I'm going to try and avoid merely noting player X practiced at position Y, because let's be honest: Jim Harbaugh could work out Andrew Luck at middle linebacker, and no one is going to be entirely surprised. He moves players around at will, and I could spend 2,000 words recapping each move of each player. I'd rather avoid that. So, while I will mention some position switching, I'm mainly going to focus on more general topics.
But enough house keeping—let's get to the football!
Everything else is secondary
There's no better place to start than the battle everyone is keying in on: quarterback. It's open competition on the Farm, as Tavita Pritchard, Alex Loukas and Luck fight for a starting job. Technically, the depth chart is Pritchard-Loukas-Luck, and the practices have reflected that so far—Pritchard works out initially with the first-team offense, and when the QBs are practicing one-on-one with centers, it's generally Pritchard with Chase Beeler, Loukas with Bert McBride, and Luck with Matt Bentler—in other words, the No. 1 QB with the No. 1 center, the No. 2 QB with the No. 2 C, and the No. 3 QB with the No. 3 C.
But the depth chart designations are not set in stone, and can change at any moment. So, how have the quarterbacks looked?
Let's get the obvious out of the way: no, none of the passers seem to be pulling away from the pack. After a week of practice, we're probably not much closer to picking a starter. That said, both Pritchard and Luck have been quite impressive, both in position workouts and in 11-on-11s. Loukas has done well during the mock scrimmages, but he has struggled mightily at times when working with individual receivers. As has become par for the course, Pritchard throws a nice short pass, but struggles with the deeper balls, though I've seen discernable improvement with the latter. Still, when it comes to simple throwing ability, neither Loukas nor Pritchard can come close to Luck, whose velocity and accuracy is better than both of his teammates.
Harbaugh is cognizant of this—he calls Luck his best pure passer. But is he the best quarterback? There is a difference: a quarterback must demonstrate awareness and decision-making prowess that transcends his ability to make his throws—he has to see the entire field and adjust accordingly. A quarterback must know when to tuck and run, or take a sack, or throw the ball away; a quarterback must know every movement that every player is liable to make at any given time. The cerebral aspect of the game, and of the position, cannot be overstated.
It's difficult to get a handle on players' mental abilities via practices, since they generally aren't given the power to audible and will not be hit, no matter how long they stand in the pocket. That doesn't mean they have forever—coaches will whistle plays dead if they take too long to develop—but it certainly puts one in a different mindset when he knows that no matter what, he won't have 300 pounds on top of him at the end of the play.
Still, we can make some judgments. For example, Loukas surprisingly holds onto the ball longer than Luck or Pritchard, although Luck isn't far behind. Pritchard has shown a tendency to try and get the ball out sooner rather than later, usually with a short pass. Now whether or not Harbaugh and company are coaching him to do that is up for debate, but he did miss open receivers further down field because he opted for a quick hit rather than something big. Meanwhile, Luck has shown more of a tendency to try mid-range throws (around 15-20 yards) with nice success—he is developing a nice rapport with Griff Whalen, and has been finding him on crossing patterns, even in tight coverage. No one is really airing the ball out too deep down field.
Loukas, predictably, runs a lot of option plays, and seems to be getting his timing down (be it with Jeremy Stewart or Blaise Johnson) down fairly well, although some of his pitches have been off the mark. But, his throws simply have not been as good as Luck or Pritchard's, and if he doesn't start making accurate passes soon, he's going to be left behind, even if his athleticism brings an element to the position that both Luck and Pritchard lack. Which brings us to our next point…
Alex Loukas: QB or ATH?
Loukas may be distracted during QB drills because he's the only passer working out at different positions. He has spent a considerable amount of time at wide receiver, worked out at kick returner with the running backs, and even participated in some special teams gunner drills. He has actually been quite impressive at receiver: from my angle, he was running good routes and beating receivers deep. On one particular play, with Pritchard at QB, he ran a seam route and got behind Delano Howell. Pritchard didn't see him and settled for a short pass, but if he had keyed in on Loukas, he had an easy "score." Other times, he has taken WR reverses for gains, much like he does when running the option.
It's not hard to watch that and envision what Harbaugh could do with Loukas in the context of the offense. As it stands, only four receivers are listed on the depth chart (Chris Owusu, Doug Baldwin, Ryan Whalen and Warren Reuland), although Griff Whalen has been getting his share of reps at WR. The Cardinal will add Jamal Patterson, Jemari Roberts and Drew Terrell in the summer, but there is room right now at receiver, and Loukas has the size and athleticism that coaches dream about. And, given his struggles passing the ball, perhaps this is the way to keep him on the field. Line him up as a flanker, in the slot, or as an H-Back. At the least, it's worth a look. Harbaugh constantly emphasizes that he wants the best eleven guys on the field at all times. Creativity may be the way to get Loukas his reps, as he has shown that he can be a difference maker (see: Homecoming, 2008).
Troy Polamalu or Brian Russell?
Speaking of Howell, he has been working out with the first-team defense at strong safety. He is the biggest conversion project of the offseason (although he still takes reps at RB from time to time), as Harbaugh puts his theory, that Howell can be the next Polamalu, to the test.
It's still too early to test whether this plan will boom or bust. Howell is simply a naturally good football player. His instincts, largely unteachable, are off the charts. He is always seems to situate himself nicely on the field, and has a knack for predicting where the ball will be headed. But, that doesn't mean his transition has been seamless. He's quite obviously still learning the position, and has been caught flat-footed a few times during scrimmages. Throughout practice, Ron Lynn appears most vocal in his teaching of Howell, constantly yelling out instructions at the freshman. Bo McNally, too, has been helpful in getting Howell set correctly and generally directing the defense.
These growing pains are to be expected, but Howell has a nice base to work with, so it will be nice (and necessary) to chart his progression as we get closer to September.
Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?
Quarterback may be the most important position battle, but it's not the most wide-open. That designation belongs to kicker, where Travis Golia, David Green, Nate Whitaker and Adrian Rosenkranz are fighting for the honor of succeeding Aaron Zagory. The kickers spend a good portion of their time on the far side of the field, kicking from a variety of distances. At this point, no one stands out, either for good or bad reasons, which can be charted up as a win in my book for right now. Golia seems to have the best leg of the four at this point, but not by a large margin, and none seem to be struggling with accuracy. Zach Nolan has been snapping well, and Daniel Zychlinski, who will back up McNally at holder, hasn't had dropped any balls I've seen.
Still, the search for a kicker remains ongoing. With D.J. Durkin holding open tryouts for a kickoff specialist this weekend—with the possibility of that student, if they make the team, possibly expanding their role to place kicker, too—it doesn't look like it's going to be resolved any time soon.
Three for the money
Three front seven defensive players stood out during practices: Sione Fua, Erik Lorig and Chike Amajoyi. Both Lorig and Fua were getting very good penetration during the 11-on-11s, with Lorig especially using some nice moves to come around from both inside and outside. Fua had a few plays on Wednesday where he blew up the interior line to pressure the quarterback. This is especially important for him since, despite starting seven games at tackle last year, he is currently behind Ekom Udofia on the depth chart.
At linebacker, Amajoyi, who moved over to WLB, has shown some impressive side-to-sideline lateral movement. We know he's fast for a LB—he's a former RB—but he was getting to ball carriers and receivers before others were in the vicinity.
The excitement is building…
No two players impressed me more than Corey Gatewood and Michael Thomas, who are both slated at starting cornerback right now. Gatewood looks like a prototypical cover corner: he has been staying right with his men from the snap until the end of the play, and has shown terrific timing in his jumps and moves to knock the ball away. On more than a few occasions, he has tipped away passes that seem destined for a receiver's hands, sometimes poking them out at the point of impact.
Thomas has also shown nice cover skills, but not as good as Gatewood. Instead, his speed allows him to cover ground quicker than pretty much anyone on defense, and he has been a force early in run support. As a corner, he can make tremendously flashy plays, but he also gets burned more than Gatewood: on the one hand, Owusu blew by him on a few balls, but on the other, he blanketed Warren Reuland. Still, it's hard to watch these two practice and not envision that tandem at cornerback for the next couple of years.
Don't discount Kris Evans, though, who has been working out with the injured players on the sideline. His development impressed me quite a bit last year, and once he's 100 percent, I expect him back in the starting mix. Then again, cornerback depth is a nice problem to have.
The players seem to have most fun during special teams gunner drills, when the gunner is pitted directly against the blocker. They both run about 30-40 yards, and the gunner tries to evade the blocker and get past a small, coned-off line. Gatewood, Owusu and Thomas both impressed as gunners, but Will Powers and Max Bergen were exceptional as blockers. Ryan Whalen excelled at both.
When D.J. Durkin wants to be heard, he's audible from Sunken Diamond. The man can bellow.
Willie Taggart was one of the more hands-on coaches I watched. During RB drills, he would talk almost continuously, particularly focusing on Blaise Johnson and, to a lesser extent, Andrew Fowler.
Since Jeremy Stewart is the top tailback in spring ball, it's worth noting he did perfectly well. He was solid, showing some nice burst on pitches from Loukas, and did a nice job as one of the primary kick returners.
Owusu, Ryan Whalen, Sean Wiser, Quinn Evans and Thomas were among players who practiced returning punts.
I realize that I don't have a whole lot on the offensive line. I'll focus more on them in the coming practices, but for the most part, it seemed to go as planned, with Matt Kopa, Andrew Phillips, Beeler, David DeCastro and Chris Marinelli getting most of the first-team reps.
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