Day One - And So It Begins
For my last day of a summer jaunt to the West Coast I could think of no better way to spend my day than to catch the first official Stanford Football practice of fall camp. The practice, held at Palo Alto High School for a variety of reasons (actually seven reasons, including the chance to practice on field turf and to accommodate interested fans in the Paly bleachers), allowed the Cardinal players and coaches to get reacquainted after a summer in which they were forced to maintain the requisite NCAA-mandated distance in preparing for the season. Over nearly three hours of practice conducted in surprising early-morning heat, the players finally donned jerseys and helmets and showed off the results of offseason conditioning to coaches who clearly relished the opportunity to size up their charges and coach the incoming freshmen in a formal setting.
Upon arriving at the practice, my first observation was that the team appears relatively healthy heading into fall practices. Aside from a small number of previously-reported injuries, the vast majority of players sported helmets and mixed it up with their respective position groups. The very short list of players who were held out was dominated by those previously reported as nursing ailments heading into camp: senior offensive tackle Allen Smith, who diligently practiced blocking motions on the sidelines and at one point could be heard yelling to his coaches that he misses being out there; true freshman tight end Levine Toilolo and true freshman running back Usua Amanam, who were inseparable throughout practice and were subjected to strenuous stretches, abdominal crunches, and the like; veteran quarterback/athlete Alex Loukas, who this correspondent did not spot; and a veteran player whose identity will remain anonymous for now per The Bootleg Injury Policy. Otherwise, the team appeared close to full strength aside from the usual contingent of players whose participation was monitored in light of past medical history.
In the category of players treated gingerly, most notable were two positions where caution was entirely unsurprising and appropriate. At quarterback, Andrew Luck, Tavita Pritchard, Josh Nunes, and Robbie Picazo were all deemed to be exempt from contact. At running back, returning team MVP and second team All Pac-10 stud Toby Gerhart wore a yellow jersey indicating that he too should be eased back into physical contact. Gerhart, of course, missed spring practices as he played baseball for Stanford. Nonetheless, the quarterbacks and Gerhart were all incorporated into position and team drills.
As for action on the field, Cardinalmaniacs™ will naturally fixate on the contours of the depth chart and whether the practice action provides any clues to which players will figure most prominently in the season opener at Washington State. On the BootBoard Plus premium message board, "TexCard in CA" has posted excellent summaries of the practices that are especially strong in describing the current playing rotations at various positions. I highly commend those posts to Booties. While emphasizing that a full slate of preseason practices lies ahead and much can change between now and September 5, some of the more interesting personnel developments included:
- Two-time all-conference fullback Owen Marecic wore a defensive jersey and received ample repetitions as the second team "Mike" middle linebacker. He appears to be at the top of the list for situationally playing both ways for the Cardinal this fall.
- Andrew Luck currently seems clearly positioned as the first-team quarterback and worked with the offense whenever the "1s" were called out on to the field.
- Ryan Whalen and Chris Owusu appeared to get the first cracks as first-team receivers.
- The first-string offensive line, from left to right, lined up Jonathan Martin-Andrew Phillips-Chase Beeler-David DeCastro-Matt Kopa.
- Converted wide receiver Richard Sherman joined Corey Gatewood as the cornerbacks for the first-team defense. Sherman also received a handful of snaps at his old receiver position and he figures to join Marecic as a likely two-way player.
- The first-team linebackers were Clinton Snyder, Chike Amajoyi, and Will Powers. Sophomore Max Bergen also appeared to receive repetitions with the first team, both in the nickel package and in base packages replacing one of the aforementioned trio. Those four appear currently to be the top four linebackers.
- Notre Dame transfer Nate Whitaker took the last attempts in the main kicking drills and may have an early leg up in the kicking battle. The specialists practiced separately from the rest of the team for the majority of the practice so my observations on them are based on fewer data points and are inherently less reliable.
Aside from the depth chart, two storylines seem to be
at the forefront of Stanford fans' minds as we begin fall practice: the
quarterback position that features anointed redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew
Luck and returning veteran starter Tavita Pritchard, and the beginning of the
Cardinal careers of the large, touted group of true freshmen scholarship
recruits and walk-ons.
All eyes on Monday were on #12 Andrew Luck, a phenomenon likely to continue throughout the fall. To this correspondent's eyes, he struggled early in practice developing timing with his primary receiving targets, missing Chris Owusu and Ryan Whalen a few times each in early drills. Very quickly, however, a much sharper Luck emerged as he dissected the defense for most of the practice. Highlights included a majestic deep ball to Ryan Whalen that drew comments from the sideline railing even as it was still in the air, a deep flag route to Doug Baldwin that burned returning starting safety Bo McNally, and a deep connection to Marcus Rance.
Playing with the second team offense behind a less experienced
offensive line, Tavita Pritchard connected regularly with receivers but lacked
the memorable highlights that characterized the latter portion of Luck's
morning, although Pritchard did flush out of the pocket and scramble effectively
during the two-minute drill late in practice. Also in the two-minute drill, Pritchard
was nearly intercepted by Harold Bernard on a sideline route but threaded the
needle to sophomore Warren Reuland, who made the catch and picked up a few yards
to get the offense near the red zone.
A short period later, however, the drill ended with offensive failure and
defensive success as safety Austin Yancy glided across the middle and
intercepted a Pritchard pass heading for the end zone. Judging by the voluble reaction of the
defensive players, Yancy's pick was the emotional high of the practice on either
side of the ball.
Luck and Pritchard received the vast majority of the snaps in team drills. True freshmen Josh Nunes and Robbie Picazo were eased into their first full college practice and were soaking up the instruction of head coach and quarterbacks coach Jim Harbaugh. Early in the practice, Nunes muffed the snap in an offensive drill. Later, he lofted a deep ball to a streaking Chris Owusu but despite the throw's precision the starting receiver dropped the ball. Nunes did connect with tight end Konrad Reuland late in practice during team drills. During Picazo's crack at the two-minute drill, the decorated walk-on apparently overthrew or miscommunicated with a receiver and threw a pass over the middle to an unknown target, prompting a fruitless diving attempt at an interception by linebacker and fellow freshman Jarek Lancaster.
The story of the first practice for the true freshmen was their relative inactivity in action other than position drills. Most of the team drills focused on players currently in the two-deep and the freshmen were largely relegated to the sidelines. Thus, observations on the true freshmen are scarce.
Most notable on the offensive side of the ball was probably a catch by tight end Jordan Najvar in team drills. On defense, Jarek Lancaster appeared to be working significant minutes with the second team defense, perhaps with the nickel defense. (The grouping with Lancaster at one point included such players as Chase Thomas, Quinn Evans, Matthew Masifilo, Tom McAndrew, Austin Yancy, Harold Bernard, Clinton Snyder, and Kris Evans.)
More generally, the freshmen looked physically good and looked like they belonged. While it would be prudent to wait for further data and repetitions before beginning to assess the freshmen, some eyeball observations are obvious. Jamal-Rashad Patterson just looks athletic. Shayne Skov and Geoff Meinken are especially big linebackers and move well. Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney look like they belong among Stanford's running backs. For the most part, though, the freshmen were really not integrated into the practice much in the most interesting team drills and real observations will have to come another day.
- Relatively unsung receivers Griff Whalen and Warren Reuland made frequent catches in all portions of the practice. Despite being the less familiar Whalen among the receivers on Stanford's roster, Griff Whalen in particular seemed to be a favorite target of any quarterbacks he played with on Monday. It is not a stretch to name him the surprise MVP of the first practice of the fall.
- After the two-minute drill, the practice ended with sprints for most of the roster while the true freshmen broke off with position coaches and worked on drills, giving them an opportunity to receive more individual attention. The running backs and linebackers worked together on agility drills. The receivers worked across the field on separate, receiver-specific agility drills. True freshmen quarterbacks Nunes and Picazo worked with Jim Harbaugh on their drops. And so on.
- After the practice, Harbaugh loudly yelled at the freshmen to get off the field, at which point they promptly rushed into vans to head to an unknown campus location. Pritchard and Konrad Reuland stayed on the field to practice some routes together. The offensive linemen stayed together as a group to receive some pointers. Harbaugh, Bo McNally, Clinton Snyder, and Richard Sherman stayed on the field for media interviews.
- Konrad Reuland was the last player to leave the field as he worked catching balls fired out of a machine.
- After an idyllic practice, I ended the morning perfectly – with a "business" meeting with Bootleg catalyst Jim "Emeritus" Rutter and two local Cardinal beat writers at my sandwich-offering "office"…. tucked away in the back corner of Town & Country Village next to the Sushi House. More from me later on the BootBoard Plus if folks want to banter about all things Cardinal as fall ball starts up!
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