Thursday, March 4 Practice Recap

In their constant effort to be instructive, football coaches will often fallback on pop culture references to try and make their points more relatable, even if their allusions are out of date. An old offensive coordinator of mine used to bring up the 1967 Detroit (pronounced Deh-twah) riots, and although we had not a clue what he was talking about, we heard the word "riot" and got the point.

Similarly, when Brian Polian is yelling at his gunners to not be "Captain Caveman" and bowl over blockers, the athletes probably aren't thinking about the 1970s cartoon, but still put two-and-two together and try to adjust accordingly.

Such is the first week of spring ball: coaches chirping up incessantly, and players trying endlessly to make the requisite changes. Let's get to it, shall we?

But first, a quick note: for whatever reason, coach Jim Harbaugh elected to spend a good chunk of time behind the Fort, which makes watching practice quite a bit harder. He took them back there for some Oklahoma drills and 11 v. 11s between the first team offense and defense—when the team was out in the open, it was first-team offense on second team defense. The result was that there were only a few moments where the railbirds got to see the first-team defense in action as a unit, and not just in drills. So the report is more balanced than defense-centric, as originally intended, but read on!

Tight Ends

Thursday's installation of this offseason's best drama saw Coby Fleener working mainly with the wide receivers, Ryan Hewitt practicing exclusively as an H-Back/Fullback, and Konrad Reuland assuming first team responsibilities. Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo split the second team reps.

On Toilolo, since he's getting a lot of love from the staff: you can see why they like him, but he's clearly not there yet. Soft hands, superb height and good strength, but he doesn't appear particularly fast, his coordination can be funky at times and his midsection is fairly small. Compare him to Chase Thomas, for instance: Thomas is 235 soaking wet, but his frame is filled out. Toilolo is (supposedly) 245, but a lot of that seems to be in his legs, because he's thin otherwise. He does generate a lot of power, and Polian was impressed with him during gunner drills. Plus, he has some nice moves: he put a sick move on Jarek Lancaster during 11 v. 11s.

The jury is clearly still out. He has the potential, but he still needs to grow.

Alex Debniak

Wow. Talk about someone who looks the part. If you went into a lab and created the protoype for what you wanted a quarterback to look like, you'd come out with something close to Debniak. He's a monstrous, imposing guy—neck roll and all—who looks like he could break you in half over his knee brace. Because of the Fort, we didn't see a lot of him in 11 v. 11s or 7 v. 7s, but he looked good in drills. He destroyed Ertz in a one-on-one blocking sequence, and he was the likely recipient of Polian's "Captain Caveman" rant in gunner practice—he steamrolled his men time after time, which isn't optimal in that situation but does show off some sheer power and requisite aggression. He still has a bit of a waddle in his step because of past injuries, but he passes the eye test.

Alex Loukas

In our ongoing coverage of this transition, Alex Loukas registered another interception on Thursday when he picked off Picazo and took it to the house. It was a short pass and Loukas was sitting on the route the entire time—he put himself in the perfect position to make a play. He received a lot of individual instruction from Mason, more than any other defensive back, by my estimation. His closing speed is nothing short of fantastic, but it's clear that he has a lot of ground to make up on the other safeties, purely in terms of the intricacies of the position. This is very much still in the experimental phase, but I'm on board with Harbaugh's logic: Loukas is too good of an athlete to be riding pine, and the wide receiver depth is very good and he's not going to be able to siphon many snaps away from Luck, so he has to find work somewhere else. Safety is thin, so that's where he is, at least for now.

Nunes vs. Picazo

I may be alone in this opinion, but whenever I've watched a Stanford practice, Robbie Picazo sticks out more than Josh Nunes. His initial velocity is better, as is his accuracy in short situations. Nunes throws a prettier deep ball but there were more than a few times when he was over or underthrowing the short receiver. Picazo has a weird motion—Harbaugh described it as "not always pretty"—that looks like a less intense version of the one Tim Tebow had at Florida, but it gets the job done. The QB depth chart is pretty clearly Luck, Nunes, Picazo, but based on their throws alone, I'm not sure I would see it that way.

Regardless, it is remarkable how much better the QBs look as a group than their recent predecessors. Luck, of course, goes without saying, but both Nunes and Picazo look more impressive passing than the likes of Tavita Pritchard, Jason Forcier and Alex Loukas, who battled for the starting job in 2008. The position is much more than just throwing, but based on that most basic rubric alone, these quarterbacks are quite impressive.

On the Picazo note, I'm not quite sure why he flew under the radar as a recruit as much as he did. He wasn't wildly low profile—he beat up on Mater Dei, outgunned Matt Barkley, and was named the Orange County Player of the Year. He looks the part at 6'3", 225 (although he seems to have gained about 50 pounds since arriving on The Farm) and has more zip than he's given credit for—again, on short to midrange passes it's at least as good as Nunes, and that's not a knock on the latter. Now, perhaps because of his love for Stanford as a kid, Picazo was coming the whole time, scholarship or not, but I have a tough time imagining that there were 110 better quarterbacks in the 2009 recruiting class.

Second String Defense

The front seven of the second-string defense was fairly set throughout the day; the secondary was another matter. From right to left, the line was: Brian Bulcke, Jacob Gowan and a player wearing 96, which appeared to be a number switch. I'm 99 percent sure it was Josh Mauro—Harbaugh noted that he flashes at times but needs to be in a little bit better shape. Bulcke was clearly the best of the three, which shouldn't be too much of a surprise. The linebackers were Ben Gardner, Jarek Lancaster, Max Bergen and Chike Amajoyi.

The secondary saw a lot of fluctuation, with the exception being Michael Thomas, who was a constant at left cornerback. Otherwise, Quinn Evans, Terrence Brown, Harold Bernard, Brent Seals, Taylor Skaufel and Alex Loukas all saw work. Both Brown and Seals showed some skills but are still quite raw.

Offensive Line Notes

David DeCastro was widely lauded for his ability to lead block last season, and he's getting right back into the act in spring ball. He got out in front of Taylor on a few plays and pasted defenders into the turf. That's a mack truck that, if I am a defensive back, I'd be none too pleased to see coming.

Andrew Phillips continues to pull well, too. Derek Hall got the vast majority of snaps with the first team at right tackle, and played fairly well—nothing too exciting, just a solid job. Konrad Reuland may not possess the blocking prowess of Jim Dray, but he did a nice job sealing off defenders on a number of runs.

Random Play by Play (11 vs. 11 unless other noted)

  • Luck hit Warren Reuland in triple coverage on a ten-yard out, then hit Jamal-Rashad Patterson on a deep-post pattern.
  • Michael Thomas had a very nice break-up on a deep pass from Luck to Doug Baldwin.
  • Chase Thomas had a diving interception after Konrad Reuland tipped the ball into the air.
  • Gaffney busted a nice run to the outside, demonstrating good sideline speed, although an anonymous defender (hard to pick out the jersey, I believe it was Josh Mauro) made a good play to track him down before he got more than about six yards.
  • Reuland would redeem himself later, as he jetted straight past Chase Thomas and found an opening in coverage for a reception.
  • During receiver drills, Doug Baldwin put a very nice shake and bake on Johnson Bademosi to spring free, and Griff Whalen made a juggling catch in the end zone over Quinn Evans.
  • As mentioned, a lot of practice happened in the Fort, so much of it was blocked. One throw sailed into our view and landed right in Owusu's hands. Although we couldn't see who threw it, the consensus was that there was only one quarterback who could throw that pretty of a ball fifty yards into a receiver's breadbasket.

Random Observations

  • The quarterbacks ran an option drill where the wide receiver would come in motion and then follow behind; a coach would put himself in between the QB and the WR and force the passer to make the decision to tuck or toss. This led to a few instructive moments, and Luck was as vocal as anyone. He ran his drill with Owusu, and was constantly giving his WR little pointers and encouragement ("wider!"). If you hadn't been looking at the field, you would have thought it was just another coach.
  • Speaking of coaches, Harbaugh did a few drills himself, acting as a wide receiver on a fake reverse—he still has some jets—and as a running back for a handoff, which he promptly fumbled.
  • The punting was, as always, up and down, but David Green did have a few coffin-corner kicks. (Side note: it is remarkable how much time Harbaugh spends on special teams. A good 20-30 minutes, when some coaches don't focus on it at all. Polian mentioned it as one of the reasons why he took the job.)
  • Derek Mason worked with the kick and punt returners. His line? "One cut, you get one cut!" Drew Terrell remains the No. 1 punt returner.
  • New assistant Aaron Moorehead is as vocal as any other coach. In the absence of a receivers' coach, he was the main coach working with the group. He seemed to relate on a player-to-player level while also doing his fair share of instruction.
  • Nate Whitaker had some nice hangtime on his kickoffs, but it was hard to get a sense of how far they went—the team was practicing vertically, which meant that depth perception was thrown off. The kicks seemed to go a fair distance, though.
  • Jemari Roberts is a very big man—his body type reminds me quite a bit of Loukas. I was surprised, though, that the trio of freshmen receivers—Roberts, Terrell and Patterson—didn't get a substantial number of reps. A lot went to Baldwin, Griff Whalen, and even Warren Reuland.
  • Skaufel and Austin Yancy got quite a bit of work with the first team. It appears that right now, Yancy and Delano Howell are the top two safeties.
  • Quinn Evans was the most impressive defensive back of the day, in this reporter's opinion, although he seems stuck on the second team. Due, once again, to much of the practice being in the Fort, we didn't get to see much of the first-team defense. When the receivers and DBs matched up in drills, Evans had the most success of anyone in his unit.

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