April 5 Practice Report

This will be a more play-by-play oriented write-up, which is not ideal for spring ball but born out of necessity. I spent over two hours at practice, and for about two-thirds of that time the team practiced behind the Fort...

I found a spot and was able to make do, but it was nearly impossible to see all aspects of the scrimmages—with a limited vantage point, I focused on keeping track of the ball, since it was practically a fool's errand to try and discern what was happening in the trenches. C'est la vie.

This does not, however, mean that practice was lacking in interesting storylines. Let's get to it!

Quick Notes

  • Usua Amanam is at full strength.
  • Tyler Gaffney did not practice. His prowess on the baseball diamond is becoming more apparent with each passing day, and the Cardinal had a game against Cal.
  • The only player in a yellow jersey was Richard Sherman. He has a broken hand that's in a cast, but he still went through all of the drills and was as vocal as ever. In fact, he appeared to pick off Luck during 7 vs. 7s, but the ball may have hit the ground.
  • While the team was in the Fort, the lone player outside of it was Corey Gatewood, who continues to rehab a broken ankle. He was mainly doing running drills, sprinting for about 20 yards at a time.
  • There were a few recruits in attendance. The only one I could identify was Tony Springmann, who appeared to be there with his parents. He was talking with Mike Eubanks and taking a walk around the practice field.

Players of the Day

Offense: Jeremy Stewart
Stewart did not have a tremendous number of reps or even big plays, but he showed off some skills that I have not seen from him in his three years on the Farm. First: his speed off the snap. On some routine one-back sets, he was already at full speed by the time he took the handoff and hit the hole. His initial burst was better than anyone else at the position, and it wasn't particularly close. He also had an impressive run in the Fort where he sweeped right and outran, then out-muscled the defense for six points. We've talked so much about Stepfan Taylor and Gaffney, but Stewart demonstrated some staggering quickness, particularly for a guy who is not thought of as a speedster.
Just missed: Zach Ertz, Doug Baldwin

Defense: Shayne Skov
Skov had a couple of missed tackles to start practice, but he recovered in impressive fashion. In 7 vs. 7s, he made a diving interception on a Josh Nunes pass. In 11 vs. 11s, he had a number of impressive tackles, none better than a two-play sequence. Amanam was the unfortunate victim. First came a screen pass from Nunes; immediately after Amanam caught the ball, Skov was body slamming him. Second came a similar play, a screen pass left that started off better than the first—Amanam juked Chase Thomas, started moving laterally—very quickly, I might add—and seemed destined to take it up the right sideline for a score until Skov wrapped him up from behind.
Just missed: Chike Amajoyi, Mike Thomas

Special Teams: Nate Whitaker
Whitaker was perfect on his field goal attempts. Enough said. Special teams were fairly straightforward. Zach Nolan had no problems snapping and Daniel Zychlinski had no problems holding. Eric Whitaker missed two field goals wide right, even though he had good leg behind his kicks.

Focus: Nunes vs. Picazo

Backup quarterback is easily my favorite battle of the spring, even though all eyes seem focused on tight end. Robbie Picazo and Josh Nunes continue to take an equal amount of snaps with all facets of the offensive depth chart. How are they doing?

Both started off slow, but only one recovered. That would be Picazo, who bounced back from some early overthrows in receiver drills to hit his men in the numbers. He looked smooth on a few designed rollouts, and in my mind, I keep harking back to something Jim Harbaugh said at the conclusion of the first week of the first session of spring ball: it doesn't always look pretty when he releases the ball, but somehow, he finds his man.

Nunes, by contrast, had a day he'll quickly want to forget. There were times when it looked like he couldn't hit a wall, much less his receivers. He was picked off—badly—a couple of times and had a number of over and underthrows. One stood out: he missed a wide-open Coby Fleener on a crossing pattern, as he gunned the ball into the ground about five yards in front of his receiver. As is generally the norm, this was coupled with a few beautiful passes—one in particular, to a streaking Drew Terrell in the back of the end zone, was rifled between a couple of defenders.

Nunes may have the better physical attributes, but in the practices I've seen, Picazo makes the better throws and seems to have a better grasp on exactly what he's supposed to be doing on the field. That isn't to say that Picazo is perfect—he had his share of poor throws, too—but his errors appear less egregious.

Another thing Harbaugh said earlier: "They have not arrived." True words, and while the quarterback depth is as good as it's been in my time on the Farm, neither Nunes or Picazo can hold a candle to Andrew Luck. Whereas it looks like Nunes and Picazo are trying so hard on every throw to make it just right, Luck looks almost effortless in tossing his faster, harder and more accurate passes. He actually did not have a brilliant day—none of the quarterbacks did—but even on an off day, when he was intercepted a couple of times and missed more receivers than usual, his skills are so apparent that they may as well be smacking you in the face.

7 vs. 7

This was conducted outside of the Fort, about 10 feet away from the rail. Good, if not fleeting times. A few choice plays and observations:

  • Shayne Skov had blanket coverage on Chris Owusu on a short cross, but tried to make a play on the ball, missed, and then didn't wrap once Owusu made the catch.
  • Ryan Whalen had a leaping catch on a 20-yard strike right over the head of a defender. When a ball is up for grabs and Whalen is going up for it, bet heavily on him coming down with the rock—his strength and determination dwarf most foes.
  • Doug Baldwin who, by my count, did not have a drop all day, juked Chase Thomas straight out of his shoes.
  • During a goal line play, Ryan Hewitt, playing at his H-Back position, had a beautiful block on Mike Thomas to seal off the left side and spring Stepfan Taylor for a touchdown.
  • A few plays later, Thomas had nice coverage on Fleener in the corner of the end zone and forced Luck to throw the ball away.
  • Zach Ertz had a nice afternoon. In fact, he seems to be the most active receiver amongst the tight ends, who had a limited role in practice—the sets were heavy on wide receivers. In red zone work, he beat Delano Howell for a touchdown on a fade pattern. He would later have a leaping, goal line catch that he momentarily juggled before bringing in.
  • Amanam did not have great success as a running back throughout practice—I didn't see a run which was not stuffed almost immediately—but he is going to bring a dynamic element to the receiving game. His cuts during his routes are as fast as any receiver I've seen Stanford field. On one play, he ran an in that required him to cut a sharp 90 degrees and sprint toward the middle of the field, and he never seemed to slow down, even on the turn. I can see him being used like Howell was in his freshman year—an X-Back who roams all over.
  • Terrell showed nice toughness: he caught a pass from Picazo over the middle and was immediately smacked into the turf by Alex Loukas, but he maintained possession.
  • Speaking of Loukas, he was a frequent target of instruction. Brian Polian kept emphasizing that he maintain his awareness in space. On a few red zone plays, he was way too far behind the line of scrimmage, which drew the ire of his coach.
  • Luck showed some nice anticipation and trust in his receiver: Ertz ran a quick out, and Luck had thrown the ball before Ertz was even out of his break.
  • As mentioned, Skov picked off Nunes, but he was not the only one: Chike Amajoyi, who had a nice practice with the second unit, picked off Nunes toward the end of 7 vs. 7s.

11 vs. 11

A reminder: this was behind the Fort and my view was not the best. I got a great Achilles and calf workout in from all of the tip-toeing I had to do. Ultimately, I saw quite a bit, but it was tough to focus on much besides the ball carrier or the passer. Plays and observations:

  • Jamal-Rashad Patterson showed some good strength in moving the pile after a reception.
  • On back-to-back plays, Baldwin held onto a pass after being smacked, while Ertz could not maintain possession after being hit hard.
  • Sherman showed some good recovery speed after being burned by Chris Owusu—he was able to catch up and force the speedster out of bounds.
  • Griff Whalen continues to do a lot of work with short crosses and wheel routes, just like during the regular season and previous practice sessions. He's our Julian Edelman.
  • Jordan Najvar showed good hands to reel in a pass on a quick curl, and Loukas demonstrated nice closing speed to force him out of bounds for minimal gain. For all of his rawness at the safety position, Loukas can make up ground as well as any other defensive back.
  • Johnson Bademosi had an up-and-down day that involved his fair share of gambling, but he did have a swell break up of a pass from Picazo to Patterson on a buttonhook, and later on a short pass from Picazo to Jemari Roberts. He also forced a fumble later that Howell would recover.
  • Chase Thomas seemed to perform best in coverage when he was assigned to Hewitt. He rarely let the Cardinal H-Back get any separation, and on more than a few plays, when Hewitt appeared to be Picazo's top target, Thomas forced the passer to opt for a secondary option or throw the ball away.
  • Owen Marecic had a nice open field tackle on Stewart, but the tables would later be turned, as Stewart would shoot past a turned-around Marecic, who could only flail at him as he passed by. Marecic would later get juked out by Taylor.
  • The interior offensive line was impressive throughout 11 vs. 11s. Chase Beeler played with a particular aggression and, as per the norm, David DeCastro was lead blocking for the running backs. There was one play where he got so far out ahead that he had no one to take on. Andrew Phillips continues to pull well. No problems there.
  • Both Luck and Picazo seemed to do well with designed rollouts. Picazo hit Najvar on one, and Luck found Ryan Whalen on the sideline on another.
  • Levine Toilolo, where art thou? He was a non-factor in practice. I didn't see him come down with one ball in 11 vs. 11s. He continues to be a mystery to me. The coaches are infatuated with him, and I've never seen why. He has yet to jump out at me at any practice.
  • Harold Bernard took most of the first team reps at safety and, like most of the defensive backs, had a good but not great day. He was beaten a few times but also had some good coverages; one in particular forced Luck to give up on his passing options and tuck the ball.
  • Luck hit Ertz on the sideline despite blanket coverage from Alex Debniak, who practiced most of the time with the second team but played well in the passing game.
  • Terrence Brown came down with an interception, but was promptly stripped; Luck threw a jump ball for Owusu, but Brown made the play, only to have Owusu come from behind and force a fumble.
  • Tom Keiser played a lot of outside linebacker. There were a few plays where, if hitting were allowed, he would have pummeled the quarterback.
  • Nunes was away ahead of a diving Baldwin on one play, but on the next, he hit Hewitt right on the numbers and between Taylor Skaufel and Max Bergen.
  • A quick note: there was a little bit of a pistol offense implemented in practice, but not a whole lot of it.

That was the extent of what I saw. There was no media availability after practice, so unfortunately, no reactions from players. The practice had few big surprises and, overall, had the feel that you would expect from a mid-session workout—more progress and a constant working on the kinks. But the main questions the collective fan base had at the beginning of spring ball—How does the tight end depth chart shake out? Will the defensive players switching positions transition well?—continue to persist.

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