Spring Kickoff II: Depth Charts & Performance

(Starting C?) Wilkes to (No. 2 QB?) Nottingham

Let's drop the prose and get right to it. A quick disclaimer: given that this is the first day of team practice in nearly two months, nearly everything written has to be taken with a grain of salt. A certain player is practicing with the first team? Wonderful. But it may not mean a whole lot.

Another guy drops a few passes? Not something you want to see, but there is such a thing as "rust." The point being: take this at face value, but until we have a few more practices under our belt, let's not make any grand declarations.

Another point: the field was very, very damp, a problem that was particularly brutal for the linemen, who had a harder time creating leverage. There were quite a few pancake blocks today, but that could be attributed to conditions as much as anything.

The players were also in shells and shorts, not pads, so tackling was a no go—not that that stopped a few guys on select occasions.

Depth Charts and Performance

Again, read too much into these slotting at your own peril, but this is what was presented on Monday:

Quarterback

In a shocking turn of events, it appears that Andrew Luck will retain his starting job. But the ranking of the passers behind him is a bit harder to figure. Josh Nunes almost always rotated in after Luck, indicating a second-team spot. Brett Nottingham initially came in after Nunes, but he began to split his reps with Darren Daniel as practice moved on and, in fact, it appeared that Daniel was in on more plays toward the end of the day. (David Olson got some throws in with the running backs during position drills, but did not take a snap during scrimmages; Robbie Picazo, as noted in our first story, was not at practice.)

So, what to make of it? It appears to be pretty much a free-for-all for backup quarterback honors. It makes sense for Nunes, the "veteran" of the group, to get a first shot at that role. But it's by no means his to lose.

What is evident is that, regardless of how this shapes up in terms of literal depth, Daniel, barring injury to Luck (knock furiously on wood), is the guy who will see the most playing time in 2011. To the surprise of no one, a lot of the plays called for him were quarterback keepers. He was impressive, and got to display some fairly blazing speed down the sideline. A superior athlete, Daniel is a natural replacement for Alex Loukas as the Cardinal's wildcat quarterback.

But the staff thinks that he can develop into a true quarterback, too. His passing didn't exactly back up that sentiment—his throws were wobbly and lacked any sort of zip. He was the least authoritative quarterback at the line and, on handoffs, had a couple of instances where he turned to the wrong side. That's not to say that he can't develop into a good passer or game manager, but both Nunes and Nottingham appeared to be much further along in that department.

As for Nunes and Nottingham: during drills with the wide receivers and tight ends, I was quite impressed by the pop on Nunes' throws, and the speed with which he released. I remember thinking during last year's spring practices that his velocity was not much different from Picazo's, but his throws certainly looked amped up on Monday. That said, during scrimmages, he suffered the same accuracy problems that have almost become the norm for him—lots of passes over or underthrown. Nottingham had fewer chances to throw, but it is evident why people presume that he's Luck's heir apparent. Great accuracy in the short game, good zip, natural pocket presence, and so on. He had a fantastic strike to John Flacco on a buttonhook—right on the money as soon as his receiver turned. Would have liked to see him go long, but he didn't get an opportunity, at least not in scrimmages.

Olson, as noted, was not much of a factor. He appears to have a bit of a hitch in his delivery, but his throws were perfectly decent during RB drills. Still, if he has to see game time this year, we're probably in a world of trouble.

Running Backs

Not a whole lot of nuance here. Stepfan Taylor is the starter. Jeremy Stewart and Anthony Wilkerson split second-team carries—Wilkerson probably took about 60 percent of them. Andrew Stutz got in with the third team, and Ricky Seale had a few spot handoffs. Michael Spanos did drills but was not involved in scrimmages.

Taylor continues to be a dramatically hard runner. The force with which he hits the hole sets him apart from every other back on the team, and it's not even close. Defenders weren't exactly trying to tackle him, but he still disregarded their pseudo-arm tackles with violence.

That said, Wilkerson's acceleration was unmatched by any other back. Once he got into the open field—see ya. He's also the player who, I'd say, had the biggest change in physique from the end of the season until now. His chest and overall upper body looks a lot bigger than it did during his freshman campaign.

They tried a lot of screens with Stutz. He dropped one pass, but otherwise did a nice job corralling the ball and dancing through holes.

I'd imagine that Taylor and Wilkerson will combine for a good 75 percent of the carries in 2011. Collectively, they've made the need for a "true" rotation unnecessary.

Fullback

Impossible to tell either way. Shaw said that he'll need a few guys to replace Owen Marecic, and nobody did much to prove him wrong. Geoff Meinken, Lee Ward and Ryan Hewitt all saw considerable time, but there was no "first-team" fullback. Hewitt certainly seemed to play a truer FB role, as opposed to the H-Back position he played in 2010. Luck, in particular, praised him for his blocking on a couple of plays. (Speaking of Marecic, he has cut off his legendary long hair and donated it to Locks of Love. As if being the "perfect football player" wasn't enough…)

Wide Receiver

Ah. The intrigue. Wide receiver is perhaps the Cardinal's most difficult position to figure for 2011. If he's healthy—a huge, huge "if"—Chris Owusu will be the No. 1. But there's no guarantee with him. So, who else? At this practice, the first-team WRs were Griff Whalen and, yup, Jamal-Rashad Patterson. Whalen makes a lot of sense: he may not be the flashiest receiver, but he is consistent and versatile—both qualities that you look for in your No. 2. Meanwhile, JRP would be a logical fit for a starting job if Owusu can't play. He has tremendous talent; his issue is that it has yet to be realized. Still, there isn't another player on the roster who appears to have his natural ability, so giving him a chance to prove himself follows logically. But if it becomes evident that he cannot master the position, then there's little doubt that Shaw would look elsewhere.

The second-team receivers were Warren Reuland, Drew Terrell and Jemari Roberts, all of whom were highly touted out of high school but have had either nearly zero in-game reps at wide receiver (Roberts) or have spent much of their career elsewhere, as a return man (Terrell) or injured (Reuland). Reuland, actually, had perhaps the most compelling day of any WR. Wearing a knee brace, he was still able to make the necessary cuts—he was as sharp as anyone else in that regard. He tiptoed the sideline and made a nice aerial catch on a slightly overthrown ball by Luck.

Behind those five was essentially straight pick ‘em. Every single wide receiver on the roster got reps in one way or another—Brandon Gottfried was at the bottom of the totem pole, but it wasn't like anyone else was much higher than he was. Jeff Trojan had a nice, leaping catch, and Flacco demonstrated some good blocking on a run by Taylor—he allowed his runner to get to the corner by manhandling Barry Browning and pushing him inside.

Tight End

Not a whole lot to report. Zach Ertz and Coby Fleener split first team reps and had quite a few plays where they were in together. That makes sense: they're the only returning, healthy TEs with any experience. One interesting wrinkle was that Ertz, unlike last year, was almost exclusively used off of the line, instead of in the slot or split wide. Davis Dudchock got a good number of reps. He didn't flash as a receiver, but he did lay down some nice blocks. He's listed at 237 pounds, but he looks bigger than that. With Konrad Reuland gone, there is an opening for a more blocking-inclined tight end to step into the limelight.

Offensive Line

This was surprisingly straightforward. Your first team, from left to right: LT "Moose" Jonathan Martin, LG Kevin Danser, C Khalil Wilkes, RG David DeCastro, RT Tyler Mabry. Your second team, from left to right: LT David Yankey, LG Dillon Bonnell, C Sam Schwartzstein, RG Cole Underwood, RT Cameron Fleming. Talk about young—that's four current freshmen on the second squad. Remember: Matt Bentler wasn't practicing, but he figures to be in there—somewhere—at guard.

Shaw emphasized that the center battle is a two-man fight between Wilkes and Schwartzstein. Which may be true right now, but I simply cannot see a way that Schwartzstein beats out Wilkes for the job. There is not an element of the game where Wilkes is not (clearly) superior.

Mabry is a safe pick for right tackle. He has experience from his time in the jumbo package and could theoretically be this year's Derek Hall—a one-year starter who fits in nicely with the line. The difference is that Hall was the lone replacement in 2010, while Mabry will be playing with two other newcomers. He didn't have the greatest day on Monday—Alex Turner destroyed him on one play to get to Luck and force him to throw an off-balanced dump-off—but it wasn't awful, either. If someone like Yankey can step up, you'd imagine the staff would be overjoyed, but if he can't, then Mabry is a suitable solution.

DeCastro and Moose are animals. That is all. Much like Luck's passing is so superior to the other quarterbacks, DeCastro and Moose are on another level than their fellow offensive linemen. It's not a surprise—both could be first round picks come April, 2012—but it's worth nothing. DeCastro threw around defenders like rag dolls, both in drills and scrimmages. Martin had one sequence during drills where he was matched up with Blake Lueders on three consecutive plays. Moose easily threw him to the ground twice, then kept him clear outside on the third try. That said, Martin did wind up on his back once, as he could not contain a Chase Thomas bullrush, and in scrimmages, Lueders eventually got the better of him, beating him around the edge.

Defensive Line

Quick note, generally, about defense: they spent much of their time on the opposite side of the field from where I was standing, so I did not get nearly as good of a look at them as I did at the offense. Apologies in advance.

The three-man defensive line, at least the first team, was a logical construction from what we saw last season. Matt Masifilo retains his starting role, and joining him at defensive end is Ben Gardner, who saw an extensive amount of playing time as 2010 progressed. Replacing Sione Fua is the only other defensive tackle on the team with any game experience: Terrence Stephens. Masifilo was his usual, disruptive self: he blew up Mabry on one play to get to and "tackle" Wilkerson before he even made it out of the backfield. Stephens seemed to struggle a bit with his gap assignments; Randy Hart was in his ear about his positioning throughout practice.

The second team appeared to be Josh Mauro, Henry Anderson and Eddie Plantaric. Plantaric was matched up against Yankey in drills, and on the first two plays, blew right by him; on the third try, Yankey corralled him. Mauro was matched up once with Danser, and beat him handily.

Linebackers

Like the defensive line, the first team linebacking corps made a good amount of sense. Trent Murphy and Chase Thomas were lined up outside; Murphy was one of the stars of spring ball last year, and saw limited time in 2010, but that was to be expected, as Thomas and Tom Keiser had strangleholds on their positions. Shayne Skov and Max Bergen held down the middle; Bergen was the Cardinal's leading tackler through the first few games of 2010, when he started because of Skov's injuries. He has the most experience of any returning former reserve.

The second team featured Alex Debniak and Blake Lueders on the outside and Jarek Lancaster and A.J. Tarpley on the inside. But while those were the main guys in the second team role, Alex Turner saw a lot of time at OLB, and Brent Etiz and Joe Hemschoot got their snaps in, too. Even Stanley Fich, the tryout baseball player, got in on the action.

The compelling storyline here is whether or not Lueders is able to make the first team. Shaw did not disguise his desire to have Lueders find a starting role. The question (beyond: will he earn it?) is whether or not he plays inside or outside. Skov and Thomas are set, but Bergen and, to a larger extent, Murphy, don't have similar grips on their jobs. Lueders has spent almost all of his time on the outside, but he is not exclusively an OLB.

Defensive Backs

For the most part, nothing too fancy. Barry Browning and Johnson Bademosi were the first-team cornerbacks. Of the returning CBs, they saw the most action in 2010. Mike Thomas is back at strong safety while, in Howell's absence, Ed Reynolds lined up at free safety. Reynolds is the lone surprise of the group, at least superficially, if only because Devon Carrington, who lined up with the second team, was more touted out of high school and had at least as many game reps as Reynolds in 2010. Of course, neither should ultimately start, but the positioning is worth noting. Derek Mason spoke with Reynolds at length about the proper ways to pick up tight ends, and split most of his tutelage between him and Browning.

The second team was Carrington and Myles Muagututia at safety and Amanam and Quinn Evans at cornerback, but there was a lot of rotation. Kyle Olugbode and Brent Seals saw plenty of time. Terrence Brown was lauded for one particular play, where he was able to mirror Hewitt as the two ran laterally, before eventually shedding his block and forcing Luck out of bounds for a loss. Usua Amanam didn't get enough reps for there to be any sort of determination on his play, but he didn't look particularly out of place.

While the defensive backs didn't lock down the offense the entire day, they did force the quarterbacks to tuck and run a good number of times because of superior pass coverage.

Special Teams

Stanford football has eschewed a whole-squad, defined special teams portion of practice for the past few years now, and this practice saw a continuation of that trend. Thus, it was hard to get a good read on the specialists. Andrew Fowler is your long snapper; that's about all we know. The kickers didn't get a chance to attempt any field goals; they spent much of practice just kicking toward the fence. The punters got a few chances to show their goods, and no one—David Green, Ben Rhyne or Daniel Zychlinski—was much better than the other. (Brief aside: one of my favorite parts of pregame at Stanford Stadium last year was watching Rhyne, a freshman walk-on, punt. His kicks were consistently at least as good as his older, scholarship-ed teammates, but his progression took much longer.)

There were brief punt return drills; Whalen, Michael Thomas, Amanam and Terrell all got reps at returner.

First Team

QB: Andrew Luck
RB: Stepfan Taylor
FB: Pick ‘em
TE: Zach Ertz, Coby Fleener
WR: Griff Whalen, Jamal-Rashad Patterson
OL: Moose Martin, Kevin Danser, Khalil Wilkes, David DeCastro, Tyler Mabry
DE: Matt Masifilo, Ben Gardner
NT: Terrence Stephens
OLB: Trent Murphy, Chase Thomas
ILB: Shayne Skov, Max Bergen
CB: Barry Browning, Johnson Bademosi
S: Ed Reynolds, Mike Thomas

Keep in mind, again, that Delano Howell and Chris Owusu missed practice; they'd likely replace Reynolds and Patterson, respectively.


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