Saturday Open Practice: What to Watch

OL Josh Garnett

As will be true of four spring Saturdays, March 9 will ring in a Stanford football practice. Here are a few drills, trends and position battles to keep an eye on.

Pay Close Attention to Blocking Drills
The traffic jam at Stanford's wide receiver competition may seem like a difficult puzzle to solve. Unlike the procedure at most other positions, where the Cardinal is generally sticking to organized first and second team line-ups, coaches are using practice to substitute liberally at receiver. Even Jeff Trojan, a player who has yet to record his first career catch in three seasons, saw productive reps with the first team last week while Stanford mixed and matched bodies on the outside.

Of course, favorites for the receiver spots are emerging, and the prediction here is that the position will be treated similarly to the running back position, where the cupboard is also deep with potential contributors. David Shaw and Mike Sanford emphasize the unique strengths of each of their receivers, and the players should fall into roles according to those comparative advantages.

Devon Cajuste, the biggest of the bunch (listed at 6-4, 232 pounds -- though he looks to be in the 220s), looks to be the go-to physical mismatch guy. The much smaller Michael Rector is using his speed to earn a reputation as a vertical threat. Ty Montgomery and Kodi Whitfield have drawn praise as the most versatile threats in the group, which likely means that they're Stanford's two primary options at this point.

Don't forget the importance that the Cardinal assign to blocking at the wide receiver position, though. The Farm Boys' physical, run-first identity puts a high, and often underappreciated, priority on physicality. In 2012, Jamal-Rashad Patterson awakened his career by impressing the coaching staff through his effective-run blocking, while Cajuste earned several snaps of early Rose Bowl playing time because of his excellent ground support.

For those reasons, keep a close eye on the receivers (and while you're at it, tight end Davis Dudchock, too) during blocking drills at Saturday's open practice. When it comes to determining the depth chart, how receivers perform physically during hand-to-hand combat may be just as important as flashy catches in open space. Last week, Rector -- who at 6-1, 190 pounds is not a large player by any stretch of the imagination -- drew a hearty roar from his teammates for his ferociousness in blocking drills, leading The Bootleg to believe that his stock is rising within Stanford's system.

Speed is a great. But a fast player who helps preserve the Cardinal's physical nature? There's a spot for him on the field in Shaw's system.

The Center-Guard Shuffle
After I saw true freshman Joshua Garnett piledrive 340-pound Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix, a junior, eight yards into the backfield this past winter, I was certain that Stanford's young giant would start by his sophomore season. Garnett is so strong and so gifted -- and the team's leading Beef Bowl contributor can't possibly come off the bench, right?

The Bootleg suspects that Mike Bloomgren may feel the same way, and Stanford's goal should be to further strengthen Garnett enough to get the right guard nod when the time comes. Returning starter Kevin Danser -- a fine player who improved immensely throughout 2012 -- is currently taking first team reps at the right guard position. But Danser has also been taking third team snaps at center, and it only makes sense for him to fully jump into that competition with Khalil Wilkes and Conor McFadden. With other center candidates Graham Shuler and Kevin Reihner out for the first session of spring, Shaw has said he wouldn't fight Danser's potential entry into the center scrum. With the gargantuan Garnett next in line at right guard, why not?

Along those lines, keep a close eye on the amount of time Danser (a smart guy who can handle the cerebral challenges of the position) gets at the center position Saturday. That can provide a hint regarding Stanford's offensive line plans moving forward, which seem to be constantly developing. If anything, the Cardinal's athleticism up front is providing versatility that is giving Bloomgren a plethora of options that must be making opposing coaches jealous. David Yankey was an All-American away from his natural position in 2012, for crying out loud.

Nickel or Cornerback?
Derek Mason has made it no secret that Stanford has pushed Usua Amanam and Ronnie Harris, both of its 2012 nickel backs, outside for several reps at practice.

"They're giving our cornerbacks a run for their money," he said.

While Amanam's success at nickel -- a hybrid position that requires a defensive back's quickness and a linebacker's physicality -- last season makes it hard to believe that he would move from that spot, Harris is a true darkhorse candidate to grab the starting cornerback role opposite Alex Carter. The staff has been happy with Wayne Lyons' performance so far this spring, but keep your eyes on Harris Saturday: Stanford's receivers rave about his coverage abilities.

Just for amusement's sake, focus on defensive lineman Josh Mauro for at least a couple of snaps at practice. He rotated from end to tackle a couple of times last Saturday, and Mason called him "a bull in a china shop."

That's a spectacle, and Mauro's high motor and versatile strength makes his grind at the line of scrimmage fun to watch -- especially working against such talented offensive linemen.

David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at

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