Two years ago we were jolted by the ability of one-star signee cornerback T.J. Rushing in his freshman year, seeing appreciable playing time at a historically challenging position for Stanford. Last year we were surprised in preseason camp by the performances of two-star signees Brandon Harrison and Nick Frank, which catapulted both into the playing rotation ahead of all expectations. Last fall we also were rattled that three-star tight end Evan Moore was actually an immediately capable wide receiver, trashing the very publicly conceived redshirt plan for him.
These examples and others continually remind us that college football players may perform well above or below their prep recruiting rankings. That is why we make it our business here at The Bootleg to closely scrutinize players when they arrive on campus and partake in their first preseason camp of college football. With this year's August camp in the rearview mirror, here now are my picks for the top three upside surprises thus far in this freshman class.
#3 - running back Ray Jones - Jones was a productive tailback in a powerhouse program in Ohio, and he rated respectfully out of high school. Three stars from TheInsiders; #62 running back ranking; and the #68 overall ranking among all players in Big 10 country. He held offers from Michigan State, Iowa, Pittsburgh, Maryland and Boston College. But somewhere in the back of our minds we had the idea that actually play on The Farm on the other side of the ball at safety. After all, it was only after Stanford had Jones in camp the June before his senior year, when they had a chance to work him out on defense as well as offense, that they made a scholarship offer to him. With two very experienced veterans ahead of him at tailback in Kenneth Tolon and J.R. Lemon, plus an overflowing running back class just ahead of him that contains David Marrero, Jason Evans and Emeka Nnoli, it was a foregone conclusion that Jones would redshirt this year. More on that later. But the reality we witnessed in camp was a clear departure from our conceived notions. The six-foot tailback came into camp in excellent condition and tested off the charts as one of the strongest players in his class - and one of the strongest freshmen in the last several years. He proved to be very coachable and picked up on Jay Boulware's teachings rapidly, turning preachings into plays. Jones also has shown a shiftiness when he carries the ball that makes him hard to tackle. Make no mistake - Jones made a statement in his first weeks of Stanford practice and showed us all that he is most definitely a running back... and a darned good one.
#2 - cornerback Carlos McFall - Eerily parallel to Jones, McFall is another athlete who we had pegged for the safety position. The film we saw of him showed his athleticism as an option quarterback, but it remained a question whether he had the speed and the ability to backpedal well enough to play at corner. His recruitment was very quiet, with recruiting services sleeping on him all the way until his Cardinal commitment. Even The Bootleg did not seriously track him until the final months of the recruiting period! Even if you give him the benefit of the doubt that he'll become a fine defensive back down the road, you had to recognize that he didn't play more than just a rare few plays on defense after his sophomore year of high school. The adjustment to covering college receivers like Mark Bradford and Evan Moore should take time. Wrong. Not only did McFall stick at cornerback all the way through camp, despite some thin numbers and great need at the safety positions, but he also moved ahead of some returning players on the depth chart. He has a different skill set and background, but like Rushing two years earlier, McFall is showing that he is advanced beyond his years at a very difficult position. "Carlos is a very quick learner," praises defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator A.J. Christoff. "He has a great sense of the game because he is a former quarterback. He gives a great effort all the time. One thing we didn't know was how well he would backpedal, but he can do that and he has great hips."
#1 - defensive end Gustav Rydstedt - You all know the story of the how Stanford found this stealthy Swede, but expectations were difficult to set for his first year on campus. On the one hand, he is physically mature at 20 years old - 13 months older than sophomore DL-mate Nick Frank, by comparison. But a background of European club football competition left me assuming that Rydstedt would need a good deal of adjustment at Stanford - to the speed, strength and complexity of line play at the college level. Some of those adjustments will still need to come, but the Stockholm native showed in camp that he is a better athlete and has a better knack for the DL than we could have possibly imagined. He may be short on technique, but he managed to get into the backfield a good deal during camp. I talked to DL coach Dave Tipton early in the camp about my surprise watching Rydstedt, and the 16-year Cardinal coach grinned wide. "I was surprised too," Tipton admitted. "But he's 20 years old and he has international experience. He's just so athletic. He has good hips, good feet and does athletic things out there that surprise you. Gustav has a real knack for getting to the ball. He could play any of the [defensive line] spots for us, but he needs to get stronger in his upper body." Rydstedt also brings a unique and gripping personality that has endeared him to his defensive line mates. Halfway through camp he was teaching them Swedish war chants, which have caught on. If this DL can be a productive one, don't be surprised if some Nordic/Viking themed persona emerges.
The next question Cardinalmaniacs™ are asking is who will play this year from this freshman class. First, let's take a step back and look at scholarship numbers. In Buddy Teevens' three recruiting classes he has signed, he has inked an uneven number of players to Letters of Intent: 16 in 2002, 25 in 2003 and 15 in 2004. He had little choice, given the imbalanced classes he was handed by the prior regime, but he would like to flatten out that rollercoaster landscape. 14 players from his first class redshirted and would project to play their fifth year in 2006. But the seven players in his second class who played as true freshmen would bump up and also finish their eligibility in '06 (assuming none have to take a medical redshirt before then). That leaves behind 18 players who signed in '03 and would graduate in 2007 - plus any of this year's frosh who burn their redshirt and bump up into that class. We know that Ray Jones should play tonight against San Jose State and join that group, making its numbers at least 19. Jeff Zuttah may or may not be granted a sixth year, but assuming he plays this year and the next four, he would bring that class up to 20. The graduating class of 2008 looks a little thin at 13, and that perhaps is one of the greatest reasons not to burn further redshirts from this freshman class. If you want to even out the numbers to make a more consistent and reasonable 18-20 players that you try to sign every year, Teevens is moving in the right direction. As a side note, you would look for some players in the current high school senior recruiting class (2005) to come in and play as true freshmen, which would bolster that 2008 class size...
Scholarship balancing aside, the criteria for playing freshmen continues to be based on a matrix of ability and need. Up and down this freshman class, I see a lot of ability. I have yet to spot a lemon among the scholarship players, though several will take more time to evaluate. John Solder clearly needs to add a good deal of mass and muscle to his frame before we can assess him as a competitive college athlete, and both Wopamo Osaisai and Pat Maynor have been difficult to evaluate while they've been sidelined with injuries. But the rest of the class has been exciting and productive. It is hard to overstate the excitement surrounding the five offensive linemen, in particular. Across the board, they are going to be legit Pac-10 players, with some likely to be multi-year standout starters. But when you come in to a roster with 12 scholarship players ahead of you, at a position where coaches do not freely rotate during a game, it is hard to make a case for burning redshirts.
That being said, two of the frosh OL are on the list of possible playing time this year. Buddy Teevens notified more than half the class that they are going to redshirt. Those who remain candidates to play, with varying degrees of probability, are: Alex Fletcher, Allen Smith, Austin Gunder, Patrick Bowe, Carlos McFall and Gustav Rydstedt. Ray Jones is all but a done deal to play tonight, and Jeff Zuttah would be a risk to redshirt when you cannot be sure that the NCAA would grant him a sixth year. Here are the scenarios and explanations for why the "up in the air" candidates may or may not redshirt:
Alex Fletcher: The most heralded recruit in this class and the most hyped OL to come to The Farm since Kwame Harris. Physically, there is little question that Fletcher is more ready to play now than Harris was in 2000. But Fletcher is playing at a center position that is stacked right now. Brian Head is the clear leader, in both motivation and performance dimensions, for this offensive line and he had a fantastic camp. Behind him is Mikal Brewer, who is an exceptional athlete who has matured greatly in his 12 months at Stanford. Fletcher is actually pushing Brewer pretty hard at the #2 spot, but you would not burn the freshman's redshirt at this position even if he moves ahead of Brewer (and thus allows Brewer to move to OG and bolster that depth). Fletcher's playing status is primarily tied to the health of Head. The redshirt junior of course suffered a knee injury that sidelined him last year for the last seven games of the season. Head also had his ailing moments in 2004 camp. If you consider it unlikely that he can make it healthy through 11 games, then you have to consider Fletcher a very viable candidate to play this year. But you keep his redshirt at least as long as Head is healthy, and evaluate as the season progresses.
Allen Smith: He is a surprise name on this list only because of the two weeks he missed during camp with a knee injury. But before he was hurt, the jumbo Arizona athlete looked good. The need where he may fit comes at offensive tackle. The two starters in Jon Cochran and Jeff Edwards are clear, and Tim Mattran has solidly held down the third OT reserve position. But Amir Malayery did not perform at a level that gave the coaching staff confidence that they had another backup tackle, forcing them to move Malayery inside to guard and Zuttah out to tackle. Had Smith been healthy, he likely would have held down that fourth OT spot and allowed Zuttah to play at his more natural guard position. Smith returned to practices on Wednesday and now we have to watch to see how quickly he gets back up to speed. Should injuries befall the offensive tackles, it is very conceivable that you could need to play both of your top reserves. If Smith proves better than Zuttah, he could be needed. But the time he lost in camp to injury makes his likelihood of playing lower than Fletcher's.
Austin Gunder and Patrick Bowe: The likelihood of these two freshmen tight ends playing dropped considerably the last few days as Kris Bonifas and Jerod Arlich both tore off their yellow jerseys and returned to the frightfully thin fullback position. The dearth of healthy fullbacks was pulling bodies over from the tight end core, which put both Gunder and Bowe in the unlikely realm of need this fall. But when healthy, the elder ranks of the TE and FB positions should give six players to the offensive coaching staff. That better suffice. But if bodies drop like they were at times during camp, you could see the need for one of these two. Both had great camps and look smooth in receiving situations.
Gustav Rydstedt: Being the #1 surprise in this freshman class is not reason enough to play the super Swede this fall. There is a deep and talented six-man rotation across the three DL positions, and Rydstedt is not close to passing any of them in ability and game-readiness. But what happens when one of the two-deep get injured? Last year, Stanford fielded eight players (two deep) across the four DL positions and still opted to play Nick Frank to give depth one man deeper. When Scott Scharff completely tore his ACL and either missed time or played hobbled late in the season, Frank saw significant playing time and was a regular in the rotation. Rydstedt is in a parallel position this year, though the key injury may have come sooner than fans could have expected. Starting defensive end Will Svitek has suffered an infection in one knee and had to undergo surgery on Wednesday to clean out the infection. He will not play tonight and he is very doubtful for the next game against BYU. A bye week after that might be enough to get Svitek back into health and practices for the USC game, but we can't know for sure. You can play tonight with a five-man rotation, with the three DEs each playing more repetitions at those two spots. Or you can promote Matt McClernan into the rotation at nose tackle and let Nick Frank spend some time out at the end position. I think the staff will play with those personnel rather than burn Rydstedt's redshirt, though one more injury on the DL could change the equation. Redshirt freshman Chris Horn is the other viable body to help fill in for Svitek, but I have my doubts about his readiness for prime time. As an indicator of the coaching staff's feelings, it was Rydstedt who moved up from the scout team to the second team DL on Wednesday when Svitek was absent. If Stanford can play well enough tonight to build a sizable lead at any point against San Jose State, you would like to see McClernan and Horn get into the game to test them in a non-practice environment.
Carlos McFall: He is the player next closest to playing in this class, on par with Alex Fletcher's situation. McFall has played his way to a solid spot on the second team at cornerback, moving ahead of Calvin Armstrong and Tim Sims. Should any of the top three corners sustain an injury that would keep them out for an extended period of time, you have to have your next CB ready to fill out the nickel formation. McFall is battling Nick Sanchez currently for that spot, and if he beats out the redshirt freshman, then he would likely play. Like Fletcher, McFall is just one injury away from needing to play a heavy number of snaps, while most of the others mentioned above in this class would be probably two injuries away from playing.
Anthony Kimble: Teevens did not mention Kimble as one of the players who is still in serious consideration for playing time, but I think the sole scholarship WR in this class deserves mention here. The only other first-year wideout I have seen at Stanford in the last two coaching staffs with this level of playmaking ability is Mark Bradford. He does not have Troy Walters or David Marrero speed in a straight line, but Kimble has excellent football speed. He is behind Bradford at the same stage in exploding out of cuts, but he is on par in his ability to attack the ball in contested situations. His hands, when he is focused, are excellent as well. The problem for Kimble in playing this fall is the depth chart ahead of him. Marrero and Marcus McCutcheon have both been moved to the receiving corps, and both Justin McCullum and Gerren Crochet have ascended to new heights of practice consistency. With a solid seven players in front of him, all of whom appear to be healthy going into tonight, it's unthinkable of playing Kimble. If disastrous injuries should strike the WR group, though, keep him in mind. He has the chance to be very, very good... and this will just be his third year playing the sport. Also remember that Kimble played as much or more running back in high school. He has a lot of upside to still reach.
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