In a year of many disappointments, one of the great shortcomings with the Stanford 2004 offense came in the ground game. The Cardinal averaged just 81.2 yards per game, and while that number is nontrivially deflated by some big sack yardage, it was obvious that Stanford struggled to run the ball too often in its losses. The Card struck bottom at UCLA when they faced easily the Pac-10's weakest defense and a particularly meek run defense, yet the Bruins played a minimum of their defenders in the box and brazenly dared Stanford to run the ball. The Cardinal could muster just 2.5 yards per carry and were shut out on the scoreboard.
Part of the promise that Walt Harris brings to The Farm comes with a balanced offensive attack that earnestly aims to run the ball effectively. A full-time fullback is back in the offense and appears on the depth chart for the first time since 2002. Two-back sets are more the norm rather than the exception, from what we have seen this spring.
The fullback is in some ways a new position to Stanford, given its lack of use, lack of production and lack of healthy bodies the last couple years. It might be fitting, indeed, that the lead fullback at the end of this third week of spring practices is a player brand new to the position. Sophomore Nick Frank made the switch this winter from the defensive line, which raised some eyebrows in both excitement and suspicion. The defensive line at Stanford has been so thin as to necessitate a move a year ago to a 3-4 defense, and yet the Cardinal coaches decided to pull the team's #4 returning DL away and plug him into the fullback position. That was and still could be a bold, if not risky, move. But one of the motivating factors was the troubled injury history that both redshirt junior Kris Bonifas and redshirt freshman Emeka Nnoli have experienced. True to form, Bonifas has been out most of the spring, which would have left the fullback position frightfully bare if not for Frank.
While Bonifas has missed opportunities to develop and learn the new offense, the flip side of the coin has given Frank tremendous advantages. The sophomore could scarcely ask for more than the last two weeks running first string at his new position.
"Getting that first team experience is definitely helping me out a lot," Frank comments. "Sometimes it's good to be able to sit back and watch how other guys run plays, and how plays develop. That's good also. But this first-hand experience has really allowed me to really get a lot on film, and for Coach [Moses] be able to coach me up and adjust from there."
"I'm excited about it," he says about the fullback position. "It's a new challenge, and I'm really looking forward to help the team there. It's a lot at once for me, but I'm slowly but surely getting the hang of it - getting more comfortable every day. I'm learning new things every day - many things. It's challenging, but I'm excited about it."
As you could expect, Frank has entered the fullback fray like a young man in a strange land. He has a wealth of skills he must develop from scratch, while also learning the most demanding offense seen at Stanford in many years.
"He's just never been a fullback before," running backs coach Wayne Moses plainly states. "He has to carry the ball now, take hand-offs, run routes, pass block - it's a lot different than being over on defense, where you take a gap and go get the guy with the ball. There's assignment football now, which is totally foreign to him."
Though a former defensive player, Frank ironically says that his responsibilities reading the defense are his greatest challenge currently as an offensive player.
"Reading coverages is the hardest thing right now," he admits. "Knowing a little bit about the defense, not just my responsibility on the offense, but also knowing where the defense is going to be how that changes my plan of attack."
"I have the blocking responsibility and pass responsibilities," Frank adds. "It changes for different plays. You have to read your blocking assignment first, and then as you go out in a route, read your coverage and adjust from there."
And the number one item where Moses is pushing his newly converted fullback?
"Staying low has been a big push for me," Frank answers. "I've been getting my pads up a little high on blocks and coming out of the transition after catching the ball. He's really making a push for me to stay low so I can deliver a blow, blocking or running."
Though he is a direct competitor for the starting job and playing time, Bonifas is credited by Frank as a leading help on the field and in the meeting room for the nuances, terminology and techniques of a fullback.
"In meetings, I usually turn to him and ask some questions about different techniques - the best way to block guys and the little details," Frank credits of his position mate. "He's been a really big help for me, even when he has been on the sideline with his injury."
While there has been a large learning curve to climb for Frank, there are some areas where he has delivered, and in some instances pleasantly surprised. While he may not have all the footwork down, or a complete understanding of the passing routes, the 255-pound athlete has at times looked remarkably smooth in the receiving game. Best of all is his ravenous thirst for physical play. As someone who spent the last two years plus his high school days smashing linemen and ballcarriers in the mouth, there is no surprise that Frank enjoys the crack of the pads when he gets to deliver a blow to a defender.
"I really love that. That collision is awesome for me. I really enjoy that," he says excitedly. "Sometimes I might get the worst of the collision I create, but I still love it."
"We like his physicalness," Moses praises. "That's why we brought him over here, and that's what has us excited. Once he learns all the odds and ends of the position, he's going to be fine."
On the opposite end of the experience spectrum is tailback J.R. Lemon, who is the most veteran player in the entire running back corps as he heads into his fifth year on The Farm. Lemon has steadily held down the first team position throughout this spring, much as we would expect. He ran for a team-best 4.7 yards per carry last year, though his productivity and health both waned down the stretch. Moses and Lemon worked together for the running back's redshirt freshman and redshirt sophomore seasons at Stanford, so they are familiar with each other. However, Moses is not resting on old memories or experiences for his judgment of the veteran tailback.
"It's really hard to say just based on just a few practices," the coach protests. "We've got a lot of work to do, and he knows it. We're expecting big things out of him this year."
Physically, Lemon looks the best we have seen him at Stanford. He has always had a good frame, and it has filled out better each year. His speed looks a notch faster this spring, with flashes evidenced on the practice field. Frankly, Lemon possesses a good deal of the physical tools you want in a running back his size. Where Moses is pushing the redshirt junior can be found more in the mind and heart. Lemon needs to put his assets to work, hitting holes faster and running with urgency.
"He's big and has good speed," Moses assesses. "He has a nice blend of power and speed, so we're just trying to get him to be more downhill - more aggressive. With that size, he can be more powerful than he realizes. That's my job to get him to realize that. He wants to. The effort has been good; the attitude has been good. That's what we've got to do this spring. That's what we've got to get done."
"His marching orders are like what we give the rest of them: we need to attack the line of scrimmage more," the coach continues. "We need to get our pads down, and we need to make a hole when there's not one. This is a great offense for a back because you have to catch, you have to block, you have to run - you have to do a lot of different things. If you want to work on your craft and enhance your skills, this is a great offense to be in. For a running back, this offense shows a lot of versatility and takes advantage of a lot of things that running backs can do. It's a great challenge for us here, to see if we can get the system learned and get it executed. Then we want to create some competition among these guys, because competition makes us all better."
- Speaking of the offensive backfield, we reported that Thursday brought Kris Bonifas out of his yellow jersey and back into contact drills. He did a nice job in nine-on-nine running plays as well as the mini-scrimmage at the end of practice. Meanwhile, Emeka Nnoli continues to play unevenly with his execution and knowledge of the playbook. It was no great surprise, then that Bonifas on Friday - just one day after his return - moved ahead of Nnoli for the #2 spot on the fullback depth chart.
- The other player who had missed much of the spring but returned Thursday was redshirt sophomore inside linebacker Mike Silva. On Friday, he saw a tremendous amount of playing time - on both the second team and first team defenses. Part of that is necessitated by the onion skin thin ILB corps currently available, but there is also an obvious and concerted push to get Silva a wealth of repetitions to help him catch up on last time this spring. One eye-catching play on Friday came on pass defense, when Silva was in coverage and made a leaping play on a ball thrown over him. The quickness and vertical surprised me, honestly. He has shown a good nose for the ball these past two days and looks like he could be a strong bet for the #3 inside linebacker behind starters Michael Okwo and Kevin Schimmelmann this fall.
- In another depth chart move, I saw freshman cornerback Wopamo Osaisai playing as the nickel defensive back with the first team defense Friday. That is a decent proxy for him holding down the #3 spot among Stanford's healthy cornerbacks, though that depth chart is skewed currently with fellow frosh Carlos McFall done for the spring (shoulder). Still, Osaisai on Friday was playing ahead of redshirt freshman Tim Sims and redshirt junior Calvin Armstrong, which is new. When I watched Osaisai earlier in the spring in cornerback drills, I had real questions about his backpedaling. Those concerns have not been completely ameliorated, but the youngster is making noticeable improvements in recent practices. He has the speed, to be sure, and that helps cover up some mistakes in technique and judgment at the cornerback position, but Osaisai remains a work in progress.
- We cannot let a day go by without updates on the offensive line, and there were a pair of notable changes from Thursday to Friday in the depth and rotation. On Thursday, we had seen redshirt sophomore Ismail Simpson start to move ahead of redshirt freshman Mikal Brewer, which was notable given that Brewer had been first team all spring ahead of the 22-game starter. Well, Simpson must not have graded out quite well enough on film before Friday's practice, given that Brewer returned to the lead spot at right guard Friday.
- It also is worth noting that redshirt sophomore Jon Cochran took not only the first team snaps at his right tackle position Friday, but also a number of the repetitions with the second string offensive line. That appears to be an effort by offensive tackles coach John McDonell to give Cochran more work, in response to some troubles at the position. We have said it before, but the trend continues: the right side of the Stanford offensive line looks significantly more suspect than the left side this spring.
- A trio of recruits from different parts of the country were in attendance Friday on unofficial visits. Linebacker A.J. Morosco traveled from across the country from Seabreeze High School in Daytona Beach (Fla.). Trekking up from Southern California was elite wideout Terrence Austin from the famed Long Beach (Calif.) Poly program. From the sophomore (2007) class Stanford welcomed Brandon Gouin, who hails from Boulder High School in Colorado, home of the Cardinal's first 2006 commit, offensive tackle John Kyed.
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