Defensive Backs Against the Wall

Football over for Wopamo Osaisai

The early story for Stanford in 2006 is the secondary, and it isn't pretty. Already facing thin numbers, the defensive backfield was up-and-down in 2005. Take away two seniors to graduation, a promising youngster now focusing on another sport, and your position coach now gone to the NFL... and the Card have some issues to address. Read on for these updates, plus a wealth of other Stanford Football news.

There was a good deal to please Stanford with its 2006 signing class.  While the spots were not stacked with blue chips, most positions of need were filled.  The Cardinal corralled their #1 running back recruit, #1 quarterback recruit, top two wide receiver recruits (plus others with promise), a cadre of offensive linemen, and defensive linemen/linebackers the coaches really liked.  The glaring hole is found in the defensive backfield, where Stanford signed one cornerback and no safeties.  Honestly, the Cardinal could have used three to four defensive backs in this class.  Stanford's top three safeties are rising seniors, and they have lost two of their top three cornerbacks to graduation.  It is true that one or two of the five signees officially designated as wide receivers in this class will be moved to the defensive backfield - which ones, we will not know until training camp in August.

But the need become all the more acute when in January, redshirt freshman Wopamo Osaisai quit football to focus full-time on running track.  The Stanford sprinter in his freshman year wrote his name in the record books as one of the school's all-time greats, and he has much more success ahead of him on the track.  The two-sport mantle is a difficult one to bear in today's age of year-round training and workouts, but it was increasingly trying for Osaisai to continue with football when his prospects appeared so out of balance.  During his redshirt freshman season in 2005, the Pinole Valley High School standout never saw a single snap on defense through 11 games.  I have a hard time remembering many practices during the fall when he was not serving on the scout team defense, which reinforced in his mind how far he was from seeing the field at cornerback.

That being said, Osaisai's loss is a great one for the Stanford team.  The cornerback depth chart is frightful today.  Gone are the team's best cornerback and nickel back to graduation, and despite what you think you saw on the field this past season, T.J. Rushing was an athlete and talent who played all four of his years and played at a high level.  Who is left?  Redshirt sophomore Nick Sanchez surprised last year, and while he will be greatly tested now that he is the #1 corner and does not have as much safety help on his side, he is now a proven player we can safely pencil into one spot.  Classmate Tim Sims started the year playing the nickel back slot, but by the end of October 1 he was demoted in favor of a less athletic and skilled fifth-year senior.  Another athlete with promise, but who has yet to deliver, is redshirt freshman Carlos McFall.  Repeated injuries to his shoulder are his bugaboo, and it is difficult to project any sustained playing time in his college career given that frailty.  If he could stay healthy, he could be the best among those on the current roster, but that is a big "if."  There are a few freshmen who worked on the scout team during the fall in the defensive backfield, but it is too soon to project any of them to help in 2006.

Given the above, Osaisai would have had a golden opportunity to play on defense the next three years.  It would have been shocking to not see him among Stanford's top three cornerbacks this fall, which would have given him a great deal of playing time.  Even though Osaisai had plenty to learn about the skill and craft of playing cornerback at this level, he has such elite speed that he could have had a chance to play through some of his mistakes and still make up ground to get into position for the play.  That is why his loss is the number one story among all roster news this winter.  It should also be mentioned that Osaisai was Stanford's best gunner on special teams, and his contributions would have only increased in that phase of the game.

To help patch up the dangerous cornerback depth chart, a pair of moves have been made in the off-season.  The first brought redshirt freshman Thaddeus Chase over from wide receiver.  The 6'0" walk-on may inspire negligible excitement among Cardinalmaniacs™, but there is some promise here.  Players and coaches alike have been buzzing about the move.  The El Paso (Tex.) native is a good athlete.  We will get a better look at how he can backpedal and cover come April during spring practices, but there is reason to have hope that he could surprise.

The other move has recently switched junior David Marrero to cornerback after three years of injury-stunted offense.  Bouncing between running back and wide receiver like a pinball, Marrero has never found a comfortable home in the Cardinal offense.  His knee injuries his first two years derailed his play, but a medical revelation and surgery last winter gave him newfound health and hope.  Marrero entered the 2005 season as the team's #1 tailback, but he suffered a muscle pull before training camp got off the ground.  By the time he returned to health, the speedster was buried on the depth chart.  Marrero moved (again) to wide receiver during the fall but saw trivial time on the field.  In search of a permanent position home, Marrero and Walt Harris are trying him at cornerback.  Like Chase, this is a move too soon to evaluate but one certainly to watch.

Beyond Osaisai, the Cardinal took another hit when defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator Tom Hayes was hired two weeks ago by the New Orleans Saints.  Hayes was at Stanford just one year, but the players in his position group - and many throughout the defense - were high on his coaching style and his teachings.  He brought years of experience at top colleges, as well as five years with the Washington Redskins.

Hayes was the first, but not the last to depart to the NFL.  He was joined by Wayne Moses, who last week was hired by the St. Louis Rams as their running backs coach.  This ends Moses' second stint at Stanford, coaching two years under Buddy Teevens before this past year under Walt Harris.  He will have fun coaching Steven Jackson and possibly Marshall Faulk.  Kudos to him.

Two more coaches have now in the last few days been lost to the NFL.  At the end of last week, the status of both remained in doubt, as they weighed offers in the professional ranks, but it became clear this morning to us that both were gone when neither appeared for the team's 6 A.M. conditioning run.  We are hearing that Tom Quinn, who coached outside linebackers and special teams, will become the new special teams coordinator for the New York Giants.  Quinn was the second most tenured coach on the Cardinal staff, serving the last four years across two coaching staffs.  His special teams improved every year, and it is not a stretch to say that they were Stanford's greatest strength in 2005.  His continuity on the staff was a plus given the great turnover seen in the assistant coaching ranks on The Farm over the past five years, for the sake of the players as well as his recruiting relationships with high school coaches.

On the subject of recruiting, Nate Hackett is reportedly taking a position with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a quality control coach.  This move might be the head-scratcher of the four, but the Stanford recruiting coordinator wants to move down the road for his coaching career.  Hackett wants to coach players, and in 2005 he had perhaps the most limited coaching role among Division I assistants in the country.  He was nominally the specialists coach at Stanford, working with the kickers, punter and long snapper, and he wanted more.  Walt Harris gave Hackett that limited role so that the young coach could spend "95%" of his time as recruiting coordinator.  It is also noteworthy that father Paul Hackett is the Bucs' quarterbacks coach.

It is not a trivial matter to lose assistant coaches.  For the chemistry of the coaching staff, for the teachings and relationships with the players, and for recruiting - continuity is a key to any college football program's success.  You could not draw up a bigger hit that Walt Harris could take at the end of his first season, losing his defensive coordinator, special teams coordinator and recruiting coordinator.  Given that Harris is his own offensive coordinator, he is maxed out on coaching carnage.

Had these losses come to other Division I schools hiring away Stanford's assistants, that would be alarming.  If the NFL wants to hire away your coaches and elevate their professional careers, that is another matter.  While not something Harris wants to let happen - and he has made sure that Stanford is spending more money to retain coaches - there is not much that can be done when NFL clubs want to take your assistants.  An observer might note that Walt Harris is making very good hires with his coaches, in fact, for the NFL to snare four at once.  Now Harris has to make more sound decisions to restock his staff, as Stanford readies for spring practices and 2006 season preparation.

In other Stanford Football news:

  • The defensive line took a hit with a pair of debilitating injuries at the nose tackle position.  Freshman Ekom Udofia broke his hand at the end of January, which obviously will limit his upper body weight room work.  Udofia has been perhaps the hardest and most productive worker in strength and conditioning since arriving in August.  He took a redshirt after spraining his ankle during training camp and falling behind the curve in practice time, but he worked with strength & conditioning coach Ron Forbes throughout the fall and into the winter to take off every ounce of fat and then build back up with muscle.  His classmate and fellow big body, James McGillicuddy, suffered a more unique injury with a fracture in his pubic bone.  The pelvis is not only critical to all manners of weight room work as well as running, but the injury also threatened his spring ball.  The good news is that an MRI last week revealed significant healing of the bone, and McGillicuddy was cleared to resume some strength and conditioning work.  He may be able to take part in spring practices.
  • Other injuries of note include renewed shoulder problems for redshirt junior starting quarterback Trent Edwards.  Walt Harris has expressed significant concern on Signing Day about the return of Edwards' shoulder injury, which netted two MRIs in the span of a week.  Harris admitted that the injury could threaten Edwards' spring.  Stanford's only other two scholarship quarterbacks are redshirt sophomore T.C. Ostrander and freshman Tavita Pritchard.  Redshirt freshman Garrett Moore, a walk-on, is also on the roster.  Harris also disclosed his concern about some discomfort in Evan Moore's back.  The junior wide receiver was lost in the first half of the 2005 season opener with a dislocated hip, and only recently did he start running again.  We believe there is much less reason for concern with the 6'7" wideout than with Stanford's starting quarterback.
  • Some off-season surgeries of note:  redshirt junior tight end Matt Traverso (shoulder), redshirt freshman offensive tackle Allen Smith (shoulder), redshirt sophomore offensive guard Mikal Brewer (knee), and freshman defensive back Blaise Johnson (shoulder).
  • The glut at tight end was a big reason why the Cardinal gave little pursuit at the position during this last recruiting class, with rising senior standouts in Traverso and Patrick Danahy, as well as a pair of bright young budding stars in frosh James Dray and Erik Lorig.  It was only a matter of time before somebody in the tight end core was moved to another position, and that man is redshirt sophomore Austin Gunder.  The 6'5" athlete is moving across the line of scrimmage to outside linebacker, and at the "Sam" slot he will line up over his old position mates in 2006 practices.  Outside linebacker has been a position of strength the last two years in Stanford's 3-4 defense, but three of the Cardinal's two-deep at those positions ("Sam" and "Rush") in 2005 are graduated.  Gunder has size and physical tools that could help him neutralize tight ends at the line of scrimmage, but the key to his success will come in whether or not he can drop back in coverage.
  • Two redshirt juniors who had eligibility remaining for a fifth year have not been asked to return for the 2006 season.  Running back Gerald Commissiong and linebacker Taualai Fonoti.  Commissiong, a Canada native, never broke into the upper ranks of the Cardinal's tailback depth chart after switching early in his college career from safety.  He saw action twice in 2005, and in the USC loss he carried the ball late five times for 16 yards and a score.  Commissiong's career totals at Stanford: 22 carries for 47 yards and one touchdown plus one reception for two yards.  Fonoti was relegated to occasional scout team duty on defense this past fall, with the fab freshman class moving ahead of him for most of the snaps.  The Hawaii native was a regular contributor on special teams the last three years, however, accounting for 12 total tackles (nine solo) in 32 games.
  • Two walk-on student-athletes have left the team and will pursue their studies full-time.  Redshirt sophomore guard Merlin Brittenham and redshirt freshman wide receiver Jason Robinson both contributed on the scout team offense, but it was clear to both that young players entering the program were moving past them on the depth chart.  The linemen and receivers in the newest signing class would have put the final nail in their respective playing time coffins.  We wish them both all the best in their remaining Stanford academic careers and future endeavors.

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