This is the year for Stanford Football offensive success that we have pointed toward for three years now. Fifth-year senior at quarterback. Two seniors at wide receiver. A slew of fifth-year seniors on the offensive line, and two seniors heading up the tight end depth chart. Throw in a senior fullback, and the only position with an obvious lack of experience and maturity is tailback. In contrast to the defense, where graduation and injuries have spread holes like a shotgun spray, the offense proudly brings back 10 starters. Had Evan Moore stayed healthy past the second quarter of the season opener, we would be looking at 11 returning starters.
The other source of confidence for the Cardinal offense in 2006 is that this cast of characters now have year under their belt learning Walt Harris' offense. There was a great learning curve to climb for the passing game, in particular, which made for a rocky spring session this time a year ago but should now have players hitting the ground running.
The bad news is that the 2005 offense sputtered often. The Cardinal failed to rush for 100 yards as a team in seven of their 11 games and was the only team in the Pac-10 to average just double digits in rushing for the year (92.3 ypg vs. #9 Arizona's 122.0 ypg). The scoring offense (24.5 ppg) ranked eighth in the conference, ahead of only cellar dwellers Arizona and Washington, while the total offense (316.2 ypg) ranked dead last in the Pac-10 and lagged #7 Oregon State by more than a hundred yards per game.
The primary culprit for those failures is our primary focus in these spring practices...
Essentially, the entire offensive line returns. Certainly the entire cadre of healthy and contributing players is back. Brian Head was the lone senior on the line in 2005 and barely played before a collection of injuries forced his medical retirement during the season. Amir Malayery took a medical hardship in January after bulging discs in his back ended his football career. And walk-on Merlin Brittenham walked away from the team, with no prospects for playing time in his college future. The active roster this spring boasts no less than six fifth-year seniors, along with three redshirt juniors and a talented four-man redshirt sophomore class. The only fresh young face green to spring football and trench warfare is redshirt freshman Chris Marinelli, and we have high expectations for his immediate impact on the offensive tackle competition.
On paper, there is a lot returning on the offensive line. That elicits a mixed reaction from Walt Harris, however.
"That is the good news and the bad news," the head coach comments. "The good news is that we have a lot of guys who have played a lot of ball coming back on the offensive line. Unfortunately that is the challenging news as well because last year, if you heard me talking, I thought it was a real advantage. It didn't turn out to be an advantage. We had 83 starts back on the offensive line, and I don't think we really showed it. To me, that is an area that probably is the most important area besides replacing our [defensive] seniors."
"To me, the offensive line," Harris adds, "as they go, we'll go."
That statement sums up the outlook for the offense this spring, and for Stanford Football in 2006. While our eyes ought to turn to the sextet of fifth-year seniors, that group is a mixed bag. Tackles Jon Cochran and Jeff Edwards were once thought to be the bookend security for this line, but they rotated in a dance of futility and failure in 2005 as Stanford searched and found no answer at right tackle. They started the year on opposite sides of the line before newcomer and current redshirt sophomore Allen Smith took over in the Washington State game and locked down the starting left tackle spot the last seven games of the season. Without exploring the technical details of their shortcomings, one problem for both Cochran and Edwards is that they have spent much of the last two to three years as presumptive starters. The absence of any offensive tackle in the two classes above them, plus the absence of any tackle who has pushed them in the class immediately behind them, has left them too comfortable at their positions. That changed for the first time last October when Smith started at right tackle in the Washington State game, and then upon an injury moved to left tackle mid-game and dazzled us with his production and cleanliness of execution. Add Marinelli and redshirt sophomore Ben Muth to the mix, and we have a chance for true competition at the tackle positions this spring for the first time in five or more years.
"It takes a lot of motivation from the coach and it takes a lot of maturity by the player, when you know that you're probably going to be in the two-deep if you don't even try," Walt Harris offers. "That's where the teams that are really good have recruited well on a consistent basis. The most important word that a coach can have is competition. If you don't have competition, then it really is difficult to be as good a coach as possible."
"We have to execute what we say we're coaching. We've got to see it on the tape," he adds. "If we don't see it, then we need to keep recycling until we find someone that can execute what we're asking him and what we're saying that he's doing."
The Cardinal coaching staff is deliberately leaving the competition at both tackle positions wide open, ignoring Smith's accomplishments in his debut season last fall and ignoring of the fifth-year senior status of Cochran and Edwards. The intrigue at the tackle positions is elevated with the arrival of a new position coach in Doug Sams.
"I think another part of the struggle about losing coaches is that you watched a guy play for an entire season, so going into the second season you are going to have an excellent gameplan to help develop this player to be better," Harris says. "Well, we are starting from scratch at one of the two positions on the offensive line. Probably the most critical position on the offensive line, where we're starting from scratch, is at tackle. Of our tackles last year, ironically a redshirt freshman [Allen Smith] was the best - who by the way just came off shoulder surgery, so it's not like he has had a full off-season of training and lifting and improving himself physically. He's trying to get himself back to where he was physically."
Based on what how Stanford's six tackles practiced and progressed in 2005, the opening depth charts at the left and right tackle positions are lopsided. It is not hard to look at Smith, Muth and Marinelli at left tackle and forecast that Stanford's two best tackles can be found in that group. Smith had a woeful spring last year but came alive during the season and earned Freshman All-American honors (though his off-season shoulder surgery could disadvantage him this spring). Muth is very capable and somebody we think could be a multi-year starter at either tackle position. Marinelli is the most physically imposing figure of any player on this line, yet he can run and punch. The right tackle trio of Edwards, Cochran and redshirt junior David Long is longer in the tooth but also less athletic. Would the right tackle competition be better served to move one of the more athletic youngsters into the mix? Perhaps. But there is also an attractive competitive dynamic that comes with placing the three eldest players in the same group. None can look at one of the others and wave him off as a "youngster." The friendship of the fifth- and fourth-year tackles also can be turned on its head, as they are forced to push each other in their last chance for some glory in their college football careers.
The pictures are equally perplexing at the guard positions. Though there are a slew of starts spread throughout this group, just as with the tackles there is no named starter at either the left or right guards. That being said, left guard and fifth-year senior Josiah Vinson started 10 games last fall; right guard and redshirt sophomore Alex Fletcher started all 11 games for Stanford. There is no player younger than Fletcher on the depth chart at either guard position, yet he still looks to be the frontrunner on the right side if not the best lineman across all five positions. There is an interesting dynamic to be found with Fletcher at right guard. Though he is Stanford's most talented lineman, it is another lesser acclaimed road-grader who has been handed the line's sole starting job prior to the spring. Fletcher, in just his second spring, is also joined by a pair of fifth-year seniors in Ismail Simpson and Matt McClernan. Pitting the great young talent of Fletcher against elder statesman will serve to heighten competition and better push Fletcher. He recognizes his talent and knows he should win this job. He was a Freshman All-American last fall and looks to be the best lineman this campus has seen since Eric Heitmann. But that does not mean he can be expected to find his best football without a fire lit under him, and some fierce competition that includes a 26-game starter in Simpson and a cagey veteran converted from the defensive line in McClernan.
""We appreciate Alex' desire to be a good football player," says Walt Harris. "He just needs to execute what we ask him to do on a more consistent basis. But he did play a tremendous amount of football for us, and he exemplified a lot of toughness because he played two positions and didn't get hurt. But he was a freshman. How does that translate? It translated into his making a lot of mistakes. You don't want to be playing freshmen. USC - how many freshmen did they play in the offensive line? Texas - how many freshmen did they play in the offensive line?"
While Vinson has started 23 games, he only slowly progressed since his great promise in his first couple years. Behind the fifth-year senior is redshirt junior Mikal Brewer and redshirt sophomore Bobby Dockter. Brewer is another case of promise unfulfilled, though this may be a year where he can focus on playing guard without the additional role of snapping the ball as a reserve center. Dockter is the least experienced of the group, but this position is as wide open as right tackle, giving him an opportunity to step up for the first time at Stanford. Left guard was a great disappointment in 2005, and somebody needs to emerge here.
At center is the unlikely story of fifth-year senior Tim Mattran. The former walk-on came as the least hallowed of the group of seven offensive linemen in the 2002 recruiting class, yet he stands today as the only member of the Stanford offensive line to be pronounced as a starter to begin the spring. Mattran has bounced around, up and down the entire offensive line, playing guard and tackle before settling last year at center. When Brian Head went down, Mattran stepped in and surprised with his command of the line calls and his consistency of execution. He is an underrated athlete, but he does lag several of the other interior linemen in natural quickness and explosiveness. Perhaps it is his recognition of his abilities, and the steadiness that comes from playing within himself, that has Mattran as the favored son on this Stanford offensive line.
"He's into it. It's important to him," praises Walt Harris. "It's important to him to know what is going on. It's important to him that he plays as well as he can possibly play up to his ability level."
There is another more subtle level to the naming of Mattran at center as a starter. Given the great uncertainty for each of the other five fifth-year seniors in their own position battles elsewhere on the offensive line, there is a surprising lack of leadership for such an experienced group. Head was the unquestioned leader last year, until his injury. Though Simpson and Edwards each have 26 starts, and Vinson (23) and Cochran (20) are not far behind, they have much to prove this spring. In the coaching staff naming Mattran a starter, they isolate one established leader. He has earned it, but Mattran also is being handed this spring the weighty responsibility of focusing a critical position group. Behind him is redshirt junior Preston Clover, who has spent much of his time at Stanford on the scout team offensive line. He was quickly passed in the center land-grab by Fletcher (and Brewer at guard), but we expected Fletcher to spend almost all of his time at guard and not take the number of reserve center snaps we saw last year. This is the biggest spot Clover has experienced yet at Stanford, and the pressure is on for him to develop. With Fletcher more focused at guard and Head graduated, Clover is the one and only reserve at the all-important center position for Stanford today.
Before we leave the line, one more note. Walt Harris is looking to try out some shotgun snaps from Mattran with Trent Edwards this spring. That is an alarming development on several fronts. First of all, the shotgun earned a negative reputation after its futility under the Buddy Teevens three-year run. Maybe more importantly, Harris is a loudly proclaimed Bill Walsh disciple, and Walsh of course was violently opposed to using the shotgun in his offense. Harris admits that Walsh's aversion to the 'gun has been a big reason he has stayed away from it during his coaching career, but it may be worth a try for this offense this spring.
"I think the quarterback has a chance to see possibly better, and I think most of them like it that way," Harris explains. "There are some things that you can do - that people have done - that make the shotgun more inviting. There is also a learning curve for some guys who have been in the shotgun their entire career versus those that have been under center, and that might hurt them past college right now."
In order for the shotgun to make sense, however, there has to be a very consistent snap from the center. Harris tried the shotgun for half a season one year before he junked it. The spray of snaps was an adventure neither the quarterback nor the coach could stomach.
"Part of the problem was that every snap was a new experience," Harris recounts. "That doesn't help the quarterback at all, if it's a bad ball drill on every snap. You'd like it to be that when the ball is coming, you don't have to stare the ball in. You'd like to be looking with one eye on the ball and one eye on the coverage. But if one ball is here, one ball is here and one ball is over here, then you have both eyes on the ball. Then you lose some of the advantage of it."
Even if the snap is consistent, there are disadvantages to the shotgun formation which makes Harris wary, even as he moves into this experiment.
"When you move your hand, you have to follow through all the way until you hit your leg. Then you have to get your hand back up to get your hand on the defensive lineman. He knows that you're not running a high percentage of the time. Particularly in pass situations, he is going to 'handle the run' on the way to the quarterback like they do in the NFL," the coach describes. "It's not all what it's all cracked up to be. You could be making it harder on yourself. It's a further snap than an under-the-center snap to the quarterback. His right hand comes back a lot later, and we're talking about milliseconds. It does make it harder, especially on the center."
Up next, a look at the so-called 'skilled' positions on offense - what we are watching this spring with the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends...
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