In a day of practice which, by NCAA mandate, was conducted in shorts with no pads, there was little that could be definitively concluded. The driving rain throughout the afternoon further dampened affairs. But there was still one unmitigated star. A hero that lifted the entire team, as well as the program.
The new practice fields, installed last summer but tested mightily this spring for the first time, are superior in not only their construction but also their drainage system. The fields cannot stop water from standing during a sustained driving rain, but they need only two to three hours to drain. This has been the wettest March (and so far April) in decades at Stanford, and the new fields could not come at a better time.
"It is way better - not even close," praises Walt Harris. "Especially with regard to injury - as long as we get those two or three hours where we don't get rain because it does drain extremely well. They did a great job of the drainage part. It took a long time - almost two months of fixing the field. They redid the composition of the field, so that it would be very sandy down underneath so that the water could drain through. Yet the top of the surface is more dirt so that the roots would really stick. Becoming an agronomist now with all my years as a coach, the bermuda really accentuates the root system, which keeps it from being dug up. They did an outstanding job. It was a great move. It was recommended by the previous coaches, too, that it was one of the first things we needed to get done. Really, they were right on."
Turf technology aside, there was some football to take in on Friday. The first order of the day was taking stock of who was active and in what capacity. As we previously detailed, there were a number of off-season surgeries and injuries which threatened to keep plenty of players out or in limited capacities this spring. Some of those were, sadly, as expected today. A couple were positive surprises.
Starting with the good, the entire offense started practice with full health and participation. Allen Smith and Mikal Brewer are two players who had off-season surgeries but both went through every drill of practice. Smith weighs 315 pounds, and it remains to be seen if that is his new playing weight by design or rather the result of lost winter conditioning. He went through the whole practice, including a lockdown on first-team repetitions at left tackle, so kudos to him... but he was laboring after the two-plus hours of work coming off the field. This will be a tough spring for him after all that he missed during the winter post-surgery (shoulder).
On the defense, we were very pleased to see only three yellow jerseys. As had been previously declared, both Pannel Egboh and Bo McNally are held out while they recover from their respective broken leg injuries, though it was a positive surprise to see them run during non-contact drills and conditioning. They were held out of most of the practice, but they look like they are every bit on the road to recovery. Nose tackle James McGillicuddy was also in a yellow jersey, but he did not run. His classmate and position mate, Ekom Udofia, donned no piece of yellow and fully participated in the breadth of practice. Moreover, Udofia looks like a scary specimen. It is rare and unusual to watch these football players on the field without pads, and often that surprises and changes the way you see their bodies. Udofia still manages to impress with his tree trunk legs and thick upper body. He looks cut, and he moved well.
Inside linebacker Fred Campbell conducted his first practice at Stanford, which was a really wonderful scene. The redshirt freshman in the last year has suffered a crippling spiral fracture to his ankle and also lost his mother. He did not necessarily look like he was running full speed on Friday - maybe favoring one leg slightly, but Campbell really looks the part of a big and physical linebacker. One hopes that he can come along during these 15 practices, which are his first exposure to college football after missing the entire fall. Another good sight was inside linebacker and fifth-year senior Mike Silva eschewing the yellow jersey. Migraines have plagued him terribly since his concussion last fall, taking him out of almost all winter workouts. Stanford needs him to beat this terrible headaches and to stay on the field in 2006, though he is far from out of the woods. Silva conducted early drills in practice but stayed strictly on the sideline during seven-on-seven or 11-on-11 work. Keeping in mind that Friday was the lightest possible contact of the spring, with shorts and no pads, it bodes poorly for Silva's participation when the hitting gets heavy the next three-plus weeks.
Our next order of business was taking stock of who manned the first-team spots on offense and defense on this opening day of spring practices. The offensive line ran (left to right) without any surprises: Allen Smith, Josiah Vinson, Tim Mattran, Alex Fletcher and Jeff Edwards. The respective second unit was Ben Muth, Bobby Dockter, Preston Clover, Matt McClernan and Jon Cochran. Ismail Simpson should be in the mix at right guard but went down early in practice and did not return. The only remaining players to partially fill out a third string with some holdovers: David Long, Mikal Brewer and Chris Marinelli. Contrary to what the official depth chart told us, Long played at left tackle while Marinelli went to the right side. Brewer also snapped at center.
Tight end is another interesting position, and it took an early hit when Erik Lorig went down on Friday and left only four players at the position for the end-of-practice scrimmage action. Patrick Danahy, Michael Horgan and James Dray through the breadth of the practice saw the most action. Danahy has the lead with the first team offense, though Dray also was split out quite a bit as an "X" receiver. Speaking of the receivers, there was zero mystery in Evan Moore and Mark Bradford locking up the first spots out wide. Both are in the best physical shape we have ever seen from them - bigger, stronger and faster than before. Any concerns about Moore after his injury last fall should be wiped clean. He ran and cut without any hint of a problem. The question is the rest of the receiving corps. Second team repetitions went primarily to Marcus McCutcheon, Kelton Lynn and Mike Miller. One positive observation on this position group is that they have made great strides, top to bottom, with the over-the-shoulder catch that Walt Harris demands on deep balls. In one stretch, I saw receivers coach Tucker Waugh throw fade patterns to the group and all seven made the catch just as it is taught. A down note was the unacceptable frequency of drops they had in seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 competitions.
The running backs started the spring just as they started the 2005 season last September, with the "Bayou backfield" of Anthony Kimble and Nick Frank running for the first team. Frank saw a good deal of time at fullback and made a bunch of plays (more on that later), but the tailback rotation was more open. Jason Evans and Ray Jones also saw a lot of work, with Evans looking the better of the two on this opening day. Among the fullbacks, it was good to see Emeka Nnoli receiving a lot of instruction from new running backs coach Buzz Preston. It was also encouraging to see young Ben Ladner giving some help of his own to classmate and new fellow fullback Josh Catron. Like the offensive (and defensive) line, it was hard to learn much about the backs in the absence of pads.
The only surprises on his first day of spring practice on offense was the complete lack of shuffling among the offensive linemen. They substituted exactly according to their first, second and third string assignments from start to finish of practice. Given the vocal attention given by Walt Harris to the wide-open competition at these spots, we might have expected free-wheeling rotations throughout. Instead, there will probably be a review of the film before movements are made on the line.
The defense held more question marks, with five starters graduated, Mike Silva in a diminished capacity and Brandon Harrison suspended. The first team defense on Friday put Gustav Rydstedt at left end, Ekom Udofia at nose tackle and Chris Horn at right end. The outside linebackers were Udeme Udofia ("Sam") and Emmanuel Awofadeju ("rush"), while the inside linebackers were Michael Okwo and Pat Maynor. The defensive backfield started with Nick Sanchez and Tim Sims at cornerback, though late in the practice an agitated A.J. Christoff pulled Sims during an 11-on-11 session and put Carlos McFall in his place. The first two safeties were Trevor Hooper and David Lofton, and it appeared that Lofton played free while Hooper was at strong - the opposite of what we expected.
The second string defense also had some surprises. McFall and Kris Evans were the cornerbacks, while Aaron Smith and Blaise Johnson played the safety positions. Johnson was a cornerback coming out of the winter but is called to duty at safety to plug a gaping hole. There are not enough safeties to go three deep, but when there was a semblance a third team defense, we saw some of new walk-on Kenny Long, a 6'0" athlete out of Woodstock, Illinois. Inside linebacker was a mixture of Fred Campbell, Landon Johnson and Peter Griffin. For now, Griffin is holding at linebacker despite the problems at his old safety position. At one spot late in practice, Campbell took a first-team repetition in place of Maynor alongside Okwo. Will Powers played for the second unit behind Udofia at the "Sam" outside linebacker position, while classmate Clinton Snyder again looked superb to us at the weakside "rush" position behind Awofadeju. The second string nose tackle is David Jackson, followed on the third unit by walk-on and former defensive end Alfred Johnson. Matt Kopa had the lock on the second spot at left end, while Tom McAndrew and Mike Macellari shared time on the right side.
The play of the day was an interception by Michael Okwo against Trent Edwards. Edwards was throwing to his running back out of the backfield, which Okwo read and then made a lightning reaction and move to the ball. He snared it and took it to the house. Not only an impact play, Okwo's speed and reaction time made it look so effortless, though it was in actuality a difficult play. Already in the first day of the spring, Michael Okwo has staked his claim as this defense's top playmaker. Some other defensive plays of note included a nice pass breakup by Tim Sims against Mark Bradford, a safety blitz by Trevor Hooper, and a pass deflection at the line of scrimmage by Tom McAndrew.
On the offensive side of the ball, fullback Nick Frank had a big day with several carries and catches out of the backfield. He had a couple plays that he took deep down the field. While we search for the best tailback for Stanford in 2006, this first day of spring reminded that Frank is a potent weapon in his own right. Michael Horgan flashed his exceptional hands with a number of difficult catches from the tight end position. T.C. Ostrander holds a high bar for himself and was visibly disgusted when he would miss his target, but he also had a very nice play-action and rollout to his right that ended with a completion to Jason Evans.
Special teams saw its due, with early work on field goal/PAT protection, as Stanford fits its special teams to new personnel as well as a new coordinator in Jeff Hammerschmidt. In field goal kicking, the competition was said to be "wide open" by Walt Harris, including redshirt junior Derek Belch, redshirt sophomore Aaron Zagory and even redshirt junior punter Jay Ottovegio. We did not see Ottovegio take any kicks on Friday; he was the holder for Belch and Zagory. Zagory is dramatically improved from the point when he joined the team as a walk-on in October 2004. His leg strength now gives him respectable distance, but there still is a significant gap between his length and that of Belch on field goals. We only saw a few data points, but Belch has some work to do with his consistency.
- Northwest Invasion - A pair of recruits weathered the rain to attend this first 2006 spring practice, and both hailed from the Pacific Northwest. Idaho offensive tackle Carson York had both parents in tow for this unofficial visit. Washington tight end/defensive end Chris Izbicki was in attendance with his mother. Both have been offered by Stanford, and they possess eerily similar recruiting profiles. Not only are they both offer recruits from the same part of the country, but they also both hold competing offers from Washington, Washington State, Oregon and Oregon State. For better or for worse, they had a taste of Northwest weather on Friday with a steady rain throughout the entire practice.
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