Spring Ball: Day Three

Nose tackle Ekom Udofia

NCAA rules allow for upper pads for the first time on the third day of spring practices, and thus a level of contact and hitting not see the first two days. Our eyes turned toward the offensive line, defensive line and running backs on Day Three of spring ball. Who sits atop the depth charts? Who is on the rise? Also, other notes around the field, including Stanford's first position switch this spring...

Sunday's weather was halfway between what we endured Friday and enjoyed on Saturday.  The skies were mostly overcast, but rain held off until the latter portion of practice, and only then it came down light and intermittently.  Our eyes were primarily cast forward to the field rather than upward to the skies, however, with Stanford Football conducting its first practice of 2006 with any pads.  The team was still in shorts, per NCAA regulations on this third day of spring practices, but they were able to don upper-body pads.  That alone allowed for a greater degree of contact and physical play than was seen the previous two days.

Thus, our attention was largely turned to the line of scrimmage on Sunday.  The offensive line was a mixed bag, with coach Tom Freeman loudly barking at one point during the practice that the unit's eldest players needed to "start playing like fifth-year seniors."  Stanford has six fifth-year seniors on the offensive line for 2006, which should mean the highest of expectations and confidence in play from its front five.  Instead, the line is the largest looming question mark for the entire offense.  It was noteworthy that left guard and fifth-year senior Josiah Vinson was demoted at one point during Sunday's practice for poor missed assignments.  Redshirt sophomore Bobby Dockter was briefly promoted to the first string offensive line, but he was unable to get the job done and by the end of practice was replaced by Vinson.

Two notes on this: 1) Through three practices - 20% of spring ball - this is the first and only shake-up I have seen within the offensive line depth chart.  And it didn't even stick.  For such a loudly proclaimed wide-open battle at these positions, we would have expected more shuffling in practices.  Perhaps it will still come.  Perhaps the players atop the depth chart to start the spring at each of the four open positions (Tim Mattran has been named the starter at center) are the best and ultimately will win their starting jobs because they deserve to win.  2) As written in my spring preview of the offense, there is more than one way to "win" a starting job.  That can happen through a very open and heated competition, with one man raising his game to the top.  It can also happen because of a dearth of competition, whereby somebody settles into the job for lack of anybody else to push or pass him.

Watching Vinson demoted and then rising back to first team duties is an example of the latter and not a good sign for 2006 Stanford Football.  This spring had the potential to offer the most offensive line competition across several positions that we have seen in years.  That competition took a hit when right guard Josiah Vinson went down with injury during the first practice.  Another fifth-year senior guard, Matt McClernan, is acclimating himself to the offensive line after spending the last two years on defense.  This competition needs to heat up in a hurry, and as Freeman bellowed on Sunday, the fifth-year seniors need to start playing like their age and experience should enable.

On the other side of the coin, there were some improved performances toward the end of the practice during 11-on-11 scrimmage work.  Despite a good deal of blitzing from the defense, the pass protection held up rather well from the offensive line.  Two standouts were fifth-year senior right tackle Jeff Edwards and redshirt sophomore Alex Fletcher.  We didn't see this kind of blitzing in the first two days, and this was the first day of significant contact, so one would expect a difficult time protecting.  Edwards looked steady - moved his feet well and picked up the blitz.  Fletcher was smooth and effective, without hardly any breakdowns.  The plays took advantage of his mobility and athleticism, pulling him and also sending him ahead of the ball on screen plays.  On one screen, Fletcher blew up Michael Okwo downfield so badly that Okwo was ordered to do up-downs by the defensive coaches.  Fletcher also ran a nearly perfect session of one-on-one's earlier in practice against defensive linemen.

On the other side of the line, I had my eye on the left side.  Redshirt sophomore Gustav Rydstedt is manning the first team at the position.  Coming off knee surgery, Rydstedt is still recovering.  We would like to see the Swedish import healthy at some point, but it is hard for him to go through 15 practices in the span of three-plus weeks while he is still healing.  The physical nature of just this first day of upper pads took a visible toll on Rydstedt, and it will be interesting to see how he can play the next three weeks.  At one point on Sunday when he had to go to the sideline, Rydstedt was replaced by redshirt freshman Matt Kopa for his first exposure on the first team defensive line.  The youngster answered, exploding into the backfield on a play for the day's biggest tackle for loss.

In the middle, there is much to like from redshirt freshman Ekom Udofia.  He came into this spring as a question mark not unlike Rydstedt.  Both had off-season surgeries and lost conditioning, but Rydstedt faced a much greater setback with knee surgery than Udofia's broken hand.  That is evident on the field, where Udofia looks and moves like a beast.  He is strong and powerful, bringing some of the same attributes to the position that Stanford so enjoyed from Babatunde Oshinowo.  Udofia is more athletic, however, with greater quickness.  He is also a better knee-bender.  The future looks inordinately bright for the youngster, but he is also a demonstration of the caution that needs to be taken when handing immediate expectations of greatness upon a young player.  Udofia has tremendous physical tools, and he is making some special plays in practice already.  But he does not yet understand all the tools needed to make plays against Pac-10 linemen.  There is a craftiness that comes with experience in line play, on either side of the ball, and Udofia has not yet accumulated the tricks of the trade.  He is used to dominating high school linemen, even against double teams, because of his decisive physical advantages.  But Udofia takes on double-teams here when he could split them.  The good news is that Udofia holds a ceiling higher than any defensive lineman on The Farm in the last decade, but the bad news is that there is no time for him to learn his craft - Udofia is already as a redshirt freshman the man upon whom Stanford must depend.

The running back battle is also starting to take shape, now that we have some pads and the ability for some meaningful contact in traffic.  Redshirt sophomore Anthony Kimble has consistently held down all three days the first string position in this wide-open competition.  Keep in mind that this is the first full spring for Kimble as a running back.  This time a year ago, he was a wide receiver for the Cardinal.  Kimble shows today much of the same that excited and won him the starting job last fall - an elusiveness in the open field, and most importantly his ability to get through the hole and up the field quicker than any of Stanford's backs.  You might expect redshirt junior Jason Evans to be right on Kimble's tail at #2, but Evans has been a consistent third behind redshirt sophomore Ray Jones each of the last two days.  Jones is seeing a lot of action and a lot of carries, which may surprise you.  He was considered "the forgotten man" in 2005, slipping to the bottom of the tailback depth chart and spending the fall on the scout offense in what became a redshirt year.  Jones is making his mark this spring, showing himself to be the most physical of the tailbacks and also their best blocker.  Pass protection is held at a premium for Stanford's backs, and Jones excels in that area.  He also shows vision in his runs, and some of that translated into big plays on Sunday.  The gap between him and Kimble right now is his explosion through the hole.

At the fullback position, senior Nick Frank has the spot locked down.  That's neither news nor a surprise.  He is the most complete of all of Stanford's backs - a strong blocker, consistent on his assignments, explosive and nimble carrying the ball, while also smooth as a receiver out of the backfield.  But behind Frank, Stanford has no proven depth whatsoever.  The good news is that redshirt freshman Ben Ladner looks the last couple days like he is starting to come alive.  After a sleepy fall when he failed to challenge himself, Ladner is more active and engaged on the field.  He has a big frame and the chance to bring a unique dimension to the fullback position.  A few times, he has laid some powerful and punishing blocks that have drawn excited cheers from teammates.  His repetitions still trail redshirt junior Emeka Nnoli, but Ladner is somebody to watch.

Some other notes caught our eye Sunday.  The first was the defense's response the frequent use of three-receiver sets we witnessed.  Typically that formation compels the defense to bring a fifth defensive back (nickel back) onto the field, but we have yet to see a single down of nickel defense through three days.  Instead, the "Sam" outside linebacker has dropped into coverage on the slot receiver.  Is that a testament to the athleticism of redshirt junior Udeme Udofia and redshirt freshman Will Powers?  Or is it a reflection of the frightening depth among the Cardinal's cornerback corps?  Time will tell...

Speaking of defensive backs, there was a position switch Sunday among that group.  The first position switch of the spring moved redshirt sophomore Thaddeus Chase from cornerback to safety.  Chase was moved from wide receiver to defense just this winter, so it is not a jarring move for him to take on another new position.  In drills and in conditioning runs at the end of practice, it looks like Chase would now be considered the fastest safety on the team.  As we have well documented, that position group is in dire need of help, so we will watch how the Thaddeus Chase experiment fares in the coming days and weeks.  He faced a steep learning curve to acquire cover skills at cornerback, but in a manner, he has a different and maybe less difficult transition now at safety.  It was also interesting to watch

Though it repeats a theme hammered in the Day Two notes, it has to be said again that Trent Edwards just looks fantastic.  Watching him at times on Sunday, I found myself muttering: "Trent is killing out there."  He has a chance to have a very special fifth-year senior season.  He is making all the throws, and you scarcely see him miss.  His consistency is truly impressive.  And redshirt junior T.C. Ostrander is throwing the ball well, too.  If not for Edwards, we would be talking more about him.  The good news is that these two quarterbacks are setting up to be one of the best passing duos The Farm has seen in a long, long time.

And now, for some play-by-play action from a couple scrimmage sessions late in Sunday's practice.  There was more contact on Sunday and thus a better gauge on how a play unfolded, though without true tackling, the extent of yardage on a given rushing play can be tough to gauge.  Some of these yardages might seem (and might be) inflated...

  • Trent Edwards pass complete to Anthony Kimble for seven yards
  • Edwards pass complete to Evan Moore for four yards
  • T.C. Ostrander quarterback scramble for five yards
  • Ostrander quarterback scramble for six yards
  • Tavita Pritchard pass complete to Nick Frank for four yards
  • Pritchard screen pass complete to Jason Evans for nine yards
  • Edwards play-action pass complete to Evan Moore for eight yards
  • Edwards pass incomplete, intended for Mark Bradford
  • Ostrander play-action, quarterback scramble for seven yards
  • Ostrander play-action, quarterback scramble for nine yards
     
  • Ostrander screen pass complete to Frank for 12 yards
  • Garrett Moore play-action, pass thrown away out of bounds
  • Edwards pass to Moore for four yards
  • Frank carry up the middle for nine yards
  • Evans carry up the middle for eight yards
  • Kimble carry, cuts back for ??? yards
  • Kimble carry, blown up behind the line for a five-yard loss by Matt Kopa
  • Edwards pass complete to Frank for three yards
  • Ray Jones carry to the left side for ??? yards
  • Jones carry up the middle for ??? yards
  • Pritchard pass complete to Marcus McCutcheon six yards
  • Pritchard pass complete to Kelton Lynn for 11 yards
  • Edwards pass complete to Bradford for two yards
  • Edwards pass complete to Moore for six yards
  • Kimble carry to the left side for 11 yards
  • Edwards (shotgun) pass batted down by Ekom Udofia
  • Edwards (shotgun) pass incomplete, intended for Kimble (dropped)
  • Ostrander (shotgun) pass complete to Jones for six yards
  • Ostrander (shotgun) pass complete to Mike Miller for 10 yards
  • Moore (shotgun) pass incomplete, intended for Evans (Michael Okwo coverage)
  • Pritchard (shotgun) audibles to go under center, pass incomplete, intended for Evans (dropped)
  • Edwards pass incomplete, intended for Moore, Aaron Smith beautiful pass breakup
  • Edwards pass complete to Moore for 15 yards
  • Ostrander (shotgun) pass complete to Charlie Hazelhurst for three yards

At the end of practice, for the third straight day, a hurry-up field goal was run.  Against a short and running clock, the entire field goal unit has to run to a spot on the field where the ball has been set (approximately a 37-yard field goal the last two days).  For the third straight day, the unit beat the clock, and Derek Belch hit the field goal.  Each day, the entire team has erupted in heartfelt celebration.

Away from all this action, it should be noted that Matt Traverso and Brandon Harrison are not enjoying any kind of break while they are suspended from spring practices.  The senior duo are being worked full bore by the strength & conditioning coaches for the duration of each practice, and it is murderous work.  The most grueling activity I saw Sunday was work on a stairmaster.  That may sound unremarkable, but the players were "running" the stairmaster with their arms.  These workouts not only maintain conditioning for Harrison and Traverso, who could possibly return to the team for the fall season if they drastically remedy their academic performance and progress, but they also serve as a literally painful reminder for the consequences of not doing their schoolwork.

We are pleased to report, on this subject, that Traverso has made rapid reparations on his academic transgressions.  Within just a few days of his academically-driven suspension, the tight end buckled down and completed a course where he suffered an incomplete grade during the winter quarter.  Another course appears to be on a path whereby it too will be soon rectified.  With some summer school work planned starting in June, Traverso should be on a dramatically improved course toward his degree.  If his spring continues the way it is now headed, and he follows that momentum through the summer, he would need very few units in the fall to graduate.  Though these suspensions were met with surprise and disappointment by the Cardinal community, it is hard to not applaud the move.  Harris suspended players creeping perilously close to academic danger at the close of their Stanford careers, despite the fact that they did not flunk their way to ineligibility.  Less than a week later, Matt Traverso has already righted his ship wonderfully.  Kudos to him, and to Harris and Stanford's academic support staff, for such a swift and positive reaction.


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