Fall Camp Winds Down

Freshman Sione Fua

The fireworks are finished for Stanford's 2006 preseason training camp with the last scrimmage in the books. But this final week also offered the first scout team work for the Cardinal, which affords us some insights into the depth charts and freshman forecasts of possible playing time this fall. We offer here our analysis of who might burn their redshirt, plus some scrimmage highlights and more.

While "game week" for Stanford's season opener at Oregon starts next week, work is already underway for game scouting and preparation.  Practices are still primarily about teaching and technique in this final week of fall camp, but we have seen the scout team offense and scout team defense split apart from the regular offensive and defensive units.  Scout team work is essential for preparation with an unfamiliar opponent, and it is doubly important for a team who has faced the same offense/defense day after day after day the past three weeks.

The Cardinal offense has become not only tired but also too accustomed to its defense's 3-4 scheme, which will be vastly different than the Ducks' defense.  Similarly, the scheme and personnel that Oregon offers on offense will look a good deal different than what Ekom Udofia, Mike Silva and Trevor Hooper have been facing the past three weeks.

Watching the scout offense and defense at work is by itself not an exciting exercise, but the personnel that Stanford chooses to employ on those scout units is always interesting.  Who does Stanford have to simulate Jonathan Stewart to prepare the Cardinal defense?  And what do you do at quarterback to mirror the running ability of Dennis Dixon, which is much different from the drop-back signal callers on the Cardinal roster?

More immediately revealing, however, is the split we are seeing this week as Stanford fracture's its 104-man roster into "varsity" and "scout" units.  Though not an iron-clad guideline, the personnel practicing on the scout offense or defense typically are outside at least the two-deep at their respective position and not a good bet to see the field that week (or that season).  No player can reasonably be expected to contribute on Saturday if he spent the entire preceding week working within a different team's scheme and not taking repetitions with the Stanford playbook.  As such, we see the scout teams largely populated with players who are slated to redshirt that fall, plus some additional players who are buried at their positional depth chart for one reason or another.

Keeping that in mind, it is instructive to see who is practicing this week with the Stanford offense and defense, versus who is practicing within the Oregon (scout) offense and defense.  Injury situations can change that picture in a heartbeat, as a scout linebacker may be called up to the "Stanford" defense if he has to fill the hole created by the starter's MCL injury, for example.  That caveat aside, here are the (currently healthy) players who earlier this week lined up initially with the scout units:

Scout Defense

Defensive line: Alfred Johnson, Brian Bulcke, James McGillicuddy, Derek Hall

Linebackers: Sam Weinberger, Landon Johnson, Thaddeus Chase, Brandon Willetts

Defensive backs: Jerome Jackson, Kenny Long, Tyler Porras, C.J. Easter, Blaise Johnson, Chris Hobbs

Scout Offense

Wide receivers: Stephen Carr, Charlie Hazlehurst, Robert Polk, Nate Wilcox-Fogel

Running backs: Tyrone McGraw, Ryan Fisicaro, Josh Catron, Ben Ladner

Offensive line: Patrick Bowe *, Andrew Phillips, Bert McBride, Bobby Dockter, David Long

Tight ends: Austin Gunder

Quarterbacks: Aaron Smith *, Alex Loukas, Nicolas Ruhl

* Bowe is nominally a tight end, but there is not enough offensive tackle depth for both the Stanford and scout offenses; Smith is nominally a safety but was an option quarterback in high school and has simulated running quarterbacks in scout work for the Cardinal before.

13 players spread among these scout units are true freshmen, and they would all appear good bets to redshirt this fall.  McGraw might be a special teams returner who could merit playing this year, but that is still unclear.  Bulcke this week moved to inside linebacker to help the Cardinal with their growing depth problem.  It is a dramatic position switch and an improbable scenario that his redshirt would be burned to play in the second level of the defense, but options are scant for Stanford right now and he is being prepared as rapidly as possible.  To wit, Bulcke alone stayed after Thursday's practice for additional one-on-one work with inside linebackers coach Darrell Patterson.

This freshman class is 25 strong, but that does not mean that a dozen frosh are playing "up" with the Stanford offense/defense.  Several are injured.  Two (Leon Peralto, Zach Nolan) are specialists.  But it is revealing to see who is working this week among the veteran players in preparation for probable playing time this fall.

Of the wide receivers, both Richard Sherman and Austin Yancy are taking repetitions with the Stanford offense and appear to be in the mix for possible playing time this year.  Both had difficult starts to this training camp.  Yancy was hurt within the first week, while Sherman had summer school and its final exams hanging over him the first two weeks of camp.  Both have come on in this third week, staying healthy and increasing their work and consistency.  Honestly, neither is ready to play a college football game today.  But Stanford has such a pressing need at wide receiver that both will continue to work toward a strong possibility of playing.  The Cardinal's depth difficulty with their wideouts was very evident to these eyes the last two scrimmages, when senior Mark Bradford played only sparingly.  It was night-and-day watching the first team passing offense when Bradford was and was not on the field.  It will be a long, hard day for the Stanford offense if and when Bradford is injured this fall, and realistically the Cardinal need one or both of these freshmen to work their way past some of the other players currently sitting third, fourth or fifth at the wide receiver position.

Playing Sherman or Yancy today at Oregon would be folly, but those frosh still have another week of work until the season opener.  Moreover, Walt Harris says that the definitive determination to (not) play a freshman is not necessarily made with the Oregon game as a deadline.  The time horizon for such decisions is much longer, says the Cardinal head coach.

"We have until, really, the sixth game to decide about our freshmen," Harris offers.  "We have until about halfway into the season to make a decision on whether we want to use a guy or not use a guy.  After that point, then we may still use a guy, but it's hard."

With that in mind, we will continue to watch Sherman and Yancy as they make progress in the coming weeks.  The season may start without them on the field, but their learning curves (as well as the performance and health of Stanford's other wideouts) could boost them sometime in September or October.  Harris has to hope one or both of them makes that leap, given the difficulty of Stanford's receivers to make plays without Bradford these past two scrimmages.

Nobody else looks like a realistic possibility to play from the freshman class this fall, though you might see a frosh in the two-deep of the offensive line when the front five suffers injury issues.  Guard Andrew Phillips saw time with the second team offense at right guard Wednesday, and in several other practices.  But there is a lot of shuffling that can and will be done with the Cardinal's interior linemen before Phillips could be pressed into emergency duty.

There are several possibilities on defense.  Bulcke at inside linebacker was mentioned earlier and is still a nascent concept, though one more injury at that position group could pull him and the Cardinal rapidly from the theoretical to the probable.  If you have an eye for detail and have kept track of who plays at the two different inside linebacker positions, you may ask why Bulcke helps given the current injury woes.  Michael Okwo and Pat Maynor are both out currently, and both play on the weak side of the field at the "Mike" linebacker.  The bulky Bulcke would better fit on the strong side at the "Ted" linebacker, where both Mike Silva and Fred Campbell currently sit and are healthy.  However, Silva played and started several games for Stanford on the weak side last year, and the inside 'backers are taught to play both positions.  If push came to shove and you had to put Bulcke on the field, he would likely play together with a Silva, for example.

The more realistic possibility of playing this fall is Nick Macaluso, who is currently running first string at the "Mike" linebacker position.  He is a somewhat surprising athlete who runs well and is proficient in pass coverage, but he is enduring some freshman struggles in reading running plays and playing his gaps.  His situation is not too different from that of Sherman or Yancy on offense - showing promise but not yet ready for prime time.  How did Macaluso play in his first college football scrimmage the second week of Stanford's camp?  "Like a lost puppy," said defensive coordinator A.J. Christoff afterward to The Bootleg.

The player most ready to play on defense, and in fact on the entire roster, from this freshman class is nose tackle Sione Fua.  He has taken the second team repetitions at his position the entirety of camp and not yet missed a single day with injury.  Any time that redshirt freshman starter Ekom Udofia has been nicked and had to go to the sideline, Fua has stepped up to the first team defense.  He has great balance and knows how to use his hands, and it does not hurt that Fua is physically mature at 301 pounds.  Taking into account readiness, repetitions and health, Fua is the number one lock to play today in the Oregon game from his class.  Udofia is a beast and a big playmaker, but it is not reasonable to ask anybody to play every down at that position, so Fua will see the field for significant action.  Do not be fooled by him as a mere "backup" just because he sits second at his position.

Fua headlines a very talented defensive line freshman class, and also in the mix for possible playing time is defensive end Levirt Griffin.  Stanford wants to be able to play a regular rotation of two-deep at all its defensive line positions.  Griffin is not automatically second on the depth chart at either end position, but injuries are expected and have been a part of this preseason.  We have seen Griffin numerous times play with the second string at both right end and left end.  He has helped himself during camp by losing 10 pounds, and we think he may be the "seventh" defensive lineman for Stanford today.  We expect Griffin to travel to the Oregon game, and he may literally be one injury away from playing time.

The debate that rages every year surrounding the topic of playing true freshmen is how much time justifies burning the redshirt.  That question will be asked aloud if a Griffin or Macaluso has to play to help the Stanford defense.

"It's too soon for that.  When it comes time, Coach Harris and only Coach Harris will make that determination," Christoff comments on the question of playing true freshmen on defense this fall.  "We don't want to play guys unless they are going to play.  We don't guys to play three play a game, or 10 plays one game and not the next.  We need them to be able to contribute.  And that depends also on our depth situations."

  • Easy Does It - After a hard camp, the Cardinal have taken as big a hit with injuries as anybody in the Pac-10 this preseason.  Wednesday marked the final scrimmage of Stanford's fall camp, and afterward Walt Harris talked about focusing on bringing back his banged up players.  Thursday started that effort with a light practice in shorts.  We expect to see more shorts and less full-contact hitting in the coming days, to ease many ailing players back into playing health.
  • Scrimmage Big Plays - On paper, there were a pair of long scoring plays for the offense and defense that stood out from Wednesday's scrimmage.  Redshirt freshman tight end James Dray caught a 54-yard touchdown from fifth-year senior quarterback Trent Edwards... but that was a Hail Mary heave at the end of a hurry-up drill, which had no chance of completion short of the goalline.  Redshirt junior cornerback Tim Sims was in position to break up the pass and leapt into the air to knock it down, but the ball was batted down and flukishly hit his foot and kicked back up into the air.  Dray caught the ball on the four-yard line and ran into the endzone.  The defensive big play in the stat sheet was an interception returned by Peter Griffin 27 yards for a touchdown (the field was 70 yards long for the scrimmage).  Give Griffin credit for having his head on a swivel and breaking to the endzone after he hauled in the ball, but the play was only possible because redshirt junior running back Jason Evans knocked the ball straight up into the air.  The Edwards pass to Evans just past the line of scrimmage hit him right in the hands and should have been an easy reception.
  • The "Real" Big Plays - Our eyes told us that a different pair of plays were more important and impressive.  For the offense, it was a rare down where Bradford was on the field for offense.  Bradford got past a pair of defenders and broke for the sideline, when Edwards saw him and threaded a picture-perfect pass that looped just over the leaping hands of Wopamo Osaisai but dropped right over Bradford's shoulder at the sideline.  He collected the ball, and his feet, for a 23-yard gain that had to be seen to be appreciated.  It was that same right sideline, a little later in the scrimmage and a little closer to the goalline, that saw the day's top defensive play.  Redshirt freshman fullback Josh Catron caught a pass and headed toward the endzone with only fifth-year senior free safety David Lofton between him and the score.  Catron hit Lofton with a full head of steam, but the 6'4" safety gave up no ground and stoned him at the two-yard line.  It was an impressive physical play for Lofton, who has come on strong the last two weeks.  "He is somebody who has always been a great athlete and shown flashes but not had the consistency," says Christoff of Lofton.  "Now he is starting to show that."
  • The Defensive Back Dance - Speaking of Lofton, his improved play is having a ripple effect elsewhere in the Stanford secondary.  We have discussed a good deal about senior Brandon Harrison working at both cornerback and free safety this preseason.  He has shuffled back and forth, and some observers have asked which position is his best fit.  Christoff and Harris have consistently answered that they are looking for their "four best players" to fill the defensive backfield, which is a way of saying that the competition and performances by other players at cornerback and safety help determine whether Harrison is needed more at one or the other.  Thus, the coaches are saying that they have comfort today with Harris at either position, and his placement will depend on Stanford's needs rather than his disparate abilities.  "We don't want to have five safeties and three cornerbacks," Christoff comments.  "Brandon Harrison will depend on how the other situations play out."  Lofton stepping up safety has been one reason we have seen more of Harrison at cornerback this week, after he saw some time at safety in the second week of camp.  Additionally, however, there have been steps forward by Tim Sims and redshirt freshman Kris Evans that have strengthened the cornerback corps depth.  It is a dizzying picture, but an overall positive camp of progress in the defensive backfield.
  • Punt Returner Revealed? - We have discussed very little about the open positions at kickoff and punt returner in this preseason.  Part of the picture has been clouded by some injuries.  Redshirt junior Nick Sanchez, for example, missed the middle of camp with a head injury but returned this week and played in Wednesday's scrimmage.  It was notable that he alone was back for punt return duties during each and every punt by classmate Jay Ottovegio.
  • Gerhart Getting Back - Not mentioned in the scout team/freshman playing time discussion above was running back Toby Gerhart.  He has been out with a hamstring injury for almost two weeks now.  However, it has been an encouraging site to see him take part in some light drills the past two days, albeit in a yellow jersey.  Bringing a player back from a hamstring injury is a delicate matter, but Gerhart could be a tremendous asset as early as Stanford's season opener if he is healthy and can get up to speed with the offense.  The only thing - the only thing - holding him back from playing this fall would be his health.  I would pencil him in right now as Stanford's #2 tailback if he is healthy.  His practice participation will be one of the more important items to watch the next several days.

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