Friday marked a pair of firsts for this Stanford preseason camp. Day Five put the Cardinal on the field for their first day practice, spanning three hours of the afternoon. It also saw Stanford practice in full pads for the first time this week, as prescribed by the NCAA's acclimatization rules (two days of no pads, two days of shoulder pads, fifth day finally in full pads).
The contact allowed by full pads on Friday gave us a better look at how the more physical positions closer to the line of scrimmage were playing. Previous practices accentuated the so-called "skilled" players in the passing game. Our eyes in particular gravitated to the running game, and the play of the linebackers trying to defend the run.
After Monday's practice, we pronounced the wide receivers as our pick for the first-day strength of the new freshman class. After watching Friday's practice, we are ready for a revision. Fresh off a new addition in the form of Chike Amajoyi, switched Thursday from running back, we must now tip our cap to the linebackers as the standout position group of this freshman class. Amajoyi, Johnathan Frink and Max Bergen have all impressed us mightily, but we figure we should talk to linebackers coach Andy Buh to see if our uneducated eyes can be trusted in extolling these three frosh.
"You're right," Buh smiles. "I'm as excited as a coach can be with three new guys. Each of them are Division I football players, and that isn't always the case. There can be mistakes made in recruiting, but with these three guys there were no mistakes. These guys will be future players in our program. They will be future lettermen. They will play."
Buh is not prone to overexcitement, and he knows a thing or two about linebacker talent. At San Diego State he cranked out an exceptional string of linebackers, including three first-day NFL Draft picks he developed (Matt McCoy, 2nd round; Kirk Morrison, 3rd; Freddy Keiaho, 3rd). Given his track record, we can expect that Buh's enthusiasm for Bergen, Frink and Amajoyi will translate into their production at Stanford.
First, he has work to do with them.
"I'm basically just teaching them the game," Buh explains. "We've had to start from scratch with all of them. The biggest thing right now - it's baby steps - is alignment first. Then it's assignment. Then it's their key. Then it's them executing. In that order, they're still making those kinds of mistakes. But they're growing fast. I've had Chike Amajoyi for one day, and he's already playing. He went from running to linebacker, and he's so bright that he's picked it up [snaps fingers] that quick."
"I love them all equally, but they all have their own special talents," the coach continues. "Chike has great power and speed, so that's why we put him at 'Willie'. Max Bergen has a lot of power - not as much speed as Chike. But he is kind of that tough guy we can play out of the box, but he can hold up inside the box. And then Frink is just all power. He's all power. I bet with his size, he could jump 34 or 35 inches - that is the kind of power you can see in him. That's why it was great when we got Chike because we were able to move Frink to the middle, and that'll be his natural position. Yeah, it's been fun to get those three guys."
The Cardinal this year have a host of returning players and experience on the defensive line and in the secondary, while more questions have come in the linebacking corps. Stanford signed just five linebackers in the last three combined recruiting classes. Absent both veterans and youth, the soft spot for the foreseeable future on Stanford's defense looks like the linebackers on paper. But with these three promising freshmen - any of whom might play this fall - the outlook is already improving.
Other News & Notes
* In our haste to finish the Day Four notes yesterday, we left out some important observations from Thursday evening. The first was the return of redshirt sophomore nose tackle Ekom Udofia to action. He not only participated in one-on-one drills, but he also surprised us with a great deal of work in the team periods of practice. Udofia missed the entire spring following off-season shoulder surgery. The 6'2" 310-pounder returned to action this summer and had a great six weeks of workouts, only to tweak his hamstring on the second-to-last run of the summer. Fortunately he has missed only a minimal portion of this camp. Udofia, a former Parade All-American, is expected to have his best yet at Stanford.
* (Thursday) Jason Forcier, the 6'2" quarterback transfer from Michigan, delivered probably the most impressive single play of the night. He ran a naked bootleg that was executed not only well enough to fool the entire defense. But he also flashed jaw-dropping speed taking the ball down the left sideline and to the house for a touchdown. The defense this fall is going to be prepared in unparalleled fashion for any running quarterback Stanford will face this year, with Forcier running the scout offense. He cannot play for the Cardinal until 2008, but this athlete is a great reason to come out and watch practices this fall camp.
* (Thursday) The Cardinal had an excellent guest speaker at the close of Thursday's practice. Vaughn Bryant addressed the team, speaking from the perspective not only as a former Stanford cornerback Vaughn Bryant (played under Denny Green and Bill Walsh in the early 1990s, drafted 4th round in 1994), but also as someone who works today in the NFL Player Development office. We have also noticed several leaders from the senior and junior classes addressing the team huddle at the end of practices this week with heated emotion and inspiration, including Allen Smith, Mark Bradford and Pat Maynor.
* Returning to Day Five... True freshman Taylor Skaufel did not have a powerful recruiting profile coming out of high school, but he is surprising a few of his doubters with his plays and ability to run this fall. Skaufel is currently running with the second team defense at free safety.
* One proxy we like to use in preseason camp to gauge the true freshmen who will see the field: which ones are seeing serious work with the special teams units. We have seen a lot of work there from cornerback Corey Gatewood, which leads us to believe that he currently is penciled in as one of the frosh likely to see time this fall. However, there are still two-plus weeks of camp to go and a full three weeks until the season opener. A freshman has a lot of room to rise or fall during that time.
* Somebody not participating in seven-on-seven or team periods yet is freshman tight end Coby Fleener, still being cautiously handled with a pair of herniated discs in his back. But Fleener has done individual drills and even snuck into some one-on-one work. Even in those limited looks, Fleener is already earning rave reviews from the coaching staff. There is a very high ceiling expected of the 6'6" athlete, particularly given his ball skills and aerial elevation. If his back continues to respond well to treatments, and if he can be healed and healthy - don't rule out Fleener as somebody who could see the field and play an impact role this fall.
* We've talked a lot this week about the freshman class, due in part to their talent across a number of positions. They also are the newest players with whom we are the least familiar, seeing them in their first ever Stanford practices this camp. Have you read enough this week where you can now figure which true freshman is seeing the most work at this juncture in camp, often seen with the first team? Scroll to the bottom of this story for the answer...
* Fifth-year senior kicker Derek Belch had an excellent day kicking Friday. We're not sure if we saw him miss in his field goals. His distance on kicks also continues to impress. Redshirt junior Aaron Zagory is sharing time in that competition, and he is hitting more than his share of field goals. But there is a clear difference in his power and that of Belch.
* We noted that fifth-year senior wide receiver Evan Moore was held out of action on Thursday's practice. Jim Harbaugh told us to expect the 6'7" wideout to come right back, as the staff handles him with caution this camp. True enough, Moore was back in action Friday afternoon and resumed his role with the first-team offense.
* Sixth-year senior Tim Mattran went out during Friday's practice. His injury is undisclosed but believed to be minor. Harbaugh says he expects his starting center to be out only "through the weekend". In the meantime, redshirt freshman Bert McBride stepped up into the first-team center position. He did a pretty fair job. Classmate Andrew Phillips has ascended to the second-team center role, which increases his work at the position. Phillips came into camp primarily as a guard but took some rotating snaps at center with the third-team defense. For the time being, his identity is more focused at center, and he is already improving his snapping of the ball.
* Two standout interceptions were recorded on Friday, snared by each of the Cardinal's two current first-team cornerbacks. Redshirt sophomore Chris Hobbs beat fifth-year senior wide receiver Mark Bradford for a ball on the sideline and was mobbed by teammates immediately. A little later, a fade pattern intended for redshirt sophomore tight end James Dray was a little underthrown by fifth-year senior quarterback T.C. Ostrander. Redshirt sophomore Kris Evans made a great leaping play on the ball and pulled it down. These two corners are certainly growing in their opportunities while their three veteran position mates are on the shelf.
* With all of the talk earlier on the freshmen linebackers, you may wonder how the competition for the starting middle linebacker position between redshirt sophomore Fred Campbell and redshirt freshman Nick Macaluso is faring. Both players were moved from outside linebacker to the "Mike" position, just 24 hours before the start of camp. We asked Andy Buh about the duo while he had him on the microphone: "They're doing great. I don't really ever like talking about the depth chart, but those two guys are scrapping. Once we get into scrimmage mode, we'll find out who will win that battle. I am equally impressed with both of them. They have a lot of the same qualities. We'll see how that battle ends up... It's almost like this: When you move a linebacker to defensive end, he might be one of the worst guys at linebacker but now he becomes one of the fastest guys. It's the same thing with the linebackers. You take the slowest games at an outside linebacker position, and you move them inside. Now they're the fastest guys. The switch has been really good. They're profiting from it."
* The answer to which true freshman is seeing the most work today, often with his first-team unit? Fullback Owen Marecic. That is a function of his talent, toughness and mental approach, but it also has something to do with opportunity. Fifth-year senior Emeka Nnoli is still on the shelf, and that unfortunately won't be changing anytime soon. Redshirt freshman Sam Weinberger also was out Thursday, for a second straight day. But Marecic is not backing his way into the first-team snaps we saw throughout Friday afternoon. He is a hard-hitter and quick learner who is impressing everyone.
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