The 2007 season has not even started, but we already can tell you who is
Stanford's "comeback" player of the year. He is not returning from injury
or illness, but rather a hibernation. The football animal inside Ben Ladner disappeared through his freshman and redshirt freshman seasons. Now
a redshirt sophomore, the 6'3" athlete has stirred from his slumber and erupted
as easily the top surprise player on the Stanford roster in 2007. From
former obscurity, the newly converted tight end in the spring grabbed the role
as one of the offense's most prolific playmakers in practices and scrimmages.
We spoke with Ladner in April and found him bubbling with excitement for the
game again. He had moved from fullback to tight end and was now a featured
part of the passing game, but the Kansas City native found his awakening from
the new Cardinal coaching staff, led by Jim Harbaugh.
"It's my new outlook on football," Ladner explained. "Something Coach
Harbaugh has been talking about giving the game everything you've got, while you
have the chance to play. If you don't, you'll have regrets. I don't
want to have any regrets... It's just a mental thing. I don't know
why it took so long - I just needed to flip the switch."
"Even more than the position change, it's the coaching staff," he said.
"I've never had a relationship with my coach like I have with Coach [Tim] Drevno.
I talk to him like he's my friend, and he listens to me. Everything is
just more positive, and that makes it a lot easier to come out here and put
everything you have into it... It's a lot of positive encouragement.
That gives me an extra bounce in my step when I come out onto the field.
The encouragement from the coaches is a big part of that."
"I haven't been this excited about playing football since I was a junior in
high school," Ladner admitted. "It's a good feeling."
Could he keep that flame alive through the summer and into the fall?
Ladner is a player we have watched closely, to see what kind of follow-through
he would deliver. He has not only maintained his level of play and
enthusiasm, but also taken it up a notch.
"The spring was a really big confidence builder for me. I proved to the
coaching staff and to myself that I can be a productive player," Ladner says.
"I took that, and that gave me extra motivation in the summer, in terms of
getting my conditioning up and getting my body right. I've been getting in
my playbook and stuff like that. Now I come out here with more confidence,
and confidence is everything when you get out here on the field.
Especially playing with full pads on, against guys who are contributing on this
team. You have to get right for that UCLA game."
The physical changes are visible for Ladner, who was 260 pounds to start the
year. He found himself dragging at the end of winter conditioning and
spring ball, so he decided to get as serious about his nutrition as he was about
his football. Ladner cut out the late night snacks and the breakfast
burritos. Coupled with the strength & conditioning program under Shannon
Turley, he dropped to 238 pounds. Ladner from that point worked with
Turley to build his body back to a powerful weight, though now a lean 250.
his head, heart and body now right, Ladner is improving his tight end abilities.
He has been a regular part of the passing game in two-tight end sets for the
first team offense, complementing redshirt sophomore and returning tight end
starter James Dray.
"My route running, I think it's crisper. I think my ball skills are a
little bit better. And my physicality is better than it's every been -
that's a big thing for me," Ladner says. "It's still my challenge to play
more physical, all of the time. From my feet on contact, from my hands.
And finish blocks."
"I think just naturally as a football player, that's where I'm at. The
receiving game has been my strong point," he adds. "It's been like that
since I started playing... I'm trying to build that physical part of the
game right now."
While trying to bring his blocking up to the level of his receiving, Ladner
this training camp has suddenly encountered a wrinkle. Stanford lost its
starting fullback, when fifth-year senior Emeka Nnoli last week had avascular
necrosis found in both his hips, ending his playing career. The Cardinal
have been forced to play a true freshman at fullback in the first-team offense,
which is not ideal.
To help fill a need, Ladner's identity has changed. He is now adding
some fullback responsibilities to his position as the 'U' tight end in the
"Our two tight ends when we run two-tight end sets, we have the 'Y' and the
'U'. Jimmy Dray plays a lot of 'Y' and I play a lot of 'U'," Ladner
explains. "It goes in motion a lot - counter motion back to a fullback
spot or run a lead play. Give pass pro from the backfield and give a check
down. That's what I'm trying to concentrate on right now, in addition to
taking just some straight fullback reps."
Playing fullback in 2006 was uninspiring for Ladner, so it is natural to
wonder if his return to those responsibilities could also reverse some of his
newfound life on the football field.
"It was more than just switching positions," he retorts. "It was
flipping the switch in terms of just football in general. I'm more
comfortable on the football field, and it doesn't matter where I'm at. I
can be comfortable at fullback now, too. I want to do whatever I can to
help the team win, and I want to be out of the field as much as I can to make
that happen. I'm not going to trip on playing fullback."
The other beast we saw so visibly unleashed inside a Stanford player this
spring was Allen Smith. Already talented and an important part of the
offense, the 6'5" offensive tackle has started 20 straight games for the
Cardinal at tackle. But the redshirt junior has transformed from a solid
role on the offensive line to an aggressive player and leader for the entire
"It's fantastic," Smith says of his year so far. " I've just tried to be a
role model for these young offensive linemen coming in. We have a talented
group of guys. Me and Alex Fletcher, we're just trying to lead the way and
fire up these guys as much as possible. At the end of the day, gunning
through camp with the intensity unknown to mankind that Coach Harbaugh talks
about is definitely going to carry over into the season."
The offensive line has been the whipping boy for Stanford's offensive
failures the last few seasons, but Smith and his mates on the line believe they
are turning that around this year.
"I think that we can come out and surprise a lot of people this year.
It's no surprise to us, but it might be a surprise to them," he opines.
"The way that we're grinding right now, the way that we're playing and the way
that we're hitting, it's a velocity and intensity that we haven't seen before.
That's what you always like to see, especially in the first few days of camp."
"I personally think that Alex Fletcher is the best right guard in the
conference. He's developing as a player and becoming outstanding," Smith
says. "Tim Mattran coming back for a sixth year is absolutely clutch.
Then we have a lot of young guys stepping up and filling holes. A lot of
guys who didn't have starting roles last year and coming into those roles this
year, and they've really shown that they belong there. It's the overall
maturity of guys, having played in games and playing in the system a little
more. Coach Dalman is coaching us up in a way we haven't been before, and
that's definitely going to benefit us going into the season."
especially is a changed player. Linemen often make incremental
improvements with each passing year of experience, but Smith has taken his new
fiery persona and integrated that into his play. Instead of reacting to a
defender, he now takes the fight to his opponent. Can you imagine
attacking Pannel Egboh while pass protecting? That's an example of exactly
what we've see from Smith in this camp.
So what can fans expect to see different from Smith on Saturday's this fall?
"Pancakes. Putting people on their backs," he answers. "We're
going to roll over them. We're going to march on them because that's the
kind of intensity we want. We're hitting people, and I think we're going
to come out and set a tone that's different than the offensive lines have set
here before. It's a little more intense and way more physical.
People are going to understand that Stanford's offensive line is a force to be
Smith is also filling some of the holes in his game from 2006.
"I had a little bit harder time sitting down on bull rushes last year,
especially guys who countered back to the inside hard," he explains. "But
I've been working with Coach Turley, and he got me trained up. He isolated
my weaknesses, especially my strength. I worked on those all in the
off-season, and I feel that my game is pretty complete right now. Of
course there is always room - I can change up my sets so that I don't have the
same vanilla sets. I have a couple jump sets in there. I have some
soft sets for the seven-step drops."
"I have some surprises to show people this year," Smith says.
The redshirt sophomore credits former Stanford All-American and All-Pro
offensive tackle Bob Whitfield for aiding his transformation this year.
The recently retired NFL lineman is back on campus finishing his undergraduate
degree, while also dishing out an education as Smith's mentor.
"Talking with Bob Whitfield over the summer was also a blessing. I get
the benefit of years of NFL experience," says the student. "He says that
no matter what, you have to be always on the attack. No matter how fast or
how strong a guy is, you have to always be going after him. In the end,
you have all the advantages. You know the snap count. You know where
the ball is going. It's up to you to make the block."
"I think that last year, I was a little bit more tentative, especially in my
run blocking, than I should have been," Smith adds. "I understand that I
have the skill set needed to get the blocks done. Now it's all about
making sure that they feel it in the fourth quarter."
The everyday teaching belongs to Chris Dalman, Stanford's new offensive line
coach and a former Cardinal lineman. Like Ladner, Smith credits his
position coach with changing the way he feels about Stanford Football.
had a tremendous impact," says Smith. "His coaching style really suits us.
He's definitely a teacher, and he teaches us the intricacies of the game, so we
understand concepts rather than assignments. I think that's going to be
the difference. When teams come up with different schemes that we may not
have seen before, we're going to be able to cope with all of it. With our
intensity on top of our analysis and knowledge of the gameplan, I don't think
there is much a defense can throw at us that we can't handle."
"He's not very loud. He has a calm demeanor," the tackle states.
"But the important thing is that you get the concepts and the knowledge of the
game. If we're not having a good practice, of course he'll crawl up in our
butts and make sure that we get it going. But that's not him. He
knows that we know what to do, and he wants to make sure that we do it. He
makes sure that we go back and look at the film and get it corrected, coming out
to practice the next day."
These descriptions are markedly different than what could have been said the
last two years, when the stormy Tom Freeman coached the Cardinal offensive line.
Freeman's style was at times viewed as abusive to his players, which pushed the
buttons of a few but broke down others.
Smith diplomatically echoes the difference between the two coaches.
"Coach Freeman had his own style," Smith describes. "He was a
tremendous O-line coach and a guy who had been around a long time. He had
his own knowledge of the game. I feel like a couple of guys on the squad,
myself included, respond a little bit better to this coaching style."
"But the bottom line is that it wasn't about the coach last year. It
was about us," he adds. "We're changing ourselves. Coach Dalman sees
us and is trying to make the change. He's working with us. So far,
we're pretty happy with where we're at."
Other News & Notes
* Like Ladner, Allen Smith also has made marked changes in his body
this year, which are showing up in his play. "I'm feeling fast," says the
294-pound tackle. "I'm a lot stronger than I was before. A lot more
explosive... Maybe a little more athletic, and I thank Coach Turley for
* One wonders if there is some conservation rule of Stanford offensive
tackles quietly at work in this world. While the return of redshirt
sophomore right tackle Chris Marinelli has been lauded by coaches, teammates and
observers, redshirt junior right tackle Ben Muth at the same time has been out
of practices with an undisclosed injury.
* Freshman defensive end Thomas Keiser is quietly impressing during
this fall camp. We watched him in a couple of summer practices he
attended, while voluntarily traveling on his dime across the country.
Keiser was noticeably short on technique and looked like he would be a
developmental player for the future. But he is proving to be a quick
study, aided as well by his speed and a high intensity with which he plays the
* Another freshman who is surprising is safety Taylor Skaufel. A
number of observers held low expectations for the lightly recruited Texas
athlete, but Skaufel puts himself into the right position and is making plays
this camp. This will shock those who followed their respective recruiting
stories last year, but Skaufel to date is far outplaying position mate and
fellow frosh Kellen Kiilsgaard.
* Probably not the most significant position to follow for a depth
chart on the roster, but the holder on field goals/PATs has a new man in the
mix. Fifth-year senior punter Jay Ottovegio is still holding down that
role for the first-team kicking unit, but the backup is changing. Redshirt
junior wideout Kelton Lynn took on the job at the start of camp, but he has been
yielding more and more of the holds to redshirt sophomore quarterback Tavita Pritchard. And every fan of college football knows what it can add to a
team's bag of tricks when a quarterback is the holder.
* The backup quarterback job, which was up for grabs at the start of
this fall camp, is solidifying for Pritchard. The redshirt sophomore
slinger moved ahead of redshirt freshman Alex Loukas on the depth chart a few
days ago and continues to improve. "I'd say that he's taken that and he's
running with it," offers Jim Harbaugh on Pritchard's position. "He's still
not where you'd love him to be, but he's getting there. He's getting
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