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.
With 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 offense.
"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 offense.
"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."
Smith 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 reckoned with."
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.
"He's 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 that."
* 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 game.
* 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 better."
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