March 13, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. -
Midway through spring practice, head coach David Shaw has a clearer view of the parts and some of the other moving pieces that will serve as Stanford's foundation come September.
It should come as no surprise Stanford's projected strengths -- running back, tight end, both lines and linebacker - are holding true, while some of its unknowns - quarterback, wide receiver and secondary - still need to be defined.
Add a healthy dose of the unknown coupled with spirited position battles at many key positions give reason to believe Stanford's last eight spring practices should be more telling than the first seven.
As expected, there has been no significant separation among the quarterbacks, as Shaw expected the competition would carry over to training camp.
While Shaw was quick to state it would be unfair to measure the quarterback position by the same standards that had been set over the last three years, he hopes the pressure of filling the void of Andrew Luck is felt by every unit on the team.
"The big thing I told the team from the beginning is pressure needs to be spread to all positions. It can't just be put on the quarterback or the defense.
"Just like when Andrew was here, we still need to run the ball effectively. Our play action has to be effective. Our tight ends have to perform and of course we have to defend. Then it's up to our coaches to find the right matchups.
"We might not go through the first half up 28 points on a team, but we have a great scheme that tries to utilize the talents of each person. It's going to be exciting to see how we morph and change to utilize the talents we have."
Here are some thoughts and observations of Stanford midway through spring workouts:
Shaw calls the competition for the quarterback position "pretty even" at this point, which is not unexpected as both Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes, along with Robbie Picazo, Evan Crower and Kevin Hogan, have been taking equal reps over the course of the first seven practices.
"No one has separated themselves yet but they are all executing very well," said Shaw. "We've put a lot on them mentally to handle our pass protection checks, run audibles and operate the huddle quickly with a clock on them.
"It's competitive but they are confident in their abilities to lead the offense."
While a frontrunner for the position could very well emerge over the course of the next eight practice sessions, it's unlikely a starter will be named until sometime during training camp in August.
One of the best units in the country over the last three years, Stanford will look to fill holes at left tackle and right guard left void by Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro, respectively.
Sophomore Cole Underwood and redshirt freshman Brendon Austin saw plenty of work at the left tackle position, while juniors Kevin Danser and Khalil Wilkes have been rotating at right guard.
The competition gets stiffer come August with the arrival of prized freshmen Andrus Peat, Joshua Garnett and Kyle Murphy.
Given Stanford's top three returning receivers are a fullback (Ryan Hewitt) and two tight ends (Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo), establishing depth and identity at the wide receiver position remains high on the Cardinal's list of priorities this spring.
Shaw has been pleased with the play of seniors Drew Terrell and Jamal-Rashad Patterson, along with redshirt freshman Kelsey Young, who was recruited as a running back but is now seeing action at wide receiver.
"Drew has had a very good camp so far," said Shaw. "He's mastering the offense. We can put him anywhere and know he'll catch the ball and do the right thing - kind of like Griff Whalen last year. He's also our best physical blocker."
Shaw calls Young the "x-factor" of the group.
"We are still creating a role for him," said Shaw. "He did a great job in high school and on our scout team as a running back, but when we needed someone to be (USC wide receiver) Robert Woods, he flipped over and did a great job as a wide receiver.
"He has that dual role now. He's a physical kid, a good blocker and one of the fastest guys on the team. It will be exciting to see how his role develops."
Stanford is in search of a defensive end to start opposite Ben Gardner and alongside nose tackle Terrence Stephens. Junior Josh Mauro and sophomore Henry Anderson have both opened eyes this spring, while redshirt freshman Kevin Anderson will try to enter the picture after being slowed by injury.
"Our defensive line, as we need it to be, has been very good," said Shaw. "Gardner has been awesome and Terrence Stephens has really stepped up. Mauro and Anderson have also been very consistent."
Stanford is loaded at the linebacker position, especially on the outside, with Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy returning to occupy starting roles.
Add to the mix sophomore James Vaughters, junior Blake Lueders, fifth-year senior Alex Debniak and incoming freshman Noor Davis, Stanford has unprecedented talent and depth at this position.
Shaw says there is an expected standard of play from this group, a unit he calls "as good as anybody's in the nation."
"They need to take it more. There are days they don't dominate and dominating players need to dominate all of the time."
Shaw has seen marked improvement from both Thomas and Murphy, two players who combined for 15 sacks among their 27.5 tackles-for-loss last season.
"Thomas is just so quick," said Shaw. "He combined speed and power and is very hard to get a beat on. You try to jump him and he'll go around you with his speed and spin moves.
"Murphy is quick and strong and has very long arms. He's hard to throw over or run around. When he's going at full speed, he creates havoc.
"They are both hard to block consistently," said Shaw.
Early returns point to juniors Terrence Brown, Barry Browning and Usua Amanam along with sophomore Wayne Lyons playing significant roles at the cornerback position.
Brown and Browning both have starting experience, while Amanam continues to adjust to his new position after starting his career as a running back.
Lyons has been cleared for football activity after a broken foot kept him sidelined for all but two games last season.
"Wayne is playing at about 85 percent," said Shaw. "He's so competitive and is just one of those defensive backs who finds the ball, either stripping it, getting a tip or an interception. We're excited to see him play an entire season this year."
Junior Devon Carrington along with sophomores Jordan Richards, Ed Reynolds and Kyle Olugbode saw most of the early reps at the safety position, where Stanford must offset the losses to Delano Howell and Michael Thomas, two players who combined to make 57 starts over the course of their careers.
Carrington and Richards have an edge in experience, while Reynolds was sidelined all of last season with injury.
Shaw states unequivocally "the safeties that don't miss tackles are the ones who will play" but is pleased with the depth that is developing at his position, which will get another boost in August with the arrival of Alex Carter.
After a three-week break for dead week, finals and spring break, Stanford will resume spring practice on Monday, April 2...the practice session on April 7 will be open to the public...the annual Cardinal and White Spring Game is set for April 14 at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco...Stanford will host its annual Pro Day on March 22, where draft hopefuls will showcase their skills on campus for NFL scouts and executives...Stanford's Pro Day will be streamed live on ESPN3...the NFL Network is also planning to air two one hour shows from campus, the first from 12-1:00 p.m. followed by a wrap-up show from 3-4:00 p.m....in additon, ESPN is expected to send a news crew of Chris Mortenson, Trent Dilfer, Rachel Nichols and Steve Young to cover the event...check back to GoStanford.com for further details.