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February 28, 2011

Practice Breakdown

Stanford Football's practice this past Sunday was the second opportunity for Stanford fans to catch a glimpse of the Cardinal this spring as they prepare for an exciting and anticipated 2011 fall.

Overall, I was really impressed with the team. And I don't think it was because they had a particularly good day of practice. It seemed like a good but not necessarily great practice. More importantly, I previously had a pretty high standard for this team to begin with. Let's just say that I am even more bullish on the talent level of the team, particularly the younger players that redshirted this last season.

Obviously, Stanford has some questions to answer at certain positions with the graduation of some very valuable seniors from the 2011 Orange Bowl Champion Stanford team. But to me, it appears that Stanford has more than just a few answers to the personnel questions

Spring is a great time to get to work developing the personnel for the entire team at their respective offensive and defensive positions. Once fall hits, there are roughly 10-14 days to see what your personnel can do independently. Who can play/help? And who can't? The season hits the team. And it is a weekly grind to prep for the next weekly opponent. Developing the younger and further off players is put on the backburner.

So, it is the spring. And coupled with that is the opportunity to evaluate the previous incoming freshmen class. In this class the 2010, Stanford Football recruiting class. Of course, the national recruiting pundits have made their prognostications on who can and will play…..as freshmen and eventually as seniors. But those guys make their blind guesses….blindly. And then they disappear. Never to be seen or heard from again.

Functionally for the respective team that the players actually play for, the common mentality is that you really don't have an idea of what you have got until:

1.) After the first two days of Fall Camp…..where the outstanding players that will play will stick out immediately.

2.) After the first spring is over (basically their freshmen year)…..where the better players that maybe had one or two issues with adjusting to the college game will iron out their deficiencies and start to produce.

3.) After the first two years…..at this point, if a player does not have a pulse, they are usually not going to going further.

So with that in mind, The Cardinal Report is going to evaluate most every position on the 2011 Stanford Football team. As well, we review the 2010 recruiting class, particularly the redshirting freshmen that did not touch the field in 2010, but who might make some significant contributions for the 2011 season and beyond.

Quarterback

Andrew Luck is ridiculous. Not that this was not incredibly obvious. But seriously, all Stanford fans need to come out to the next open Stanford practice on Saturday March 3 to appreciate how dominant he is. He is in total control in almost all facets. On top of that, Luck is nearly the last guy off the field...taking pictures and signing autographs with any and all.

Luck does not help make the rest of Stanford's Quarterback alternatives look very good. Picazo is out with an non-football related sickness. Josh Nunes, Brett Nottingham, David Olson and Darren Daniel are a ways away. Nunes is the closest to being game ready if that were needed. Nottingham and Olson need some substantial work to be game-ready. Though both are not incapable, they are going to need to get reps this spring to develop sooner rather than later. Daniel is the wildcard. Right now, he is a serious project at the QB position. But the tools are there. Yes, he struggles to get consistent spiral on the ball. One ball is a perfectly spiraled lazer. And the next throw is a fluttering duck of a throw that can barely make it to the feet of its intended target. But there is no questioning his arm strength and athletic ability. Continue to monitor Daniel's progress through the spring. There is no doubt that Coach Shaw will be. Daniel was not coached much by the various QB-gurus that service the prominent high school ranked quarterbacks around the nation….the Steve Clarksons, the Bob Johnsons, etc. So, Stanford fans will have to give him a little time. But ultimately the long term prospects with Daniel at Quarterback might be worth the investiture of spring practice reps.

Running Back

Let's face it. We are loaded at RB. Even with Tyler Gaffney gone to baseball, Stanford might have the top collection of RBs in the nation (including Gaffney) for this coming year. I am serious. Top to bottom, we have 4 guys that can all play.

Specifically, Stepfan Taylor ripped off a great run Sunday and continues to show why he is very slightly the most complete RB on Stanford's roster. He continues to display Emmitt Smith-like ability to do just about everything well. Anthony Wilkerson did not have a great practice Sunday, by the standard and flashes that he showed at various times in the 2010 season as a true freshman. But he is legit and is going to be a force. Not that matters too much right now, but I am interested to see more from Ricky Seale.

The word on the street is that Jeremy Stewart is having a great spring. I did not see too much to get too excited about yet. But that is Stewart. He is deceptively good and very versatile. There has been talk about some cameo spot play at FB for Stewart in 2011. But I can't really see that. Instead, you MIGHT see Stanford try to get clever with 2 RBs sets.

Will discuss the fullbacks later on in future updates.

Wide Receiver

Granted there is no Chris Owusu so far this spring. Which allows for others at the WR position to showcase their talents. But you really have to be amazed at the continual and continually upward development of Griff Whalen. Seriously, Stanford and Stanford fans may very well regret playing him in mop-up duty of the 58-0 beatdown of Washington State as a true freshman. After watching the NFL Combine for the greater part of this weekend, the guy that is errily similar to Griff Whalen is Ohio State's Dane Sanzenbacher. On this past Sunday, after watching the WRs at the NFL combine do position drills and later on watching Whalen dominate the Stanford secondary with similar precision, they very well might be the same person.

Based off Sunday's performances, Drew Terrell is making a push to slide right into the opportunity that the graduation of WR Doug Baldwin provides for someone. Terrell is smooth, sure-handed, and more than capable. He is definitely in the lead.

Don't look now, but Jemari Roberts is starting to make a move. The continued excitement and anticipation over Jamal-Rashad Patterson's eventually realized development may need to be transferred to Roberts as well. He is starting to show some desire and ability that have been lacking in previous years, for whatever reason. Roberts is still a little stiff for the WR position. But he seems to be running better and faster; it was easily noticeable. This could be exciting news for Stanford fans. But don't get too excited quite yet.

I was personally interested to get an extended look at WR Keanu Nelson on Sunday. Out of high school, I thought Nelson was a guy who could play WR at the college level. But that ultimately, he would have more value for the team and be better served individually at CB for the Cardinal. There is no doubt that Nelson has the necessary ball skills to be on offense but that his toughness, quickness, and explosiveness would resonate better on defense. Whether or not that eventually happens remains to be seen. Perhaps Stanford's depth at the CB position, which is better than I have ever personally witnessed at Stanford, is eliminating the need for such a typical Stanford move. Just ask Corey Gatewood.

Regardless, Nelson looks good at the WR position. I am intrigued by him. But he still has some substantial work to do. Particularly needs to work on getting in and out of his cuts. Nelson can open up straight ahead very well. But I was expecting better change of direction out of him. Need to watch more. And I am definitely not down on him. However, he is going to have to raise the standard that guys like Doug Baldwin and Griff Whalen have set for the smaller WRs at Stanford…..and not the other way around.

Tight End

Similar to the RB position, we are simply loaded at Tight End. Probable future starter Levine Toilolo was running sprints in the fort. Most of the other Stanford TE's are not like Toilolo. He is a pure inline blocking machine. But he is almost as special in the passing game as a true "Y" Tight End.

The really amazing thing about the Stanford Tight End position group is the number of dynamic, hybrid players, in particular Zach Ertz, Coby Fleener and Ryan Hewitt. Much is known and appreciated by the past production and even greater future potential of Ertz and Fleener. Both are more passing threats as flexed out as Wide Receivers than as Tight Ends. But they are supreme matchup issues for opposing teams around the Pac-10/12 and the country. Furthermore, Ertz looks even better this spring than last year.

The player that really stood out Sunday from this group is Ryan Hewitt. Yes, technically he is listed as FB on the roster. And he does line up there. But make no mistake about it. His abilities in the passing game are and can be utilized much the same as the other TEs on Stanford's roster. His versatility and potential productivity is a huge asset for the Cardinal going forward. Look to Hewitt to continue to develop as a major player in Stanford's arsenal of offseason weapons.

Offensive Line

David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin are beasts. They both should be potential preseason All-Americans.

I will rule out the possibility of DeCastro playing center. I doubt that is much an option, regardless of what Rivals.com/Scout.com recruiting experts projected DeCastro doing out of high school. Who will play center for Stanford in 2011 is another story. Sam Schwartzstein and Khalil Wilkes are battling. But part of me is interested to see if Matt Bentler can snap. Even though Matt Bentler is currently being held out of spring ball, he is going to have a very strong 2011 season. If Bentler can effectively snap, I think it gives Stanford potentially its most effective offensive line lineup, regardless of who mans the left guard position (Danser, Yankey, etc).

Cameron Fleming and David Yankey are as advertised. Both are very physically mature and almost ready to go. Fleming is already getting some PT with the first team in Stanford's now signature 6 OL package as the RT, kicking RT Tyler Mabry out to TE. Fleming has an incredible base and is continuing to progress overall. It is going to be an interesting battle between 5th year Senior Tyler Mabry and the redshirt freshman Fleming. At the end of the day, it is really win-win for Stanford Football. Does not really matter who the starting OT is for Stanford Game One. The job is going to be won, not filled by default. Mabry has always had the ability. It is just a matter of taking full ownership of his game. And the light might be finally coming on in that respect for Mabry. The possibility of a replication of a Derek Hall-like 5th Year dominant performance is not out of the question for Mabry. This is a great problem for Stanford and Stanford fans.

Kicker

Jordan Williamson looks to be the odds on favorite as the kicker. Not real surprising news, just putting that out there in case anyone thought differently. Not much has been said about him because of his redshirt year. But he might have the hardest spot to fill of all the underclassmen replacing graduating seniors. The kicker position at Stanford since 2007 under the first year of Jim Harbaugh has been simply nothing less than outstanding. Ironically, all of the kickers (Belch, Zagory, and Whitaker) are all former walk-ons. Zagory did not have the leg for deep kickoffs. And Whitaker was nails with FGs, but occasionally missed XPTs throughout the season ironically. Aside from that, the group was collectively phenomenal and phenomenally productive. So Williamson has big shoes to fill. But potentially he has the accuracy and leg strength to best this incredibly productive group. Time will tell. But optimism is high. The question is how will he kick in actual game situations?

Defensive Line

Mathew Masifilo is a stud and very game tested. NT Terrence Stephens is going to be fine. Yes, he is not Sione Fua. But that does not mean he cannot be as productive.

But after Sunday's practice viewing, the guy that is really impressive along the Stanford's defensive line is DE Ben Gardner. The gap between the Orange Bowl (Jan. 3) and the start of Stanford's first session of spring practices does not allow much time for substantial physical development. The nice thing for the team is that there is plenty of time on the back end after spring football to see some serious physical gains by the returning upperclassmen. That being said, Gardner continues to make himself more and more of a physical presence. I have no idea what he is weighing right now. But Gardner has put in some substantial work and weight/size on since the last game for the 2010 season. And combined with his playing ability which also continues to improve as well, look for big things from Gardner this upcoming season.

Linebacker

Shayne Skov is a beast. He is a great player that wants to be the best. He and Luck are a very similar, though Skov may be a little more vocal and outwardly brash about his passion for the game. They are two great leaders at THE focal positions on both sides of the ball.

Max Bergen is steady in the saddle, as always. But the chase is on for him to maintain that starting position with many possible suitors gunning for his ILB spot.

Chase Thomas is nearly the prototypical college 34 OLB. The scheme fits him perfectly. And he continues to look even more comfortable out in space, possibly the only previous downside in his game at the beginning of the transition from a 43 DE to a 34 OLB.

Privately, there is a lot of silent excitement for the development of Trent Murphy as the OLB opposite Chase Thomas. Time will tell in the upcoming 2011 season. But I believe Cardinal fans are going to be very excited about the prospects and productivity of Trent Murphy. There are rumors that he might have had a chance to beat out Thomas Keiser if Keiser had stayed for the 2011. That is how excited the Cardinal football team is about the development of Trent Murphy. That is a big statement because Thomas Keiser was not and is not chopped liver. Keiser had played a lot of football for Stanford and had produced at a very high level. But yet another example of the potential depth that is finally being realized at many positions on this 2011 Stanford Cardinal Football Team. Looking back, it is not even fair to compare the talent levels of this team coming into the 2011 season and the one that Jim Harbaugh inherited in 2007.

One player that continues to be both a mystery and an X factor is Alex Debniak. He is and has been an outstanding athlete since Day One of his arrival to Palo Alto. As anyone that has played football above the high school level can tell you, being a great athlete and being a great football player are two different things. The light might be coming on for Alex Debniak. Or better put, the game might be finally slowing down for him. If/When that happens, look out. I believe that this could be the year for Debniak. And I believe the coaches feel the same way.

Consistent with schematically mirroring what has been extremely successful last year on third down for the Cardinal defense, Stanford shifts from its Base 34 defense to its Nickel 43 defensive package to apply more pressure in high-percentage passing situations. The interesting thing is how Stanford's defense moves personnel into their alignment. On the first team, Stephens and Mauro come out and Debniak and Devon Carrington come in. Masifilo and Gardner man the tackles. Chase Thomas and Alex Debniak kick to being rush ends. Bergen and Skov man the inside linebacker spots. Michael Thomas becomes the nickel corner. And away Stanford goes.

Back to Debniak within that scheme, if he learns to do more than just speed rush, look out. Right now, he can be a very effective threat in Stanford's nickel package from the DE spot. His initial quickness off the line coupled with his versatility allows for a number of schematic and physical problems for opposing offenses. But just think if Debniak acquires half the pass rush skills that Chase Thomas has in his toolkit. Again watch out.

Couple of other sidenotes, Brent Etiz is an incredibly smart football player. This guy simply gets the most out of himself. It will be interesting to see if that is enough to merit real some time in 2011. I wonder if he might just be one of those Tedy Bruschi/Inoke Breckterfield- type guys that can just play regardless of what their outside packaging looks like.

Defensive Back

Delano Howell is out with an injury and rooting from the sidelines. Ed Reynolds is taking his place for now at the safety spot. And Reynolds looks good. He is a very solid all-around player. And as evidenced by his ability to come and get some early reps in 2010 and continuing to be strongly counted on within the current rotation this spring, he is clearly capable of processing the defensive schemes and assignments quickly, even despite his lack of experience.

But the guy that physically intrigues me is Devon Carrington. He is a good looking dude out there in a Cardinal uniform. Obviously there is more to playing football than just looking the part. But he definitely has that first part down. And hopefully, his production one day matches his ability and looks. And I think it will. Fortunately, Howell and Michael Thomas have the safety position locked down for 2011. But the future looks bright with both Reynolds and Carrington, not to mention the future arrival of 2011 freshmen stud, Wayne Lyons.

In my opinion, the development of Harold Bernard is going to be another key focal point this spring. Perhaps this seems to be a broken record with some guys (Debniak and Bernard seem to come to mind every offseason over the past two years), but there is some real ability and untapped potential with both of these guys that needs to be continually developed and brought along by the Cardinal coaches in order for Stanford to get better. And the coaching staff did a great job of finding ways to connect with them and others in 2011, as well as adjusting their roles accordingly. The real test will be to see these and other developing players take the next step in 2011 under this new coaching staff.

Barry Browning, not to be forgotten, continues to impress and develop. He is and will be continuing to run with the ones. Overall, Stanford struck gold with Browning. Specifically, it will be interesting to do a compare and contrast with Barry Browning's body and physical development from his initial day at Stanford in 2010 to the start of 2011 season. He is not done yet. But my guess is that you will see a world of difference that will tangibly convert to the overall improvement of his game, particularly with his physicality in the run defense. He displayed some of that development Sunday with a nice solo tackle on Anthony Wilkerson in a highly competitive final team portion of practice.

Quinn Evans and Terrence Brown continue to look better and more comfortable at the CB positions. They are also competitive guys that are going to do whatever they have to in order to get on the field. Again, this is great problem for Stanford.

Usua Amanam did look comfortable at CB. However, I would not get overly excited about his future contributions this coming season in the Stanford secondary. Amanam is going to be competitive for a group that is not lacking and has many capable contestants, probably the highest density of quality DBs that Stanford has had on one roster in nearly 20 years.

Finally in the secondary, freshman walk-on Kyle Olugbode is not a fish out of water. Very similarly to David Parry at NT, he does not look to be phased by his transition to the speed of the game at the college level, particularly as a young walk-on. His productivity, future development, and eventual implementation will be interesting to track.

Redshirt Freshmen Report - A Partial Review of the 2010 Stanford Recruiting Class:

One thing that stuck out to me on Sunday was the physical impressiveness of the current freshmen class, particularly those that just redshirted in 2010. The physical appearance of some of the 2010 recruiting class big men is damn impressive. As a whole, they collective base that they are starting at is extremely well advanced over the typical Stanford recruiting class.

Obviously I have previously talked about Fleming and Yankey. So I will move on to others.

Cole Underwood certainly looks the part in pads. And he has definitely made the most of his offseason filling out. It is likely going to take another year of adjusting and developing, but the physical tools that Underwood possesses are impressive. While not as tall as Fleming and Yankey, and thus he is going to be an inside player at OG (most likely) or Center, he has some serious levers on him. His arm length is outstanding. And coupling that with a nice solid base and overall frame, I am even more excited about his long term prospects. This was not unforeseen. But it still nice to see realized.

Eddie Plantaric is a damn good looking interior DL. Plantaric and Stanford benefitted by the shift to its Base 34 defense instituted last year. He can potentially play across the DL at either DE spot or even possibly at NT if needed. Don't expect too much from him this year as Masifilo and Gardner have the DE spots on lockdown for now. But with the apparent physical abilities of guys like Plantaric, the cupboard is certainly not bare. Also, similar to Charlie Hopkins in this year's class, Plantaric in my opinion might be an OL prospect if things don't optimally work out with him on defense. Plantaric was damn good as a senior in high school on the offensive side of the ball. Fortunately, Stanford's future at OL, particularly at the OT spots, are in good hands with some of the young pups coming up.

Similar to Plantaric, Henry Anderson is starting to come along the defensive line. Personally, I think he might just be scratching the surface with his physical development. He is most definitely a year away. But that super long frame is really starting to fill out. Obviously enough to be able to stick Anderson down at NT for a few looks which most recently happened this spring. Anderson is not going to revolutionize the game. But in the limited amount I have watched him, it is interesting to see how he looks. My impression is that he is going to be asset upfront eventually for the Cardinal. And you can never have too much depth upfront at Defensive Line. It is the one position group that injuries can and will most likely happen. You need to prepare for a run on injuries at that position, moreso than any other.

True freshman walk-on NT David Parry has some real ability. After watching him repeatedly on tape in senior year, it was hard to tell if Parry had the frame to be capable of playing at the highest level. He was nasty and athletic. He just did not appear tall enough. Maybe 6'0" tops, again off tape. Thankfully that is not the case. More importantly, he is just big enough to be a potential force…..maybe even this year as the opportunity to play is there. Parry has a significantly strong base. And though he does not have extremely long arms, he might have the biggest arms on the team. He certainly does not appear to be your average college walk-on. There is no doubt that several D-1A teams IN THIS LEAGUE wish they had a true freshman NT that look like and can play like Parry.

Linebacker was a huge point of emphasis in the 2010 recruiting class. And Stanford went out and signed a number of LBs (five) to fill its need. All but Blake Lueders redshirted in 2010. And the Cleo Robinson saga was what it was. Obviously everyone is excited about the prospects and initial impact of High School All-American LB James Vaughters for the 2011 season. But don't forget about the 3 LBs that redshirted last year: Alex Turner, A.J. Tarpley, and Joe Hemschoot.

Turner is probably the furthest away from playing. Despite being barely over 6'0", the guy has arm length that would make Pannel Egboh jealous. He is playing OLB and his development will be interesting to track. Tarpley has surprised the naysayers, me being one of them. His athleticism is still limited, along with his frame. But he can play. And at the ILB position, toughness and football instincts can be coupled with a base level of requisite athleticism to make a hell of a football player. I am not fully on the AJ Tarpley - Butkus Watch-list campaign yet. But again, Stanford has got a really good football player in the making from the bottom end of its recruiting class. And that is key in my opinion to fostering a "competition breeds excellence" mentality that the great teams in college football have, and the good teams wish they could get.

Separately, I am very excited about the overall capabilities of Joe Hemschoot. He is starting to really fill out, though he will never be a massive ILB. Hemschoot is backing up Shayne Skov right now. And he looks damn good doing it. Keep in mind the guy is still a puppy. He really is younger than some of the recruits that Stanford signed in this year's 2011 recruiting class. I expect big things out of Hemschoot this year on special teams.

It will be really interesting to watch more on TE Davis Dudchock, FB Lee Ward, RB Ricky Seale, and OG Dillon Bonnell. I saw bits and pieces from them on Sunday. But not enough to say much one way or another.

Stay tuned for more spring practice reports from the Cardinal Report.


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