For the second straight year, Stanford football will head to San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium for its annual spring game. The contest counts as the final session of the team’s 15 off-season practices and is a chance for the public to see a program transitioning not just between seasons, but also between coaching regimes.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck (12) returns for his junior year. The Heisman runner-up passed for over 3,000 yards and 32 TDs, and turned down potential millions in the 2011 NFL Draft to return to the Farm and new head coach David Shaw.
“Hopefully you’ll see as well-oiled a machine as we can have at this point,” said head coach David Shaw. “I think our brand of football is pretty exciting.”
“It’s going to be fast and physical, that’s all I know,” said sophomore linebacker Shayne Skov.
Under Jim Harbaugh, Shaw’s predecessor, the team was divided based on a draft that occurred in the lead up to the scrimmage. Shaw opted against continuing that exercise. Instead, the game will match up the first team offense against the second team defense, and the second team offense against the first team defense.
“We want to put together the team the right away,” Shaw said. “That best serves the team right now, and that’s the best thing for us to do this year.”
Most of the rules of a normal college football game apply, but with notable exceptions—chief among them is that while the contest is otherwise “live,” the quarterback cannot be hit. And for good reason: Shaw returns arguably the nation’s best player in redshirt sophomore passer Andrew Luck, who will lead the first-team offense. Shaw raved about his star’s progression.
“I believe he [Luck] has taken the next step. He has improved,” Shaw said of last year’s Heisman runner-up. “He’s taking complete command of the offense and command of the team. He’s truly pushing himself each day. What I love about him is that he’s got no complacency. He wants to improve, he wants to do better, he wants to make every throw, he wants to make every audible, he wants to make every check.”
But, as with many positions, the depth chart behind Luck is murky. Redshirt freshmen Josh Nunes and Robbie Picazo, and true freshmen Darren Daniel and Brett Nottingham are all in the mix to back-up Luck; Shaw hoped to get a number of passers into the action on Saturday, but said that the No. 2 quarterback battle would extend into summer.
This is indicative of the situations of a number of positions across all sides of the ball. Shaw was reluctant to even name front-runners at most spots with vacancies, and media relations declined to release a roster of the first and second teams.
On the offensive line, for instance, where there are three openings, only left guard seems even the slightest bit set—redshirt freshman Kevin Danser has been working with the first team since February, and appears primed to take over the spot left open by Andrew Phillips’s graduation. Center remains a two-man battle, and right tackle is a three-horse race.
Among the offensive skill positions, two players who figure to factor highly into Shaw and coordinator Pep Hamilton’s plans for the fall—junior wide receiver Chris Owusu and redshirt freshman tight end Levine Toilolo—will not play on Saturday. Both are recovering from injuries and have been significantly limited in spring practice; Shaw said that holding both men out was a “precautionary” move.
Owusu’s absence in particular has opened the door for other receivers to assert themselves. His injury, along with the upcoming graduation of Doug Baldwin and Ryan Whalen, leaves a number of opportunities for players to prove their worth. The first-team wide-outs have mainly been junior Griff Whalen and sophomore Jamal-Rashad Patterson, with sophomore Drew Terrell also in the mix.
“They’re doing well,” Shaw said. “Our charge is to get them to play more consistently.”
That mantra was repeated for nearly every position, and Shaw’s goal for the spring game—to see his athletes play at a high level, with few ups and downs—was not hard to discern.
Skov echoed his coach’s comments.
“We need 22 guys who can play on that field. It’s an opportunity for guys to step up, establish themselves and prove what they’ve learned,” he said.
Defensively, many of the open position battles are still up for grabs, although some leaders have emerged: redshirt freshman Ben Gardner at defensive end, redshirt junior Max Bergen at inside linebacker and freshman Barry Browning at cornerback. But particularly on the defensive side of the ball, the spring practice sessions have served as a way for younger players, especially true freshmen, to get extended playing time.
“This is really their time, it’s pretty much the first time they get direct coaching and all of these reps. It’s nice seeing them learn,” Skov said, highlighting specific players—Joe Hemschoot and AJ Tarpley—in his inside linebacker unit.
Shaw extrapolated upon that and highlighted the work of Browning and safety Devon Carrington, both of whom played as freshmen.
While there will be new faces both on the field and on the sidelines Saturday, overall, the product and schemes that fans see will not be dramatically different from the ones implemented by Harbaugh and members of the departed staff.
“We haven’t made many wholesale changes. We actually brought a few new guys in who have added some things. If anything, we’ve added things instead of changed things,” Shaw said.
“There are little things, like with any change,” Skov said. “But we’re still physical. We still come out here and love going live with full-contact.”
Skov and the rest of his teammates will get their opportunity to demonstrate just that. Kick-off is at 2 p.m. at Kezar. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN3, the network’s Internet channel. It will later be rebroadcast twice on ESPNU.