This year’s Spring Game really did feel a little underwhelming — the cavernous expanses of Stanford Stadium were pretty much empty, the scoring system was just as confusing as ever — and at the end of the day, it was just a scrimmage like the others that have already taken place this offseason, albeit with a little more pomp and circumstance.
“I try not to come into spring with preconceived notions and things I really want to get out of it,” said head coach David Shaw. “We put a lot of pressure on the guys to show us what they have and we really evaluated them. We’ll see where we are after this scrimmage, and I’m really looking forward to getting these guys ready for training camp.”
The scoreboard will say that the White team (the defense) beat the Cardinal team (the offense) by a final score of 23-7, but this year’s edition of the Cardinal and White Spring Game was a lot closer than that score suggested. At the end of the day, there can’t be too many big-picture conclusions taken away given that the offense was playing short-handed without Devon Cajuste or Francis Owusu and many key contributors on defense were missing.
That being said, it was a very gutsy effort by the defense, which had to rotate just four linemen throughout the entire game, and the unit as a whole really did resemble the suffocating, overwhelming Cardinal units that we’ve seen Lance Anderson and company field in the past.
However, it wasn’t all defense — the offense led by Kevin Hogan actually had a pretty decent day — and the final score was only really a blowout because of three missed field goals on the part of rising senior Conrad Ukropina.
But at the end of the day, it’s only one game, and the sample size is small. As such, here are a few snap judgments — and nothing more — from Saturday’s Spring Game.
It looked like it took fifth-year senior Kevin Hogan a while to settle in, but at the end of the day, he was clearly the best of the three quarterbacks on the field. He had some issues overthrowing his receivers on the deep balls early, but once he settled into a groove in the second half, he was making accurate throws in the short range and on the move, and developed a great rapport with Austin Hooper on the deep ball by the end of the ballgame (more on this further down). He’s the veteran leader of this team, and he looked like he was by far the most in command.
Hogan finished the game 13-of-19 for 187 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions.
Junior Ryan Burns, who is competing for the backup job with sophomore Keller Chryst, has had a good spring but was very ineffective at the Spring Game, as he looked rattled in the pocket amidst steady pressure from Stanford’s front seven and made some uncomfortably bad throws that missed receivers by a mile. He finished 9-of-18 for 62 yards.
Chryst didn’t fare much better. Although the sophomore did look by far the best mechanistically — his stature and mechanics are eerily reminiscent of those of Andrew Luck — he was off the mark on many of his throws and didn’t look too comfortable in even the base offense. Of course, it didn’t help either that most of the time, he was playing behind the second and third-team offensive lines, which were getting eaten alive by the defensive pressures. He completed just one of his eight passes on the day and threw one interception.
“[Burns and Chryst didn’t play] well enough. They both had moments,” Shaw said. “And both had some moments today. It’s about stringing those moments together.
“I reminded the coaches last week that we’re not going to go overboard. At this point in Kevin Hogan’s career, really, three years ago, as a sophomore, going into spring, he was either third or fourth on the depth chart and nowhere close to one or two. These guys make strides over the summer.”
The offensive line wasn’t fantastic. Christian McCaffrey and Barry Sanders looked good, though — McCaffrey has noticeably bulked up and is listed at a healthy 197 pounds (and looks the part) and was showing much more leg drive through the meat of the defense and showed a good ability to throw off tackling defenders and fight for extra yards. At the same time, it doesn’t look like he’s lost any of that field vision and lateral mobility that made him such a deadly weapon last year, and he was used liberally in both the shotgun and in I-formation packages.
Sanders also showed a renewed explosiveness from last year, and he was finding his holes much more effectively while keeping a hard, physical nose for the ball in driving as a downhill runner. Remound Wright was again the Cardinal’s short-yardage back of choice and scored the only touchdown of the day for the offense.
Sophomore Daniel Marx took all of the fullback duties, and junior Pat McFadden also saw some time at running back.
As was the case last year, their success will be heavily affected by the power of the offensive line, which didn’t have its best day today in both pass protection and run-blocking, particularly when the second team came on. There were more than a few sacks (or what should have been sacks) and plays that lost yardage, and it looked for the most part that the holes that the running backs were finding weren’t blocked as well as the offense would have hoped. Again, this is just one practice and the offensive line has been playing pretty well this spring, so look for this to be the anomaly.
“Other than Andrus Peat, our offensive line has definitely had time to gel together and play together, which allows them to play faster, block faster, make the reads for guys like Christian and Barry so much easier,” said junior tight end Austin Hooper. “So I mean, we’re getting there. It’s still a work in progress by all means but we’re definitely on the right track.”
Keep in mind that this was an injured line, however — Nick Davidson and Brendon Austin, two guys that are expected to be major contributors this season, did not play the Spring Game due to injuries.
With Francis Owusu out and Devon Cajuste also nursing a tight hamstring, the Cardinal were without two of their top receivers for the whole scrimmage, and as such, it’s really hard to take what this position group did today at face value. Connor Crane, Dontonio Jordan and Rollins Stallworth all saw their playing time increase, but to nobody’s surprise, it was the tight ends that stole the show.
Austin Hooper, Eric Cotton and Greg Taboada were the Cardinal’s three top receivers not named Christian McCaffrey, and Hooper in particular was effective in a reprisal of his role from last season as an intermediate-to-deep threat. The junior was effectively finding the seams in the Cardinal base defense and had great rapport with Hogan, accounting for 103 yards on 5 receptions.
“We technically have two tight end spots — one guy’s more traditional on the line — that’s what I did last year and that’s what Dalton [Schultz] and Eric [Cotton] were doing today while Greg [Taboada] and I were in the slot today,” Hooper said.
The quartet of tight ends looks poised for a dangerous season. Cotton and Schultz looked smooth and powerful in their blocking roles, and all four ran crisp routes and showed good hands. Schultz particularly has been progressing at a very quick rate both mentally and physically, which has caught the eye of his teammates.
“Especially where Dalton is, he’s so much farther ahead than any of the guys in my class were learning-wise,” Hooper said. “To have four guys to just rotate in and out, that way it doesn’t have to be just two guys going 60-70 plays per game. God forbid if somebody goes down, we can just insert someone else and keep the train rolling.”
This was supposed to be one of the biggest areas of concern for this team given the current lack of depth on the defensive line, especially given the departures of Henry Anderson and David Parry and injuries to Aziz Shittu and Nate Lohn. This meant that Harrison Phillips, Solomon Thomas, Jordan Watkins and converted linebacker Torsten Rotto were the only defensive linemen active for the Spring Game.
Most people expected the front seven to flounder under such pressure and duress, but to their credit, they excelled on Saturday. Thomas particularly was monstrous, getting off of his blocks with ease, showing explosiveness off the snap and finishing second on the team with 7 tackles, one of which was a sack. The defensive line clearly won the trenches throughout the day, with Phillips and Watkins also recording a sack apiece.
“We’re good on defense,” Shaw said. “We’re underrated on defense. Harrison Phillips has been giving us fits for (a year). Solomon Thomas has finally been healthy. Those two guys are tough inside. Jordan Watkins made some tough plays today at 6-5, 285. We’ve got some great players on defense; we’ve got some really great players here so it’s a combination of that.”
With the addition of Cal transfer Brennan Scarlett, the returns to health of Shittu and Lohn and the addition of true freshman nose tackle recruit Wesley Annan in the fall, this unit should be in very good shape come the start of the season.
Meanwhile, the linebacking corps was just as good as ever. Despite the departure of stalwarts A.J. Tarpley and James Vaughters, senior Blake Martinez was still able to steal the show for the linebackers with a 11-tackle performance, which led the team.
“Blake Martinez is on the verge of stardom,” Shaw said. “He’s got a chance to be really special. He’s got a great feel for the game; he’s physical, he’s fast, he’s hard to block.”
“I’ve seen Blake Martinez not only this spring, not only past fall camp, but ever since I’ve been here,” Hooper said. “He’s done stuff that no one else can do.”
Senior Noor Davis and sophomore Joey Alfieri impressed, as did senior Craig Jones, who was explosive and displayed tremendous mobility. Younger guys like Bobby Okereke and Jordan Perez were also able to get in some licks.
Given that fifth-year senior Kevin Anderson and junior Kevin Palma didn’t participate and the unit still had a good day, it looks like the Stanford front seven is still in great shape heading into the fall season.
With the departures of both of Stanford’s top two cornerbacks from last year (Alex Carter to the NFL and Wayne Lyons to Michigan) and safeties Jordan Richards and Kyle Olugbode as well, this is also a unit that was expected to be going through growing pains, but it also showed no signs of rust or dust. While fifth-year senior Ronnie Harris was hurt and didn’t play, sophomore Terrence Alexander was solid and Shaw was particularly impressed by the play of sophomore Alijah Holder, who played tight coverage and also forced an Austin Hooper fumble.
“He got it loose a little bit, had my eyes inside and I thought it was a one-on-one and that if I beat the safety it was a touchdown,” Hooper said. “Alijah made a great play coming underneath my arm and pulling it. I didn’t even see him.”
“Every time we look up, Alijah Holder makes a play,” Shaw added. “He made a couple of plays today — the tackles, and he got the strip on the side over there.”
Converted offensive players Kodi Whitfield and Dallas Lloyd have looked solid in their new positions all spring, and youngsters Denzel Franklin and Brandon Simmons also looked effective in both coverage and run support — even when Stanford’s receivers were catching the ball, the yards after contact were minimized by the secondary’s fantastic mobility.
With the noted Duane Akina at the helm of the secondary, this is a unit that is certainly going to be young and inexperienced, but should have the talent to compete in a tough Pac-12. There might be growing pains early on in the season, but by no means should the secondary be a huge liability.
This is where things got a little hairy on Saturday. Senior Conrad Ukropina — the heir apparent to the departed and much-maligned Jordan Williamson — missed all three of his field goal attempts on the afternoon, and Shaw expressed concern in his postgame interview.
“The score would be completely different if we didn’t miss field goals,” Shaw said. “The score did kick it out of whack, but the bottom line is we missed too many field goals last year and we missed too many field goals today in the red zone.”
Ukropina took over kicking duties for part of the 2013 season when Williamson went down with injury and made two of his four attempts, with his long being a hit from 31 against UCLA. His misses in the Spring Game were from 31, 46 and 46.
On the punting side of things, junior Alex Robinson was also unconvincing. He shanked his first punt of the afternoon for just a 20-yard gain, and his second traveled only 34 yards before settling out of bounds. He did boot a 52-yarder on his third punt, but his final two went 42 and 37 for an altogether shaky day.
Special teams coach Pete Alamar and his specialists certainly have a lot of work to do in order to replicate the production of Williamson, Stanford’s all-time leading scorer, and departed punter Ben Rhyne.
Stanford will also have a kicker/punter, true freshman Jake Bailey, coming in that will likely compete for a starting job immediately, which Shaw expressed in his interview as well.
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.