On the second play of Stanford’s 11-on-11 team practice, junior running back E.J. Smith burst through the line of scrimmage on an inside run and dodged defenders all the way to the endzone.
“I saw a hole, and I took off,” Smith said after that practice on Sunday, smiling. “My O-line blocked perfectly.”
It was just one play. But at the end of the first week of spring football, it was an encouraging sight for a program that entered the offseason with a lot of questions and not many answers. Smith’s house call was the kind of explosive play on the ground that Stanford just couldn’t generate for most of last year.
A disappointing 3-9 record has created a sense of urgency this spring. No one, coaches or players, seemed to shy away from the Cardinal’s struggles last year. Stanford’s spring football training period, which began last week and runs until the Cardinal and White spring game on April 9, is the first opportunity Stanford will have to tune up ahead of a 2022 season that will be crucial for reversing the team’s recent decline.
“I’m not going to blame it on injuries — I’m not going to blame it on anything other than the fact that we underachieved,” head coach David Shaw said of the 2021 season after practice last Tuesday. “The first person that’s responsible for that is me.”
“I was only playing four games,” fifth-year wide receiver Michael Wilson said. “And then obviously the four games didn’t go that great. We got smacked every single game.”
Shaw admitted that Stanford’s losing streak last year took a toll on the locker room. Every position group on the team needed to improve, he said, but the two priorities for the Cardinal this offseason are straightforward.
“Stopping the run and running the football,” Shaw said. “Those two are the biggest impetus for the changes that we’ve made.”
It was Smith, the highly touted recruit and son of NFL Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith, that stole the show in the final practice of the week with his breakaway run. Shaw and offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard confirmed that the junior is slated to take over as the top running back after the departure of Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat.
“He’s got such a unique ability to make people miss in space,” Pritchard said. “And the physicality of his game — I just love that he’s a violent runner. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s been tough for him to stay healthy. But we’re confident with how he’s working in the weight room and transforming his body here in the offseason that he’ll be able to both utilize that running style and stay healthy for a season.”
Smith rushed for 133 yards and 5.1 yards per carry last season in support of starters Jones and Peat, but the Texas-native was sidelined several times by injury. Shaw suggested that Smith would have taken on a bigger role last year after a breakout performance against Vanderbilt had he stayed healthy. In that September game, Smith scored his only touchdown of the season after an impressive cutback and hurdle into the endzone.
“He was just getting going three different times when injury kept him out,” Shaw said. “What he did at the end of the Vanderbilt game was really exciting, and we were ready to give him a bigger chunk of the offense.”
In between Smith’s runs, junior QB Tanner McKee looked sharp running the first team offense, completing passes to junior WR Bryce Farrell and fifth-year fullback Jay Symmonds.
A new-look defensive line, competing for the spots vacated by senior Thomas Booker and fifth-year Dalyn Wade-Perry, kept pace with the offense and managed to make several stops in the backfield.
The session stayed competitive through the last play, when McKee lofted a sideline pass to Symmonds. As Pritchard cheered, senior safety Jonathan McGill ran over to argue the ball was bobbled.
“The guys are focused,” Smith said. “We left a lot on the table last season, you know. Guys are frustrated. We’re pushing each other. We really want to prove to the world that we’ve got it, and we’ve just got to continue to get better every day.”
Additional notes from practice:
- According to Wilson, new additions to the Stanford playbook have found some early success. “We’ve put in some new things in the offense, and I think it’s looking really, really good,” he said. “I think we’ve caught our defense off guard.
- Newer faces like junior Matthew Merritt and sophomore Anthony Franklin, who have yet to see extended playing time, played with the 1s on the defensive line in rotation with juniors Tobin Phillips and Lance Keneley.
- Junior WR John Humphreys and fifth-year WR Brycen Tremayne, who both had surgeries in the offseason, were present but didn’t participate in practice.
“He is slightly ahead of pace of his recovery,” Shaw said of Tremayne, who suffered a season-ending leg injury against Oregon last season. “We’re going to be really smart. He has nothing to prove to us by trying to get into spring football. We’ve just got to get him ready for the fall.”
- Other notable players who didn’t participate in practice on Sunday included junior running back Casey Filkins and senior guard/tackle Branson Bragg.