On the first rep of Stanford football’s Saturday team period, senior cornerback Salim Turner-Muhammad got tangled up with freshman wide receiver Mudia Reuben. In tight coverage at the top of Reuben’s route, the two players shoved each other to the ground.
The ball didn’t even come their way. On the other side of the play, junior running back E.J. Smith caught a short pass and burst down the field for a long touchdown.
But the opening play showed the mood of a team that, with just a week left before the spring game, seems eager to stamp out the memories of last year’s three-win season.
“Practices are a little chippier,” junior quarterback Tanner McKee said on Saturday. “Guys are flying around, a little pushing and shoving, which is exactly what we need. Guys should be getting pulled back, not encouraged to do more.”
“Coach always preaches being competitive and not combative,” senior tackle Walter Rouse said. “Off the field, we’re brothers and we know that… but what you guys are seeing out there, that’s going to contribute to the season later on, having that edge.”
Competition has been the theme all spring, even among veteran units like the offensive line. Terry Heffernan, the offensive line coach who returns his entire unit, emphasized getting a fresh start after last year’s struggles. That includes an open competition for the starting roles.
“We began our offseason by saying all of these jobs are up for grabs,” Heffernan said. “I’m not tied to anybody being in our starting five. It’s the guys who earn it and the guys who deserve it.”
Heffernan highlighted juniors tackle Connor McLaughlin and center Drake Metcalf as players who’ve made strides this spring. Most of last year’s starters, including tackles Rouse and junior Myles Hinton, still seem to be leading the line in team periods. But Rouse, a starter since his freshman year, is embracing the competition. He feels he still has many areas in which he can improve.
“Staying low, I’ve had a lot of problems with that,” Rouse said. “I was being aggressive [and] first off the ball, but I was way too high… getting my hands tight and staying low, if I can improve on that, I can make a really big difference next year.”
If there’s one person on the Stanford roster with nothing to prove this spring, it’s fifth-year wide receiver Brycen Tremayne. Tremayne, who scored touchdowns in all five of his starts last year before suffering a season-ending leg injury against Oregon, took the next step in his recovery this week and participated fully in the non-contact portions of practice.
“He’s going full speed,” head coach David Shaw said. “We’re not going to tackle him. He’s not going to be in the live period… but the fact that he’s back running around is great.”
The team periods on Saturday and Sunday swung back and forth between a few long touchdowns by the offense and — perhaps most encouragingly — more stops from an improving defense.
On Saturday, in what Heffernan described as an off day for the offense, Stanford’s young defensive line got penetration on multiple plays, harrying McKee and sophomore quarterback Ari Patu into scrambling outside the pocket and throwing incompletions. Turner-Muhammad broke up an end zone fade to Reuben, and sophomore cornerback Evan Jackson picked off Patu on another fade attempt near the end of practice.
The increased physicality in Stanford’s practices seems to be playing a role in the defense’s performance. On Sunday, junior wide receiver Bryce Farrell took a hit while bobbling a catch, and Reuben had a tough contested catch in traffic stripped from him after he came down with the ball.
“I think a lot of guys are very hungry,” McKee said. “A little ticked off with last season, the results of that. That’s exactly what we need.”
This week, Stanford will suit up for its final week of spring practice, which will conclude with the Cardinal and White Spring Game on Saturday, April 9 at Stanford Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. PT.
- Unlike many other Pac-12 teams, Stanford isn’t holding tryouts for the team’s most important position — McKee is entrenched as starting quarterback and looking to build on an encouraging first season. McKee said he’s working on improving little things in his technique: “Keeping my base so I’m always ready to throw instead of maybe having happy feet in the pocket, or not [being] ready to throw at certain points. Reading defenses, I feel like I have another year under my belt of seeing defensive disguises, tilts, things like that.”
- Many Stanford players are still being held out of practice, including all the Cardinal’s starting pass catchers from last year: wide receivers senior Elijah Higgins, junior John Humphreys and fifth-year Michael Wilson, and junior tight end Benjamin Yurosek. Also out are senior guard Branson Bragg, junior running back Casey Filkins and fifth-year safety Patrick Fields.
- E.J. Smith ripped off two more long touchdowns in the team periods, first on a run on Tuesday and then after catching a short pass on Saturday. McKee praised his pass-catching ability: “Kind of like Christian McCaffrey, he can go out, run a great route and win one-on-ones,” McKee said. “Typical running backs don’t have a major catch radius like some receivers obviously do, but he definitely has that component to his game.”
- Ari Patu made a few nice plays on the ground both off read-options and while escaping pressure, including a touchdown run on Saturday.
- Freshman tight end Sam Roush is making the most of his early enrollment and will be one to watch during the spring game. On Sunday, Roush caught a long touchdown pass from McKee and fought for extra yards after a checkdown from Patu. Shaw said both Roush and fellow freshman edge David Bailey will have “a good shot” to get on the field next year.