Before this weekend, freshmen tight end Sam Roush and wide receiver Mudia Reuben had never played a snap of football in Stanford Stadium. Just a few months ago, they were finishing high school.
On Saturday, they proved their mettle as college football players in a high-scoring spring game, catching two touchdowns each as Stanford showed off its depth at the end of the team’s spring training period.
It will be hard to draw too many conclusions from the Cardinal and White game. The majority of Stanford’s starters sat out, and the team only played through a handful of drives starting in its territory and from the red zone.
“This was a glorified practice,” head coach David Shaw said after the game. “We took a lot of the things we’ve been working on and didn’t show them today, for obvious reasons. Just an opportunity to get out there and play fast.”
Among the players sitting out were all of Stanford’s starting pass catchers from last year — though fifth-year wide receivers Brycen Tremayne and Michael Wilson suited up and participated fully in warmups — and almost the entire cornerback room. That opened the door for Stanford’s underclassmen to shine.
Matched up against a depleted secondary, Roush and Reuben stole the show with a series of highlight-reel catches.
Streaking down the middle of the field, Roush reeled in a 15-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Tanner McKee and hung on to survive a tough hit from sophomore safety Mitch Leigber as he went to the ground.
“Anybody can make a catch in the back of the endzone when they’re wide open,” McKee said. “When there’s a safety breathing down your neck… if you can go catch and protect yourself, take the hit, hold on to the ball and get six points, those plays really make a difference.”
Two drives later, Reuben stretched over the sideline in the endzone to catch a well-placed back-shoulder ball from McKee and showed off his body control to keep his feet in bounds for the touchdown. Reuben’s emergence as a freshman is an encouraging sign in particular; he only started playing football as a high school sophomore but was recruited for his 6-foot-3 size and speed.
“The most impressive thing for me, for a guy who’s played a lifetime of soccer, his eye coordination and his body control in the air are outstanding,” Shaw said.
Reuben and Roush caught another touchdown each from sophomore quarterback Ari Patu, who looked sharp in the drives he led. But the biggest play of the day came from junior running back E.J. Smith.
Smith, set to take over the starting role in the backfield with the departure of Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat, wasted no time showing why he spent the spring training period garnering heaps of praise from the Stanford coaching staff.
The Dallas-native opened the day’s scoring with a 40-yard pass reception out of the slot, beating sophomore safety Jimmy Wyrick on a clean Texas route before outrunning the rest of the secondary to the endzone. In between Reuben and Roush’s first scores, he added a short touchdown on the ground with an outside run.
“E.J. Smith is ready,” Shaw said. “Walks with a lot of confidence, plays with a lot of confidence. He can make plays from anywhere, as a runner, as a receiver. Excited about where he is.”
Stanford’s undermanned defense didn’t come away with a turnover but played tough throughout the scrimmage and managed a few stops and noteworthy plays. Senior cornerback Nicolas Toomer, one of the few true cornerbacks who saw the field on Saturday, made a touchdown-saving — if a little high — hit on sophomore running back Caleb Robinson and almost had an athletic interception against junior quarterback Beau Nelson. Senior safety Jonathan McGill also came close to picking off a pass from McKee but settled for a pass breakup.
“It’s just the little things, the execution, understanding your assignment, not overrunning the ball,” McGill said. “That was something that I was kind of disappointed that we didn’t do a great job of, myself included. But I felt like starting off the energy and the passion was what we wanted, and what we’ve been working towards this entire spring.”
The impact that Roush, Reuben and fellow early enrollee freshmen edge defender David Bailey made this spring also bodes well for the future of the team. The trio are the second ever class of freshmen that Stanford has permitted to join the University and football program midway through the school year as early high school graduates — an option that Stanford previously did not allow, which cost the program countless potential recruits, Shaw said.
“We want more,” Shaw said of the early enrollees. “These guys came in as basically as high school seniors in January and have felt comfortable the entire time. I think that’s been exciting for everybody.”
Big questions remain for the Cardinal: how well a young and undersized defensive line can develop, whether the offensive line can reverse its decline to support the new backfield and how healthy the team’s veteran contributors will be by fall.
But Stanford concludes its spring training with encouraging performances from the team’s underclassmen and — for the first time in two years — a full schedule of summer sessions unaffected by COVID-19 to come. The Cardinal will have two more training periods, one from April to June and another from the end of June to August, during which the team usually develops the most, according to Shaw.
“We’re in a good place,” Shaw said. “But the mountain’s ahead of us. We haven’t even started climbing yet.”