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Football: Little-known players emerge from spring game

In a stark contrast to last year’s contest, the 2010 Cardinal & White Spring Game featured no touchdowns and only six combined points through four quarters of play. Gone was Andrew Luck’s five-touchdown performance of yesteryear; in its place was a combination of stout defense and offensive missteps. But regardless, numerous players shined.

Some are veterans familiar to Stanford fans. Tom Keiser was impressive from his new outside linebacker spot; Doug Baldwin, who has suffered from drops in his career, was a sure-handed receiver for Luck; and Matt Masifilo was destructive from his defensive end spot.

But for many of the Cardinal and White players, the game served as a coming out party to fans who had yet to see them in a good amount of action — for some players, it was their first appearance after their initial redshirt freshman years. Here are four (relative) newcomers that made their presence felt on Saturday:
Shayne Skov, Inside Linebacker

Skov, a true freshman in 2009, is the most experienced member of this quartet. He came on strong at the end of last season, moving from primarily a special teams player to a full-time starter, and in the process, flashed the talent that made him the top recruit in his class. But the Spring Game was, by far, his most dominating exhibition to date, and gave the Cardinal faithful a clearer look at a linebacker expected to be a perennial All-Pac-10 player.

Skov played less than two quarters before leaving with a hyper-extended right knee — after the game, head coach Jim Harbaugh said that there was no ligament damage — but in that short time, he was an obliterating force. It appeared that he was in on nearly every tackle, and if there was a big hit, you hardly had to look — chances were, it was Skov making his presence known. His lateral and linear speed enabled him to close quickly on ball-carriers in space and in the backfield, and his overtly aggressive style added a certain panache to his play.

He is nicknamed “The Predator” in homage to the sci-fi franchise, and he demonstrated why on Saturday.
Alex Debniak, Jack of All Trades

Debniak played sparingly in his freshman year in 2008 and was poised for a breakout year in 2009 — with prototypical size and speed, he was seen as a valuable asset at linebacker. He was a star of last year’s Spring Game, as he ran for 91 yards on just four carries as a reserve running back.

But then he injured his PCL and missed the entire 2009 season. Now, with the switch to the 3-4, he is seen once again as an important piece of the defensive puzzle.

On Saturday, he played as a stand-up outside linebacker, five-technique defensive end and, once again, as a running back. He set up the Cardinal’s lone points of the game in the first quarter, when he fought off a block to force a Josh Nunes fumble, which Debniak subsequently recovered; just a few plays later, Eric Whitaker gave the Cardinal an early 3-0 advantage. He came in as a runner in the fourth quarter and proceeded to do his best Toby Gerhart impression, pushing the pile seemingly at will as he sprang downfield.
Ryan Hewitt, H-Back

When Harbaugh announced that Owen Marecic, one of the best fullbacks in the nation and one of Harbaugh’s favorite players, would be playing primarily at inside linebacker during spring ball, the question arose: who would replace him at fullback?

Hewitt, who redshirted this season, quickly filled the void. Recruited as a tight end, Hewitt moved to the backfield, both because of the depth of the TE position and the void at FB. Hewitt is not a traditional bruiser in the Marecic mold, but is rather more of a versatile receiving option. During the spring game, he demonstrated not only his mastery of the playbook — he was constantly put in motion and sent out on short routes, and was generally open — but also some nice blocking to prevent containment. As a receiver, he provided a constant safety valve for Josh Nunes and Robbie Picazo, and was used often.

Marecic is not leaving the fullback position completely, but he will not be able to take the same number of snaps if he plays ILB regularly. Hewitt’s performance during the spring, then, is an encouraging sign.
Usua Amanam, Running Back

Amanam was the third part of a touted running back recruiting class in 2009, but could not join Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney in the rotation because a foot injury sidelined him for the year. In his first action in front of a legion of fans, Amanam starred, picking up 81 total yards on the ground and through the air. His quickness was unparalleled on the field, and the cuts he was able to make made him look like a seasoned, shifty veteran. His performance as an all-purpose back brought to mind the role that Delano Howell filled in the 2008 season — an exciting player who could be sent all over the field.
Honorable Mentions: Brent Seals had a couple of impressive pass breakups, including one in the front corner of the end zone that required good closing speed to even attempt . . . Ben Gardner, who is listed at linebacker but played defensive end for much of the game, had some nice penetrations, including a sack of Josh Nunes . . . Devin Guillory saw extensive action late in the game for the Cardinal squad and showed some nice moves to shed blocks and create pressure in the backfield . . . In Skov’s immediate absence, Brent Etiz filled in admirably, issuing some big hits . . . Terrence Stephens had maybe the hardest collision of the afternoon; he smashed into Stepfan Taylor so violently on a fourth-and-two play that it sent the White runner stumbling backwards before he was eventually brought down . . . Finally, there is, of course, Erik Whitaker, an unknown commodity as the backup kicker. He shanked one kick in regulation in awful fashion and missed another wide right, barely, but during the field goal kick-off and overtime, he was nearly flawless from long distance, going 4-5 from 40-plus, and 1-2 from 52 yards.