Fresh off a 2013 Rose Bowl victory, Stanford football is back in action, beginning the first of its two spring practice sessions. For head coach David Shaw, this day could not come soon enough.
“It’s such a cliché to say that it’s like Christmas,” Shaw said after Monday’s practice, “but after being on airplanes and doing recruiting and then sitting in the office and doing scheme evaluation…to get back on the field is just like, ‘thank goodness.’ This is what we enjoy, and I told the guys if you’re wired the right way, you’ve been excited all day today and we’ve got enough guys that felt that way.”
According to Shaw, the first practice of 2013 went a lot better than last year’s opener. One year after leaving the practice field visibly upset, Shaw was all smiles after a practice filled with “a lot of energy.”
Three positional battles—for center, outside linebacker and running back—appear to be the big story of spring practice. After only one practice, the battle to replace departing fifth-year senior captain Sam Schwartzstein has gained some clarity.
Two of the four competitors for the starting job, sophomore Graham Shuler and junior Kevin Reihner, will miss the first session of spring practice due to disciplinary reasons and an injury, respectively.
That leaves fifth-year senior Khalil Wilkes and senior Conor McFadden to split all of the reps of the first session. Shaw plans to “wear them out” with all of the reps he will give them over the next two weeks.
The rep advantage, combined with experience from starting at left guard in 2012, may give Wilkes an insurmountable lead in the race for the starting center role. Wilkes’ move back to the inside seems to be going smoothly so far.
“I thought it was a pretty good day today,” Wilkes said. “I’ve still got to get my snaps down with some of the quarterbacks. I feel like I’m pretty comfortable with Hogan and Crower right now, but I’ve got to get my snaps in with all of the young guys. I thought I did pretty well with communicating. I’m just trying to take this spring ball to really be better with communicating with the offensive line.”
The other two battles could go much longer into the spring. Senior Anthony Wilkerson was the heavy favorite to replace departing senior Stepfan Taylor as the starting tailback, but everything changed with Tyler Gaffney’s decision to return to the gridiron. Gaffney will be eligible for the second session of spring practice starting April 1, giving Wilkerson two weeks to gain an edge in the battle.
“You’ve just got to take life how it is sometimes,” Wilkerson said about his reaction to Gaffney’s return to the football team. “It’s not a good or a bad thing. It’s good in a sense that it’s going to push me, it’s going to push the other running backs. Gaff wants playing time just like the rest of us, so it’s just going to make us better.”
The third heated battle to watch—the fight to start alongside fifth-year senior Trent Murphy at outside linebacker—features three players with very different 2012 experiences.
Junior Kevin Anderson spent last season as the fourth member of the outside linebacker rotation. He saw regular playing time but not as much as many second-teamers because of the extended time received by departing fifth-year senior Alex Debniak.
Senior Blake Lueders spent 2012 on the sideline after back surgery ended his season before it began. Lueders, an Army All-American out of high school, saw playing time from day one on the Farm, but he has yet to crack the starting lineup.
Then there is James Vaughters, who started at inside linebacker at the beginning of 2012 before falling to second string on the depth chart after the rise of senior A.J. Tarpley. Though his season was disappointing by many accounts, the junior can take some of his experiences with him to improve his play on the outside.
“I learned the playbook a lot better playing inside,” Vaughters said. “It’s just a matter of getting used to [playing outside linebacker] again.”
For those seeking to get a look at the 2013 team for themselves, Stanford hosts its first open practice of the season Saturday from 9:40-11:40 a.m. The Cardinal has scheduled three open practices and the Cardinal & White Spring Game during the spring practice season.
Contact Sam Fisher at firstname.lastname@example.org.