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Fisher: Spring Game offers clues to Cardinal 2013-14

Football is back at Stanford Stadium!

Well, to be fair, it’s just a scrimmage, but in mid-April, I’ll take it; I don’t really have another choice …

In the spirit of my excitement to see expected preseason top-five Stanford football back in its normal home, I’m going to take a week off from spewing my ludicrous opinions to bring back my fall column: an in-depth preview of what to watch for on Saturday.

First, there’s the format, which is very different than a normal game. Stanford will mix and match different units of its offense and defense against each other in 12-15 play sessions. Trying to understand the scoring system is an upper-level course, and it doesn’t really matter anyway, so I’ll let you learn on the fly.

The most interesting part of the Spring Game is getting a first look at the up-and-coming players of the future, specifically projected new starters for the fall. On this front, the most exciting players to watch will be sophomore wide receivers Kodi Whitfield and Michael Rector.

Whitfield earned some playing time midway through 2012, but he’s poised to make a big jump in 2013. He’s not the fastest of the receivers — that’s between Rector and junior Ty Montgomery — but every defensive back has praised his great route-running ability. That sounds like a good replacement for Drew Terrell to me.

The real fun could come from Rector and Montgomery. Like Whitfield, both have impressed the secondary throughout the spring. But unlike Whitfield, those two make their impact through speed. Junior quarterback Kevin Hogan has improved on his deep passing game, so expect to see him go deep at least a few times to keep the Stanford defense (which loves flying up the field to stop the run) honest.

But the wildcard to watch will be sophomore running back Barry J. Sanders. The son of NFL Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, one of the most electric running backs of all-time, has begun making a name for himself in spring practice. Competing for time in a very crowded stable of running backs, Sanders “makes a play a day,” according to Stanford head coach David Shaw. In the open scrimmages, Sanders has broken a few big runs, showing agility reminiscent enough of his father to make fans drool.

You can’t talk about Stanford football without talking about the defense. As I mentioned Thursday, the defense dominated the offense in third-down blitz situations Tuesday. A big part of that was fifth-year senior outside linebacker Trent Murphy.

Murphy is such a dangerous pass-rusher because of the combination of his 6-foot-6, 261-pound frame and his freakish athleticism. Murphy’s length allows him to win the hands battle against most offensive linemen.

There is one notable lineman with the length to match up against Murphy: sophomore left tackle Andrus Peat, who stands at 6-foot-7, 310 pounds. Though his overall weight hasn’t changed much since arriving last summer, it has been “redistributed … he just looks leaner,” according to Shaw, with much less fat and more muscle.

The battle between Murphy and Peat could be epic. Once Stanford gets into the season, both will face the scout team in practice, not each other. The spring game could be one of your last chances to see those two go head-to-head.

The last thing I would put on my viewing guide is the cornerback shuffle. With Terrence Brown ’12 leaving for the NFL Draft and senior Barry Browning still recovering from surgery — he will be healthy for camp — Stanford has been forced to do some reshuffling in the secondary to provide two units of cornerback depth.

One of the most interesting developments from that has been the decision to give fifth-year senior Usua Amanam and junior Ronnie Harris, the Cardinal’s top-two nickelbacks, a chance to play corner.

Amanam’s play at corner is especially intriguing. He had the ability to change the game every time he went on the field in 2012, scoring on kick coverage at UCLA and sealing the Rose Bowl win with an interception. But as a nickelback, he doesn’t get as much playing time against teams with a pro-style or more run-focused attack.

If Amanam can be effective at corner in the Spring Game, that could earn him the opportunity to get on the field a lot more often in 2013. And if he keeps up the exciting play that turned him into a fan favorite, those extra plays could make a big difference.

Sam Fisher is hoping his performance as football writer this spring could earn him a place in The Daily’s starting football lineup come fall. Let him know about the fat chance at safisher ‘at’ stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter at @SamFisher908.

About Sam Fisher

Sam Fisher is the managing editor of sports for The Stanford Daily's Vol. 244. Sam also does play-by-play for KZSU's coverage of Stanford football, Stanford baseball and Stanford women's basketball. In 2013, Sam co-authored "Rags to Roses: The Rise of Stanford Football," with Joseph Beyda and George Chen.