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Practice notes: Cardinal come out strong, but position battles linger

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With exactly two weeks to go before kicking off the 2015 season, the Stanford Cardinal returned to the practice field Saturday morning — this time joined by over 100 fans eager to catch a glimpse of David Shaw’s squad. With a larger audience on hand, the Cardinal did not disappoint in providing entertainment, making noteworthy plays in all three phases of the game and showcasing the team’s young, exciting talent.

While the session was far from mistake-free and did little to answer any of the lingering questions surrounding major position battles, the Cardinal did show a marked improvement from earlier open practices in training camp and in the spring as they prepare to face their first live bullets in Evanston, Illinois on Sept. 5.

Offense:

From the outset, the first-team offense took control of the scrimmage behind the very crisp play of quarterback Kevin Hogan. Displaying a confident command of the offense, Hogan connected with receivers Francis Owusu and Michael Rector for long touchdowns on the first two drives of the morning, showing off his brilliant touch on deep balls, a key component of the fifth-year senior’s resurgence in the latter portion of the 2014 season.

“Kevin’s continued from where he was from the Cal game onwards,” Shaw noted at the conclusion of the session. “We missed a lot of deep balls last year, and he’s just a lot more comfortable right now.”

“When you combine his athleticism and ability as a deep ball thrower, it’s been exciting.”

Hogan finished the day 8-11 as the first-team offense received an added spark with the return of Rector, who was suspended indefinitely for disciplinary reasons last week. Though Shaw declined to comment on whether or not Rector would miss any game action as part of his suspension, the senior wideout made his presence felt on the practice field as the offense put the defense on its heels during the first two drives.

While Hogan’s veteran leadership set the tone early, it was a true freshman, running back Bryce Love, who stole the show offensively. Working primarily with the second team, behind Christian McCaffrey, Remound Wright and Barry Sanders, Love rushed for 77 yards on 5 carries, highlighted by a blazing 65-yard touchdown run that brought the crowd to its feet.

At this stage in the preseason, the coaching staff has yet to decide which true freshmen might play right away, but Shaw mentioned that Love has a serious chance to enter the running back rotation at the start of the season.

***

Offensively, there are still two major position battles up in the air: the spot of backup quarterback between junior Ryan Burns and sophomore Keller Chryst and the competition for spots at guard and tackle along the right side of the offensive line.

Burns and Chryst both turned in solid performances on Saturday, finishing 4-7 and 7-11, respectively; however, neither quarterback managed to move the ball consistently and looked flummoxed at times against an aggressive pass rush.

Overall, Shaw was pleased with the progress of his younger quarterbacks, but wasn’t ready to name a backup just yet.

“I think they’ve both progressed. They missed some throws, but those are the trials and tribulations of having young quarterbacks,” Shaw said. “I have nothing else to report at this time.”

Meanwhile, the offensive line delivered another strong performance. While the line still isn’t quite where Shaw would like it to be by week one, the veteran-laden group looks unquestionably more comfortable than it was at this point last season.

Saturday’s practice marked the return of both junior guard David Bright and senior tackle Nick Davidson from injury, meaning that the battle for starting spots on the right side of the line now begins in earnest. Bright, Davidson, senior Johnny Caspers and sophomore Casey Tucker are all expected to compete for spots at either guard or tackle.

Currently, Caspers and Tucker held down the guard and tackle spots on the first team, respectively, while Bright and Davidson joined A.T. Hall, Brandon Fanaika and Jesse Burkett on the second unit, which also produced a solid outing, giving the Cardinal much-needed depth up-front.

Although many questions still remain unanswered with a week of camp to go, the fullback position, a staple of the Stanford offense, has been notably devoid of drama.

While many expected freshmen Reagan Williams and Houston Heimuli to compete with sophomore Daniel Marx to take over for Lee Ward and Pat Skov, Marx has run away with the job and delivered vicious block after vicious block, evoking memories of legendary Cardinal fullbacks.

“[Marx’s] exactly where we hoped he would be,” Shaw said. “We’re excited about him. He’s got all the tools to succeed at this level and the next.”

The final major offensive development from training camp has been the rapid ascent of sophomore tight end Dalton Schultz, who began the day on the first team on the depth chart and made two tough catches in traffic.

Austin Hooper, Greg Taboada and Eric Cotton also played well, with Hooper making arguably the best grab out of the entire group while working with Chryst and the second-team. At this point, though, it looks like Schultz is poised to become the top tight end on the depth chart.

Defense:

Despite giving up two big plays early, Lance Anderson’s defense rebounded with a suffocating performance for the remainder of the day and showed off a considerable amount of depth at key positions.

With presumptive starter Kodi Whitfield and sophomore Brandon Simmons out with minor injuries (both are expected to return early next week), freshman safety Justin Reid started the day with the first team opposite Dallas Lloyd and recorded a team-high 5 tackles. Reid rotated with fellow freshman Ben Edwards on the first team.

Stanford’s young corners also shined on Saturday with Quenton Meeks and Taijuan Thomas standing out. Thomas also sparked the top defensive play of the day when he delivered a jarring hit on freshman receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside that tipped Ryan Burns’ pass up in the air, allowing linebacker Lane Veach to snag the only interception of the day.

At linebacker, the competition for the starting inside spot opposite Blake Martinez remains fierce between Kevin Palma, Jordan Perez and Bobby Okereke. No candidate gained any clear separation on Saturday, but Martinez again showed why he is regarded as one of the best linebackers in the nation, organizing the rest of the defense and making several crucial stops against the run and in coverage.

Shaw was also all-praise for Martinez afterwards, noting that the senior has mastered the defense and is now working on fine-tuning the nuances.

At defensive line, Aziz Shittu, Harrison Phillips and Solomon Thomas started the day on the first team. The trio, along with Cal transfer Brennan Scarlett, consistently penetrated into the backfield and harassed the Cardinal quarterbacks, particularly Burns and Chryst, all morning.

With uncertainty along the defensive line remaining one of the biggest storylines at the start of training camp, Shaw was pleased with the progress of Randy Hart’s group.

“The defensive line has been the biggest quote unquote ‘question,’” Shaw said. “Between those four guys [Shittu, Thomas, Phillips and Scarlett] they’re giving us what we need right now. But we still need depth.”

“[Jordan] Watkins tweaked a groin last week, but he looked good in practice the other day and looked better today,” Shaw added. “Hopefully, he can get to the point where he can rotate in.”

Shittu, in particular, looked borderline unblockable at times, splitting his time between nose tackle and defensive end. The senior, who missed the final six games of last season with a knee injury, has returned in full force during training camp, and is relishing the opportunity to play alongside a pair of talented sophomores in Thomas and Phillips.

“You could say I’ve taken more of a leadership role,” Shittu said at the conclusion of practice. “Really, though, I’ve learned a lot from these younger guys. With everything they bring to the table, I try to take something from their game, so it’s not just me. They’ve been giving me a lot of help as well.”

Special Teams:

Senior Conrad Ukropina has seized control of the starting kicking job, holding off competition from true freshman Charlie Beall. Ukropina saw very limited action during Saturday’s scrimmage, drilling his lone field goal attempt of approximately 30 yards.

Meanwhile, punters Jake Bailey and Alex Robinson continued to battle for the starting job with the true freshman Bailey turning in a particularly impressive performance, blasting two or three punts that drew audible reactions from the crowd on hand.

With just one week of training camp remaining before the long grind of the season, the Cardinal anticipate resolving the remaining competitions by the end of the month.

Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Vihan Lakshman's journey at The Stanford Daily came full-circle as he began his career as a football beat writer and now closes his time on The Farm in the same role. In between, he has served as an Opinions columnist and desk editor, a beat writer for Stanford baseball, and as a member of The Daily's Editorial Board. Vihan completed his undergraduate degree in Mathematical and Computational Science in 2016, and is currently pursuing a master's in Computational Mathematics. He also worked as a color commentator on KZSU football broadcasts during the 2015 season. To contact him, please send an email to vihan 'at' stanford.edu