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Practice notes: Seniors step up as leaders, position depth grows and a trip to the movies

While senior center Graham Shuler (52) was not chosen as one of the Cardinal's six captains, he will still be a leader for the offensive line and seeks to leverage his extensive game experience, including two Rose Bowl appearances. (ROBIN ALAM/isiphotos.com)

While Stanford continues to work in training camp to replace key contributors on both sides of the ball, the Cardinal appear to have no shortage of depth in the leadership department, naming six team captains on Tuesday — two more than there were last season and three more than in 2013.

As determined in a vote by the players, senior offensive linemen Kyle Murphy and Josh Garnett joined fifth-year senior quarterback Kevin Hogan as the offensive captains for 2015.

Hogan, a captain in 2014 as well, became the first Stanford player since Bo McNally in 2009 to earn the designation for multiple seasons.

Senior linebacker Blake Martinez, fifth-year senior linebacker Kevin Anderson and fifth-year senior cornerback Ronnie Harris were named defensive captains.

As the Cardinal look to build off their late-season success in 2014, leadership has been a major emphasis for this year’s squad all throughout the preseason, a gauntlet set out by the coaching staff to all players, regardless of class year or position.

“We have a quote on our cart in the offseason from Coach Turley. It’s from Phil Jackson. It says that ‘The team has to lead itself,’” said senior center Graham Shuler.

“Coach Shaw puts it on his seniors to be leaders,” he added. “It’s a huge responsibility that he gives us, but it’s not just us. If you look at what Christian [McCaffrey] is doing as a sophomore and when you hear Dalton Schultz and Daniel Marx being vocal and stepping up in the huddle, it’s about everybody pulling their weight.”

Offensive line looking to leverage game experience

With four returning starters from 2014 in Garnett, Murphy, Shuler and Johnny Caspers, the offensive line is looking to use that valuable game experience to make marked strides in 2014.

Shuler, a member of Stanford’s celebrated 2012 class that brought several top linemen to the Farm, noted that the experience of lining up against stout opposing defenses has improved his preparation ahead of this season.

“From being on the scout team against Rose Bowl teams in 2012 and 2013 to learning a lot especially in away games, my protection has improved a lot,” he said.

Shuler also added that he has focused this offseason on recognizing and understanding defensive schemes based on his experience last season.

Stanford head coach David Shaw added that he is pleased with the play of the Tunnel Workers Union in training camp thus far, but noted that the preseason preparation is far from complete, a sentiment shared by Shuler.

“We’re still improving on a lot,” Shuler said. “We’ve got a lot of stuff we need to do to get better at. I’m really excited to see where this finished product is on Sept. 5 [at Northwestern], but we still got a lot of work to do between now and then.”

Shittu’s leadership key for defensive line

As the position group with arguably the most uncertainty heading into training camp, the defensive line has made an impression behind the strong play and leadership of Aziz Shittu.

Though not officially designated a captain, Shittu has earned effusive praise from the coaching staff for his leadership this offseason, with Shaw noting that the senior assumed responsibility for organizing offseason workouts for the unit.

Playing primarily with sophomores Harrison Phillips and Solomon Thomas on the first team, Shittu has delivered notable performances throughout camp, which he attributes in part to a newfound motivation and sense of urgency following a serious knee injury last season that forced him to miss the final six games of the season.

“I just missed football so much,” Shittu said. “You see cut-ups in the film room after I went out. It’s just really tough to watch.”

“You don’t take any day for granted because, as it happened to me last year in practice, football can get taken away from you at any time.”

Despite exceeding some expectations, however, Shittu and the defensive line shared the same sentiment as Shuler regarding the necessity of more preparation before the Northwestern game, a mantra instilled in the unit by defensive line coach Randy Hart.

“One thing Coach Hart always tells us is that the biggest room in your house will always be the room for improvement,” added senior defensive end Jordan Watkins.

“I think we’ve done a pretty good job coming together during camp, but with that being said we’ve still got 10 days to go, so we’re coming along and I feel pretty confident that we’ll be ready to go come game time.”

Hogan continues to grow

When asked how he would characterize the approach of Kevin Hogan in training camp, Shaw used a word he previously did not associate with his senior quarterback.

“Calm.”

In the two seasons following Hogan’s explosion onto the scene in 2012, which culminated in a Rose Bowl victory, Shaw noted that Hogan often tried to press.

Hogan’s approach ahead of his fourth year under center, however, has been markedly different, allowing the senior to build off his strong finish to last year’s campaign and embrace his role as a leader.

“[Kevin] doesn’t try to lead, but he’s leading,” Shaw added.

Stanford quarterbacks coach Tavita Pritchard concurred, noting that Hogan’s leadership and experience have helped accelerate the development of the Cardinal’s two younger quarterbacks, Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst.

“Kevin does an awesome job of taking those guys under his wing when he has opportunities to do so,” Pritchard remarked. “When you have a guy as battle-tested as Kevin, those coaching points are a little more profound when they’re coming from a guy playing the position right now.

“He really just has an incredible grasp of our offense. We ask our quarterbacks to do a lot and he handles it.”

Running back depth growing

Before training camp even started, the Stanford coaching staff made it no secret that the offense in 2015 will revolve around talented sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey.

But perhaps an unexpected development over the past few weeks has been the emergence of strong depth at the position behind No. 5, with Remound Wright and Barry Sanders making improvements and true freshmen Bryce Love and Cameron Scarlett bursting onto the scene.

Following Wednesday’s practice, Shaw stated that the game-readiness of all of his freshmen, including Love and Scarlett, has been the biggest surprise of camp and that the two young running backs are certainly in the conversation to play right away.

Sanders, a senior who has impressed in camp as well, has embraced the added competition.

“It’s good to have so many guys taking reps. It’s fun to be a teacher and the program is heading in an exciting direction,” Sanders said at the conclusion of Saturday’s practice.

“Jackson Cummings was my teacher, and I learned from Remound, [Tyler] Gaffney, Stepfan [Taylor] and Anthony Wilkerson. Every rep those guys took, I tried to learn something, and now I get a chance to be a teacher.”

Secondary improving under tutelage of Akina

With their own fair share of question marks heading into camp, the secondary has made considerable strides under the guidance of defensive backs coach Duane Akina, and the competition for a starting spot at cornerback remains as tight as ever.

With senior Ronnie Harris earning a starting nod, sophomores Alijah Holder and Alameen Murphy, junior Taijuan Thomas and fifth-year senior Ra’Chard Pippens remain locked in battle for the other corner spot.

Although no clear-cut favorite has emerged at this stage, Akina remains excited by the quality of the competition.

“It’s a really healthy situation,” Akina said. “But I’ve got some tough decisions to make. We may be playing into the season. I’ve done that in the past. We may roll some guys through at the start of the season and then take it from there.”

With a considerable reputation for developing young defensive backs, Akina has no shortage of talent to work with as he teaches several highly touted recruits at both the corner and safety positions. But over the course of many seasons, Akina’s first lesson of “responsibility” has remained the same.

“[Bill] Belichick says it all the time: ‘Do your job.’ In high school, many times they’re in the habit of trying to make every play. Now, with 10 other outstanding athletes, you just need to do your job. You don’t need to tackle the fullback on a dive.”

Akina also acknowledged, however, that his tutelage can extend only so far and praised the leadership of Harris with the cornerbacks and senior Kodi Whitfield with the safeties during the offseason.

“I think Ronnie Harris and Kodi Whitfield have just done an outstanding job of in the summer teaching coverage and getting them all in for film work. They’ve taken the role of being a senior very seriously,” Akina said. “I think Jordan [Richards] was a great model for those guys.”

A trip to the movies

Raucous cheers erupted from the huddle at the conclusion of Wednesday’s practice as Shaw announced that all team meetings for the evening had been cancelled and replaced instead with a team trip to see the boxing drama “Southpaw.”

The uncontainable excitement at the end of practice stemmed not only from the good news, but also from the realization of a long-held dream.

“Ever since I’ve been here and probably before, there’s always been a joke that we’re going to see a movie and there’s tickets on such-and-such desk, but it never happens,” Watkins said. “It’s almost like a boy-who-cried-wolf thing.”

Senior inside linebacker Craig Jones shared the same sentiment.

Watkins also added that the team-bonding event comes at an important time as camp winds down, allowing the team to take a brief step back and improve morale.

After their night at the movies, the Cardinal will return to the field Thursday for their final two-a-day session of camp. Next week, Stanford will fly to Chicago on Thursday and step into the ring as it takes on Northwestern two days later.  

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

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