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April 8, 2014
Spring Ball Report: Offense
Given that Stanford has to replace four starters from its 2013 offensive line, remarkably few questions surround the unit. Andrus Peat, the lone returning starter, is cemented at left tackle. Kyle Murphy and Josh Garnett will slide in at right tackle and left guard, respectively, after earning substantial reps in Stanford's various jumbo formations last season. And Graham Shuler, who one of the most physically gifted center Stanford has had in years, has grabbed hold of Khalil Wilkes' old spot.
"It's not that they're not being pushed," Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren said. "It's just that they're really talented so their biggest competition day in and day out is with themselves and how much better they can get."
The one spot that has yet to be settled is right guard, where a pair of players will vie to replace Kevin Danser. Unfortunately for Stanford, one of the right guard contenders, Brendon Austin, has missed nearly the entire second session of spring ball with an injury.
"I thought there was going to be a great competition at right guard in the second session between Brendon Austin and Johnny Caspers and then Brendon Austin got hurt the first day we were back," Bloomgren said. "The competition hasn't materialized and Johnny Caspers is continuing to take steps to improve. Without watching the film I thought he had maybe his best practice of spring (on Saturday), which is exactly what he needed."
In contrast to the offensive line, Stanford's running back competition remains wide open. The Cardinal lost their top two running backs from the 2013 campaign (Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson), and a quartet of players - Remound Wright, Ricky Seale, Kelsey Young and Barry Sanders - plus incoming freshman Christian McCaffrey - are competing to earn carries.
While Stanford is not close to settling on a pecking order, Kelsey Young, a new entrant to the running back group this spring, has impressed the coaching staff with his play this spring. In fact, Young has been the most productive running back on the Cardinal roster so far this spring.
"Yeah, I'd say that's fair to say," Bloomgren said. "Very fair to say. Because he is so explosive, he is doing so much better with his footwork patterns and just being great with his tracks in his eyes. That's something that a young Kelsey Young certainly didn't have two years ago. He's always been an explosive runner but now he's reading things out and then when he does hit it, oh my goodness, he is hard to deal with. He's seeing defenders really well and any time he can get loose in space, it's a really bad deal for the defense."
As is the case for several of Stanford's other backs, Young will need to improve in pass protection to maximize his chances at earning significant playing time next season.
"It's kind of a constant theme with some of our guys right now," Bloomgren said. "It's protection, protection, protection. It's the same thing that we've been saying for a couple of years now about Barry as well. And they're both doing better, they just have to get to the point where we completely trust them, not just to do the right thing with their eyes in terms of their progressions, but when they get there, to block a guy that's likely to be a lot bigger than them."
Unlike the running back and offensive line positions, Stanford returns two of its top three tight ends from a year ago. However, Stanford doesn't return much in the way of actual production from the tight end spot. The unit tight accounted for only 10 receptions in 2013, and the opening game starter, Luke Kaumatule, is now on offense.
With Stanford's trio of redshirt freshmen tight ends - Austin Hooper, Eric Cotton and Greg Taboada - ready to emerge in 2014, the unit's production should increase significantly this season.
"Those guys are taking great steps," Bloomgren said of the freshmen. "Really I think all three of those young guys are showing us exactly what we thought they would at some point or another. With all of them, consistency has been the biggest thing that we're really trying to preach. And it's always the case - I mean those are three guys that redshirted last year."
Hooper and Cotton have received numerous first-team reps in the Cardinal's three open scrimmages this spring, and Bloomgren is particularly pleased with their progress.
"The two that have been better (in terms of their development) are Hooper and Cotton," Bloomgren said. "They've done a really, really nice job of taking the things we ask them to improve on from first session to second session and really work on those things and have gotten a lot better. I mean, Austin Hooper is playing really, really well right now."
Added Stanford coach David Shaw: "(Austin is) doing extremely well," Shaw said. "He's doing extremely well as the physical point of attack blocker. But as he showed us when he came into camp he's really good in the passing game. He made some great catches, he runs good routes. He's been everything we've needed him to be."
With Evan Crower limited in practice and only three quarterbacks on the roster to begin with, there have been no shortage of reps for redshirt freshman Ryan Burns. And after a slow start to the second session - Burns missed the first session of spring ball due to a disciplinary issue - the Virginia native has shown signs of improvement.
"With Ryan you can imagine coming back for session two and being thrown right into the fire, everything was just I think very overwhelming to him (the first) Monday and Tuesday," Bloomgren said. "What's been really nice is to see things slow down for him in terms of mentally being able to make the right checks get us in the right play. And then the other thing is we had typical errors in those first couple of practices like center/quarterback exchange. It's hard to run a football play if we don't get the snap. It's great that those things have really cleared up a lot. That's a big deal."
What are Stanford's goals for Burns this spring?
"The biggest overall goal is to be efficient," Shaw said. "You can't miss an audible. You can't miss a run check. You can't miss a read. Forget about knowing everything. We don't need to know everything. We just need him to be efficient and he's made strides since the beginning of (spring ball). The beginning of the week, his first practice was absolutely horrendous. And then (Saturday) was functional and was good. (This) week we expect him to take the rest of the steps and get to the point where he can be a serviceable quarterback mentally between the ears. Physically he has all the tools. But we don't train the physical, we train the mental. He's on schedule right now."