Notebook: Position battles
Though Stanford might be best known for its power football offensive identity, the Cardinal has had its fair share of talented receivers in the Jim Harbaugh/David Shaw era as well.
In fact, Stanford's 2008 team had five future NFL player in its receiving corps: Doug Baldwin, Ryan Whalen, Griff Whalen, Chris Owusu and Richard Sherman.
So it's quite the statement that David Shaw thinks this year's receiver group is the best he has seen in his years coaching on The Farm.
"I think from top to bottom it's the best group," Shaw said. "And that will cause some angst from some of the guys when they read that report because at one point we had Chris Owusu, Richard Sherman, Doug Baldwin, Ryan Whalen and Griff Whalen, all playing in the NFL right now, in the receiving core. For me to say that this is an extremely special group, those guys will be upset at me for saying that. But I think it's true."
"(The 2014 wide receiver group can be) as special as they want to be. You have Ty Montgomery at 225, you've got Devon Cajuste at 228, 229. You have Michael Rector, who is extremely fast and explosive. You have Jordan Pratt, who does everything right and catches every ball and is still a big guy in his own right… and Francis Owusu, so that combination of guys has a chance to be truly special."
Cardinal receiver Michael Rector agrees with his coach's assessment.
"I think this could be one of the best receiving corps we've ever had at this school," Rector said. "We have Cajuste, who's just big, fast, physical, we have Ty, big, fast, physical. Frank Owusu, he's very, very versatile. And then you could even throws guys like Trojan in who can run any route in the book. I think we have a wide variety of receivers and I think we'll do well this year."
Position battles come into focus: One of the surprises from Saturday's open practice was the insertion of redshirt freshman inside linebacker Kevin Palma into the Cardinal's top defensive unit.
Palma received reps with the first team alongside A.J. Tarpley; Noor Davis, Joe Hemschoot and Blake Martinez primarily worked with the twos.
That's not to say Palma is now the favorite to start at inside linebacker this year. While the Central California native has impressed with his play this summer, junior Blake Martinez has caught Shaw's eye as much as anyone in the competition.
"I would say Blake Martinez has been outstanding," Shaw said. "I think he's been extremely good. Noor Davis, both he and Joe Hemshcoot have done extremely well there, also. I think Blake has kind of stood out, but every day Noor makes a big play. That's been exciting, because he's gotta play for us. He's going to play for us. Kevin Palma is starting to show that he's ready. He's not the young guy in the room anymore. He's making the calls, he's stepping up and making plays. We have in my opinion right now five really good options on the inside."
"(All the players in that competition) rotate in and Palma has earned the right to get in there with the older guys. He's not making mistakes, he's not missing tackles. He's dropping properly in pass coverage. He's doing everything right."
There are also several tightly contested position battles in the secondary, for the safety spot opposite Jordan Richards (Kyle Olugbode has the early edge over Kodi Whitfield) and for the nickelback. Several players have taken reps at nickel during camp (Wayne Lyons, Jordan Richards, Terrence Alexander, Zach Hoffpauir, Ronnie Harris, etc…); according to Shaw, Hoffpauir is making a strong bid to earn the starting nod at nickel.
"It's a revolving door right now," Shaw said. "I will say I've been excited about Zach Hoffpauir. He's done really well there. He finished off last year doing really well and started off this training camp doing well there also."
On the other side of the ball, redshirt freshman Austin Hooper has locked up one of Stanford's starting tight end spots. The other is still up for grabs.
"Austin Hooper is our starting 'y' tight end," Shaw said. "The other guys are battling for playing time. I think Charlie Hopkins has had a really good camp. I think Eric Cotton and Greg Taboada both have shown that they're ready to play also. Looking at it right now, we have four tight ends I think that can play. Now it's just defining roles for them as we go through training camp."
Shaw said Hooper's blocking ability separates him from the rest of the group.
"We'll still do some extra offensive line stuff, (but) we don't feel like we have to replace him because he can stay in there and get the job done."
Shaw does not envision touted true freshman Dalton Schultz cracking the playing rotation this year.
"(It's) unlikely," Shaw said. "Just like those other guys, he needs a year to get stronger and he needs to learn what do. I hate to burn his redshirt for a couple of plays here and a couple of plays there, but his future is extremely bright."
On the heels of several strong recruiting classes, Stanford's tight end talent supply has been sufficiently replenished; the quartet of Taboada, Hooper, Cotton and Schultz has drawn comparisons to the likes of Levine Toilolo, Zach Ertz and Coby Fleener, who left their mark on college football a few years ago.
Shaw is not ready claim that this year's tight end group is at the same level as the 2010/2011 unit, but he thinks they are in the same ballpark of talent and potential.
"I think they're close," Shaw said. I think they have a long way to go. I don't think at the time we knew what the ceiling for those guys was; (it was) kind of hard to gauge. Coby Fleener took a while to get some traction. Levine Toilolo came in as a great run blocker but had to develop his skills as a pass catcher. Zach Ertz took a year to really, truly learn the position and put his hand down and be as versatile as we need him to be. So that group took a while to get to where they were. I think we'll know about this group maybe faster because I think they'll all play earlier than that other group played. But I think it's comparable. I'm not ready to say like the receiving core that this is going to be a better group I'm not ready to say that yet. But it's got a chance to be a really good group."
Defensive line group shaking out: With fifth-year seniors Henry Anderson, David Parry and Blake Lueders, along with talented junior Aziz Shittu, Stanford's defensive line has legitimate high-end talent. Depth at the position, however, is more of an unknown.
Junior Luke Kaumatule has emerged as a strong candidate to earn the fifth spot in the two-deep. Several players are competing for the sixth.
"With Luke (his continued improvement will depend on) the little things," Shaw said. "It's the hand placement. It's all the technique stuff that not everybody can see. Because one thing is sure about Luke: Luke is going to go 100 miles an hour on every play. He's high energy, he's high effort. He runs everything down. It's great."
"He's steadily made progress. He's in a position to play and hopefully play a lot also. So he's right in that mix of being that fifth interior defensive linemen. We have Henry, David Parry, Aziz and Blake Lueders and now Luke is starting to be that kind of that fifth guy. And honestly, we need six. We need to be two-deep. I think Luke has taken that next step to be that next guy in the rotation but we need at least one more."
As for the starters, David Parry and Henry Anderson likely have two of the three spots locked down. Shaw is not sure whether Shittu or Lueders will earn the starting nod for the third spot, but he's confident both will play significant roles.
"I think they both have their strengths," Shaw said. "I think Blake is a little bit stronger and I think Aziz is more explosive. And we need both. I don't know, we'll see who starts, but as you guys who have been here for a while know, I don't care. They all have to play and have to play a lot."
Shaw said that Johnny Caspers has emerged as the frontrunner to start at right guard.
"I think Johnny Caspers, I wouldn't say he's owned that position just yet, I would say he has the lead," Shaw said. "Brendon Austin I think has done well. Johnny Caspers has been great in training camp."
Both of Stanford's young quarterbacks (Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns) made several nice throws during Saturday's open practice, displaying their considerable physical tools; Rector is bullish on both players.
"They both have big arms," Rector said. "They both have really big arms. Keller is ahead on the playbook, he's way further than we expect him to be at this point. Ryan is starting to get a complete feel for the offense. I think it's going to be a good competition in years to come."