All eyes were on Kevin Hogan, Ben Gardner, Trent Murphy, and the rest of Stanford's returning star players, but it was an under-the-radar defensive player who stole the show in the Cardinal's first open practice of the spring.
Outside linebacker James Vaughters, who played inside linebacker in 2012, made several sacks during the open practice to announce his presence.
"James Vaughters was just unblockable today," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "That was exciting to see."
"I thought James Vaughters was awesome. He was phenomenal today. He was in the backfield every play it, seemed like."
Vaughters was one of a number of players to earn praise from Shaw following the Saturday morning practice, which featured position-specific drills and several scrimmage periods.
"I thought it went pretty well actually, pretty well," Shaw said. "Better than the other day, our first padded practice. There was some back and forth. Defense for the most part won the day."
Standouts: Shaw also complimented Blake Lueders, Vaughters' prime competition for the starting outside linebacker spot opposite Trent Murphy.
"Blake Lueders was just as good (as Vaughters), those two guys playing the SAM. We've got a physical presence in our strong side running game, which is phenomenal."
Several pass-catchers shined for the Cardinal offense.
"Luke Kaumatule had a heck of a day," Shaw said. "Just a big target that makes tough catches. I thought two of our receivers really showed out also. Ty Montgomery was phenomenal and Michael Rector also did a really good job."
Another standout receiver was redshirt junior Jeff Trojan, who probably had the most catches of all the Cardinal receivers during the scrimmage periods.
"He's following in the footsteps of a lot of guys who have come here under the radar," Shaw said. "The Whalens, Ryan Whalen and Griff Whalen, guys that came in kind of quietly, but he's put himself in a position where we're counting on him. He knows all of the positions. He knows every position. He knows where he's supposed to be. He gets there on time, he catches the ball, he blocks. He's playing really great on special teams. He's made himself into a valuable asset to this team, and I'm excited about what he can do for us."
Several of Trojan's receptions came from backup quarterback Evan Crower. Crower has struggled in some of Stanford's past open practices, and has yet to crack the Cardinal quarterback depth chart, but looked much-improved on Saturday. Crower tossed several nice deep balls and was accurate while throwing on the run.
"Evan had a really good day of practice," Shaw said. "Two really good days in a row. Thursday was probably his best practice in uniform for us. It was outstanding. Today was almost as good. We'll go back and look at the film but today I thought he did very, very well.
"He's 6-foot-5, he can see over everything. I wouldn't say he has the strongest arm in the world, but he throws the deep ball early and puts good air under it so he can make every throw. He's still learning the offense to where he can make quick decisions, because that's where our offense is. Our offense is guys who know how to manage the running game and make quick decisions in the passing game."
Personnel Update: Several Stanford players didn't participate in Saturday's practice. Graham Shuler, Keanu Nelson and Shayne Skov will miss the first half of spring ball for disciplinary reasons (in Skov's case, a university-mandated term suspension stemming from his DUI arrest over summer). Josh Nunes is expected to miss all of spring with an arm injury. Kevin Reihner is expected to miss the first half of spring ball with an injury.
Barry Browning, Cole Underwood and Charlie Hopkins were in attendance at the practice, but wore only jerseys and no pads and were held completely out of contact drills. It's not clear when each will be cleared to return to action.
Safet Ed Reynolds was also held out of Saturday's practice, but he should return next week.
"He tweaked a muscle," Shaw said. "He'll be back Tuesday. It's just precautionary. If we were playing a game today he would have played."
Running back Ricky Seale had to leave practice early after suffering a lower-body injury on a running play, but Shaw doesn't suspect it's too serious.
"He got tweaked," Shaw said. "He probably could have gone back in there. He just needed to get retaped, his ankle retaped. He should be okay. We'll see how he is Tuesday. If he's still a little sore, we'll hold him off. As we say, we have a lot of running backs, I don't want to have a chance for further injury but I don't think it's too bad."
Running back still a committee: Five Cardinal running backs - Anthony Wilkerson, Barry Sanders, Jackson Cummings, Remound Wright and Ricky Seale - had carries during drill and scrimmage periods on Saturday.
"I thought they did well," Shaw said. "We talk about the beauty of four-yard gains. And we had a bunch of those today, which is great, because as we all know those four-yard gains become 10 or 12. I thought Anthony Wilkerson hit the holes really well today and carried a couple of guys for extra yardage. I thought the backs as a whole did very well. Barry made a great play down there for a touchdown, made three guys miss and ran in to the endzone. As a whole I thought the running backs ran really well."
Sanders might have had the scrimmage's best run, but he wasn't available to speak with the media about it. Sanders does not currently field interview requests, a policy Shaw implemented during fall camp.
"I think this is fair, I think this is right," Shaw said. "I'm not going to put a guy out front because of his name. There are a whole bunch of interview requests for Barry because of his name. I want Barry to be able to give interviews and I don't like putting rules on stuff like that, it's just before he's ever played a game there's no reason why he should have his own media session before he has a carry as a Stanford Cardinal. He's going to keep working, he's going to try to work to get into the rotation. As you see, we have a very deep running back core. Some people say we're going to do running back by committee and I don't have a problem with that. Some people take that as negative. I take that as positive. That means we have a (group) of really good guys with varying talents. We'll give all those guys opportunities to make plays."
Offensive line shuffling: Perhaps the most noteworthy personnel alignment of the entire practice came not with the first-unit offense, but rather the third-string. Second-team all-Pac-12 guard Kevin Danser played his normal position with the first team offense, but also took reps at center with the third unit.
There are no imminent plans to move Danser to center full-time, but if freshman Josh Garnett or another of the Cardinal guards continue to develop, it is a possibility.
"We gave him some reps because we're a little bit low and we wanted to go three groups, and he's shocked me how well he's done in it," Shaw said. "If he gets in the battle at center I won't fight it because I think we've got some guys at guard that have shown they can play. Josh Garnett has had a phenomenal spring so far. If we want to take some reps at center and put Josh Garnett with the ones just to see who that works, we'll see. Khalil Wilkes has been really good at center also, he's had a really good spring so far. We're going to throw guys in there. Kevin Danser has shown the ability to go in there and actually do it in a live scrimmage, so we'll keep rolling him in there."
Heading into spring, left tackle was also considered a wide-open competition, with players like Andrus Peat, Kyle Murphy and even Nick Davidson expected to compete for the job, but thus far, Peat seems to have pulled ahead. He took all of the reps with the first-unit offensive line on Saturday, and had a very good first week of spring practice, Shaw said.
"I thought he's had a really good week of practice," Shaw said. "We always talk about as coaches when the light comes on. The light may have come on. It's flickered a couple of times, but it's mostly on. For a guy with his physical tools, the sky is the limit. We're going to continue to push him and help him grow. He has an All-American right next to him at left guard (David Yankey) that continues to talk to him and makes sure he knows what he's doing, so we have a lot of comfort level on the left side right now."
As for Murphy, he worked at left tackle with the second unit. Aside his continued development on the field, working hard in the dining room seems to be a top priority for Murphy, who was listed at 272 pounds on the spring roster.
"He's been going up and down," Shaw said. "He was as high as 279, 280 and then went back down to the low 270's… We need to get him in the 280's, comfortably in the. I'm not going to put an exact number on it, but he moves so well at his weight now, if he can move that well with 10 more pounds, he'll be that much better."