Notebook: Spring Ball Begins
STANFORD, Calif. – As the coronavirus weakens its grip, Stanford's spring football practices began Tuesday with an almost-normal feel at Elliott Field.
Unlike much of the abbreviated fall season, restrictions seem to be limited to mask-wearing on the sidelines. The main difference from prior springs is the timing. Typically, spring practice begins in late February rather than late April and usually is divided into two sections bridging the end of the winter quarter. This year, there are 15 training sessions over three consecutive weeks, culminating in the spring game May 22 at Stanford Stadium.
The later start allows those injured in the fall a better chance to join the team. It also creates a shorter window between spring ball and fall camp, which begins the first week of August.
"Hopefully, by the end of spring, we'll have a majority of the team involved in some capacity," said David Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. "I think it's worked out really well for us. The guys are excited about it and it's good to get back on the field."
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WITH DAVIS MILLS entering the NFL Draft, which begins Thursday, the quarterback competition to find his replacement begins in earnest. Shaw said there is no frontrunner between Jack West and Tanner McKee, and said he likely won't name a starter this spring.
Whether it can heat up to Guy Benjamin vs. Mike Cordova proportions on The Farm is anyone's guess, but Shaw is enthusiastic about both QBs.
"We'll rotate those guys pretty evenly," Shaw said, " and we'll still continue to watch and push and evaluate the other quarterbacks so they're at their absolute best."
West, a senior from Saraland, Alabama, has two starts and played in five games. McKee, a sophomore from Corona, spelled West in the 2020 season opener at Oregon in his only action.
Also intriguing are Isaiah Sanders and Ari Patu. Sanders, a sixth-year graduate transfer from Air Force, played in two games for Stanford, rushing five times and scoring four touchdowns, including two in the double overtime victory over UCLA.
"We'll continue to find roles for him, not just as a runner," Shaw said. "We'll continue to look at his role regardless of who the starting quarterback is. We like what Isaiah brings to the table."
Patu is one of the first two early enrollees in the history of the program. Patu, Folsom High class of '21, gets an opportunity to begin work with the program earlier than any QB in school history.
"Ari's got a lot to learn as you would imagine," Shaw said. "And he's a little banged up. As the spring goes, he'll be able to do a little bit more. I don't anticipate him getting into the mix in the spring, but we'll see what happens in training camp. He's a talented young man who has a high ceiling. We'll see how that process goes, but we're excited he's here."
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SINCE DECLARING FOR the draft, Mills has shot up the draft boards from the late rounds to the late first or early second. Shaw is convinced that if Mills had more than 11 college starts he would be included among the most-discussed elite QBs in the draft.
"Without a doubt," Shaw said. "Davis' skill set, his athleticism, his accuracy, his arm strength, his quick decision making … this year you really saw that this guy could be on an NFL team right now. Davis is an NFL starter. He's got the makeup mentally and physically."
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SHAW RETURNS TO the NFL Network as a draft analyst during the first round of its coverage. Shaw attended Stanford's Tuesday training session, but otherwise is out through the weekend, having to quarantine when he returns.
"I won't be too far away," Shaw said. "I'll be able to watch everything we do and stay in constant communication with our coaches. It's a positive thing for our program to be involved with the NFL Network, so I'm looking forward to doing that."
Harkening to his NFL experience as a talent evaluator, Shaw loves the draft.
"All 32 teams have hope and excitement," Shaw said. "All 32 have fan bases that believe, We're going to get better. For every single draft pick, this is like the beginning of their lives. It's the best day in the entire calendar of the NFL. It's the best day for everybody, everybody has a chance."
In researching potential picks and watching film of other programs, Shaw said he sometimes picks up ideas and incorporates them into Stanford's playbook.
"The cool moments," he said, "are to be on the set when any of our guys get drafted, from Andrew Luck and David DeCastro my first year doing this to Solomon Thomas and Christian McCaffrey going in the top 10. I feel so proud to have played my part in that young person's life to get to that point. I see my job as, yes, I'm a football coach, but I'm also a mentor for young people. To be a part of someone's process to live their dreams, there's really not much to prepare for it professionally."
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THE SPRING SEASON acts as a "temperature check," Shaw said, an opportunity to figure out which players have improved and who needs more work. It's also a chance to see new leaders rise and how they bring the best out of their teammates.
The chance for injured players such as senior inside linebackers Ricky Miezan and Jacob Mangum-Farrar, and outside linebackers Tangaloa Kaufusi and Tobe Umerah, to return to the field could be among the highlights of the spring.
"That's four guys that we think in some way, shape, or form, are going to impact this football team that we didn't have last year," Shaw said.
There's also the opportunity to see junior inside linebacker Levani Damuni, last season's leading tackler, take the next step as a difference-maker and returning captain Thomas Booker, at defensive end, to become an even more vocal leader.
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PROGRAMS CAN OFFER only one "official" visit per recruit, and Stanford has typically reserved those for The Big Visit weekend in January. During COVID, those visits were not allowed, but the dead period, of no in-person contact with recruits is ending and programs need to decide if they should take a different approach.
Rather than asking recruits to arrive on their own dime for unofficial visits, Stanford is considering using the summer for official visits, to create deeper relationships with recruits sooner rather than later.
"We are seriously looking at official visits this June," Shaw said. "We've gone a year-plus now without people walking on our unbelievable campus. It's too hard to just try to do it unofficially.
"We still have an academic bar that we need to set. Those who are on course to get here academically are the ones we'll try to bring in. As far as June's concerned, we only have a couple of small windows after commencement and by the end of the period that we could host people."
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THE LASTING IMPRESSIONS of last season included a walk-through in a city park in Bellevue, Washington and the comeback and goal-line stand against UCLA at the Rose Bowl. Of course, Booker's game-saving extra-point block in the Big Game will be remembered as well.
Those recollections come in the context of a team that lived out of suitcases for three weeks and not knowing where it would practice from day to day. For the Cardinal to win their final four games after an 0-2 start only cemented the feeling that the Cardinal endured and succeeded and in some kind of self-defining way.
"I hope that lessons learned remain learned," Shaw said. "The biggest was adjustability. Our student-athletes and our entire staff were ready to change on a moment's notice and still be at our best -- not letting our circumstances dictate our effort and enthusiasm. Hopefully that continues.
"We're not completely clear of all this stuff, but we can't ever use that as an excuse not to be great. Regardless of the circumstances, regardless of what happens, regardless of what's thrown down our path, we have to fight through it together and fight through it to be successful.
"Hopefully, that remains from all those circumstances from last year, because that's what our guys did as well as anybody in America."
Main photo: Tanner McKee. Photo by Scott Swegan.