Camp Notebook: A Healthy Beginning
STANFORD, Calif. -- When Stanford football opened camp on Friday at the Elliott Field practice facility, David Shaw looked at the sheet of paper that contained the daily injury report. No offensive linemen were listed.
In fact, few injuries were listed anywhere.
A large group of linebackers reported to coaches Lance Anderson and Eric Sanders for drills and a full complement of offensive linemen reported to Terry Heffernan. These were sights to behold for Shaw.
"This is the healthiest we've been in years," said Shaw, entering his 11th season as Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. "Every team that's good in college football has depth. That's one thing that's been hard for us. And now we have depth.
"We're able to rotate guys and keep them fresh and healthy. That means we don't overload anybody. Guys are flying around, there's a lot of confidence on the field right now."
Senior linebackers Tangaloa Kaufusi, Jacob Mangum-Farrar, and Ricky Miezan were at full speed after missing all or nearly all of last season with injuries. That alone means that, simply because of their presence, the defense has the potential to be much improved.
"Those three guys in particular, going out every day and playing fast and playing physical, has been exciting to see," Shaw said.
In some ways, disruptions caused by the pandemic aided the overall health of the team. It forced Stanford to start spring ball later, which allowed more time for bodies to heal in the winter and created a longer training period to increase strength, flexibility, and explosiveness, ideal for injury prevention.
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THE WORD 'CONVENTIONAL' requires some interpretation after the past year and a half, but Stanford is enjoying a 'conventional' fall camp.
It's almost a joy to be able to focus on quarterback competitions and position battles after an abbreviated 2020 season in which the team was unable to play or even practice at home for most of the six-game campaign.
Nothing is certain in these times, but football as we know it, is back. Players can huddle, tackle, hand off and pass to each other without any restrictions.
Shaw estimated that 85 percent of the team and staff entered camp vaccinated and believes that percentage has increased because several have since received their second shots.
The restrictions still in place don't differ from campus policy: Masks are required indoors and unvaccinated individuals must undergo regular COVID testing. Shaw said that for longer meetings, there is a seating chart to make sure the unvaccinated are safe from high-risk exposure.
"The guys understand it, they accept it, we talk about it all the time," Shaw said. "In order to do the things you love to do, sometimes you have to do the things that you have to do."
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THE ADVERSITY OF last season could have benefits this year. Players and coaches point to the adaptability the team was forced to play with, where even a practice sites changed daily and the team lived out of suitcases for three weeks.
But leading returning rusher Austin Jones (550 yards on 126 carries, nine touchdowns in six games) points to the way the team bonded as the biggest carryover from 2020.
"Building the team morale and having that team camaraderie," Jones said. "That made us one of the closest teams in the nation. Having gone through that, living on the road, being with each other basically 24/7, every weekend we were traveling together .... Going into games with that, where we're playing for each other all the time, that's big for us."
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NOTHING IS EXPECTED to be resolved in the starting quarterback derby until the Sept. 4 opener against Kansas State draws near. Jack West, a senior, and sophomore Tanner McKee are locked in a duel after the graduation of 2020 starter Davis Mills.
"It was pretty much a dead heat through spring," Shaw said. "We'll probably take the temperature after a couple of weeks of training camp and then see. We'll make a decision before game week when we believe there is separation. The film will make the decision."
Jack West hands off to Austin Jones. Photo by Bob Drebin/ISIphotos.com.
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NOW IN HIS second season as captain, senior Thomas Booker intends on being an even more vocal leader this season.
"People aren't going to listen if you don't have the credibility of performing on the field," Booker said. "But it's not enough to just play, you've got to let people know exactly what's going on, what they're doing wrong, and hold them accountable both vocally and verbally.
"I don't try to force things. If I feel as though someone else has got it, I'll let them take it. But when I feel I need to step in and say something, I step in and I say something. It's all about coming off natural. Whatever feels right at that moment is what I'm going to do."
Booker is looked upon mostly as a defensive end, but he prefers "defensive lineman." He's played all down the line, as a 260-pound nose tackle and 300-pound defensive end in Stanford's 3-4 defense.
"Versatility is the name of the game here," said Booker, listed as 6-foot-4, 310 pounds.
With run defense a priority, "I feel like I'm a good run defender right now, but I'm working to get better through accumulating knowledge and film study, and in my ability to prediagnose plays before they happen -- knowing where the backside is, knowing where the tight end is, down and distance.
"Adapting all that knowledge to whatever play call we have, that's where I can take the next step mentally. I felt like I was doing that last year and I'm trying to make a continuation of it this year."
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ONE DIFFERENCE IN training camp is less contact – fewer fully padded practices and the elimination of collision exercises like the 'Oklahoma Drill' throughout college football – in an effort to limit head impact exposure and concussions. That means no more than eight full-contact days and two scrimmages per camp.
"I was on the rules committee and health and safety committee that helped put these things together, and it makes a lot of sense," Shaw said. "Many of us proved last year that we could have an abbreviated training camp and still prepare our team to play football.
"We've really taken a look at how we get their bodies ready, with the emphasis on strength and conditioning and sports science. We don't need the wear and tear. We don't need to beat them up in training camp and in spring football. With all the injuries that we've battled over the past couple of years, I think we've gotten a lot smarter."
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FIFTH-YEAR SENIOR Tucker Fisk is fully engaged as a two-position player. A tight end by trade with nine starts, nine catches and one touchdown in his Cardinal career, Fisk is working into the rotation at defensive end.
"Defense is where he has the most ground to catch up on mentally and that's where he has spent most of his time," Shaw said. "He'll come out in the defensive jersey on non-padded days. When we have pads on, we'll probably have both jerseys and he'll split some time.
"I think he's going to be one of the most versatile players in America. He's got a chance to be a difference maker on offense and defense. Honestly, he can play at the next level at either position."
Tucker Fisk. Photo by Bob Drebin/ISIphotos.com.
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ON SUNDAY, JOHN LYNCH became the fourth Stanford alum to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, following Ernie Nevers (1963), James Lofton (2003), and John Elway (2004).
Shaw had a unique perspective on Lynch in two ways – they were Stanford teammates from 1990-92 and David's father Willie was the Cardinal's defensive coordinator when Lynch switched to safety.
David Shaw never had a chance to catch a pass from Lynch in a game. Lynch was a quarterback the year Shaw redshirted, in 1990, and failed to win the starting QB job during fall camp in 1991, precipitating his switch to defense that season.
"I'm so happy for John Lynch," Shaw said. "This is so special for him and so special for Stanford. He's such a great representation of what Stanford is all about, and Stanford football in particular."
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AUSTIN JONES FOCUSED on fitness and conditioning in the off-season and comes into the year at 193 pounds with 9 percent body fat.
"I've been getting a lot stronger, power-cleaning, benching, squat, everything," Jones said. "The biggest thing I was working on was being more explosive and quick out of my cuts. Over spring and summer training, I've gotten a lot faster and a lot stronger. So, I'm definitely a different individual."
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AT HIS FIRST press conference of camp, Shaw wanted to acknowledge the death of legendary Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, who passed away Sunday.
"I never met him, but he was always an inspiration to me," Shaw said. "As a coach's kid, I looked up to players, but I also looked up to coaches. Bobby was in that era for me – Bo Schembechler, Joe Paterno, Eddie Robinson, those college coaches who did amazing things.
"I've talked to so many people who coached with him and played for him. They just always knew that Bobby loved them. As a coach, you want championships and all the wins, but more than anything, you want people that play for you to look up to you and appreciate your part in their lives."
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THE COACHES HAVE preached the need to be consistent, in effort and performance. Part of the reasoning was Stanford's tendency to allow opponents to rally late in games last season. Washington, Cal, and UCLA, each threatened after Stanford had a lead.
"We have a motto," Jones said. "We talk about burying teams. We felt like last year there were a lot of times when we'd get up on teams and let them back in the game. We've got to keep putting up points. Let's finish it out."