Stanford football basked in the glory of a perfectly sun-splashed Southern California afternoon at The Home Depot Center, enjoying better team health than it did in the days leading up to the 2012 season opener against San Jose State. Ryan Hewitt, who had injured his ankle in the team's open preseason scrimmage, was banged up back then. Now, there are no such concerns.
Wide receiver Ty Montgomery looked as if he had regained old bounce in his step, particularly when he knifed down down the sideline for a passing drill score following a crisp slant completion. Last month, David Shaw said the sophomore, who injured his knee October 6 against Arizona, wouldn't be back to 100 percent until Stanford's bowl game. Friday's practice showed that No. 88 has at least taken several positive steps in that direction.
Punter Daniel Zychlinski, who injured his shoulder in the regular season finale at UCLA, looked fine as well. He booted a few excellent punts and then joined his fellow specialists in a game of taking aim at the goalpost with dropkicks.
A healthy crowd of about 100 spectators watched as Stanford opened up an aerial display at its only open practice of Rose Bowl week. Kelsey Young sprinted behind the first first team defense to haul in a 45-yard touchdown toss from Kevin Hogan in passing drills. Half an hour later, No. 8 found Jamal-Rashad Patterson from his own end zone with a beautiful floater 50 yards downfield. The Cardinal likely concealed much game strategy Friday, but the downfield attack opened some eyes before the team embarked to a Hollywood comedy club for another Rose Bowl activity.
Earlier, the day's focus centered on the Stanford offense, which saw significant improvement this season after Hogan took over for starting quarterback Josh Nunes. Much was made about Hogan's development under Andrew Luck during his true freshman season last year.
"[Hogan's] redshirt year, he had one job," offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said. "That was to watch Andrew."
"Kevin is approaching [the quarterback position] the same way [as Andrew]," center Sam Schwartzstein added. "He had an entire notebook just from yesterday filled out of the notes from the Monday meeting, and he was able to give them back to us verbatim when coach asked him to."
Ertz: One More Year?
With regards to continued improvement in 2013, several necessary offensive pieces will certainly be returning. A large question mark, however, still hovers around No. 86. Far and away the nation's best tight, Zach Ertz only has three classes standing in between him and graduation. He is eligible for both the NFL Draft and another season at Stanford.
"I haven't thought about [my decision] too much," Ertz said before explaining that he plans to consult with his family and the Stanford coaching staff in the week following the Rose Bowl before returning a decision around January 8. If he decides to remain at Stanford, Ertz said he would enroll in graduate school.
But if the NFL is the unanimous All-American's decision, there's a strong possibility that current fullback Ryan Hewitt will shift to tight end next season (his recruited position), particularly with hard-hitting fullback Geoff Meinken scheduled to return from a knee injury. There have also been rumblings about the possibility of six-foot-four receiver Devon Cajuste shifting to tight end, though he'd likely have to pack on weight for run blocking purposes.
Danser to Center?
One offensive component that will certainly be leaving is the senior center Schwartzstein, the quarterback of a Stanford offensive line that has gelled after losing David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin to the NFL Draft. Hamilton indicated that current starting left guard Khalil Wilkes is a prime candidate to move over to center, a position that he competed for in the preseason the past two seasons. That notion corroborated Wilkes' comments to the Bootleg two weeks ago, in which the New Jersey native expressed excitement about potentially moving to the middle of the line.
Hamilton also mentioned sophomore Kevin Reihner, true freshman Graham Shuler, and current starting right guard Kevin Danser as potential replacements at the center position, which is the only spot on the Stanford offensive line that will be vacated by graduation this offseason. For that reason, Ertz believes the line will be dominant next season.
"They'll blend well because they're very good friends off the field," he said.
Schwartzstein pointed to young up-and-comers, players on the roster that have impressed beyond household names like Andrus Peat, Kyle Murphy, and Joshua Garnett.
"Johnny Caspers, Graham Shuler, Nick Davidson, all those guys are fantastic players," he said. "It's a good sign for the future."
The group will be paving the way for what is likely to be a committee of running backs that will be tasked with replacing graduating senior Stepfan Taylor. Hamilton said the situation in the 2013 Stanford backfield will likely be similar to the one seen in 2010, the year after Toby Gerhart departed to the NFL. Barry J. Sanders has been particularly impressive during bowl practices, earning the Montee Ball simulator role on the Cardinal's scout team.
Hamilton Discusses Run-First Approach
Of course, Stanford will also look for more explosiveness out of the wide receiver position next year. But Hamilton emphasized that the team's run-first identity is here to stay.
"We're like old heavyweight fighters. We want the 15-round fight. We want to wear them down early in the fight," he said. "Throwing the body punches will ultimately give us a chance to hit the big play."
Still, Hamilton made a pair of interesting admissions in relation to Stanford's run-heavy mentality.
"I feel like and I think about it all the time that I probably cost Andrew Luck the Heisman," he said, later adding that Stanford's conservative play-calling against San Jose State left that game tied late.
With players like Sanders and Kelsey Young flashing explosiveness potential, there's always a chance Stanford adds significant open space spice to its offensive formula. No. 39's long touchdown catch was, after all, one of the eye-opening plays of Friday's Rose Bowl practice.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Football Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidMLombardi.
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