Gary Cavalli

Local college players turn heads at respective Pro Days

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AP

Local college players turn heads at respective Pro Days

Last week both Stanford and Cal held “Pro Day,” an annual showcase where each school’s departing players audition for NFL scouts. 

To those unfamiliar with Pro Days, these events typically feature lots of men with stopwatches, a few TV news crews, and a group of players running 40-yard dashes, cone drills and 20-yard shuttles. The objective is to give NFL teams an opportunity to evaluate prospects up close and personal.

Since 1982, the top 300 or so prospects in the country have been invited each year to the NFL Scouting Combine, a centralized evaluation for all pro teams. Subsequent Pro Days held by individual schools provide a stage for players who weren’t invited to the combine. They also offer participants a chance to improve their combine performance or give interested teams another look.

At Cal’s Pro Day on Friday, Khalfani Muhammad turned a lot of heads with a 4.35 40-yard dash, faster than any running back recorded at the combine earlier this month. In fact, Muhammad’s time would have tied for fourth best overall. Wide receiver Chad Hansen also impressed with a 4.45 in the driving rain. Quarterback Davis Webb, who had some accuracy issues at the combine, had a good outing despite throwing a wet ball for much of the day. His predecessor, Jared Goff, was the No. 1 pick in last year’s NFL draft.

Stanford’s “Pro Timing Day” on Thursday attracted a lot of attention because of the presence of two projected first round draft picks — running back Christian McCaffrey and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas. Over 40 NFL representatives were on hand, including 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and Carolina Panthers head man Ron Rivera. Several sportswriters and local TV anchors covered the proceedings, which were also streamed live on ESPN3.

It was a far cry from the pre-Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw days, when Stanford had few pro prospects and Pro Days drew sparse turnouts. However, 31 Stanford players have been drafted in the last seven years, including four in the first round and six in the second. McCaffrey and Solomon will boost those numbers.

McCaffrey has been the Cardinal’s marquee player for the past two seasons. He set an NCAA record with 3,864 all-purpose yards in 2015, finishing second in the Heisman Trophy balloting, and then rushed for 1,639 yards in ’16. Thomas had 25 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks in the last two seasons and was named the Pac-12’s defensive lineman of the year last fall.

Surprisingly, most pundits now believe Thomas will go higher than McCaffrey in the draft. McCaffrey is currently projected to go middle or late first round. Thomas is expected to go in the top five. In fact, NFL draft guru Mel Kiper now has Thomas being taken with the No. 2 pick in the draft by that team down the road in Santa Clara.

NFL teams are split as to whether McCaffrey can be an every down back. Some see him as more of a complimentary, third-down type. At the combine, he excelled in the 40-yard dash (4.48), vertical jump (37.5”), cone drill (6.57) and both 20 and 60-yard shuttles (4.22 and 11.03), but did only 10 reps in the bench press. His overall rating at the combine was 5.99 (out of a possible 8.0). At Pro Day on Thursday, he put on a brilliant display in a number of receiving drills, showing off the versatility that many teams crave.

Thomas was one of the top performers at the combine, registering a 4.69 40, 30 reps in the bench press, a 126” broad jump, 6.95 cone drill and 4.28 shuttle. His overall rating was 6.85. On Pro Day, he did a number of position specific drills.

Unlike McCaffrey, who elected to skip the Cardinal’s post-season game, Thomas played in the Sun Bowl and elevated his pro stock with several game-changing plays. The NFL’s post-combine analysis noted: “Thomas' bowl performance against North Carolina opened a lot of eyes, as he was all over the field in the Cardinal's win in a way that isn't even reflected in an impressive stat line (seven tackles, two for loss, sack).”

According to one NFL observer at Pro Day, “In the bowl game, Thomas went from the second round to maybe the second pick in the draft.”

Stanford coach David Shaw, understandably, is a huge fan of both players. He chafes at the suggestion McCaffrey can’t be an every down back.

“People may not want to talk about it, but race is a component in that discussion,” he told me at Pro Day. “Some teams want to put Christian in a box. ‘He’s a white running back, another Danny Woodhead.’ Well, he’s not. If you look at the film, what he did at the combine, and here today, he’s more of a Reggie Bush or a Ladainian Tomlinson. He’s a difference maker.”

Shaw also marveled at Thomas’s rise up the draft boards since his Sun Bowl performance.

“That’s the beauty of bowl games,” Shaw said. “What might seem meaningless to one guy can make 10 million dollars for another.”

2017 spring practice important for Cal, Stanford for different reasons

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AP

2017 spring practice important for Cal, Stanford for different reasons

It’s only February, but this week marks the beginning of the 2017 football season in the Bay Area. Spring practice has arrived.

Most schools now begin “spring” practice in the winter. In the Pac-12, for example, Oregon State began on February 17, Arizona on Feb. 18 and Colorado on Feb. 22. Stanford’s drills start this Tuesday, while Cal’s kick off on March 15.

Schools are limited to a total of 15 sessions, and safety concerns have led the NCAA to strongly recommend that only eight involve full-contact drills. Indeed, if you ask most head coaches what they hope to gain from spring ball, the first thing most of them say is, “I hope no one gets hurt.”

There’s more to it than that, of course. Typically, spring is the time teams look to fill spots lost to graduation, resolve competition for starting spots, move players to new positions, and evaluate redshirts and early-admit freshmen. It also can be a time to find a quarterback and install a new system, which is the case at Cal this spring.

In certain parts of the country, spring practice is a much bigger deal than it is here in the Bay Area. As longtime Texas sports information director Jones Ramsey used to say, “we only have two major sports at Texas—football and spring football.”

In the SEC and Big Ten, huge crowds are commonplace for the spring intra-squad game. Last year for example, Ohio State drew 100,129 fans to its spring game. Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Penn State and Nebraska routinely draw 75,000 to 90,000. Cal and Stanford are thrilled if 3,000 fans show up.

Perhaps the most significant spring practice in the history of Bay Area football took place in 1968 at Stanford. Head coach John Ralston had been recruited from Utah State in 1963 to turn around a moribund program that had won 14 games in five years, low-lighted by an 0-10 record in 1960.

But Ralston’s run-oriented attack wasn’t producing the kind of results Athletic Director Chuck Taylor had hoped for when he hired him. Taylor, a member of Stanford’s 1941 Rose Bowl championship team that introduced the T-formation to college football, and coach of Stanford’s ‘52 Rose Bowl team that lived and died by the forward pass, made a not-so-gentle suggestion to Ralston after three middling seasons: throw the football.

So Ralston recruited a couple of local quarterbacks who could sling it—Jim Plunkett from San Jose’s James Lick High School and Don Bunce from Woodside—and announced that he would switch to a pro-style passing game for the ’68 season. Spring practice would serve as the test kitchen for Ralston’s new offense.

Back in those days I was a wet-behind-the-ears sports editor of the Stanford Daily. My timing was good, as I was fortunate enough to cover the ’68 spring practice and football season. In the spring game, Plunkett completed 22 of 39 passes for 335 yards and two touchdowns to solidify his hold on the starting job.

That fall, Stanford opened with San Jose State and Plunkett made his debut by throwing for four touchdowns—including three bombs to quarterback-turned-wide receiver Gene Washington—in a 68-20 rout. No one who was in the stadium that day will ever forget it…it was the beginning of a new era in Stanford football and, in many ways, a new era in college football.

Two years later, Plunkett led Stanford to the conference title and an upset win over Ohio State’s team of the decade in the Rose Bowl. He also won the Heisman Trophy over Notre Dame’s Joe (don’t call me THEES-man) Theisman.

Bunce, the forgotten quarterback, backed up Plunkett for two years before red-shirting his senior year (1970) so he’d have the job to himself in 1971. All he did was win another Pac-8 championship and Rose Bowl.

This spring has the potential to be another important milestone for Stanford and Cal with a new coaching staff at one school and major holes to fill at both.

Cal: New coach Justin Wilcox and his team open spring ball on Wednesday, March 15. The Bears will have three open practices—Friday March 24 at 3:30, Saturday, April 8 at 11 a.m., and the spring game on Saturday, April 22, also at 11. The Pac-12 network will televise the spring game and admission is free. Cal’s March 24 practice will be preceded by “Pro Day” (also open to the public) at 10 a.m., when selected graduating players will work out before NFL scouts and coaches.

In addition to installing a new system and introducing a new coaching staff, Wilcox must find a replacement for record-setting quarterback Davis Webb (a key attraction on Pro Day).

Stanford: The Cardinal divides spring practice into two sessions—February 28-March 12 and April 3-15, separated by a three-week break for dead week, finals and spring break. Four practices will be open to the public—Saturday, March 4 at 10 a.m., Sunday, March 12 at 11:45, Saturday, April 8 (time tbd), and the spring game on Saturday, April 15 at 1:00 p.m., which also will be televised on Pac-12 network.

Stanford’s “Pro Timing Day” on Thursday, March 23 is open to the public at 11:15. The main attractions will be running back Christian McCaffrey and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, both of whom are turning pro after their junior seasons. Unlike McCaffrey, Thomas played in the Sun Bowl and elevated his pro stock with several game-changing plays.

Coach David Shaw has a quality replacement for McCaffrey in junior Bryce Love, who averaged 7.4 yards per carry during the season and broke two long plays in the bowl game. But he will have to replace Thomas, record-setting kicker Conrad Ukropina, and possibly quarterback Keller Chryst, who is rehabbing from knee surgery.

We’ll be back with a roundup after the conclusion of spring ball. In the meantime, let's hope both Cal and Stanford unearth a few nuggets and that no one gets injured.

College Football Roundup: Stellar class for Stanford, change hurts Cal

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AP

College Football Roundup: Stellar class for Stanford, change hurts Cal

Wednesday is “National Signing Day” in college football, the day when thousands of high school recruits make their choice of colleges official by signing binding letters of intent.

And it’s become a huge production.

To record this momentous occasion, athletic departments churn out reams of press releases hyping the size, speed, ratings and statistics of their top recruits. CBS and ESPN present marathon coverage, similar to the NFL Draft. Elite players don the hats of their chosen schools before TV cameras, teammates and proud parents. Coaches spout glittering words of praise about the impact these new commits will have on their programs. And recruiting services anoint the colleges that made the biggest hauls.

Most schools now have a well-orchestrated Signing Day event—for the media, donors, select fans and local alums—featuring video clips of each signee accompanied by pulsating sound tracks.

These events can get pretty elaborate. Last year Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh invited a few high-profile ex-players, including New England Patriot quarterback Tom Brady, to attend his “Signing of the Stars” extravaganza.

The primary objective is to excite alums and motivate fans to buy tickets, not to mention impressing future recruits and their families.

The problem with all this, of course, is that it’s just speculation. Many of the “can’t miss” five-star prospects do, in fact, miss. And many unheralded two-star prospects and walk-ons achieve greatness, not just in college, but in the pros. As you might suspect, coaching has something to do with this.

In the Pac-12, according to the San Jose Mercury News' Jon Wilner, UCLA has had the top-rated recruiting class in the league for three of the last four years (plus No. 2 the fourth year). Yet the Bruins have failed to win a conference title or post a league record better than 6-3 during that time. On the flip side, Colorado, which had the league’s worst recruiting class three of the past four years, just won the South Division title this season.

Consider the case of Alex Mack, a two-star high school recruit from Santa Barbara, who became a standout at Cal, won the equivalent of the academic Heisman Trophy from the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame, and has been a perennial Pro Bowl selection. He signed a free agent contract with Atlanta before the 2016 season, and this Sunday will be snapping the ball for the Falcons in the Super Bowl.

In 2013, the San Francisco 49ers went to the Super Bowl with a couple of two-star high school recruits who became All-Pro offensive linemen—Joe Staley and Mike Iupati.

Speaking of the Super Bowl, according to Jon Solomon of CBS, the starting players in this Sunday’s game were rated as follows coming out of high school: New England offense, average 2.9 stars (out of 5); New England defense, avg. 2.8; Atlanta offense 2.8; Atlanta defense 2.5. Over 60% of these gentlemen were not even in the top 500 recruits of their respective high school classes. Late bloomers, I guess.

The good news is that things are about to change. This April, the NCAA is expected to approve an early signing period that will allow high school recruits to make their commitments to colleges during a three-day window in December.

Many players, perhaps a majority, will jump at this opportunity. These days, most recruits make up their minds long before the first Wednesday of February. (In fact, according to 247Sports, 12 of this year’s top 18 players enrolled at the school of their choice in January).

If we’re lucky, the early signing period will take much of the glamour out of Signing Day, and that will be a healthy thing for college football.

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STANFORD SHINES

Coach David Shaw reeled in a stellar class of 19 players, highlighted by five recruits who own the nation’s No. 1 ranking at their positions according to at least one recruiting service. They are: offensive tackle Walker Little (Houston, Texas), who is also rated the No. 1 recruit in the nation by 247 Sports and No. 4 by Scout.com; QB Davis Mills of Greater Atlanta Christian School, also rated the sixth best player in the country according to Scout; offensive tackle Foster Sarell (Graham, Washington), also rated the second best recruit in the nation by Scout and No. 3 by Prepstar; tight end Colby Parkinson (Westlake Village); and fullback Sione Lund from Salt Lake City.

All five of the No. 1’s have excellent size: Little is 6-8, 305; Mills 6-4, 205; Sarell 6-7, 315; Parkinson 6-7, 235; and Lund 6-1, 235. Mills passed for over 2700 yards and 34 touchdowns this year, with only one interception, despite missing two games with an injury. He also ran for over 300 yards and 8 touchdowns.

The Cardinal landed five other prospects who earned four stars from either Scout or ESPN—wide receiver Osiris St. Brown of Mater Dei in Santa Ana, wide receiver Paulson Adebo from Mansfield, TX, running back/defensive back Connor Wedington from Sumner, Washington, defensive tackle Dalyn Wade-Perry from Sparta, NJ, and defensive end Ryan Johnson from Axis, Alabama. Brown, the brother of Notre Dame receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, had 62 receptions for 1,127 yards and 19TDs this year.

Other names of note include center Drew Dalman from Pacific Grove, son of former Stanford and 49er center Chris Dalman, and tight end Tucker Fisk from Davis, son of former Stanford and NFL defensive lineman Jason Fisk.

The various services rate Stanford’s class anywhere from 10th in the country (ESPN) to 24th (Scout).

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BEAR TERRITORY

Despite a late start, new Cal coach Justin Wilcox landed a couple of Scout.com four-star players in tight end Taariq Johnson from Buena Park and cornerback Elijah Hicks from La Mirada, both of whom have already enrolled at Berkeley. The Bears also signed 6-2, 192 pound quarterback, Chase Garbers from Corona Del Mar, who’s rated the No. 10 QB in the country by ESPN and No. 35 by scout.

The Bears signed 14 recruits in all, but the late coaching change cost them four local players who flipped to USC. More junior college signings are anticipated in the coming weeks and months.

The bottom line, though, is to take all of this with a grain of salt. The true merits of these recruiting classes won’t be known for two or three years. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.