NCAA

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.

From feeding homeless to doing the splits, Stanford's Phillips a rare find

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From feeding homeless to doing the splits, Stanford's Phillips a rare find

Stanford has a penchant for recruiting the overachieving student-athlete. Even among those standards, Harrison Phillips is a rare find. The senior defensive tackle helps feed the homeless every Friday morning at a local shelter. He often visits the kids in the oncology ward at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. He was named to the Pac-12 All Academic First Team and will graduate in December with a double major and a minor. He is a team captain and heir apparent to Solomon Thomas, the 49ers third overall pick in this year’s NFL draft.

“One thing you love about Harrison is, every day he’s going to get something done,” head coach David Shaw told NBC Sports Bay Area. “On the field, off the field, in the community, he’s always got a million things going on. But nothing ever suffers.

"He does everything at a high level.”

At 6-foot-4, 290 pounds, Phillips is a mountain of a man. His skill set is different than that of Thomas, but he can be just as disruptive. He plays over the center. He plays over the guards. His self-proclaimed job is to eat as many blocks as possible to keep the linebackers free.

“He’s such that hard point for us. He’s that guy up front that’s getting knock back, that force in the run game that you gotta have,” defensive coordinator Lance Anderson explained. “You have to have that strong solid point in the middle of your defense, and he provides that.”

Phillips had a game-high 11 tackles, five of them solo, in the Cardinal’s loss to USC. No other defensive lineman on the field had more than three.

“He’s outstanding against the run. He’s a very good pass rusher,” Shaw added. “He’s got a lot of tools that can work inside.”

Phillips main instruments of domination are strength, knowledge of leverage and abnormal flexibility for a man of his size.

“He can do the splits on command,” Thomas said laughing from in front of his locker after a recent 49ers practice. “He loves showing it off. We get on him for it. But he loves doing it.

And, according to Thomas, his former Stanford teammate loves to bench. So it comes as no surprise that Phillips’ upper body strength stands out.

“He’ll be really low in a position that you think he’d get knocked over in,” Thomas explained. “Because of how flexible he is, it’s not a problem for him to get in that position and stay there and move on from there. It definitely shows up on his film.”

No doubt, Phillips says, that ability comes from his wrestling experience. His high school curriculum vitae includes, “Nebraska State Wrestling Champion, Heavy Weight Division, Sophomore, Junior and Senior years.”

Phillips first year on The Farm, he vividly remembers his Stanford coaches testing him. Just a mere 245 pounds at the time, they put him up against Joshua Garnett and Andrus Peat, two offensive linemen now in the NFL and each well over 300 pounds.

“They’d double team me, almost 700 pounds on you, and I would somehow find leverage and be able to sit on some of those double teams,” Phillips said. “I think the violence that wrestling brings, and balance and being comfortable in weird positions, wrestling has a ton of scrambling, as it's called, you just know your body and know what you can do. I have tremendous flexibility, and I use everything to my advantage.”

One thing Phillips is not allowed to do is use his explosiveness away from the football field. At one time, Phillips could do a back flip off the wall, but he no longer attempts it.

“I’m not a big fan of the back hand springs,” Shaw said. “I’d like for him to stay on his feet.”

Phillips doesn’t argue. He lost his entire sophomore year to a knee injury, and doesn’t want to risk another. He has NFL aspirations and put himself in position to graduate in three-and-a-half years should he choose to enter the 2018 draft. But just as he has done at Stanford, he is looking to be more than just a name on a jersey should he play on a professional level.

“I want to build something that is really lasting,” Phillips said of his life goal, “and put my name on something to touch people’s lives and change people’s lives, pay it forward as much as I can.”

No. 6 USC routs No. 14 Stanford for 11th straight win

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USASTI

No. 6 USC routs No. 14 Stanford for 11th straight win

LOS ANGELES  — Steven Mitchell and Deontay Burnett caught two touchdown passes apiece from Sam Darnold, and No. 6 Southern California extended its winning streak to 11 games with a bruising 42-24 victory over No. 14 Stanford on Saturday night.

Darnold went 21 of 26 with 316 yards passing for the Trojans (2-0, 1-0 Pac-12), who snapped their three-game losing streak in this California private-school rivalry. USC racked up 623 total yards and won the first Pac-12 game of the new season by beating the hard-nosed Cardinal (1-1, 0-1) at their own physical game.

Ronald Jones II rushed for 116 yards and scored a touchdown in his ninth consecutive game as USC excelled at Stanford's traditional strengths, running the ball for 307 yards and controlling both lines of scrimmage. Turnovers and penalties by the Trojans kept it fairly close, but freshman Stephen Carr added 119 yards rushing, and Jones cartwheeled into the end zone with a clinching 23-yard TD run with 4:15 to play.

Keller Chryst passed for 172 yards and two touchdowns, while Bryce Love had a 75-yard TD run among his 160 yards rushing for the Cardinal, who hadn't played since their season-opening win over Rice in Australia last month.

After a scoreless third quarter, USC made a 90-yard scoring drive capped by Mitchell's second TD on a feathery 11-yard TD pass by Darnold with 9:42 to play. Stanford stayed close with J.J. Arcega-Whiteside's TD catch with 6:41 to play, but Jones' incredible second TD run capped a smooth 75-yard drive in USC's 11th consecutive win at the Coliseum.

Stanford had won eight of its last 11 meetings with USC in a dominant stretch that began with its historic 2007 upset victory at the Coliseum.

After USC scored 49 points in its season opener, Darnold's offense again was in fine form from the start. USC scored four touchdowns on five lengthy drives in the first half, with Darnold hitting Burnett for two of his three TD passes.

USC moved 74 yards on two plays late in the half to take a 28-17 lead on Burnett's leaping 25-yard TD grab.

THE TAKEAWAY

Stanford: That 62-point performance in the season opener Down Under was impossible to replicate against a top Pac-12 defense, and the Cardinal's offense will know it must add versatility to the attack. Stanford's defense also had big problems at the line of scrimmage, and that isn't a problem with which the Cardinal have much experience.

USC: This talent-laden offense has appeared to have the makings of a juggernaut so far. Darnold returned to 2016 form with a smooth, poised performance against a vaunted conference opponent, while the Trojans' receivers appear to be much more reliable than coach Clay Helton feared. USC's defense also stepped up after halftime and shut down one of the Pac-12's best.

UP NEXT

Stanford: The Cardinal's three-game stretch away from home to open the season concludes at San Diego State.

USC: The Trojans welcome Texas to the Coliseum for a meeting of two powerhouse programs.