One of the major areas of emphasis for Stanford Football during the Jim Harbaugh era has been to try and "upgrade" whenever a coach leaves the Farm. For Jim Harbaugh, that has often meant reaching into the NFL to find his assistant coaches.
As his new coaches turn their attention from the NFL to college, they are introduced to many new elements in coaching. The recruiting process is a big one, dealing with the time limitations of student-athletes is another. But on the field, the biggest difference from the NFL to college may just be the placement of the hash marks.
"It does make a big difference," new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio says. "The hash marks are one of the major differences between the NFL and the college game."
The list of coaches with NFL experience is expansive for the Cardinal. It starts of course with the program's leader, a former quarterback himself. Coach Harbaugh was a coach in the NFL before becoming the head man in college.
Greg Roman, David Shaw, Pep Hamilton, Derek Mason, and Fangio all have NFL experience. That does not even count former players that are helping out, such as Chester McGlockton and Steve Wisniewski.
"Everybody said it would be the biggest adjustment that I had to make - and they were right." Coach Roman said. "The great thing about it was that I knew it going in. So mentally, I spent a lot of time talking to myself about it."
Time to prepare is important because it does change the nature of the game. In college football, the hash marks are 40-feet apart. Each hash mark is 60-feet away from the sideline.
Compare that to the NFL where the hash marks, which are four inches in width, are only 18-feet-6-inches apart and 70-feet, nine-inches from the sidelines . The wide field in the Canadian Football League has hash marks 24 yards (72 feet) in from the sidelines and 17 yards (51 feet) apart. High school has the longest split with hash marks that are just over 53-feet apart.
"It is going fine," Fangio says of the adjustment to the wide hash marks. "It has been a major part of our emphasis to be able to handle that stuff."
By starting a play on one side of the hash marks or the other, a team creates a wide side of the field and a short side of the field. Here is where the strategy comes in, compared to the NFL, where there is not a big measurement advantage on one side or the other.
"The sideline is like another defender," Harbaugh says of trying to attack the short side of the field.
The counter to that of course is there are a lot of yards a defense needs to cover on the wide side.
"I think you can create more space," Roman said. "You can't disguise (on defense) quite as easily. You can't hold your disguise to that wide field quite as long because there is just too much field to defend. At some point they have to show their hand. If the quarterback can see it a little bit earlier, then it's an advantage to the offense."
So which way do the coaches prefer?
"I like the middle hash marks," Coach Harbaugh says of the NFL system.
Fangio agrees, but does not feel strongly either way. "I would say the pros. Just keep the ball in the middle. But it is no big deal."
"I think the college field is more interesting," Coach Roman says. "It allows for a little bit more interesting scheme. I think there are certain things you can do with all that space. (That said) I have only spent one year with the college hash marks, so I will get back to you."
Do the wider splits give the offense or the defense a bigger advantage?
"I go back and forth," Coach Shaw says. "Honestly I believe the wide side of the field is a big advantage to the offense in college. That is probably why you have seen such an explosion in the spread offenses. They are trying to make defenses cover more field laterally. Especially if you have a quarterback with a strong arm that can reach the sideline from the far hash, you put a lot of pressure on a college defense. But then again, on that short side of the field, those blitzing safeties and corners are closer to the quarterback than they are in the NFL."
Coach Fangio comes down in the middle in terms of which side has the advantage.
"I think it is a kind of a trade-off. In the NFL you can say there are two wide fields and in college football there is only one, but it is really wide. I really don't know who has the advantage in college football. I think it's a give and take."
Coach Shaw talked about what would happen at the NFL level if they played on the college hash marks. "It would be a game- changer. I think you would see more big plays. You would see more passing yards if you can believe it. Then you would see more big hits on the quarterbacks."
As an offensive coach, he shuddered a bit when he put names to the players. "Could you imagine (Darrelle) Revis being five-yards closer to the quarterback? Guys like Charles Woodson coming off the edge at 220-pounds? It is a different thing to get used to."
In the end, all the coaches feel about the same way as Coach Roman. "I will coach football on any field. If you chalk up 100 yards in a parking lot - I am ready to go."
But as Stanford continues to funnel coaches down from the NFL, there is a clear adjustment period when they arrive as they get used to a slightly different field of battle.
Ed. Note: Why are they called "hash marks"? Well, for all you liberal arts majors - in mathematics, more specifically in analytic geometry, a short line perpendicular to an axis is frequently referred to as a "hash mark" or "tick mark".
Bootleg "Special Partner" Dave Fowkes is a longtime Stanford Cardinal fan. Born at Stanford Hospital (like "Emeritus"!) and raised on the Peninsula, he has been a football season ticket-holder since 1981. In that span he has only missed three home games, but of course never a Big Game. Dave currently works in local media both on the air and behind the scenes in advertising sales. He has covered sports on and off since 1992. Currently he works as a traffic, news and sports man on several Bay Area radio stations under a few different on-air aliases. Dave blends the passion of being a fan with the perspective of being a reporter in his stories. For more Stanford football coverage by Dave Fowkes, you can read the "Stanford Football Examiner" at www.stanfordfootballreport.com
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