"Just for Kicks" w/ Aaron Mills: The Pre-Season Edition
Welcome back, Cardinal Faithful, to another scintillating season of football down on The Farm! I am very excited to be back for my second campaign with The Bootleg, and will continue to provide in-depth analysis of the Cardinal Special Teams unit. The 2010 season was certainly a magical ride that Stanford fans will not soon forget. Not only did the Cardinal win a school-record 12 games, the special teams played a major role in contributing to the overall success of the season. From Nate Whitaker's record-setting season and game-winning field goal as time expired against USC, to the admirable jobs performed by the punting duo of David Green and Daniel Zychlinski, to the superb play on coverage by senior Chike Amajoyi, the special teams had much to show for their efforts.
Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of conducting a Q & A session with Assistant Coach/Special Teams Coordinator/Recruiting Coordinator, Brian Polian, covering Stanford's special teams and the outlook for the 2011 season. Yes, Coach Polian has quite a few titles after his name and he wears them quite well. Coach Polian's involvement with special teams dates all the way back to 2001 when he served as Special Teams Coordinator at the University of Buffalo. After a brief stint in the same capacity at the University of Central Florida in 2004, Coach Polian spent five years with the Notre Dame special teams, elevating their unit to an elite status. Notre Dame's loss has certainly been Stanford's gain, as Coach Polian wasted no time bringing the Cardinal special teams to similar heights in 2010. As if that weren't enough, Polian is also gaining well-deserved national recognition as a top-notch recruiter of prospective student-athletes.
Let's see what Coach Polian had to say about last season and the transition into 2011. My own follow-up comments on Coach Polian's answers are in parentheses.
Q: With David Shaw in his first season as
Stanford's Head Coach, are there any changes in the strategy for the special
teams in 2011?
A: "We will remain the same in terms of the ‘philosophy' of our special teams play. One particular facet that we take pride in as a unit is the time and emphasis placed on our assignments and details. What can we be doing better or differently? Additionally, we are looking to make more game-changing plays this season (i.e. blocked kicks, forced turnovers, big returns) while eliminating big plays from our opponents."
(Coach Polian has a strong focus on a consistent performance, game-in and game-out. Watching game film and studying the opponent's tendencies are imperative to achieving that end. He also feels that Stanford has the tools on special teams to make some game-changing plays this season. I see this as extremely important, as special teams is considered one-third of the game, when in all actuality, it amounts to only about 10% of the total plays run during the game. It is therefore absolutely critical to get the most out of each and every special teams play).
Q: Looking back for a moment, you had the opportunity to coach Nate Whitaker both at Notre Dame and Stanford. How did Nate progress as a kicker over the years and what will you miss the most about him?
A: "You never can tell when young kickers and punters will reach the emotional and physical maturity to perform at a high level in college. With Nate, it took some time. He transferred to Stanford while I was still at Notre Dame, and it was at Stanford where Nate made great strides. When I arrived at Stanford as the new special teams coach, Nate had completely transformed both physically and mentally. His overall development was both a testament to the excellent job done by our weight training staff and his maturity and dedication to personal improvement. We will miss Nate's professional work ethic and his ability to address issues surrounding his performance each and every game."
(For every college
kicker and punter that develops into a top-tier collegiate athlete like
Whitaker, there are countless others that never reach that pinnacle of
success. It is with the nurturing
and support of an attentive football program and individual desire that give
kickers like Whitaker The Elder the tools to build a strong foundation for
future success. This was evidenced
on numerous occasions by Nate's ability make the necessary corrections and
bounce right back after a rare missed kick).
Q: Daniel Zychlinski and David Green each saw punting action in 2010. Is either emerging in pre-season as the stronger candidate for the starting punter duties?
A: "As far as we are concerned as a coaching staff, we are going to put the best guys out on the field...the ones that gives us the most consistency and opportunity for success. Last season, Daniel Zychlinksi emerged as the number-one punter coming out of early ball. However, Daniel went into a slump during the latter half of the year while David Green was solid during practice. David ended up finishing the season as the starting punter. David has carried that momentum into this season and is having a fantastic camp."
(Coach Polian looks
for David Green to have a break-out senior season. Stanford has excellent depth at the
punting position with two quality, game-tested punters. Depth, Depth, Depth. We don't like to
think about injuries, but if one of our punters goes down, it is reasonable to
expect the punting game to go on without a hitch).
Q: With the graduation of Nate Whitaker, there are big shoes to fill in the kicking department. How is that competition playing out?
A: "Jordan Williamson is having an excellent pre-season with his place-kicking and Eric Whitaker (brother to Nate Whitaker) is doing a good job on kick-offs. We will make our final determination just before our opener against San Jose State and monitor their progress carefully as the season progresses."
(Eric Whitaker saw
some action last season as a kick-off specialist against Sacramento State and
Oregon, giving him some limited, but beneficial on-field
Q: "We also lost our snapper, Zach Nolan, a three-year starter, to graduation. Who is ready to step up and fill that critical void?"
A: "Andrew Fowler, a redshirt senior, will be handling all of the snapping duties this season. We are excited about Andrew and feel that he is as good, if not better than Zach at this point."
(So Stanford is literally in "good hands" in this regard. We have a mature, redshirt senior in Andrew Fowler taking over the snapping duties. Sweet. This gives backup freshman snapper Austin Tubbs a year to mature physically - listed at 6'0" 225 lbs.).
Additional Notes: Coach Polian has a positive outlook on the punt and kick-return units going into the 2011 season. Drew Terrell, a junior, was an honorable mention All-Pac 10 selection as a punt returner in 2010, averaging 12.2 yards per return. On kick returns, everyone wants to know about lightning-fast Chris Owusu. As a sophomore, Chris returned three kicks for touchdowns in the first half of the 2009 campaign, but was plagued with injuries in 2010 and saw limited action. With the emergence of two promising true freshmen, Ty Montgomery and Jordan Richards, the coaching staff now has the ability to "pick their spots" when placing Owusu in for kick-return duties. Since #81 figures prominently in Stanford's passing attack in 2011, it is good to know that there is more than one option in the Cardinal kick-return game.
That wraps up the Special Teams pre-season edition of "Just for Kicks." Let's all be sure to go out and support our Cardinal in tomorrow's 2011 season opener against the San Jose State Spartans! Here's to another exciting season of Stanford Football!
Special thanks to
Niall Adler in the Stanford Media Relations Department for arranging the
interview and a special thanks to Coach Polian as well for taking the time out
of his busy schedule to answer my questions.
About the Author: Aaron Mills kicked and punted at Stanford University from 1990-94 and was an Honorable Mention All-Pac 10 as a punter in 1993. After graduating from Stanford and having reconstructive knee surgery in 1994, the Satellite Beach, Florida-native was invited to participate in the annual NFL Combine in Indianapolis in 1995. A 6-0, 180-pound specialist, he ended up kicking for the San Jose Sabercats of the Arena Football League in 1995-96, playing an integral part in San Jose 's road to the AFL Western Division title in 1996. That same year, he set an Arena Football League record by making a 63-yard field goal against the Florida Bobcats, which tied the long-standing NFL record (held by Tom Dempsey 1970 & Jason Elam 1998). Aaron retired from kicking after the 1996 season to pursue a career in real estate while continuing to work with aspiring kickers and punters. He currently resides in Las Vegas with his wife and three dogs.
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