Ladies and gentleman, enjoy a quintessential Stanford moment. This is the same Joshua Garnett who, not long ago, was bulldozing 340-pound Notre Dame behemoth Louis Nix, a junior, for a full seven yards past the line of scrimmage in South Bend.
"I just got in his hip the way Coach [Mike Bloomgren] taught me and it worked out," said the beefy Washingtonian, who plans to major in human biology so that he can attend medical school when football is finished.
Well-rounded excellence is a Stanford selling point, and it's especially important for the program's younger players this December, a month that has featured both daunting exams and, now, a true opportunity to make a dent in the depth chart.
A Big Chance
"For freshmen, it's their time," defensive coordinator Derek Mason said, citing this string of pre-Rose Bowl training as a prime opportunity for youngsters to develop because of the novelty of the conditions. "The season gets long. They're not used to working so hard. They're used to state championships at this time, walking around with their letterman's jackets on."
David Shaw said that about a quarter of this month's practice festivities are geared toward scrimmages that are aimed to gauge and develop younger players. Shorter work for the veterans allows them to "get their legs back" after a long season while "the young guys are getting after it."
"Being a freshman, winning a Pac-12 Championship, getting ready for the Rose Bowl. How good can it be?" Mason smiled.
National Defensive Line Coach of the Year Randy Hart called this pre-bowl stretch the first of two spring practice sessions, lending credence to the thought that Stanford's 2013 national title aspirations begin now, before next season's roster has been set and before the Cardinal have even played this season's Rose Bowl. Competition now is fierce, as January 1 playing time and 2013 action are both at stake.
"Anybody who is playing right now can absolutely work their way into a bigger piece of the pie," Shaw said.
Speaking of next year's roster, Mason is confident that Stanford's talented 2012 recruiting crop will make a massive impact. On top of defensive end Aziz Shittu and safety Zach Hoffpauir, both of whom have seen significant playing this season "for a reason", linebacker Blake Martinez is anticipated to become a major contributor.
"Blake Martinez is going to be so much better because he knows the speed of the game. He's not just guessing the speed of the game anymore," Mason said. "So, next spring, he is going to be competing with guys like Shayne Skov for jobs. That's what you want want. That's how you build depth."
As Stanford soaks in the glory of three consecutive BCS appearances, Shaw's staff is eliminating the word "rebuilding" from its program's vocabulary. It's now all about "reloading."
"You're trying to emulate the great programs around the country, the LSUs, the Alabamas, the USCs in their heyday," Mason said. "Get guys playing time early so that they understand the importance of the offseason. We're always going to try to recruit guys who are better than the guys who we have."
Perhaps Stanford's most intriguing reloading challenge will come at the running back position. Stepfan Taylor, the school's all-time leading rusher, will depart to the NFL after the Rose Bowl. But a stable of running backs waits to fill his shoes, and Shaw is confident that his 2013 club will be able to platoon its way to replacement production in the same way that the 2010 Cardinal seamlessly absorbed the graduation of Toby Gerhart.
"I love having options," Shaw said. "We have so many guys who can play."
Remound Wright, Anthony Wilkerson, Kelsey Young, and a youngster named Barry Sanders are already fighting to fill Taylor's void in a competition reminiscent of USC's embarrassment of backfield riches during the program's glory days of the last decade.
At wide receiver, Stanford's biggest position of concern, redshirt Michael Rector has been turning heads with speed that has effectively stretched the field in practice. Bowl practices are also vital for freshman Kodi Whitfield, who done some "good things" but has also struggled with some "young guy mistakes" during his inaugural campaign.
"He's going to be really good," Shaw emphasized. "But he's still a young guy who's growing."
Stanford puts the pads back on for two three-day practice cycles beginning today [Saturday]. A quick Christmas break will follow before the the team jet leaves for the Rose Bowl on the morning of December 26.
Rose Bowl Evokes Memories and Parallels
Shaw was in the Bay Area the last time Stanford was in the Rose Bowl, serving as the Oakland Raiders' quarterbacks coach from 1998-2001.
"I watched the game from start to finish and was on the edge of my couch at the end," he remembered. "I know Stanford had the ball with a chance to go down and score and we couldn't convert a fourth down."
The Cardinal have a chance to avenge that loss to Wisconsin, which will be coached by athletic director Barry Alvarez, the same man who presided over the Badgers' 17-9 2000 victory. It will also be another chance for Stanford to win its first Rose Bowl as the "Cardinal."
In the last game before the university dropped its original mascot name, the Stanford Indians defeated Bo Schembechler's undefeated Michigan Wolverines 13-12 in the 1972 Rose Bowl. Stanford has not won the Granddaddy of the Them All since, but this 2012 squad most closely resembles the legendary 1972 one that brought Pasadena glory back to the Bay Area.
Like Shaw's current club, John Ralston's team won an unexpected PAC championship behind a first-year quarterback who was succeeding a legend. So far, Kevin Hogan has successfully emulated Don Bunce, who succeeded Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett four decades ago. The 1972 team was spearheaded by the famous "Thunderchickens" defense, which allowed only 12.5 points per game. Stanford's vaunted 2012 unit is surrendering just 17.5 points per contest in a more offensively-oriented age.
We'll find out if history truly repeats itself January 1. Hogan is certainly on track to ensure it does, as his insertion into the starting lineup has diverted Stanford from its 7-5 pace and rerouted the club to 11-2 BCS paradise.
"It's hard to say [if we would have made the Rose Bowl without the QB switch]," Shaw said. "We as coaches never think about that because there are no ifs, there is just what was and what wasn't. We started off really well, we hit a lull, we needed an athletic quarterback."
In reality, Stanford's offense sputtered alongside a consistently dominant defense all the way to Hogan's full-time insertion at Colorado in early November. It's been 1972 all over again ever since.
Shaw still had no update on the status of nose tackle Terrence Stephens, who has been out since Stanford's win over Oregon because of a personal reason. He did mention that senior punter Daniel Zychlinski, who was crushed during the regular season finale at UCLA, is questionable after injuring his shoulder on that play.
"We'll see," Shaw said. "Once again, he doesn't punt with his shoulder, so as long as he can catch the ball and drop it, I think he's got a chance there."
Additionally, fullback Geoff Meinken has resumed football drills following a spring-game knee injury that killed his entire 2012 season.
"He's lost weight and is more athletic," Shaw said. "I'm excited what he can do for us, hopefully starting this spring."
David Lombardi covers Stanford sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. He can also be heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.
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