Two sessions of spring ball, a summer workout routine, four weeks or training camp and it all leads up to the season opener on Saturday morning with Stanford playing at Northwestern. It's safe to say the players are ready to get things going for real.
"It feels good to finally get a chance to hit somebody else," safety Kodi Whitfield said this week. It was a common theme among the players as they appreciate the level of play their teammates provide them in preparation for the season, but they are ready for some fresh meat.
Game one is interesting in college football. You really don't know what you have on your team, and you know even less about what the other team brings. Sure, Stanford is optimistic the defense will again rise to the occasion. But with so many new starters and young players rotating in, the coaches won't know for sure until they see them on the field.
Likewise, they are coaching against a team that they haven't seen before. Sure you can learn some patterns from game film from previous years, but some of the players are new, and you never know about coaching adjustments from year to year.
"It's always tough," Head Coach David Shaw says of the first game. "We always talk about it, especially those of us who have been in the NFL you have some preseason games at least, especially against new teams. But in college football, the turnover you have with graduating guys, you don't know about the guys who didn't play last year who will come into prominent roles. And just like I do, Fitz (Northwestern Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald) will have some secrets he will keep right up to game time. Usually midway through that first game, you have a better idea of who you are and you have a better idea of who you are playing. They may have installed a new defense, may have a new blitz, maybe a couple of wrinkles on offense that they haven't put on film last year. That is the excitement of college football. You go into the first game not really completely knowing what you have on your side or on their side."
Quarterback Kevin Hogan agrees with the first week challenge ahead but is excited for it. "With players changing, schemes change. It is tough not having film. Luckily, preparation wise they have a lot of guys returning in the secondary so I can check their techniques and see how they play. I guess it's (also) unlucky for us that they have so much experience returning in the secondary. It is tough preparing for that first week, especially spending three weeks going against one defense and then trying flip that switch and get into the season mode where every week it is a new team."
Whitfield will open the season as a first time starter. "It is a little bit difficult personnel wise and trying to figure out matchups and things like that. Most teams still have the same route concepts and the same philosophy that they like to take into any game. We find defenses that play similar to us in the Big Ten, and maybe other opponents that they had, and we try to see how they would attack us."
Whitfield missed some time during training camp recovering from injury, but he's been on the field and says he is 100% and fired up for the season. Like his partner Dallas Lloyd, Whitfield is completing the conversion from offense to defense.
"It feels great. I played both ways in high school so I have a little bit of safety background. I would say the first year of transition was a little difficult, learning a new playbook obviously, flipping my mentality and being more physical and attack the ball versus just running those crisp routes and trying to get open. But now with a year under my belt I feel really confident, I feel like I've put some good work in, now I'm ready to see what happens."
He received encouragement from another former Stanford star who made a similar transition from wide receiver to defensive back: Richard Sherman. "One thing he said is that given we have such great hands, we can go and get the balls. That is one thing DBs always get criticized about, not having great hands. But Sherman and myself prided ourselves on great hands and catching those balls when we were on offense. So now they are interceptions and big plays."
Whitfield will forever be remembered on offense for one of the all-time great Stanford receptions two years ago against UCLA. He's hoping he can duplicate such things on defense.
"I hope so. If it's not for an interception then definitely prevent the receiver from doing it."
Plenty of questions lay ahead for a defense with so many new faces. Whitfield is very optimistic and knows what has to be accomplished for the unit to find greatness for another year.
"We're going to be great against the run because that is what we pride ourselves on. Stop the run and get guys to those third and long situations. Then we can't allow those big plays. We can't let guys play over the top of us. That is why we always here top down. You hear about our defense keeping the ball in front. Then pursue the ball. That is huge for any great defense. You have 11 guys running to the ball. 11 hats running to the ball. That is how you get those fumbles, those takeaways.'
Senior guard Josh Garnett is another player very optimistic about the season ahead. The right side of the offensive line has been a competition throughout camp and therefor a bit of a question mark. Coach Shaw named Casey Tucker the starting right tackle and Johnny Caspers the starting right guard. .
"We've been working real crisp," Garnett said. "Kyle, myself, Graham and Johnny were all starters last year so we really meshed real well. Casey, you've seen Casey Tucker. He is such a humble, hard worker. He just slid right in there and fit right in. Andrus (Peat) helped him out a lot last year before he left. He has meshed real well with all the older guys and I'm real proud of the work he is doing."
The offensive line came into 2014 with a lot of hype but not a lot of experience. Despite the four news starters there were high expectations. The line got off to a slow start which added to some of Stanford's offensive woes. Garnett says it's important to get back to playing Stanford football.
"Just going back and doing what the (David) DeCastro's and the Moose's and the Chase Beeler's and the David Yankey's and the Cam Fleming's, just playing the kind of football that they laid down and taught us how to play. .Just going out and utilizing our technique and trying to stay away from the first game flaws. Get low pads, get off the ball right, use proper techniques. If we can do those things our offensive line is going to do well."
The left side of the line has been talked up with Kyle Murphy sliding over to left tackle in place of Andrus Peat. Garnett is thrilled to have one close friend replace another.
"We all know he is a great player. I've known Kyle since 10th grade. We are roommates so the communication came a lot smoother for us when he made the move back to his more natural left tackle position. It has been awesome just being next to him, playing next to him, going from Andrus to Kyle, two of my great friends so it has been a blessing for me playing next to those two great tackles."
Garnett has enjoyed seeing his departed friend playing on the big stage in preseason as well.
"It is awesome. I've known Andrus, we got real close. Three years we were roommates on the road. Played right next to each other. Had an awesome year last year together, had a lot of fun. It's just crazy to see him live out his dreams. Things we've talked about, to finally see him doing that. Seeing the #75 in a Saints jersey is just awesome. I'm so proud of him and so excited to see what he is doing."
Garnett, along with Murphy and four others were named team captains for the season. Garnett was very humbled by the nomination from his teammates.
"It was awesome. Just to get the respect from your teammates like that. Let them be the guys to look upon you to lead you out of darkness or beat the head if things are going right is really awesome. For them to respect myself and the five others like that is a real honor. It really humbles you a lot and makes you step back and realize that these guys are really going to be teammates and friends forever. We are really past teammates in how close we are."
Garnett was also named USA Today preseason All-American. The honors are there, the potential is there, Garnett and his teammates are ready to turn the potential into a reality. And like the others, he knows how tough game one can be.
"It is always difficult. The things that plagues a lot of teams is the technique kind of goes away, you play a little higher than you want to, you're a little too amped and you kind of jump offsides. If you really focus on those things, I always come back to it, but regardless of who you play, if we play Stanford football then we are going to be happy on Saturday night."
The 2015 version of Stanford football kicks off at 9am-pacific time Saturday at Northwestern.
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