"We had our shots against Navy - stopped them early. It was very frustrating on offense that we weren't able to capitalize. Dropped passes and a couple missed assignments in the run game made it difficult. When you play Navy, you're only going to get a few shots. Your best chance against them is to get ahead of them, which we did a little bit a year ago. When they're able to run their game, grind it out and do their thing, I think they are a formidable opponent, as they were for us. It was a frustrating experience."
Comment: Here we learn probably why Walt Harris took the opening kickoff after winning the coin toss, after he had deferred every other time he won the toss previously at Stanford. His assessment of Navy was that the Stanford offense will have few possessions and thus few opportunities. He wanted to take one right out of the gate, but a terribly frustrating cavalcade of miscues upended early offensive drives. Harris also felt that the key to beating Navy was to not let them get the early lead. Take it to them first. That triple-option will hold onto a lead and wear down your defense. I thought last Saturday that he was seizing the emotion of opening the new Stanford Stadium, but this was instead a tactical decision and assessment.
"The missed assignments come a lot of times, in my opinion, from not practicing at a game-type level. Then what happens is when the speed of the game and the intensity of the game comes upon you, you're not ready because you haven't forced yourself to practice that way. I think that is some of the curse of being a young player. You don't understand the tempo that you have to have in order for you to execute under the pressure of a game when fatigue sets in, when the scoreboard looks grim, and all of those things that contribute to emotionally not being at the right peak. We're just working our way through these things. We started off similarly a year ago. We had a different start obviously than we had this year. We're not where we want to be and, for sure, not where we had hoped to be. But I think it's challenging playing as many guys who we probably didn't think were going to be playing much."
Comment: We keep hearing each week (from the players as well as the coaches) how the defense could and should have stopped plays had each player been in the right position or executed their assignment. Does Clinton Snyder lack the speed, quickness or ferocity to be a playmaker when the ball is near him? Absolutely not. Harris opines why he feels that players on defense (and this could apply to the offense as well) are failing on plays - practice. There is the obvious adjustment for young players to the speed and strength of the college game, but a more important transition is the high level at which they have to play all the time. Players who a year or two ago were MVP in their high school league are now in over their head on the big stage. They show flashes, and they start because of their talent (and the fact that they are the best Stanford can offer with the current roster). But they have to practice with everything they've got in order to have a chance to stay afloat on Saturdays, Harris says. Listen to Trent Edwards sometime describe why he has reached his current level. I heard him answer that question just yesterday. Edwards says it has been incremental and gradual improvements that have come as he has realized and better understood all of the things needed to succeed at this level. Each year he has better grasped his abilities and set out a work plan to improve them. The players, most of them young, who are making mistakes are finding that they are unprepared for the grueling challenges of a college football game, given how they choose to practice. When these players complain that a practice, a drill or a conditioning run is too hard, they are inexorably destined for failure that Saturday.
Stanford's defense and special teams primarily won the five games of a year ago, and put Stanford in a position for a bowl game had various areas not broken down in other losses. Walt Harris preached and installed his tough regimen of off-season workouts and practices as the difference-maker in wins and losses, and there is no question that it paid off. The Cardinal finished fourth in the conference and won three Pac-10 road games, after failing to beat anybody away from home in the Pac-10 since 2001. But Harris had a hungry audience of seniors that were the core of his defense and special teams. They had the maturity to accept Harris' notion that a higher intensity and focus of preparation was the only salvation for Saturdays. Due to graduation losses, recruiting holes and a number of injuries this year, there is an abundance of youth (not just in age, but also in experience) on the roster that has to play today.
"Sure you would love to have those guys [Evan Moore, Mark Bradford, Nick Frank]. We love those guys. You're going to make me cry. But that's just the way it is. That's the great thing about football - football playing and football coaching: you can't sit there and feel sorry for yourself. By the way, that is what you are going to learn living life. When things go against you, you can't cry about how bad it is or how unfair it is. You have to move on. You've got to make the best of what you have. That's what we're trying to do. We have a lot of good young men who we are looking forward to coaching, and we know we have a lot of tough opponents starting with Washington State. But we're going to coach them the best that we can. The responsibility of a leader is to always give hope, and that's what we're trying to do as a coaching staff, and that starts with me."
"I don't worry about the injury part because it doesn't matter. What would I do? I try to do a good job of not worrying about the things which I have no control over. That is a good ingredient of solid mental health, in this position and in every position of responsibility. You have to have good mental health yourself because you have to lead. If you have your head dragging on the ground and feeling sorry for yourself, I don't think that's fair to our players. It's not fair to our alumni, not fair to our ex-players, not fair to my family, not fair to me and not fair to anybody to be that way. Now, is it hard? Sure, it's hard. But I've fought through adversity as a human being myself, and it seems like I always get some of these coaching responsibilities that you have to fight your way back. I've been here before, and I hope that I don't have to be here very long. But whatever it takes to get it right. That's all there is. That's all that you know as a coach."
Comment: This was some of the best stuff from Harris this season. It gives insight to his mentality and the way he chooses to carry himself as a head coach. The dominant story of Stanford this year has been injuries, devastating critical positions and the best players on the roster. With an 0-3 start, and abject ugliness in each defeat, we would expect Harris to make many references to the injuries that have severely handicapped him and the team. It wouldn't be him making excuses - it's a cold, hard fact that the Cardinal are crippled in an unspeakable way by injuries. And this Saturday against Washington State might represent an even lower low in that category, if some players newly out of the mix on Wednesday do not return...
Harris ought to talk about exactly how disadvantaged this team is by injuries. It is simply unbelievable. The one time we have heard him harp on injuries is when there have been spates of hamstring pulls in each of the two training camps since he has been at Stanford. Those injuries are preventable and can be controlled, so he discussed them. The injuries outside of his control, however, stay outside his primary consciousness. In being asked questions on a number of topics in interviews the last two years, Harris has often brushed off queries on elements of the game which he feels are beyond his control. If he can do nothing about it, he puts it out of mind. There is far too much on the plate of a college football head coach to dwell upon areas for which he cannot react. Harris calls it "good mental health," which is true and refreshing to hear. We all think of him as a strict Xs and Os guy with a tough streak, but he talks here about caring for the very core of his players' psyche. Harris tries to minimize questions about how unfair or how hurtful these injuries are to his team's prospects because he knows that the remaining healthy players take their cue from him. If he hangs his head, they'll hang their heads.
Harris could be expected to embrace these "poor me" questions and topics because they help construct a defense against those who will call for his head, while also preparing a public message to recruits questioning the Cardinal at 0-3. But it is not in his make-up to ask the public to feel sorry for him. That is why you never hear him describe the single most formative experience in his life, which molded him into a leader who succeeds in the face of adversity. Walt Harris was stricken by polio as a small child, crippled and devastated. He survived, and he surprised by going on to play college football. Perhaps that is why he holds his players to a high standard of physical and mental toughness.
"I don't explain it [turnovers]. There really is no answer for it. If there was, then I hope that I would try to cover it. I just think that it's not high enough in their priorities. There is a really fine line as a player. You play between living in your hopes and living in your fears. I think that you want to play living in your hopes. But you have to be trained to be very disciplined. For those who touch the ball, that is a gift from our football program to you as a player - to have the ball in your hands. What happens is that they get caught up in the spirit of the game. One of the turnovers was by Brandon Harrison. In some ways, because of our situation with good [kickoff] returning prospects, he is a young man who hasn't touched the ball much in his career. There are interceptions, but it's not like carrying the ball down after down. I can at least comprehend that. The ones who say, 'They put the hat on the ball' - there is no excuse in my vocabulary ever for turning over the ball. I coach our quarterbacks, and there is never any excuse. Now, maybe a tipped ball when we throw it to one of our guys and it gets tipped and intercepted. Or the last play of the game. I can better understand those types of interceptions. But the rest of the time, I don't understand them. I don't condone them, and I'm not pleased with them. I hope that they are not either. The last two weeks, we have thrown an interception in the red zone. I have to do a better job, and obviously I have not. I'm going to try to do everything that I can. They have to play the game. They have to execute the play. But in the back of their mind, they always are trying to be smart with the football."
Comment: The most mystifying aspect of this team right now is the turnovers. I asked Harris the question that prompted this response, probing in particular how it is that the six turnovers in Stanford's last two games have all come from veteran players with ample experience in games and under his coaching. He preached ball security and the importance of turnover margin last year, and that proved to be the difference in several of Stanford's wins. How do returning players regress in that area of again stressed importance this year? Harris admits he cannot simply explain it. But he does give an interesting explanation for how a player can secure or turn the ball over. The "fine line" he describes between reaching for the big play and not making the big mistake is where football players live. Perhaps due to the toll of problems on the field, injuries and losses, even veteran players are leaving that line and reaching too hard for the play without retaining the focus and care for the football. It made me smile to hear the comment that holding the football "is a gift from our football program to you as a player." That is an excellent perspective, and a key to curing turnover woes.
"It [special teams] is killing us. It's killing us. But we lost our coach and, probably more importantly, we lost the core of players that man a lot of those positions. They moved on. Tom Quinn had done a nice job in giving us an identity through special teams, and that was really the area where we were doing well as a team. Our national respect was in the area of special teams. We graduated a lot of those guys, so Jeff Hammerschmidt is having to find out who the guys are. In college football, the difference is you don't have an exhibition season to iron out all your things, like the NFL has. We're trying to get the right people in the right places, and that's been a struggle."
"I don't know whether it's time as much as learning who our players are. We have to keep recycling until we find the right combination. We saw some good things last week on some guys. We have seen some things each week. Some of what happens is that a guy plays well one week and doesn't play well next week. What do you do? Let's coach him and give him a little more time to learn his position. It's an experience there, too. If you have a bunch of young people on special teams, football is hard. You're welcome to come watch tape sometime to watch and really see how complicated it all is. It's a lot harder than you all think. Coming down on a kickoff, you better have your head on a swivel or you're going to get TKO'd, which happened on the long run and was disappointing. In some ways, it was a very good kick because it was between the numbers and the sideline. It was on the two-yard line. Derek [Belch] spoiled me at San Jose because he kicked them out, and that's what I'm expecting him to do. But the NCAA is expecting the kickoff to be a much bigger part of the game. That's why they lowered the tee from two inches to one inch. That's a huge advantage. And we had two guys who were waylaid right out of the way. They're both trying, but they're inexperienced. One didn't see it come, and [Navy] went down to our 41-yardline. That really wasn't fair to our defense, against that offense. They drove it from the four - the minus-four let alone the plus-41. That just added to the pressure on our defense. That also added pressure to our offense because they scored, you don't and it keeps mounting. Then it becomes too hard."
Comment: It is now obvious how much Stanford lost on special teams when they lost Tom Quinn to the New York Giants. If you did not fully appreciate him before, you should now. And if I can diverge for a moment, the unraveling of Stanford's fortunes this year are due in no small part to the unraveling of the special teams. Personnel losses are hugely important, as Harris discusses and we will in a moment. But the loss of Quinn took away the foundation of Stanford special teams, which was the best part of the turnaround team a year ago. Why was Quinn lost? Because the cost of living in this area combined with what Stanford could pay him compelled him and his family to move to a better financial opportunity. Stanford Football, through the help of Bob Bowlsby and John Arrillaga, has to make it the next top priority to retain its best assistants. There are too many other challenges through recruiting and the Cardinal's rising admissions standards to also cut the program off at the knees with assistant coach turnover.
Quinn is gone and a college classmate with the same football training is in: Jeff Hammerschmidt. Whether Hammerschmidt can be Quinn remains to be seen. But the bigger challenge on special teams is personnel. The coaches are still sorting out who on the roster can best fill positions on various special teams units. Not only does Stanford miss several of its special teams stars from a year ago due to graduation, but they have also been without Michael Okwo and Mike Silva due to injuries (Okwo will start working his way back into special teams this week). Now Nick Frank is gone, as well. Finding the best replacements, and then teaching them while they are on the job, is a struggle and the current state of Stanford special teams. A few personnel epiphanies and some accumulated experience have to take place before this phase of Stanford Football can improve.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our website, as well as our full-length feature articles in our glossy magazine. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up) and The Bootleg Magazine (sign-up)!