Kellen Kiilsgaard came down to Stanford for a few days in mid-July to gain some familiarity with his new teammates before reporting to training camp this week and embarking upon his Cardinal Football career. The freshman had prepared to arrive as a quarterback on The Farm, but he found some opinions and advice from his new teammates that steered him in another direction.
Today the 6'2" athlete from Auburn (Wash.) will line up at strong safety in his first college football practice.
"The players gave me their opinion that they want me on defense right now, and I respect that. I'm ready to help the team out," says Kiilsgaard. "If Coach keeps me at safety, that looks like where I'm going to be seeing some action. I'm also not afraid to go back to quarterback if that's every considered, or go anywhere on the field. I would just love to help the team out wherever I can."
"He called me on the phone and said he wanted to be a safety," says head coach Jim Harbaugh. "About a week ago, he called and let me know that while I anticipated bringing him in as a quarterback, if it was best for the team for him to start out at safety, that's where he wanted to start out. He also said that some of the other guys on the team had encouraged him in that way."
"I had been in contact with a lot of the players on the team," Kiilsgaard explains. "We all kind of gathered our thoughts and realized that I could probably help the team out, if the coaches wanted me to, a lot sooner on the defensive side of the ball. At first, I kind of smiled and laughed about it. 'Yeah, but Coach wants me at quarterback.' Then I decided to give him a call and see what he was thinking. We had a nice conversation, for probably about 10 minutes. I just let him know, 'Hey, if you're considering moving me to defense, I want you to know that I'm fully up for it. Whatever the team needs, I would love to help you guys out.' He was excited to hear it. He fired it right back at me and said, 'It's up to you. Are you telling me that you do want to play safety?' I said, 'Coach, whatever the team needs.'"
One of the Stanford teammates most influential in inducing Kiilsgaard to switch to safety was quarterback Tavita Pritchard. The redshirt sophomore also hails from the Seattle area, and the two have been friends for a number of years. When Kiilsgaard signed with Stanford in February, the two excitedly expected to be position mates together on The Farm. Pritchard had some new insight for his friend, however, when they talked last month.
"He said, 'Hey, you know I'm biased. I want you to play quarterback just so we can work together. But it is pretty obvious that the depth at safety is hurting a lot more than it is at quarterback,'" Kiilsgaard recalls. "There are a lot of quarterbacks in the system right now. He said, 'It comes down to what you and Coach Harbaugh want to do about it.' He gave me advice to give Coach a call and see what he's thinking."
Killsgaard, ranked by Scout.com the #21 quarterback in the nation and named as an athlete to the First-Team All-West Region in the Class of 2007, had scholarship offers from eight schools in the Pac-10. But he also befriended a pair of defensive backs during his visits to Stanford, who have been imploring him throughout to join their ranks. Redshirt sophomores Bo McNally and Blaise Johnson were both in his ear when Kiilsgaard was on campus in July.
"From Day One of the recruiting process, Bo and Blaise have been telling me, 'You've got to play safety. You've got to play safety,'" Kiilsgaard says. "They're defensive backs and want me to come join them, of course. But from the very beginning, they have been really nice guys. And I think they have respected that I can play both positions. They're aware that there are not as many underclassman safeties. It's just logical to give me a hard time that I should be playing safety."
"I'm sure that they will be happy," he adds. "I don't know if they're aware yet that I'll be playing safety, but I'll tell them soon when I run into them."
When Kiilsgaard today sees McNally, he'll also notice a heavy cast on the hand of Stanford's starting strong safety. The redshirt sophomore broke his hand during a special teams drill in late July, not long after Kiilsgaard visited. McNally's plea for the incoming frosh to play at his position can now ironically help to fill the hole his injury has left in the Stanford lineup.
Kiilsgaard ironically had no knowledge of McNally's injury when he recently spoke with Harbaugh and asked if he should move to the defensive backfield. The first Kiilsgaard heard of the news came during our interview.
"I didn't know that," the freshman admits. "It sure does open up a spot for competition. I'm just glad to help the team out, if that's a place of crisis."
Kiilsgaard changed portions of his workout regimen in late July, after deciding upon a switch to play safety. His previous work this summer focused primarily on quarterback training, though he did practice and play both ways in the state's June 30 East-West All-Star Game in Everett (Wash.).
"I didn't get to just focus on quarterback that week," he says. "I have played safety recently, but yeah, for the majority of the summer I was throwing the ball around and getting ready to play quarterback. At the same time, I spent a lot of time working on various footwork drills and workouts which can be applied directly to safety work. My dad being a defensive coordinator, it wasn't hard to get into a defensive mindset and get out there and get some DB drills going."
"I've brushed up on the backpedaling and made sure that I have a good feel for it over there again," Kiilsgaard continues. "It came back. It's natural, just like riding a bike. I've been backpedaling, making sure that I have the lateral movement and getting those legs in shape."
The 6'2" 220-pound athlete also feels that his overall training this summer with the plan given to him by Stanford strength & conditioning coach Shannon Turley has him prepared to start camp today and hit the ground running.
"I worked out six days a week. Sunday was my off day," Kiilsgaard describes. "I feel like I'm in great condition. When I came down a couple weeks ago, I was able to step in and work with the guys. I wasn't a step behind. I was running well with the guys, and I'm confident that as hard as they've been working down here, I've been putting in my part up north."
How well he can adjust to the speed of the college game and pick up the scheme employed by Stanford defensively remains an unanswered question. But Stanford Football can be excited that arguably their best athlete among the incoming freshman class is finding a new position where he can more immediately help the Cardinal.
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