Freshmen Full of Surprises

The only thing more surprising than the 10 true freshmen Jim Harbaugh wants to play this fall for Stanford is the identities of those who are leading the way in recent practices with the most playing time. Inside we present the frosh probable for burned redshirts, plus the stories of three who have been receiving heavy first-team snaps of late - far surpassing their two-star recruiting rankings.

When we spoke with head coach Jim Harbaugh in July for our "2007 Football Preview" issue of The Bootleg Magazine, he said that he hoped 11 true freshmen would be able and ready to see the field this fall.  That is an off-the-charts number of which Stanford fans can hardly conceive.  Not since the 1993 and 1994 seasons when Bill Walsh had back-to-back recruiting classes ranked top-five in the nation have we even thought about playing so many fresh, untested faces.

The excitement for players who dominated at the high school level often is tempered once they arrive on campus and are confronted with the radical changes in the speed, size and strength of the college game.  Some of those blue chip can't-miss prospects suddenly look human, if not downright ordinary.  But Harbaugh's enthusiasm and expectations for playing freshmen this fall is surprisingly high as we near the end of the Cardinal's preseason camp.

"I think it will be close to that number, one way or another," he says of his July prediction that 11 frosh will play this season.  "I'm overall encouraged by this class.  Some guys are stronger than others.  Some guys need more development."

Harbaugh highlights 10 players - five on offense and five on defense - for whom he sees a strong possibility today to play this fall as true freshmen for Stanford and not take a redshirt year:

#48 fullback Owen Marecic
#34 running back Jeremy Stewart
#80 wide receiver Ryan Whalen
#89 wide receiver Doug Baldwin
#87 wide receiver Sean Wiser
#40 safety Taylor Skaufel
#26 cornerback Corey Gatewood
#43 outside linebacker Chike Amajoyi
#57 outside linebacker Max Bergen
#55 middle linebacker Johnathan Frink

"When they are in a backup role and end up playing on special teams, you're not getting redshirted.  They're going to play now," Harbaugh explains of his aggressive approach to playing freshmen.  "It's where they fall on the depth chart and on special teams.  Those guys are all showing up in the two-deep."

Noticeably absent from the above list are the linemen on either side of the ball.  Stanford's four offensive linemen look like they have longer term prospects of development, and the Cardinal have quite a bit of depth (when healthy) on the defensive line.  Harbaugh does admit he can see some possibility for defensive tackle Matthew Masifilo and/or defensive end Thomas Keiser playing this year.

Some of the above freshmen have been tremendous surprises this training camp.  The four- and three-star signees for Stanford last February all carried high expectations, but it is almost unthinkable that a trio of two-star recruits have logged the most time at their respective positions this camp with the first-team offense/defense.

At the forefront is fullback Owen Marecic, who has grabbed hold of the starting fullback job since the opening days of this camp.  His scholarship option to Stanford coming out of Portland (Ore.) Jesuit High School was Army, plus the non-scholarship prospect of playing in the Ivy League for a school like Yale.  Marecic on paper was lightly recruited, and he carried a corresponding level of expectation outside the Stanford Football program.  Inside, however, there was much more excitement for him.

"I'll be honest; I'm not a great prognosticator," says offensive coordinator David Shaw.  "But coach Willie Taggart and I watched his highlight tape from his high school senior year, and it took us about 30 seconds to realize: 'This kid can play as a true freshman.'  The big question was would he be able to play for three plays and then get hurt?  Is he ready for big time Pac-10 football, to play 12 games?  That's always the question with freshmen, but we knew he had the ability."

"Also how fast could he pick up the system?  We have a lot of verbiage in our system," Shaw adds.  "It's simple, but you have to learn it, be able to apply it and then execute it.  So far he's been outstanding.  With him, it's never been about ability.  It's just been about when he is ready to play, and since he's shown up here, he has not looked like a freshman for one minute."

Those doubts may not be totally resolved until Marecic faces his first intercollegiate competition, starting next Saturday.  But any thoughts that he might wilt or fade through the course of the Cardinal's intense three-week fall camp have been roughly cast aside.  Marecic instead has embraced the challenges and the environment of this camp.

"I'm really excited to be here.  It's been a ton of fun, to come out here every day," says the frosh fullback.  "I guess the thing that I've noticed the most is that you have football all the time.  You're always with the team.  That's something I've been pleased to find out.  In high school training camp - if you can call it that - isn't as intense.  It's not as long.  What I'm finding here is that we spend so much time together, bonding together.  We're making bonds that aren't going to break when the season comes around and when adversity strikes.  This is what makes teams right here."

"This could be the hardest part of the year," Marecic continues.  "I don't know because I've never done it [laughs], but it seems like this is the hardest part of the year.  And it's the most important part, especially for a new guy like myself.  I have to try every play to do something to make my mark on this team.  I want to help the team as much as I can, and in any way that I can."

The Cardinal coaching staff have not wavered through the past three weeks in placing the burdens upon him of being the first-team fullback.  When fifth-year senior Emeka Nnoli was diagnosed with avascular necrosis in both hips earlier this month, Stanford's returning starter at fullback was lost before he ever practiced a day.  That gaping void could and arguably should have been plugged by a position switch.  Some experienced, returning player elsewhere on the roster could have plugged the hole, but the coaches saw something right away in Marecic that instilled the confidence to lay the position entirely on a freshman's shoulders.

"We could see that he was the best fullback and just doing the best job.  He likes to hit people," says Harbaugh with a smile.  "He's doing a great job, and he's getting better every day...  I've been really pleased with Owen.  He's a real football player, one of those warrior type of guys.  He's everything you want in a fullback - not real experienced yet, but that will come."

Harbaugh says there is "no doubt" about Marecic starting for Stanford at fullback this fall.  That gives Cardinalmaniacs™ seven days to consider the inevitable trivia question:  Who was the last true freshman to start for Stanford in a season opener?

"I love him.  I love him," gushes running backs coach Willie Taggart.  "I try not to be too high on him, but he is doing everything the right way.  He's doing it like he's been here.  He's a kid who doesn't say much at all, but he just goes out and does his work.  He'll do his job and do it pretty good.  He is pretty much everything we expected from what we saw of him in high school.  He's come in, picked up on the offense and run with it.  He's doing a great job for us."

"He likes contact," the coach continues.  "He reminds me of another former Cardinal, Jon Ritchie.  He's that type of kid.  I actually did an internship with the Raiders in 2002 and get a chance to meet Ritchie and be around him.  He even has a little knot on his head just like Jon Ritchie had - it's just not bleeding [laughs].  The kid likes to hit.  And he doesn't say anything.  He just goes out there and does his job.  I think his teammates see that and enjoy it."

"I think he's been the biggest surprise out of all of them, in this freshman class," Taggart declares.  "This kid comes in, and not only did he learn the offense, but he's also physical out there.  You don't find too many freshmen right out of high school who can come in here at this level and be this physical.  This kid goes in there everyday and he's physical.  I think he's gotten the respect of a lot of the older guys, and the older guys like him already.  They love him and they pat him on the back, which is great for him to come in here and feel a part of these guys.  They see where he can help us."

"He definitely came to camp ready to play.  He's doing a great job," concurs redshirt junior tailback Anthony Kimble.  "When he hits, he comes.  He's pounding the linebackers."

"The biggest thing with him is that he cares," Kimble says.  "One day he missed a block.  He doesn't really talk much, but the first thing he did is look at me and say, 'AK, I'm sorry, man.  I'm going to get it right the next time.  I promise, I'm going to get it right.'  From him, that meant something because he probably had said three words to me the whole camp.  He's caring; he's trying to get it done; and he's working every day to get better.  He's going to be a really good player this year and years to come."

As his teammates and coaches have affirmed their belief in him, Marecic has seen his confidence and comfort rise.  Though you wouldn't know it from the ferocity of his physical play, Marecic is soft-spoken and shy - more so than probably any player on the Stanford roster.  It was a big step from him earlier this week when he stood up and addressed the team huddle after a practice, at the direction of Harbaugh.  That is something difficult to fathom from Marecic just a couple weeks ago.

"My confidence has definitely been building," he shares.  "Coming in here, I didn't know what to expect at all about how I would stack up against these players.  It's just been building with going all out on every play and trying to do my job successfully.  I'm building more confidence, not so much in how I've been playing, but I'm more comfortable around the guys.  I'm a pretty shy, quiet guy, so I'm slowly trying to break out of the shell.  I'm at least trying to smile a little bit more and trying to talk to the other guys."

On the other side of the ball is another freshman who has played beyond his billing, though he has no shyness issues.  You may have in fact seen Taylor Skaufel on one of the ESPN networks this month, as he starred in the reality TV show, "Summer House."  But Skaufel's breakout role has come instead on the Stanford practice field, where he quickly climbed the depth chart into the two-deep at safety and through many practices in Week Two ran with the first-team defense.

"Taylor has good instincts," says defensive coordinator Scott Shafer.  "You can tell that he's been coached before.  He understands football.  I think the big thing with him is that he likes to hit, too.  That's something for a young freshman to come up and try to strike you.  He still doesn't have as much strike as you want, but in time he will."

That time has not taken too long, as Skaufel this camp jumped ahead of returning players like Thaddeus Chase and Marcus Rance on the defensive depth chart.

"He is a good, sound, smart football player back there," Shafer explains.  "You see him moving forward more quickly than some of the other guys because of that sense.  Those things you really can't coach.  Football instincts have helped him."

"I feel like I'm getting a good feel for where I'm supposed to be," Skaufel updates.  "I'm training my eyes to see my keys and stuff, and make the right reads."

You may be excused if you did not follow the Taylor Skaufel recruiting story too closely last winter.  The safety from The Woodlands (Tex.) High School was a casual recruit on the Cardinal's board, only offered late after Harbaugh was hired.  Skaufel's most compelling competing scholarship offer was Northwestern.

We all slept on Skaufel, The Bootleg included, as having any earthly chance at playing early on The Farm.  Even some of his new teammates derided his prospects.

"I remember back in the summer, one of the guys on the team, James McGillicuddy, said that if I didn't redshirt this year, I could kick him in the balls," Skaufel smiles.  "Basically he was saying that there's no way that I'm going to see the field.  Right now, it seems like I might have an opportunity."

"McGillicuddy keeps trying to change it on me," laughs the sure-footed freshman.  "Now he says, 'If you don't start...'  Yeah, he's really trying to change the bet."

Admittedly, we would have wagered a free kick to all comers if offered a bet on Ryan Whalen, the 6'2" walk-on wide receiver from Danville (Calif.) Monte Vista High School.  After the very first day of this training camp, we pointed to the wide receivers as the surprise strength of this freshman class.  Indeed, all three wideouts are earmarked for possible if not probable playing time this fall.

Whether you could see that coming for Sean Wiser or Doug Baldwin is debatable.  But for Whalen, a player who did not even sign with Stanford on February 7, it has been a remarkable camp.  Not only has Whalen held his own with a pair of talented scholarship teammates at his position in his class - he has led the way.  Whalen the last week has lapped all the wideouts on the roster, save the Big Three of Mark Bradford, Evan Moore and Richard Sherman.  We would comfortably call him the #4 receiver for Stanford today, and that has been reflected by his working with the first-team offense all this week.

Did we mention yet that he walked on at Stanford?

"As you know, recruiting is not an exact science," Shaw says with a sheepish grin.  "None of us have ever been right about everything that happens, but right now he is playing at a very, very solid level.  We're planning on depending on him this season."

"He's a smart kid.  He's a tough kid.  He makes the catches," Shaw continues.  "All he does is what he's supposed to do.  He doesn't make a lot of mistakes, and he doesn't drop many balls.  When it's time for him to block, he goes and digs his head in there.  He likes to hit people, and he plays with the attitude that we try to permeate throughout this team."

"It's a really, really wonderful surprise how good he is.  I'm really pleased with him," adds Harbaugh.  "He's catching the ball - number one that stands out the most.  He rarely drops a pass.  He's a very good route runner and a very good blocker - precise in the things he does.  He's a good athlete and just a good football player, and he's showing up that way in special teams as well."

"I'm getting more and more comfortable as I go along," Whalen says.  "There have been some opportunities; guys have been hurting.  It's been an opportunity to step in, and I'm trying to fill that spot the best I can...  I'm confident when I go in.  The quarterbacks are getting more confidence in me and throwing me the ball, as I get more comfortable with my routes and timing."

Not many colleges were comfortable with the idea of offering Whalen a scholarship last year, despite an immensely successful season at Monte Vista.  He hauled in 80 passes for 1,143 yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior.  In 2005 as a junior he caught 65 passes for 897 yards and 12 scores.

The East Bay student-athlete turned down lower-tier scholarships from schools like UC Davis, Sacramento State, Nevada and Idaho.  The Ivy Leagues recruited him but do not play scholarship football, and he turned down those opportunities plus pitches to walk-on at Cal and Oregon.

"He's serious about improving himself academically," Harbaugh explains.  "It came down to us and Princeton, and here you can get a scholarship.  Ryan Whalen will get a scholarship at the earliest possible time.  That's how fast it can be earned."

"I tell you what, if we had one or two more [scholarships], he would have been the one getting it.  He was right there," says the Cardinal head coach.  "He's a physical guy who has a high motor and can catch the ball.  He has instincts.  He's athletic.  He is going to play a lot of football here."

"I feel like I always have something to prove, so I'm just working as hard as I can to show what I can do," Whalen offers.  "It's really exciting for me, but I have to keep working."

While Whalen looks like a lock to play for the Cardinal this fall, there is one technicality still to be resolved.  His recruiting status plus financial aid at Stanford necessitates that he be a counter toward the 85 scholarship limit, should he step onto the field any Saturday this fall.  The Cardinal coaches have every desire to put him on scholarship, not only for him to play but also because he deserves it.  However, the recent transfer of Oklahoma offensive lineman Chase Beeler tied up what looks on paper to be Stanford's 85th scholarship this fall.

The solution may come as early as Monday or Tuesday, when Stanford hopes to receive a response to an inquiry they presented recently to the NCAA.  Fifth-year senior Emeka Nnoli did not participate in any practices this camp, and he has medically retired from football.  The NCAA needs to clarify whether his scholarship is immediately available for this fall, and that decision will apparently determine Whalen's opportunity to see the field in 2007.

More quotes on the Cardinal's top performing freshmen this camp:

Harbaugh on middle linebacker Johnathan Frink:  "I've been really impressed.  He plays downhill.  He's athletic.  He's strong.  He's everything we thought he was and we were hoping he was.  That's the thing when you recruit guys.  They come in, and you're hoping but you don't know until you see them."

Harbaugh on tight end Coby Fleener:  "We're going to try to get him ramped up.  He should be getting back into contact soon - that's what I'm being told...  We're pretty good at tight end.  We're pretty deep there right now, but that could change.  For him to play, there would have to be some attrition there."

Taggart on running back Jeremy Stewart:  "He's one of those kids where you see signs that he might have a little something to him.  We're trying to get him some rep's so that he can develop and hopefully show us more every day.  He might be a guy who can help us down the road...  You can never have too many running backs, especially in the Pac-10.  Guys can get beat up every week, and you saw that last year when these guys got beat up.  Personally, I want to get those guys some rep's because you never know when they could be called upon.  I want them to be ready."

Shafer on outside linebacker Chike Amajoyi:  "I like Chike Amajoyi.  I think he's going to be a better than average linebacker.  He's really good."

Shafer on cornerback Corey Gatewood:  "Corey has done a good job.  He's just a young corner.  I expect by mid-September for him to be ready to play if called upon.  He has the ability to do it.  He's just learning it.  I don't know how many coverages he knew coming out of high school, so every day is a learning day for him.  There's always something new in front of him where he has questions.  The good thing is that he asks questions, and he can run.  He's going to be a good player someday."

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