A Conversation with David Shaw: Part III

All right Big Red Rooters, it's a new week and we kick it off with the third installment of our comprehensive 7/17/08 session with Stanford OC & WRs Coach David Shaw. Shaw was a real sport to be so generous with his time and as readers will see, he's a fun interview. Read on to hear Coach talk about the importance of learning from our losses and his expectation of a game-impacting offense in '08.

The following is the third of what now has become, due to its extreme length, a five-part conversation with Stanford Offensive Coordinator and Wide Receivers Coach David Shaw conducted by "Emeritus" at the Arrillaga Family Sports Center on Thursday, July 17, 2008: 

TheBootleg.com: So we have talked about the offense, things that were unable to develop, and we don't need to beat a dead horse, but let's say you were "Dr. Shaw" - Give us your professional opinion, you clinical diagnosis of what went wrong in 2007? A rash of injuries obviously, but what else? Were there some assumptions that proved incorrect about what we could do against certain opponents? Other than losing a bunch of key players and, as you said, needing to improve the attitude and confidence of the team, what the heck happened? What are some things we learned from last year, what you feel we can do better, for example, you have mentioned offline that we can be a lot better at our efficiency, our concentration in the red zone [inside the 20-yard line], learning how to play consistently for four quarters, in what way will the '08 squad benefit from the '07 team's experience and growing pains? 

David Shaw: [Patiently waiting to be able to get a word in edgewise] It is the learned lessons of #1, converting third downs! We've got to be more efficient on third downs. We spent a lot of time during this offseason really concentrating on how we are going to improve that, whether it is play-calling or play-making - putting guys in a position to make plays.

TB: Not getting flagged for penalties, giving extra effort, making a block down field, kicking it up a notch....

DS: Exactly. Taking everything up a notch, taking that next step. It is what we talked about a lot this spring. Taking that next step. We go to the point where we were close in a lot of games. They played better than the year before. And we got a lot of pats on the back for a great effort, and that's all fine and good, but that's not our goal.

TB: It sounds like the "old school" coach in David Shaw is coming out there. It seems like as a coach you are helping the team learn from the mistakes rather than just go through the loss. It seems like there has been an opportunity to take that loss and turn it into a positive experience? Is that a big part of the staff's coaching philosophy?

DS: That's part of it, but as I say, the devil is in the details. Don't just say we lost and we gave up the game at the end like TCU.  Let's go through the TCU game. Let's see, there were three or four plays in that game that should have gone for touchdowns that we missed. Plays that really would have sealed the game as opposed to just finishing it when we had the lead by a score. Throughout the course of that game, we had multiple missed opportunities. We have to take advantage of those opportunities! 

TB: To learn not to take the foot off the pedal?

DS: Exactly. Exactly - and that's one thing we still have to learn, as a unit and as a team. We played well. That quarter against Oregon was unreal. It was unreal!

TB: Really to best quarter of the past five seasons, if you don't count the fourth quarter at SC, but that was more of a case of a couple of incredibly big plays.

DS: Yeah, but against Oregon, we really handed it to them. And it was great!

TB: In a lot of ways, isn't it even more impressive that we were able to come up with that kind of a dominating quarter against Oregon or the periods of efficiency against TCU, etc. as opposed to, yes, we made a couple of spectacular, clutch plays against SC, but it wasn't as if we had a sustained offensive juggernaut against the Trojans, which is tough for anyone to do. We had greater glimpses of glory. As far as you are concerned and as far as our running the Stanford offense, the more encouraging moments were against Oregon, I would think...

DS: Yes, and we have gone back and alluded that to our guys. That second quarter against Oregon wasn't Oregon laying down for Stanford, it wasn't that. It was Stanford playing to our capabilities. It was our not making mistakes. It was our making plays, making blocks. It was our getting eight yards on a run that was blocked for four yards. It was guys giving extra effort, just guys playing their hearts out. When you get to that point, you could feel it. Everybody was on a high, an emotional high - some of these guys had never felt that during their Stanford football careers.

TB: Too bad we couldn't have just ended that one at halftime...

DS:  The game wasn't over. The game wasn't over. They came back and then we got hit in the mouth in the third quarter. Our challenge is to get this offense, this team back to playing at that high level and sustaining it. That's the goal. Like I said, there were glimpses of it, when we hit on all cylinders and for whatever reason, and it wasn't just the injuries, it was a bunch of factors.

TB: So which are the areas in which we can most improve? Avoiding injury, preparation, execution, or attitude? 

DS:  Yes!!

TB: All of the above?

DS: Yes. Which, when you see us line up next year, you will see the first one right away. Our guys have had an outstanding offseason, physically. Our strength coach Shannon Turley has been pushing those guys hard. And you can see it, physically, walking around here. We're stronger, we're more explosive. We've got some younger guys that we think are going to better that the guys they are stepping in for - the guys that have departed. Physically, we're going to be better. Once again - we feel better about what we have up front. We think there are some things now that we can do that we couldn't do last year... 

TB: A few extra pages from the playbook?

DS:  Not to give the whole thing away, but we feel we can open up just a little bit, we can open up some more. That doesn't mean just taking more chances throwing the ball down the field, but that we can give defenses more things to worry about because we are not as concerned about the line - we feel good about what we have up front.  

TB: Let's talk technically for a minute, starting with how your systems differs from the formations we always used to see with a traditional "split end" and "flanker". As you know, on TheBootleg.com we have technical and strategy fanatics, but mostly more casual fans  Can you explain the nomenclature you are using with the wide receivers. "X", "Y", "Z" - who plays which positions and why? Are we going to see a "W"?

DS:  Once again it is going to sound a little vague. Let's take a Richard Sherman. Richard Sherman is essentially our "X", our weakside split end. But over the course of the game, you are going to see Richard running at the "X", you are going to see him line up in the slot, you are going to see him line up on the strong side at the "Z". We want to be able to put  guys in different positions throughout the game.

TB: Is that to force certain matchups or to be less predictable?

DS:  All of the above. There are certain plays we want to run against certain corners. There will be certain matchups we like. There are going to be some plays where Richard is a good diversion! You're a 6'3" wideout that can run! We want to get some attention on one side so we can get something on the other side.

TB: Imagine if we could capture his emotion energy and use it occasionally, as a decoy?

DS:  Yeah. Now there are some preferences, we like the bigger "Xs" that can stretch the field. We like the Zs as more of the route-runners. But at the same time we want to be "multiple". We want to be able to use those guys in different positions. Same thing with tight ends. We feel have a diverse group of tight ends, especially when Jimmy Dray comes back, that maybe can split out, maybe can be in tight, maybe can run a variety of routes that can get help get their hands on the ball a little bit more,

TB: So in that vein, one of the more intriguing athletes, at least in the minds of many fans  - and admittedly we have yet to see anything on the field - everybody is a little excited about Coby Fleener, because he is  a big tall guy who can run. How would a guy like Coby Fleener fit into that nomenclature? Where would he be likely to play and in what kind of situations might he be used? We assume he is part of the plan, guy seems a little "off the chart" in terms of potential...

DS:  Hey, he's a 6'6" kid that can run - that as a freshman wasn't quite ready to play. If he was ready to play, he would have played last year, you would have seen a lot of him. This year, he has been dedicated in the weight room. Learned a lot and we believe as a tight end, not just as a big athlete, as a tight end - he can make an impact in games for us, with his hand on the ground, in the slot, working inside and hopefully with his size, be a force in the red zone as well.

TB: You think there will be situations - he has been designated a wide receiver - where he will be used as both?

DS:  We are going to put him wherever we need to put him.  

TB: Pretty good matchup in the red zone against a 5'9" corner?

DS: Yeah. Evan's [Evan Moore's] size didn't do for us last year, what he had done during most of his career, but he wasn't as healthy. Still, got his hands on a couple of balls. We were watching film last week and there were about five plays during the year where Evan catches the ball, but his foot's on the line. It's a matter of inches. 

TB: Spectacular catches, but out of bounds...?

DS: ...do nothing for us. But yeah, having a big guy like that, you want to be able to use him in the red zone, you want to use him on key third downs. We have high goals and big expectations for Coby.

TB: But you are the wide receivers coach, you don't want him to bulk up so much that he becomes a permanent tight end, do you? Are you and [Tight Ends Coach Tim] Drevno going to end up arguing over him?

DS: Absolutely not. The great thing with a guy like Coby is that he has bulked up, but he has been keeping his speed so he can be versatile.

TB: So a 6'6", 250-lb. receiver?

DS: Not quite 250! [laughing] Not quite 250!

TB: Do you feel much pressure, and I don't want to put this the wrong way, for the offense to carry its weight? Does the offense have a collective desire to carry equal weight since the defense got a lot of credit for the team's resurgence last year? Is there a little "competitiveness" between the offense and defense? 

DS: There's always competitiveness! Now, I think it's...look, take whatever you want to take from the strides we made last year, which side of the ball did what. I think there were some collective strides that we made. Now, once again there were some lessons that we learned as the offense has grown since last year - we have a better sense for what we have and we are going to use that for this year coming up. There are going to be a lot of gains this year, and I don't want to say "carry our weight", but we certainly want to make an impact, consistently, on the scoreboard. We want to be an attacking offense.

TB: Feared a little bit, right? Because when we were scoring 10 points a game, no matter what the reason, I don't think any opponent was too concerned about trying to "contain" us?

DS: Right, and of course that was 2006, at 10 points a game, I can't remember exactly what last year's numbers were.

TB: Yeah, but in the second half of the season last year, we certainly had our moments like the Cal game, but as far as point production, it was tough! Not like in 2006 -  You weren't here at the time, but at one point we were,, and I am not ripping those players at all so I won't call them by name, but we were down to starting not one buy two walk-on wide receivers and during that stretch we lost 31-0 to UCLA - I believe we went one sinister stretch where the Cardinal went five straight games without scoring more than 10 points in any game. We just didn't have the players on the field.. Walt Harris may not have been the greatest offensive guru ever, but it certainly wasn't all the coaches' fault!

DS: Right. It all works hand in hand. There's no question. We have high hopes for what we can accomplish on offense in 2008. We think that we can utilize our athletic quarterbacks, we can utilize the wide variety of backs that we have [we both knock wood], if they stay healthy. 

TB: Hey, are we coming in a little "under the radar", Coach?

DS: I like being "under the radar".

TB: You think there are legitimate grounds for optimism, for seeing a far more encouraging result on the field this fall?

DS: No question!

TB:  Good answer - a healthy attitude! OK, given his injury last fall and his development as a baseball player, do you expect to have running back Toby [Gerhart] as option this fall?

DS: Yes! We don't know at what level. We don't know how much time it's going to take for him to get back 100% - how he is going to hold up, talking punishment that a "big back" like Toby is going to take. He just doesn't go down easy, and that's what we love about him. He would probably be a lot healthier if he went down every time they touched him. But that's not how he's made! We expect him - hopefully he will come back 100%. 

TB: Now I don't know how much you want to keep this kind of thing under wraps, but I have seen Dray recently and he doesn't look quite ready yet, watching him walk around over at Jimmy's. Is there guarded optimism that he can play a full season?

DS: My optimism is in Jimmy Dray. It's based on his exceptional work ethic. As a coach, you hear guys say it all the time - it's just the way we have to live.  Who's going to be playing this week? When Jimmy Dray is ready, he jumps back into the boat, outstanding. When Toby is ready to go.... We've got to lean on whichever guys are ready to play our first game. 

TB: What strikes you as something Stanford's offense will be challenged to find a way to replace from the prior squad? 

DS: There were some key leaders on this team. Offensively, Mark Bradford's leadership was not "vocal", but when he was healthy and in the games, he made some plays against Oregon that were just outstanding! A couple of plays against Cal - made a one-handed catch against Cal that was outstanding. The touchdown catch, the route he ran to get open against Cal was outstanding! The big play at SC, was outstanding. He made a couple of "catch & runs", even when he wasn't healthy, that were very very impressive. There was that part of a Mark Bradford where guys knew that when he was healthy, he was going to impact the game. I think we are missing that to a certain degree.

TB: So beyond that actual production, just knowing that you had that caliber of player, the combination of skill and effort, helped the team. Having a reliable playmaker.

DS: Right. We're hopeful on a couple of guys. And not just at the receiver position. We know when these guys are healthy and they are "on" - that eight-yard throw is going to be 30 yards. That that 20-yard throw... is going to be a touchdown. When that ball is handed off and it looks like it is going to be a six-yard gain and it breaks out to a 40-yard gain. Toby had his great game against San Jose State and AK showed it a couple of times when he was healthy last year, that he was capable of being a big-play back. We have that capability.

Note: The fourth segment of this likely five-part interview should be published Monday night.

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