At any level of football, attrition is the story of every team’s season. Players get hurt. Coaches agonize over position battles. Fans speculate about who will fill the voids left by others.
That’s why the Stanford football team always says its motto about injuries is “Next man up.” If a player goes down–especially a player like Shayne Skov or Chris Owusu–someone else has to step up.
But for the Cardinal, sometimes it’s not a problem of talent but a problem of economics–supply doesn’t meet demand–and that means a player has to change positions in order to make a necessary difference for a team that’s in contention for a national championship.
That’s been the story this season for redshirt senior Corey Gatewood, who has stepped in and made his impact felt on the Cardinal defense late this season, including snagging an interception last Saturday against Notre Dame–a particularly impressive feat considering the fact that he started the year as a wide receiver.
After playing defensive back for the past three seasons, Gatewood transitioned to the Cardinal offense in the off-season, hoping to fill in as one of Andrew Luck’s primary pass-catchers after the Cardinal lost its best two wide receivers from 2010 to the NFL.
But due to the emergence of Stanford’s trio of tight ends and fellow senior receiver Griff Whalen, the Massachusetts native found himself a little-used corollary in one of the nation’s most prolific offenses, as he only touched the ball twice in the early part of the season, making one catch for 22 yards and one rush for minus 2 yards. But when cornerback Barry Browning and safety Delano Howell fell to injuries midway through the season, Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason was forced to scramble to find some depth on his defense–and he knew exactly who to turn to.
“When I first got here, the coaching team was concerned with what he really wanted to do,” Mason said. “He wanted to try the offensive side of the ball, and we wound up in a situation that for him, he felt like that’s where his best football was going to be played.”
“This year, due to some injuries and where we are, I talked to Corey and I said, ‘Hey Corey, what is your interest in playing on this side of the ball, man, because I really think that you could help us.’ And he said, ‘Coach, I just want to play.’ And it’s been good,” he continued.
After just two weeks practicing with the defense, Gatewood has done anything but show up to fill space, grabbing an interception in the second quarter of last Saturday’s game against Notre Dame, as well as making five tackles and breaking up two passes in the last three games.
“He’s added some depth as well as some competitive spirit to what we do,” Mason said. “He’s made us better and he’s helped bolster our unit outside.”
Mason said that the coaches were just fine with making switches midseason because there’s no room for weakness when you’re ranked in the top five in the country.
“Our deal is, I wanted to get the best football players on the field, and I want to make sure they know and understand what we do,” Mason said.
Interestingly, Mason’s defensive backfield is mostly made up of replacements–guys who aren’t defensive backs originally–including the Stanford secondary’s two best players, Delano Howell and Michael Thomas.
Howell, a senior from Newhall, Calif., began his Stanford career as a running back and kick returner, and accounted for 439 yards of offense his freshman year before switching to safety as a sophomore.
Somewhat similarly, Thomas (who has played his entire career on the Farm as a defensive back) was an option-style quarterback in high school who rushed for over 1500 yards as a prep star in his hometown of Houston, Texas, and was rated the 43rd-best running back in the country coming out of high school by Scout.com.
Mason said that his defense was made up of players like Howell, Thomas and Gatewood because he subscribes to the theory of New England Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick–if they can make a difference, they will play.
“You’re trying to take the best athletes and then find out where they’re going to play. You never know what a young man’s going to be a year or two removed from high school, you just hope that he’s willing, he’s got a high football IQ and he’s got a skill set that allows him to be successful,” he said. “That’s what we’ve done, whether it’s Delano or Mike or a guy like [freshman defensive back] Jordan Richards, who played as a true freshman this year, or [sophomore defensive back] Devon Carrington, those guys all played offense coming out [of high school].”
Mason said the Cardinal coaching staff could usually get a good feel for what position a player would end up being during the recruiting process, but that the success of Gatewood and others on the defensive side of the ball hasn’t come as a surprise to him, especially because Stanford has a historic precedent for success with switching sides.
“Sometimes those guys blossom into something where you never thought that they would played there, but they do,” he said. “Just like [nine-time NFL pro bowler] John Lynch played here on the offensive side of the ball as a quarterback then ended up as a safety.”
With all the position switching that occurs on the Stanford team–and the track record of achievement that comes with it–it makes one wonder if any player is safe at his spot.
Mason said that’s not the case with him.
“What I do as a coach, I try to make sure that all of our guys know that they are replaceable. You either can do it or you can’t,” he said.
Head coach David Shaw even suggested that quarterback Andrew Luck could switch spots after his one-handed circus catch against UCLA earlier this year.
“There’s about five positions the guy could play: receiver, tight end, outside linebacker,” Shaw said after the Cardinal’s 45-19 victory over the Bruins.
And while it’s likely that Mason would like to see Luck suit up on defense, Shaw added an important qualifier to his statement.
“We kind of like what he does at quarterback.”
Perhaps, in just this one case, change isn’t always for the best.