With opening day at Northwestern quickly approaching, the Stanford Cardinal returned to the practice field this week with an eye towards preparing for the Wildcats’ up-tempo scheme as well as the early 9 a.m PT kickoff.
Stanford head coach David Shaw is no stranger to preparing teams for morning kickoffs and noted that the Cardinal’s staff has learned a lot from mistakes in previous experiences, including against Wake Forest in 2009 and Army in 2013. To prepare for this latest journey eastward, Stanford has flipped its training camp schedule to match the gameday routine, holding team meetings in the evening and practicing at game time.
As the Cardinal get acclimated to the early start time, however, Shaw emphasized the heavy uncertainty in the game-planning process as he prepares to lead the most untested team of his tenure into a battle against a team with a brand-new starting quarterback and a coach in Pat Fitzgerald who shares Shaw’s affection for divulging as little as possible prior to kickoff.
“It’s always tough,” Shaw remarked on preparing for the first game of the season. “Just like I do know that Fitz will have some secrets that he keeps until the game, which is fine…That’s the excitement of college football [as opposed to the NFL]. You’ll go into the first game not really completely knowing what you have on your side or on their side.”
Shaw also added that he fully expects Fitzgerald and the Wildcats to have some tricks up their sleeve: “They’ll have wrinkles for us…We have to be ready for multiple formations and personnel groupings.”
High effort the key message for young defense
Based on the opening week depth chart released Monday, at least 10 of the defenders listed on the two-deep could see their first significant playing time in Stanford uniforms on Saturday.
When asked about the prospect of relying on a number inexperienced players, Shaw immediately responded, “It feels like a lot more.”
The ongoing position battles that were unresolved during training camp include the starting cornerback spot opposite Ronnie Harris, currently being contested by sophomores Alijah Holder and Alameen Murphy.
While neither young corner has managed to gain separation from the other, Shaw noted that their overall play has impressed him. Holder and Murphy are expected to split time in the opener, and, in preparation for their debuts on the first team, Shaw has continued to preach the importance of high effort.
“As a coach you learn not to expect perfection but to push guys towards perfection,” Shaw said. “There are going to be mistakes, but effort and great technique make up for mistakes.”
In related news in the secondary, cornerback Quenton Meeks, joining safeties Ben Edwards and Justin Reid, became part of a select group of freshmen to earn a spot on the two-deep as the immensely talented 2015 secondary recruiting class starts to bear fruit early. Shaw added that Meeks, who is listed as the backup nickelback to Terrence Alexander, will certainly see the field on Saturday thanks to his grasp of the team’s defense.
“The biggest thing with our defense, as we’re very multiple, is you have to know what to do and once you know what to do you’d better do it fast and physical,” Shaw said. “[Quenton’s] been able to do all three of those. He’ll get some time in this game and I’m excited for him to start his career.”
Burns and Chryst will see meaningful snaps this season
Offensively, the Cardinal look poised to return to a level of dominance and efficiency with an enviable number of returning starters. In addition, it appears that the group will be operating at full strength on Saturday, as Shaw announced that wide receivers Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector, who were dealing with an ankle injury and suspension, respectively, will play.
Moreover, Stanford will look to play backup quarterbacks Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst throughout the season, both to continue the evaluation process in the ever-tight battle to win the second-string spot and to also gain valuable game experience going into next season. However, Shaw also noted that he has not decided on which quarterback would enter the game in the event of an injury, adding that he would decide based on the situation and each backup’s particular skillset.
“I think we have an idea of what both guys can do well. If we get to the point where, hopefully in a positive way, we get a chance to play those guys, hopefully we get a chance to play both of them,” Shaw said. “We’ve gone as far as we can evaluating in practice. It’s time to have the opportunity to evaluate some game time…It’s not just if the score gets out of whack.”
Shaw went on to compare the situation to the way Stanford slowly rolled Kevin Hogan into games back in 2012: “I think [Burns and Chryst] are ready to play. [The situation will be] much like what we did with Kevin when we started rotating Kevin in. I would love to get out of this year with both guys playing significant snaps.”
Freshman punter/kicker Jake Bailey will play in an undetermined role
Continuing his long-standing streak of mystery, Shaw also declared that punter Jake Bailey will indeed play against the Wildcats, but Stanford’s head man did not reveal what Bailey’s role would be. The freshman is currently locked in battles with Alex Robinson at punter and starting kicker Conrad Ukropina for kickoff duties.
Following Wednesday’s practice, Shaw mentioned that he would meet with special teams coordinator Pete Alamar to make final decisions ahead of Thursday’s flight to Chicago, a decision that will almost certainly remain under lock-and-key until the Cardinal step onto Ryan Field on Saturday to kick off the 2015 season.
Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.