By King Jemison
Stanford football entered the season with three juniors and two seniors starting on the offensive line. By the seventh game against UCLA on Oct. 17, the Cardinal starting line included three true freshmen beside two of the original juniors. Now, that same youthful offensive line prepares to start its fifth-straight game together on Saturday against Cal in the 122nd edition of the Big Game.
Along with those three true freshman starters on the line, Stanford will trot out up to six starters from the Class of 2023. An astounding total of 20 true freshmen have seen the field for the Cardinal this season. Stanford head coach David Shaw’s ’94 program is famous for its consistency and reliance on veteran leadership. Needless to say, 2019 has been a shock to the system. So have the six losses this season, already the most since 2008. The way those freshmen have performed gives Stanford hope that it has every opportunity to bring home the Axe for the tenth straight year and get back to winning big in 2020.
“They have been awesome,” said junior center Drew Dalman of the three freshmen he plays alongside on the offensive line. “I can’t give them enough praise.”
“What I love is that they’re growing each week,” added offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard. “The future is bright.”
Walter Rouse became the first freshman to start during the second game of the season at USC. Though it was a huge moment for Rouse, the circumstances surrounding his big day were not so exciting. Stanford’s preseason All-American left tackle, junior Walker Little, fell with a gruesome knee injury in the season opener against Northwestern. Shaw soon announced that he would miss the remainder of the season. In stepped Rouse, a former three-star recruit out of Silver Springs, Maryland.
“Being thrust in there as a true freshman against USC in the Coliseum is a tall order,” Pritchard said. He would know; Pritchard got his first ever start at quarterback in the Los Angeles Coliseum back in 2007. In that game, he led Stanford to a win over USC as a 41-point underdog in the “Biggest Upset Ever.”
Rouse said that first start in Los Angeles, “feels like forever ago. I’ve come a long way under the guidance of some of the older offensive linemen and [offensive line] Coach Carberry.”
He certainly has. Big Game will be Rouse’s tenth straight start at left tackle, one of the most important positions on the field. By now, he is practically a veteran in the position group. Three of Rouse’s freshmen classmates have joined him on the starting offensive line unit, though one, right tackle Branson Bragg, was injured in his first game against UCF.
Barrett Miller got the start at left guard against Oregon State after senior Devery Hamilton was injured on the last play of the previous game. Hamilton has not returned, while Miller is making his seventh straight start against Cal.
Jake Hornibrook became the fourth true freshman starter on the line when he was thrown in against UCLA. Stanford’s four total true freshman starters on the line is the most in college football and the most in program history. Now, the combo of Rouse, Miller, Hornibrook, Dalman and junior right tackle Foster Sarell are starting their fifth-consecutive game together and just pushed Stanford to a program record passing performance in the loss to Washington State.
“It’s crazy to think about because this has never happened in Stanford’s history before. But it’s always about the next man up,” Rouse commented on the freshman-heavy offensive line. “[Miller and Hornibrook] have played amazing being thrust into their starting positions, and I can’t say enough about them.”
The youth movement goes beyond the front five. Stanford may start two true freshmen at cornerback for Big Game. Kyu Blu Kelly received his first start in week five against Oregon State after surpassing senior cornerback Obi Eboh on the depth chart. Kelly has remained in the starting lineup ever since, recording his first career interception against Washington and a career-high six tackles last week at Washington State. With junior corner Paulson Adebo now out with injury, freshman Zahran Manley might be getting his first start as well.
Freshman safety Jonathan McGill has also been a major contributor in the secondary, snagging his first interception against Washington State. Though Stanford’s passing defense has struggled in recent weeks, defensive backs coach Duane Akina believes his freshmen standouts are holding their own in the back end.
“They’ve been outstanding,” Akina said. “There’s just been a tremendous amount of growth.”
Akina gives much of the credit to the older defensive backs like Adebo and senior safety Malik Antoine who have mentored their freshman teammates and prepared them for early playing time.
“The first thing you always wonder about within young freshmen is how quickly can they learn, and how’s the speed of the game and all that,” Akina said. “But because of our upperclassmen, who really invest time in these guys in the summertime, it’s really given them an opportunity early on to grow.”
Kelly said he did not expect such early playing time but emphasized, “It has been a dream come true to play on a big stage.”
He believes the experience of developing alongside other freshmen in a similar situation has aided his progression.
“We always keep each other accountable as freshmen on the field,” Kelly said. “Playing with [other] freshmen is always more comfortable.”
Joining the three starting freshman offensive linemen and the two potential freshman starters at cornerback is freshman kicker Ryan Sanborn, who has also handled the punting duties for most of the season. Along with those six starters, more than a dozen other members of the Class of 2023 may leave their stamp on Big Game.
Game action has not satisfied their desire to improve. After practice on Tuesday, Rouse spent nearly 30 minutes extra working on his individual technique while most players headed to the locker room.
Rouse seemed deserving of the high praise his upperclassmen teammate Drew Dalman poured out on him and the other freshman offensive linemen.
“It’s never a question of their effort, it’s just pointing them in the right direction,” Dalman said. “So I’m really happy with that and really proud of them.”
In the midst of a difficult season, the vital role of Stanford’s true freshmen truly does paint a rosier picture of the potential for a major bounce back in 2020 and beyond.
For now, Rouse and his teammates are set on maintaining a decade worth of dominance over Cal.
“This is the biggest game of the year,” Rouse said. “This is the game you’ve got to be the most locked in for, we’ve got to have our best practice yet.”
Though Cal may feel that this freshmen-laden Stanford team offers the Bears their best chance yet to break the long losing streak, Rouse is confident that the effort he and his fellow freshmen have put in will keep the Axe on the Farm once again.
“If you do whatever it takes and get those few extra yards, nothing will stop us,” Rouse said.