By Mark Soltau
STANFORD, Calif. - When the Stanford football team begins its 2012 season tonight against San Jose State, no one will be more excited to take the field than Usua Amanam. The 5-foot-10, 176-pound senior was a star two-way player at Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose and competed against many Spartan players in high school.
"I have a bunch of friends that go to San Jose State," Amanam said this week. "Jabari Carr (wide receiver) is one of their biggest offensive weapons. I played with Tim Crawley (defensive back/wide receiver) at Bellarmine. I'm usually a pretty calm guy, but I'm always juiced up to play them."
After rushing for 3,484 yards and 50 touchdowns during his junior and senior years at Bellarmine, Amanam figured he would make his mark on the Farm running the football. But following his redshirt freshman year in 2010, when he gained 131 yards on 28 carries, Amanam was converted to cornerback.
"Things don't always go as planned," said Amanam, who will serve as a Cardinal nickelback and could return kickoffs. "When coach (David) Shaw, (the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football) offered me the opportunity to play a little defense, I took it as a challenge. I'm one of those people who thinks if I set my mind to something, I can definitely do it."
Amanam appeared in every game last season, finishing with eight tackles, and also ran back one kickoff for 24 yards. His playing time figures to increase this season in the pass-happy Pac-12 Conference.
"When coach Shaw offered me the opportunity to play a little defense, I took it as a challenge. I'm one of those people who thinks if I set my mind to something, I can definitely do it."
Associate head coach Derek Mason, Stanford's defensive coordinator and defensive back coach, said he already has.
"You knew right away that he was explosive, smart, aggressive, fast and intuitive," he said. "He's blossomed and grown, and his ceiling is high. He's in the mold of Michael Thomas, and that's a tough act to follow. When you watch him play, he looks like a seasoned vet."
Amanam said the biggest transition from running back to cornerback was learning how to shorten his steps.
"I have long strides," said Amanam. "A lot of what you do on the back end at corner is very quick. You kind of need short strides and quick feet."
What does he miss about playing running back?
"It came easy," he said. "I've been playing it since I was a little kid. I'm the smallest guy on the field, and to be honest, I never liked to get hit. Trying to avoid people was No. 1 in my mind, so it made it easy to play running back."
Once he was moved to defense, his mentality changed.
"It's kind of ironic," Amanam said. "It's always better to inflict pain than receive the hit."
According to Mason, Amanam and sophomore strong safety Jordan Richards are the most improved players on defense.
"It's a day-by-day process," said Mason. "Stay in the moment. We definitely expect big things from him."
Amanam nearly left the Bay Area after high school. His older brother and best friend Idoro was attending medical school in Nashville, Tenn. Usua wanted to be near him and considered playing at Vanderbilt, but was persuaded to come to Junior Day at Stanford by William Danser, whose son Kevin played with Amanam at Bellarmine and will start at right guard for the Cardinal against San Jose State.
"His dad kept pressing me and I finally decided to come and fell in love," said Amanam, the youngest of three children. "It was my late mother's dream for one of her children to come to Stanford. It was a good feeling for me to make that dream come true."
Growing up, Amanam and his family were track and field fans and he loved Carl Lewis, even getting to meet him at an airport. But his favorite football player was Deion Sanders.
"I liked the way he played and the way he carried himself," Amanam said. "He worked very hard, but he also knew how to enjoy himself playing the game. I think that's an acquired skill."
So is switching from offense to defense.
"This whole experience has been extremely humbling and I've matured a great deal," he said. "I really understand what it means to be a team player and what it takes to win as a team versus more of an individual outlook on the game. I wouldn't have traded this experience for anything else."
Amanam is majoring in energy resource engineering and wants to attend graduate school to earn a master's degree in petroleum engineering or natural gas extraction. "I'm keeping my fingers crossed and hope everything goes as planned," he said. "But you never know."