STANFORD, Calif. – A year ago, Stanford nickelback Usua Amanam made his first collegiate start. It was against San Jose State, Saturday’s season-opening opponent, and it provided a preview of the disruptive style of defense that would characterize his play.
Of his six tackles in the 20-17 victory, four were behind the line of scrimmage. He also recovered a fumble in a game that provided a template for the now fifth-year senior. Amanam would earn Defensive MVP honors in the Rose Bowl, making the interception that sealed Stanford’s 20-14 victory over Wisconsin.
After arriving as a star running back out of San Jose’s Bellarmine College Prep, Amanam suffered a foot injury in his first training camp and eventually shifted to cornerback, a position of need for the Cardinal. His role continued to evolve and nickelback has become the position Amanam seems most suited for.
David Shaw, Stanford’s Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football, explained why:
“The two biggest things about Usua, is he’s under 5-11, but he doesn’t know it,” Shaw said. “He doesn’t see himself as a smaller player. He plays like a big guy. He’s got a ridiculous chip on his shoulder and he plays hard. He’s ultra-competitive.
“The second thing is, he’s as quick as a cat. His athleticism, demeanor and competitiveness help him make some big plays that, maybe, some other guys wouldn’t make. He comes off the edge and those big tackles can’t get down to him because he’s so low. That makes him a great blitzer.”
The nature of a nickelback is, “It’s a hard position because you’re in the slot, you’ve got to handle the running game, you’ve got to see the running game, and you’re playing a linebacker position, essentially, in a defensive back’s body,” Shaw said. “Not all guys can do it. Usua can.”
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The college football season opened last weekend – without Stanford, which had an opening-week bye. Shaw said watching others play on television was “harder than I thought it was going to be.”
But it was also useful.
“We wanted to watch with a critical eye and see teams that maybe came out flat or took early unnecessary timeouts because of mental mistakes,” said Shaw of instructions he gave to staff and players. “We wanted to make sure we don’t start that way. Hopefully, we can learn lessons from what other teams did.”
Not all of the Cardinal got the message.
“I didn’t even realize college football was starting until I turned on the TV and saw [ESPN College] Gameday,” Amanam said.
Upon reflection, did Shaw like the idea of an opening-week bye?
“I was 50-50 before,” he said. “Now, I’m against it. It’s just hard watching other people play when we have to wait. Now, we’re antsy.”
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Monday represented a turning point in the evolution of fifth-year senior linebacker Shayne Skov. It was the first practice in which he took part without a knee brace.
Skov blew out his knee early in the 2011 season and, even though he contributed throughout the 2012 Rose Bowl campaign, he never felt completely recovered.
“It doesn’t even compare,” Skov said. “Last year was a struggle. I wasn’t playing the same way I was used to.
“This year, I’m glad to be back physically. I’m medically cleared. My knee is 100 percent healthy. Having that liberty to run around without my knee brace on was tremendous. I’m really excited.”
Skov remains undecided on whether he will wear the brace during the game. His knees don’t need the support, but there’s that mental need of knowing there is extra protection.
“It’s kind of a crutch,” he said. “I’ve got no problem playing without it, but having gone through injuries, I don’t know if I want to take that risk.”
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Last year, Shaw tried warning anyone who would listen about San Jose State: “That’s a good team,” he said.
The Spartans, who had struggled in recent years, put a scare into the Cardinal. And, Shaw was right, the Spartans were good. They finished 11-2 and won the Military Bowl in Washington, D.C.
“They came out fast and punched us a couple of times in the mouth,” Amanam said. “It wasn’t until the third or fourth quarter that we realized we were in a dogfight.
“Looking back on that game is going to help us prepare for this year’s game a little better. We’re a little more aware of what they’re capable of.”
The San Jose State staff has changed, with head coach Ron Caragher arriving from University of San Diego to take over for Mike MacIntyre, now the coach at Colorado.
Stanford coaches have the benefit of watching San Jose State’s first game on tape – a 24-0 victory over Sacramento State. Otherwise, there are few clues to their similarity to last year.
“We’ve looked just at personnel, just to see them play,” Shaw said. “There are things we could have done better and there are things we could have done smarter. That’s on us to make sure we don’t do that again.
“Last year, we had to get used to our team leader of three years (QB Andrew Luck) not being there, and jelling on the offensive line. We were still coming together as a team.”
“We’re going to get their best shot, and they’re going to get ours,” Skov said. “It’s going to be a heck of a football game.”
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Despite all the expectations, the high rankings, and the recent success of the program, “You don’t really know what your team is until you’ve started playing games,” Shaw said.
“Training camp, you have an idea. Spring ball you have an idea. Even first week of preparation, you’re starting to see guys really teeing up and getting ready to play. But until you play your first few games and face your first adversity, whether it’s being down in the fourth quarter or giving up a big play and seeing the team respond, that’s when you start to see what kind of a team you have.”
Case in point: the 2012 season, and the team’s recovery from a 4-2 start with a 6-0 finish.
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Mike Bloomgren, the Andrew Luck Director of Offense and one of the Cardinal’s triumvirate of playcallers, will be on the field. Mike Sanford, the quarterbacks and receivers coach, will be stationed in the press box.
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Evan Crower, a junior from San Diego, has secured the backup quarterback spot despite having received no action in his first two seasons.
“He’s probably made one of the biggest jumps on our team between last year and this year,” Shaw said. “He’s had a great training camp and we’re very comfortable with where he is knowledge-wise. The hardest part for him is he’s got to prepare like a starter.
“We had a talk with him last week: ‘You’ve got to be ready. You can’t have a question. You’ve got to know it all, because if you get the call, it could be third-and-7 and you’re going to have to win the game for us.’
He’s understood that role and has prepared himself. We’re very confident in him.”
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The opening weekend featured enforcement of the new “targeting” rule, and resulted in at least six ejections from NCAA FBS games, including two that were overturned.
Stanford has prepared since spring ball with an emphasis on proper tackling techniques.
“Every day we did a tackling circuit with our defense, talking about tackling,” Shaw said. “The last phrase I left the guys with was, ‘Keep your head up and wrap up.’ If you’re going to go kill a guy, that’s not what football is right now.”
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Receiver Ty Montgomery struggled with injuries last year, but has shown coaches that he is ready, physically and mentally.
“I wanted to see him healthy again,” Shaw said. “I wanted to see his confidence back. And we need him to be very versatile. He’s no longer the young guy anymore. He’s our most experienced receiver.”
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Stanford and San Jose State have played almost annually since 1900, when the great Fielding “Hurry-Up” Yost coached Stanford in the afternoon and San Jose Normal (now San Jose State) at night, all after coaching a San Francisco high school in the morning.
Stanford beat San Jose 35-0 and 24-0 in the first meetings between the schools that featured Yost vs. Yost. San Jose Normal’s Willie Heston would follow Yost to Michigan and carve up Stanford in the first Rose Bowl, in 1902.
As for the series, this is the last scheduled meeting.
“Hopefully, this is not the last Bill Walsh Legacy Game,” said Shaw, of the series which has taken on the name of the former Stanford coach and San Jose State player. “Hopefully, we’ll get it back on the schedule. The proximity makes it a rivalry to a degree. And, I believe, there’s a lot of mutual respect.
“The decision will be made from an office bigger than mine.”
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Stanford’s 31-28 victory over San Jose State in 1993 was a special one for Shaw. After failing to catch a pass in his first start, a week earlier in a loss at Washington, Shaw was eager to contribute.
“I’ll never forget, I ran a play, and came back and went over to Coach Walsh and said, ‘I’m not the fastest guy, but the safeties are sitting.’
“He said, ‘Are you sure?’
“I said, ‘Absolutely.’
“Unbelievably, a Hall of Fame coach just listened to a kid who wants to catch a ball. He went back and called the same play again, and I made my first touchdown catch.”
Shaw also caught the winner – the only one of his career.
Does that mean Shaw has a soft spot for receivers who sidle up to the coach and claim they’re open?
“I take it with a grain of salt,” Shaw said. “Having played receiver before, we’re always open. Everything’s always open. The ‘go’ route is always there, particularly with NFL receivers. Every time they come off the field, ‘Hey, you’ve got to look to my side. I was wide open.’
“If they’re more specific than ‘I’m always open,’ then we listen.”
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Skov reflected on his Sports Illustrated regional cover (Aug. 19 issue) and the accompanying in-depth profile written by Pete Thamel. The story chronicled Skov’s life, and included some painful elements. But Skov was pleased with the piece and appreciated the vehicle that allowed him to express gratitude to those in two countries and on both coasts who helped him progress as a person and a player.
“I wanted to express the impact that other people had on my life,” Skov said. “That’s the one thing I tried to convey. As an individual, I’m a byproduct of contributions from a lot of people who put a lot of love and care into me.
“You don’t necessarily get to express your appreciation all the time, but if you can demonstrate that you’ve learned from the life lessons they’ve taught you, then you can be your own individual. But at the same time, you represent your parents and their expectations and the values they taught. It’s the greatest way that you can show your thanks.”
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What will fans discover about redshirt freshman running back Barry Sanders, who will make his collegiate debut on Saturday?
“He’s an electric back,” right guard Kevin Danser said. “What he can do is unbelievable. Sometimes you’re watching film and you have to wonder, is this guy trying hard? He makes like three jukes and passes through the entire defense. It seems truly effortless for him. It should be amazing to see him play.”
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Danser just initiated a fantasy football league for the Cardinal offensive line.
However, he still can’t figure out a way for offensive linemen to score points.
“Maybe we’ll count pancake blocks,” he said.
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As of Tuesday, Skov looked as fairly ordinary as an athletic, 6-foot-3, 245-pound individual can be. His traditional Mohawk was nowhere to be seen.
“I get it cut Thursday,” he said. “I’ve got to wait as long as possible. I’m trying to save money. College student’s budget.”
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