“For the most part, it was go where they told me,” said Palma, a three-time first-team all-Tulare County selection.
Not that he minded. Pixley, a rural town of about 3,300 people located about an hour east of Fresno, had no high school, so Palma attended Mission Oak, about 15 miles away. He was just grateful for an opportunity to play football at a brand new school.
“It was a very big deal,” Palma said.
So was he. As a sophomore, Palma made a school-record 17 tackles, eight for loss, against Porterville High. He was still peeved about the outcome the following Monday when his coaches informed him of the record.
“I was mad we lost,” said the 6-foot-2, 259-pound freshman, who is working at inside linebacker at Stanford. “We were reviewing film and they told me. Coach dialed up a couple blitzes where I ended in the backfield before the ball was handed off. My defensive line gave me some big holes. Everything kind of worked out.”
Of his 66 tackles last season, 19 were for loss and he forced two fumbles. Palma also caught 25 passes for 370 yards and 10 touchdowns at tight end.
“Junior and senior year, I barely got in on defense because we were so strong,” he said. “I naturally liked defense because I was coming here to play defense. I had offers on both sides, but felt this was the best choice.”
Palma also considered Colorado – where he had a chance to start – and Oregon State, who recruited him at tight end. But Cardinal special teams coach Pete Alamar sold him on Stanford.
“They’re one of the top defenses in the country, so that drew my attention automatically,” said Palma. “Coach Alamar was my recruiting coach and told me about the opportunities and that they wouldn’t throw me in right away if I wasn’t ready.”
With eight starters back, the Cardinal defense is stacked with talent. That will give Palma time to learn and absorb the system.
“I do well for not really knowing it as well as I know receiver,” said Palma. “So I think I have more potential to excel at linebacker.”
Admittedly, college football is a big jump from high school.
“It’s a lot more complex,” he said. “We ran a pretty simple defense with a lot less checks. A lot of the older guys said it took them most of (fall) camp to get used to the defense.”
Palma, a four-star recruit by Scout and 247Sports, was named the 10th-best middle linebacker in the country by Scout and California’s 26th best overall prospect. He also lettered in basketball and track and field, and qualified for the state meet in the shot put with a throw of 54-6.
Growing up, Palma was a big Raiders fan, mostly because his father loved the team.
“I don’t know why, but I was always drawn toward Charles Woodson,” said Palma. “I always wore No. 24 in middle school when I played safety. As I got older and learned the game, I looked at Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates a lot as tight end/receivers. Last year, I followed Patrick Willis and Ray Lewis. I’m wearing No. 44 at Stanford because it was my first football number in Pop Warner.”
He has big shoes to fill. The last Cardinal player to wear the number was All-American linebacker Chase Thomas, now with the Raiders.
-- #goStanford --
Palo Alto native Mark Soltau has spent his life and much of his career around Stanford sports. A sportswriter for 37 years, Soltau spent 16 (1981-97) at the San Francisco Examiner, where he covered not only the Cardinal, but all five 49ers Super Bowl-championship teams. Golf always has been his passion and Soltau served as the sport's beat writer for the Examiner, national golf writer for CBS Sportsline, contributing editor to Golf Digest, and since 1997 has been the editor of tigerwoods.com.