STANFORD, Calif. --
Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes
knew Shayne Skov
was ready during one of the team's first practices of fall camp.
"It was a short-yardage drill," Nunes said. "As I was snapping the ball, he was flying over the line at me. Shayne's still Shayne."
The return of the Skov after a knee injury and a one-game suspension for breaking team rules comes at an opportune time for a Stanford team that could have used his ability and intensity on Friday, when it held off San Jose State, 20-17. Stanford plays Duke on Saturday night (7:30) at Stanford Stadium.
Skov, out since suffering the injury at Arizona on Sept. 17, 2011, watched the season opener apprehensively on television by himself at his house.
"The first half I was pretty quiet," he said. "The second half, I started getting pretty frustrated."
Fortunately for the Cardinal senior inside linebacker, he won't have to watch any longer.
"I'm ready to jump out of my skin," Skov said. "I love football. To not be able to do it for 12 months is tough. But it's been a humbling experience and I'm incredibly excited to be back."
How excited? Skov recalled missing two games because of injury in 2010 and being so amped upon his return, he walloped the Wake Forest quarterback a full two seconds late.
"Hopefully, I'll be more in control of my emotions when I play this time," he said. "But I'm certainly excited."
Skov described the entire experience as "humbling." Part of the reason, was the patience required to allow his body to heal.
"You tell yourself, I'd do anything to be able to walk," Skov said. "And then you tell yourself, I'd do anything to be able to jog. It's a long process. You're constantly focused on short-term goals when it's a long-term picture. It seems like time has blown by now, but when you're in the middle of it, it takes forever."
Skov said the entire experience has changed him, beyond football.
"A greater level of maturity," Skov said. "In regard to the injury, any time you lose something, you come back with a greater appreciation for what you have, and also, a greater development in terms of my work ethic.
"In terms of being able to come back and play this year, it was going to take a lot. I learned that what I did before was enough then, but if I want to get back to where I was and improve upon that, it's going to take more. Hopefully, once I'm back to where I was, with the new work ethic I've gained, I've only improved.
"In regards to what happened before, with the suspension and whatnot, just the level of responsibility and the gravity of one's actions. I'm ready to move past that. I haven't forgotten about that and I won't ever forget about that, but I just have to be more mature in how I carry myself and move on in life."
* * *
Unable to work his lower legs for much of his rehab, Skov instead focused on building the rest of his body. By improving his diet, flexibility, body composition, and upper body strength, Skov now is a chiseled 243 pounds - down from the "chubby" 252 he was before the injury.
"That was a conscious decision," Skov said of dropping the weight. "There are not a lot of guys playing middle linebacker at 250. It's not easy on the legs, and then coming off an injury and expecting my body to deal with that was a little bit too much."
When the nation last truly saw Skov, he made 17 tackles in the 2011 Orange Bowl. David Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football, said Skov won't be 100 percent until mid-season. But the coach was not referring to Skov's health - Skov is fully recovered - but rather his performance level.
"He's close," Shaw said. "The bottom line is he's still fast enough and he's still physical. We've had a hard time blocking him all training camp."
* * *
The revelation of the season opener was senior nickelback Usua Amanam, a convert to the position after playing running back his first two years at Stanford. Amanam, who starred at San Jose's Bellarmine College Prep, had six tackles, and two sacks among his four tackles for loss, and a fumble recovery.
An energy resource engineering major, Amanam aspires to be a reservoir engineer, involved in exploring and drilling.
Named after his father, who works in the oil industry in Nigeria, "Usua"-- pronounced OOO-sue-ah -- means "one who despises evil things. "Amanam" means "job well done."
Amanam had difficulty with the position change, which was first suggested by then-defensive coordinator Vic Fangio during practices in preparation for the Orange Bowl. It wasn't because he resisted the switch. Rather, it did not come as naturally as he expected.
"The mental aspect for me was realizing that when I'm in the game, I don't always have to have the ball in my hands," Amanam said.
He began to fit into the position when Amanam realized that he could use the skills that made him such a great high school running back - his quickness and strength - in the secondary.
"It really clicked for me was when I started blitzing during spring ball," Amanam said. "I started realizing I could use some of that ability to dodge linemen. And I realized my future in football was solely on defense, and stopped wondering if they were going to move me to offense. That really helped me progress as a player."
"I love playing nickel," he said. "It's a mix of everything. I can get down and dirty, and I can play in coverage."
It also allows him to be in the middle of the action, like he did when he played running back.
* * *
Asked to pinpoint Stanford's struggles against San Jose State in a game the Cardinal was expected to win handily, Shaw said the answer wasn't so simple.
"It's hard to point and say, There's the problem," Shaw said. "It was the combination of a lot of little tiny things that makes you feel, just `blah.' Outside the first two drives, it was just `blah.'"
However, "A month from now, people are going to be saying Stanford beat a pretty good San Jose State team," Shaw said.
After Stanford bolted to a 14-0 lead by scoring touchdowns on its first two drives, the Cardinal played lackluster offensively thereafter, allowing San Jose State to tie the game, 17-17, in the third quarter. Shaw's praise went to his defense, which shut down the Spartans in the fourth quarter and clinched the game on Ed Reynolds' late interception.
"Our defense played extremely well in the fourth quarter," Shaw said. "Our defense played their hearts out. They needed to make plays and they got stops. The defense kept us in the game."
Another positive: "You don't know your team, you don't know your individuals, until they've been hit in the mouth and had to fight for something," Shaw said. "I didn't feel panic. That was a test of our character. The guys passed that test. There was no quit. Guys were disappointed, but they never stopped fighting."
* * *
As for areas of improvement, there were many.
"You didn't see a lot of missed tackles," Shaw said. "But at the same time, they were able to squeeze through a bunch of holes.
"We missed two sack opportunities in the third quarter alone. That can't be us. I told the team yesterday. We're going to play athletic quarterbacks. We're going to play guys who can escape and buy time. If we let a guy move around on us, he's going to make us pay."
Offensively, Stanford converted only two of 13 third-down plays, falling short on a pair of short-yardage situations, including a fourth-and-one deep in Spartan territory.
"We have to play better," Shaw said. "We have to convert third downs. We have to get the ball past the line of scrimmage. It's about execution. It's about us making sure we're doing the right things off our lead plays, that we're not just running the same plays over and over again. We have to make sure we're attacking where we should be attacking."
* * *
Three times in the second half, Stanford drives ended when the Cardinal was stopped on short-yardage. The toughest was a fourth-and-one try from the San Jose State 15 with 6:40 left. Stanford bypassed a field-goal try that could have put the Cardinal ahead 23-17. Instead, a run by Stepfan Taylor was stopped for no gain.
The decision to run on that play, as well as on third-and-one and third-and- two plays that failed, was based on establishing a mentality. The call was an effort to build confidence for the entire season, and not just benefit the team at that moment.
"We wanted to run the ball on third and one, and fourth and one," Shaw said. "That's the early-season mentality we've always had. When we get into a short yardage situation, I want to put it on the offensive line and the running backs. It doesn't matter who we're playing, we have to be able to run the ball and get it."
Senior receiver Drew Terrell said he was fine with not going to the air in those situations.
"We were trying to re-establish our physical mentality, and being able to ground and pound everybody we play," Terrell said. "We're not going to change who we are."
* * *
Stanford fullback Ryan Hewitt, a dangerous receiver as well as blocker and ballcarrier, will miss a second consecutive game with a lower-leg injury, if Shaw has his way.
"He's really close," Shaw said. "I'm leaning toward not playing. He's leaning toward playing. I would expect nothing less. We'll see where he is Thursday."
Shaw complimented the play of Lee Ward at the position Friday, and Patrick Skov got some action in his first collegiate game.
"If Ryan's not 100 percent, we've got two really good fullbacks who can fulfill that role fairly well," Shaw said. "But I do believe Ryan's a difference maker."
* * *
Though his stats weren't spectacular - 12 of 26 for 125 yards with one touchdown pass and no interceptions - Nunes performed admirably. And one pass behind the defense, a potential 59-yard scoring play, was dropped.
"I thought Josh played pretty well," said Terrell, who caught an 11-yard scoring pass from Nunes in the first quarter. "I thought he made the throws that he needed to. The touchdown was a great throw by Josh. I was singled up man-to-man. Great call in that situation."
Shaw agreed, saying Nunes put Stanford in position to be successful by making the right calls at the line of scrimmage, but the team often didn't execute when it was put in those spots.
What does Nunes think?
"I did some good things, but there were things I need to improve on for this week," he said. "We got into all our checks for the most part, but I could make them faster and with a little more time on the play clock."
* * *
Tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo combined for five catches for 39 yards. That will change, Nunes said.
"I don't think they ever have trouble getting open," Nunes said. "Definitely, we'll get them the ball a little more this week."
* * *
Fifth-year senior Alex Debniak may not be starting at outside linebacker, but he has earned a spot in the rotation.
Debniak made what Shaw called "the play of the game" when he forced a third-quarter fumble that set up Jordan Williamson's winning field goal.
"That was pure unadulterated effort," Shaw said. "He was away from the play. When he saw the ball, the guy was about 12 yards away from him and he ran full speed across the field and hit the guy from behind, and knocked the ball out."
Debniak was so impressive at training camp that the coaching staff has decided to spell Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy during games. It allows them to stay fresh and gets Debniak on the field. Debniak will play on both passing downs and base downs.
"He's earned the right to be on the field," Shaw said. "And he justified that with his play on Friday night."
Jarek Lancaster will be used in a similar role, rotating with Skov and James Vaughters at middle linebacker. Lancaster started for Skov last season and also had a strong camp.
* * *
By playing No. 25 Stanford on Saturday night, Duke (1-0) will attempt to earn its first road victory over a ranked team since 1971. That was when the Blue Devils beat the No. 10 Indians, 9-3, during a Stanford Rose Bowl season.
Saturday will mark Duke's first return to Stanford Stadium since that game.
"Defensively, they're going to be aggressive," Shaw said. "They have some long, rangy guys on the defensive side, and they try to make it as difficult on you as possible, based on their alignments."
In Stanford's 44-14 victory at Duke last year, Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck was roughed up as much or more than in any other game during the season.
"Last week was a wakeup call to keep pressure on every team we play," Terrell said. "We can't rely on one person or two people to win a football game, like we did last year. It's got to be a group effort.
"Around camp, we knew what kind of football team we had. I didn't see any lack of confidence that we couldn't be a Pac-12 championship contender, because I see it every day. We just have to keep the petal to the metal."
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics