David Shaw recaps season and more in Part I of extensive Q&A
For the first time in more than a decade Stanford will not play in a bowl game and there are many reasons for why the Cardinal suffered through a 4-8 season. Head coach David Shaw offered his explanation for why that happened and addressed much more Thursday in a comprehensive teleconference interview.
This is part one of the conversation that touched on nearly every part of the program -- looking back at this season and to next year.
What would you say were the major positive on-field gains and what were the main non-injury issues that held you guys back?
“What got lost in a lot of just the wins and losses and uneven play was the growth of certain players -- some young guys, some not-young guys. For Walter Rouse to start game two and play the entire season as a true freshman left tackle in our conference (was) amazing. Just watch him grow week to week, and to have so many guys in that same boat.
“When Barrett Miller came in it was the same thing. You have two freshmen playing side-by-side for the majority of a Pac-12 conference season. As a coach, you’re teaching every single day, teaching every single minute sometimes in practice, but to watch those guys go out there and perform (was great).
“To see all the things we talked about with KJ (Costello) showing improvement this year from a great year last year -- and really not be able to be healthy enough to do it -- but the one time all year he was completely healthy we saw everything he had worked on, everything he wanted to try to be, in that Arizona game. For me to have the pride in him to say, ‘Gosh, when he finally got healthy’ (he was) checking the ball down, making a big-time throw, getting out of danger in the pocket. It’s sad it was one game instead of 12, but we saw the work he had put in to make some tweaks in his game show up.
“To see the progression of Davis Mills from a talented, young quarterback who played well against USC, but missed some throws, to a guy who ends up breaking a school record and has one of the best days of anybody this entire year playing the quarterback position.
“Most of these are on the same theme, but because of injuries really having to play two inside linebackers when we thought we were going to have more of a rotation to keep those guys fresh. Both first-time starters, both first time in their position: Curtis (Robinson) was an outside linebacker and Andrew Pryts was a safety. We have two guys playing a position they’ve never played before in their lives and they both go out there and start and become leaders on the team. They ended up having really good seasons.
“Once again, through all the stuff that happened guys really stepped up and took ownership of those positions.
“Kyu Kelly coming in and playing as a true freshman, and not playing perfectly but playing really well. Losing a senior captain safety in Malik Antoine -- who basically was our defensive leader and the guy who made all the calls back there -- missing him for a good portion of the year and having guys step up and, once again, not play perfectly but play really hard and really well for long stretches. One guy had played half a year (Kendall Williamson) and the other guy hadn’t played very much at all (Stuart Head).
“A lot of what I’m talking about is the growth and maturity of guys who were inexperienced and stepped up in big-time ways when this team needed them to. But also the mentality of this team to fight and scratch and claw when a lot of people would have completely understood if our guys just started to pack it in, but we never did. That competitive mentality that has been ingrained in this program still showed up, win or loss.
“For us to come out against a really good Notre Dame team and … for the first quarter and a half really take it to them shows a lot about the toughness and character of this football team. If we didn’t have enough ammunition to sustain it, the mentality and the effort -- which is the bare minimum (and) what we expect from our guys -- was there in spades.
“As far as the non-injury issues, which I appreciate the wording of the question because that’s what we dealt with all year and we’re not going to talk about injuries, we’re not going to blame injuries. (There were) a couple things in all three phases.
“The balance of the year I thought we played really well on special teams. There were just those moments that we had a minor lapse and just when we get momentum back our way, to give up a long kickoff return (by Washington State) … back to inside the five. Battling a really tough Notre Dame team and get a punt blocked at the wrong time. Some of those timely things really hurt us when executing like we had done for the other 90 percent of the football game would have kept us out of danger.
“I thought Coach (Pete) Alamar once again has shown he’s one of the best special teams coaches in America in getting guys to perform. At any given time we have multiple non-scholarship guys, multiple true freshmen, on our coverage teams going out there playing well.
“Defensively it was mainly two big things. So many things are about timing. Some things happen but it’s when they happen that can really affect you the most. Untimely big plays -- we’ve got to reduce the number of big plays we allow, pass or run.
“And then the mobile quarterbacks, letting the guy get out of danger, (there were) multiple times we had guys dead to rights, and we played against really good quarterbacks and really good athletes, that they got out of danger. We got hands on them, (but) they broke tackles or we lost contain. You let an athletic quarterback out -- whether it’s the one from UCLA or the one from Cal or the one from Notre Dame -- those guys when they get outside the pocket they can hurt you with their legs and their arms. We allowed too much of that.
“The thing is that by the balance of most of those games we did those things really well. But timing sometimes, you let a guy out at the wrong time in a tight game (when) you’re up by three and end up being down by four. You’re down by three, you end up being down by 10. Those big plays down the field and big runs and the big quarterback sneaks, those things lead to points.
“The offensive side there were times we looked like one of the best offenses in the conference and one of the best in the nation. And there were times that we sputtered. It was an execution thing that once again I put on myself. I put on our coaches to make sure we’re putting guys in a position (to succeed) because we have a lot of the same guys doing a lot of the same plays.
“We didn’t drastically change our offense from week to week, but there were moments in games where we executed at a really, really high level (when) marching down the field against really good defenses like Cal, Notre Dame and USC. (There were) games when we had significant leads and then fought to try to get back into the red zone, let alone score points.
“Those are things we have to look at. Do injuries affect those? Absolutely they do, but as far as playing with the guys who are out there on the field there were times that we went out and executed and times that we didn’t. We need to look at those reasons why and that’s what we’re going to really hit on in the offseason.”
How complicated does the nature of KJ’s season make his decision about what to do next compared to if he had been able to play the whole season?
“Yeah, very complicated. I said a few weeks ago after Washington State that the idea of this year, honestly, was that KJ was going to break a ton of records and then it was going to be up to Davis to try to break those records the following year. KJ has a skill set that showed last year. I thought he had really pushed himself to make some improvements but health-wise he couldn’t do that.
“That has made it really tough, not being able to end like he wanted to and having that final year to think about, but then also finishing the year with an injury and knowing it can hamper his offseason growth. We’ll see how that continues to heal. It has made that decision very, very difficult. We’ve had a couple conversations and I know we’ll have a couple more. Whatever he wants to do, I fully support him.
“As much as anyone that we have, it pulls at my heart because I know how hard he works and how much he loves this team and how much of a big-time leader he was for us as a two-time captain. For him not to be able to go out there and really play at the level he’s capable of was really hard for him and it really hurt me to experience it with him.
“We’ll see what he does. He has a few weeks to make a call and we’ll continue to help him and guide him as best we can until it’s time for him to make that call.”
When you consider Davis Mills’ season in full review, how did he grow in ways that may not be obvious to the casual fan and moving forward what are the major teaching points for him?
“The way he grew is much like KJ when he took over his sophomore year and each week you saw something else come up. Whereas he missed a throw one game, he made the throw the next game. He missed a checkdown one game, he made the checkdown the next game. He missed the protection call one game, he made the protection call the next game.
“That natural progression you saw that’s hard to see from the outside. You just see if the ball is completed or not. From the coaches’ position, Tavita (Pritchard) has done a great job with those guys, particularly with the young guys as they grow. Davis went from USC all the way through to the last game of the year (and) you saw at times a high level of command in redirecting a protection, anticipating based on the coverage that I can’t hold the ball. A couple times against USC there were throws he really, really wanted to make and you saw him double clutch … and either throw it or try to find a way to get rid of the ball.
“The last two games he played you really saw, ‘Hey, that’s not going to be there … where’s the back?’ Or, ‘I’m choosing a side, I’m about to go one way (and) oh the safety did a late rotation. Great, I’m going back the other way and go through my progressions’. You saw him make the reads quicker and anticipate more than wait and see.
“Toward the end also his lower body was healing so that in particular in the last game -- some in the Cal (game) -- was really the healthiest he had been all year lower body-wise, to where you saw him make some great runs, get out of danger, break tackles, scramble for positive yards and scramble to buy time and find open guys. Which is what we saw in high school. This guy has a chance to be a heck of an athlete outside the pocket, which is what we’ve had trouble with dealing with but this guy can also give people trouble who we play.”
I think because of the timing of it I don’t know if you had a chance to comment, but this was your first year without Shannon Turley as the head of strength and conditioning. What, if anything, changed with the strength and conditioning program and what was the impact on the culture of the team in the first year without coach, who I know was someone you had been with a long time?
“That’s a great question. Many people have tried their best to ask that question in a non-combative way and a non-accusatory, which I do appreciate.”
How did I do?
“That was pretty good. That was pretty good. And you didn’t even make the obvious transition to: ‘Shannon is not here, so is that why all those guys are hurt?’ Which is the way some people have said it.
“It’s very well known the love and appreciation I have for Shannon Turley. I think he’s one of the best you’ll ever find.
"I think Cullen Carroll did an outstanding job this year in taking a lot of principles that Shannon Turley believed in, that we believe in, (and) there are a lot of things he did to put his own spin on them. I think our players will always hold Shannon in high regard and, to a certain degree, (in) a bit of an ivory tower on top of a pedestal, to have a mixed metaphor there.
“But I think also these guys love Coach Cullen and pushed themselves really hard for him. On the injury side, this is the most injuries we’ve ever had and the second most we ever had was last year and Shannon was here last year. It’s not easy to just put the blame on the weight room.
“This is a physical, violent sport and we had a lot of guys get injured. We’re continually looking at things we can do to get better, but ... the strength gains and speed gains we’ve made, that we will continue to make and continue to push, I think have been a very good positive.
“I think we’ve done a good job recruiting. We’ve got an athletic team that once again needs to stay healthy. That’s our charge now to really look at all the things that happened this year. We made major changes to our training room as well, which I think have been really positive for us also.
So, I think the combination of our training room, our doctors, our strength staff and our coaches really looking at everything we did last year (to) find anything we can to improve this year so we can stay healthy … and be a bigger, faster, stronger, more explosive version of Stanford football.”
As the injuries mounted this season, to what extent did you have to compromise the physicality of practices and did that compromise the physicality of the team in games?
“That’s hard to quantify. But when you get down to having six healthy offensive linemen you can’t do what you did before. That would be asinine. So, what we did was more of an NFL-style practice where we didn’t separate.
“We did six plays with an offensive emphasis and then six plays with a defensive emphasis. The hard part is that the offensive linemen are still taking a bunch of reps, so we tried to give them … a little bit of a rest because the offensive line is doing our stuff and also being the scout team for our defense.
“The problem is when we split now the defensive line doesn’t get any work at all. To a certain degree, I gave those guys a little bit of leeway because they’re not having a full practice. They still … do one-on-ones full speed. We still did a drill we call five-on-four, which is no running back or quarterback but running our run schemes against our base defenses and our nickel defenses. That was still full speed. That was still very physical. That was basically live without a running back.
“So we still got a good chunk of that stuff together but we still had to do at least one period a day when we were separate so we get more reps. Our offensive line still got a lot of our work but our defensive line and linebackers didn’t get as much work because we didn’t have enough guys.
“How that affected the football games, that’s hard to quantify. It’s hard to say that it didn’t affect the games, in particular with the way that at times we played really well and at times we didn’t -- both up front offensively and up front defensively.”