Before former Stanford defensive back Michael Thomas gained celebrity status for his role in the Miami Dolphins' win over the New England Patriots on Sunday, Thomas called Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason and expressed confidence that he was up for the challenge.
"Mike called me on Tuesday (the day he was signed off of the 49ers' practice squad)," Mason said. "He said, 'Hey coach, I'm down here in Miami. I'm finally going to get my shot.' He said if they give me an opportunity, 'Coach, I'm going to show them.'
I said, 'Man, do your thing.'"
A few days later, Thomas called Mason again, even more confident, and with a more comprehensive knowledge of the Dolphins' defense.
"He called me back on Friday and said, 'Coach, I think I got this,'" Mason said. "I got reps at nickel. I know all of the nickel stuff. I understand the safety stuff. And if they give me a chance to shine I'm going to do it.'"
One key pass breakup and game-saving interception of Tom Brady later, Thomas had accomplished just that. The fourth member of Stanford's Orange Bowl secondary to play in a regular-season NFL game, Thomas cemented his place in Dolphins' lore with one of the most memorable debuts in league history.
"You want to make an impact on a new team? Intercept Tom Brady on a game-sealing drive and you'll get their attention," said Stanford head coach David Shaw, who texted with Thomas following the game.
After a week away from the practice fields, Stanford began its bowl practice period on Saturday. The Cardinal had shorter practices over the weekend, but are now "back into getting after it," Shaw said.
One of Stanford's goals for the early portion of the bowl practice period development of the program's younger players. Several freshmen have impressed the coaching staff with their play.
"I think Barry Sanders has been really good the last couple of days," Shaw said. "Kevin Palma, linebacker, made some plays today. So did Peter Kalambayi blitzing off the back edge, running the running back down and getting after the quarterback in pass rush. Those things are always exciting when you see the young guys start to really show in this time where there are extra practices for them to get better."
With its top two running backs departing, the outlook at the position for next season is somewhat uncertain. Sanders figures to compete with Ricky Seale and Remoudn Wright for snaps.
"We'll have carries to go around next year," Shaw said. "It's going to be pure competition but I like to de-emphasize competing for a starting job. I like to say competing for playing time and competing for plays - who does what well? Giving different guys a series and saying, 'Hey, let's see how it goes.' But (Barry is) one of those guys that by the time we play games next year, he's going to be back there and he's going to get a series here, he's going to get a series there and those guys are going to compete for playing time."
Meanwhile, playing time at inside linebacker will also be available in 2014. Stanford is expected to return two of its top four linebackers in Blake Martinez and A.J. Tarpley. Versatile linebacker Joe Hemschoot (who has played both inside and outside linebacker this season) will be also be back, but the Cardinal will lose seniors Shayne Skov and Jarek Lancaster to graduation. As a result, there will be an opening for younger linebackers like Palma to crack the rotation.
"(Players who will provide depth at inside linebacker), first you have to mention Joe Hemschoot who's done a phenomenal job playing everywhere," Shaw said. "Inside, outside, nickel. He'll rotate in I'm sure and play. I think Kevin Palma has done a really good job of learning what to do in there. I think all of those guys will rotate in and it will be good competition."
In contrast to Stanford's 2013 Rose Bowl opponent, Wisconsin, which won the Big-10 with four losses, Michigan State is a few plays (or controversial pass interference calls) away from an undefeated season and possible berth in the BCS title game.
"I know two things for sure," Shaw said. "No. 1, they're extremely well coached in all three phases. They're never out of position, offense, defense, special teams. They do their jobs, they play hard. And No. 2, you could make a case for them... A couple of plays here or there they go through the Big-10 undefeated and you're talking about a team that could be playing for the national championship. That's how much respect we're giving these guys. They came to play every single week. They made the plays to make football games. They've played extremely well at home and on the road. Defensively they're as stout as any defense we've seen all year."
What makes Michigan State's defense (which ranks No. 4 nationally in scoring defense) so good? Not only do the Spartans possess a number of future NFL defenders, including the country's top cornerback, Darqueze Dennard, but they utilize a deceptive scheme.
"They do a great job of disguising because you don't know what's going to happen until the ball is snapped," Shaw said. "They're very patient. They're very disciplined, they don't tip their hand. If they're going to blitz you don't know until the ball gets snapped. It's unlike any other team we've seen all year. Usually you can have an idea of what's coming. With these guys you don't know. Once that ball gets snapped here comes (Michigan State linebacker) Max Bullough, here comes one of those guys coming up the middle, here comes a corner blitz off the edge. It's a formidable group."
On the other side of the ball, Michigan State's offense, which is ranked No. 62 nationally in points per game (29.8) is led by junior running back Jeremy Langford. In his first season as a starter, Langford has rushed for 1,338 yards (5.0 yards per carry) and 17 touchdowns.
"The first guy doesn't tackle the back," Shaw said. "It's a sign of a really good running back. He might have his first contact at two yards. He breaks that tackle he's at six yards at the next contact, getting six or seven, eight yards and pulling guys along. They're very efficient up front. They stay on their blocks. Once again, you can tell they're a very well-coached team."
Despite playing a physical brand of football and one of the nation's most difficult schedules, Stanford has managed to stay relatively healthy, not only this season but for the much of the Jim Harbaugh/David Shaw era.
Shannon Turley, Stanford's Director of Sports Performance, is a big reason why.
"(Turley should get) a lot of credit. I would say the majority of the credit," Shaw said. "I think we have a phenomenal group of strength staff, trainers and doctors so that when there is an issue we get them back really, really fast and we get them in the system. The kids trust can trust it so we don't have to fight through things. If we see something we can back off it. As far as soft tissue issues, pulled muscles, we don't have a lot of pulled muscles, we don't have a lot of torn muscles. We don't have a lot of those issues that other places have and that's because of Shannon Turley's program.
Shaw said that Turley's style is less like that of drill sergeant, more that of a "graduate school professor".
"You walk into his class you better be ready to learn," Shaw said. "If you're not ready to learn he's going to beat you over the head until you get it. And then usually once you get it you become his biggest cheerleader. You become the guy talking to the younger guys saying, 'Hey you better pay attention to this guy's class. Sit up front and take notes because he's going to make you better.' But if you don't do it right and you don't work he's going to make you very uncomfortable."
Fifth-year senior defensive end Ben Gardner and redshirt freshman defensive lineman Ikenna Nwafor are the only two Cardinal players currently out with injuries.