STANFORD, Calif. — Stanford special teams coach Pete Alamar approached star linebacker Shayne Skov before a recent game to deliver some upsetting news.
With Skov playing so many snaps on defense, coaches needed to find a way to give him more rest. So they decided to slice Skov’s time on special teams in half.
“I said, ‘Hey, I’ve got to take you off one team. I’m going to take you off punt and leave you on kickoff coverage,’” Alamar said. “I thought he was going to cry.”
Skov’s reaction epitomized the way Stanford players treat special teams — as a blessing, not a burden.
From projected All-Americans and NFL draft picks to backups and fringe freshmen, Stanford’s special teams unit is an all-encompassing club. The mix of talent also is a big reason the fifth-ranked Cardinal (5-0, 3-0 Pac-12) are still undefeated entering Saturday’s game at Utah (3-2, 0-2).
Last week, Washington outgained Stanford 489 to 284 yards. The Huskies had 30 first downs, while the Cardinal finished with 14. And yet Stanford still won 31-28.
The difference? Special teams.
Ty Montgomery racked up 204 yards returning, including going 99 yards untouched for a TD on the opening kickoff. He also returned another 72 yards late in the third quarter to set up the winning score.
“We know how important all three phases are. When we say all three phases, we mean all three of them,” said Montgomery, who is averaging 33.5 yards per kickoff return, third-best in the nation.
The unit’s success has been on both sides of the return game.
Stanford is allowing just four yards per punt return, tied with Oregon for second-best in the conference and 24th in the nation. And the Cardinal are giving up 18.5 yards per kickoff, ranking second in the Pac-12 and 20th in the nation.
Jordan Williamson is 9 for 11 on field goals, the highest percentage of the redshirt junior’s college career. The misses came from 52 and 51 yards.
The Cardinal blocked two punts in a 42-28 win over then-No. 23 Arizona State on Sept. 21. Perhaps Stanford’s lone lapse on special teams this season came last week, when Travis Coons ran 19 yards run on a fake punt that extended a touchdown drive for Washington in the third quarter.
“It doesn’t necessarily spread the message that it’s important as much as it does reinforce it,” Alamar said. “They know it, but it’s good to see it.”
Stanford coach David Shaw said he’s always placed an importance on special teams. The difference this year is the same players who started as freshmen on special teams are now some of the best players in the conference.
Skov, Trent Murphy — a possible first-round pick next year — and A.J. Tarpley all start at linebacker and play key roles on coverage or return units. Shaw said he has never asked players to sign up for special teams. He just posts the depth chart, “and they go to work.”
“It’s the biggest yardage switch in the game. Why wouldn’t you want your best playing on it?” Shaw said. “Special teams, in particular the coverage teams, are about running and hitting. You take your best guys that can run and hit and put them out there. At the same time, we don’t worry about, ‘Oh, what if a guy gets hurt?’ No, the guy plays football.”
For some players, special teams is a way to find their niche or get their first chance on the field.
Redshirt sophomore cornerback Ronnie Harris, redshirt junior linebacker Joe Hemschoot, fifth-year senior linebacker Jarek Lancaster and fifth-year nickel cornerback Usua Amanam are some of Stanford’s special team aces. But none of them start on defense.
Redshirt freshman Barry Sanders — son of the Hall of Fame running back — is returning more punts, including a shifty 29-yarder against Washington. Highly sought-after freshman wide receiver Francis Owusu made two tackles against the Huskies after Amanam was shaken up.
“It’s where you could say you prove yourself a little bit,” Tarpley said. “You don’t have to master an entire defensive scheme to show that you have the athletic ability to play BCS football. And for me, that’s where it all started.”
And for a select few, maybe where it continues.
Shaw said one of the other reasons he puts top players on special teams is to get them ready for possible NFL careers. Not only to build experience, but also to showcase their versatility.
“If you’re not a top-10 pick, you’re playing special teams,” Shaw said. “That’s a question most scouts ask, ‘Does he do anything on teams?’ If you say no, they kind of roll their eyes.”
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP