Stanford head football coach David Shaw leads his 21st-ranked Cardinal into a season-opener for the fifth time Saturday at Northwestern and is 4-0 in lid-lifters. He said the buildup is a mixture of excitement, uncertainty and discovery.
"At the end of the (previous) year, you know exactly who you are, you know exactly who's going to play, what everybody's plusses and minuses are, and what guys can do," he said earlier this week. "We have a significant number of guys in big-time roles on this team . . . offense, defense and special teams . . . that have never played a down and are going to play prominent roles in all three phases. We have an idea of what guys are going to do, but really, this is the next step of evaluation."
While that might be nerve-racking for some head coaches, Shaw sees the bright side of the challenge.
"I look at it from a positive way," said Shaw. "There's a reason why we recruited every guy on this team. And now this is an opportunity for some of those guys to show us what they have. Some guys will do great, some guys won't do as well. We'll coach those guys up. Some guys will earn more playing time and some will earn less. But at the same time, we start to know exactly what we have."
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Shaw sees great value in playing an opponent like Northwestern, which is parallel to Stanford as the school values academics and places a high priority on the student-athlete experience.
"I think it's important," he said of the matchup. "I think it's good for us to play each other because we have kind of a united front to a certain degree as far as what we envision college football to be, and what it should be, and what we're trying to make it.
"That's not trying to bash anybody else, but we have a lot of respect for those people that have the high academic standards. It's a different recruiting world than other people have, but they still find a way to win, they find a way to build strong teams, and build with character and intelligence. These guys are going to go on to play in the NFL, and some guys are going to become doctors and lawyers and work in the financial world. I think we have very similar missions."
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No one is more excited about starting the season at Northwestern than offensive guard Johnny Caspers. The 6-4, 301-pound senior was raised in Glen Ellyn, Ill., about 27 miles west of Chicago, where he was first team all-state and all-state academic performer at Glenbard West High School in 2011.
"Very much so," responded Caspers when asked if he was looking forward to returning home. "I have a good amount of family members and friends coming in for the game. I guess in that regard, it does make it special. Also being able to play in the home state again will be a cool feeling. But besides that, I just have to go in there and treat it like any other game, and I can't let all those emotions get me."
Caspers expects between 40 and 50 family and friends to attend.
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Caspers and the Cardinal players are ready to test themselves against someone else and see where they stack up.
"It's exciting and a very fun experience," said Caspers, who knows many Northwestern players but isn't close to any. "You've been putting in all this work in the offseason with your teammates and you've been oiling up your plays and sets. It really is a fun experience to get out there and hit someone else because you've been hitting the same people for six months."
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Caspers is majoring in earth systems and had an interesting summer.
"I did research on Stanford's educational farm," he said. "There was a research position open for looking at using manure from the horse barn on campus to make a more interconnected system. I studied worm composting."
Yes, worm composting.
How did it go?
"It went really well," Caspers said. "I'm not done with the research. I have to go into the lab this fall. I'm excited for it, and think it will turn out well. I had to wash a lot of clothes. It got dirty out there."
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Fifth-year senior quarterback Kevin Hogan will make his third start in a season opener and is 2-0 in such games. He finished the 2014 season in impressive style, leading Stanford to three resounding wins at Cal and UCLA, and against Maryland in the Foster Farms Bowl at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara. The average margin of victory was 21 points.
While the wins gave the Cardinal a boost heading into offseason conditioning drills and fall training camp, Hogan acknowledged the team is starting fresh on Saturday.
"It can be tough," he said. "You have to flip the switch and create a game plan. The scheme doesn't change, just the personnel."
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Senior inside linebacker Blake Martinez, the team's leading tackler last season with 102, is one of only three returning starters on the defense, along with fifth-year senior outside linebacker Kevin Anderson and fifth-year senior cornerback Ronnie Harris. All three are team captains.
While the trio will be surrounded by many new players on Saturday, Martinez is convinced they will hold their own.
"The unproven talent has been able to show up throughout this fall camp," he said. "Going against our offense, and seeing them make the plays that they've been making, it's going to be exciting Saturday."
Martinez is ready to provide a calming influence if necessary.
"I will always be there for them to say, 'Hey, guys, let's calm it down. I know the jitters are going right now and this is the first series,' " Martinez said. "Like we've done all through fall camp, if we do our job, we're going to make the plays that need to be made."
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Extra Points: Stanford will conduct a light walk-thru practice at Northwestern on Friday . . . Shaw said free safety Kodi Whitfield will start, and that receivers Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector will play . . . Shaw said placekicker Conrad Ukropina will handle field goals and extra points, while he hasn't determined whether Jake Bailey or Alex Robinson will punt, although they could share the duties . . . This marks the first season since 1999-2000 that Stanford's entire full-time coaching staff has remained intact . . . The season's first depth chart was released this week and it included four freshmen: punter/kickoff specialist Bailey, safeties Justin Reid and Ben Edwards, and nickelback Quenton Marks.