Sports

Cardinal placekicker Ukropina works his way to a scholarship

 

Cardinal football coach David Shaw likes to keep these things low-key. Some schools have been creative in the way they inform former walk-ons that they have earned scholarships. At Stanford, the announcement isn't exactly an announcement. It's more of, 'Wait ... What did he just say?'

Such was the case at a team meeting Monday.

Shaw was announcing the players of the game from Saturday night's 31-7 victory over UCF. He'd gone through the offense and defense.

"The special teams player of the game, who's now on scholarship, is Conrad Ukropina."

That was it. For a split second, the place was silent. Moments later, as the statement was digested, came the roar.

Ukropina, a senior kicker, took over for the graduated Jordan Williamson and has been 3-for-3 on field-goal tries this season, including a career-long 52-yarder against UCF. He also is perfect on four extra-point tries.

"It's something that we've been talking about for a while," Shaw said. "Our scholarship decisions for walk-ons have been really consistent for eight-plus years. If you're a walk-on and earn a starting position, you get that scholarship.

"This was the last week to make that decision, but we really made it a couple of weeks ago. It's not just by making a 52-yard kick, but by the way that he's worked and the way that he's prepared, the mentality he's put into it, the respect among the team. He definitely earned that."

Loving it

Freshman running back Bryce Love had two memorable catch-and-runs against UCF, including a short pass that he turned into a 93-yard touchdown, plus a 42-yarder in which he evaded three defenders. But his lone running play may have been the most intriguing of all.

It only gained eight yards, but seemed unusual at the time, and Shaw confirmed why. Love swept in motion from the right as if setting up for an apparent reverse or sweep. As he flashed behind the center, he took the snap directly, rather than wait for it to reach Christian McCaffrey, lined up in the Wildcat formation.

The direct snap to a freshman running back running at full speed behind the line seemed risky.

"It's a high risk play because it wasn't planned," Shaw said. "We were snapping the ball to Christian. He stole the ball. His timing was off on the motion and he took the ball and made a positive out of it. If you really look at it, he caught it off his helmet. The ball hit him in the head. Definitely unintentional, but we'll take the positive results."

Quarterback Kevin Hogan was lined up as a split end on the play and said that in many cases like that, the back will try to avoid the ball.

"It's a smart move on his part," Hogan said.

QB connection

Kevin Hogan and USC's Cody Kessler, the quarterback counterparts Saturday in a Pac-12 opener at the Los Angeles Coliseum (5 p.m. PT on ABC), have a mutual respect.

They met at the Manning Passing Camp two years ago in Thibodaux, Louisiana, and both were at Pac-12 Media Day in 2014 as well as some other events. They stayed in touch.

"He's definitely a friend of mine," Hogan said. "I messaged him this summer. I was down in L.A. and wanted to see how he was doing. It's a little tough to communicate during football season."

Kessler is second in the nation in passing efficiency and has helped the sixth-ranked Trojans to a 2-0 record.

Take and take

The turning point in Stanford's victory over UCF could be traced to Dallas Lloyd's fumble-causing hit in the second quarter on Knights' running back William Stanback. The ball was recovered by Brannon Scarlett and led to Stanford's first touchdown, a 53-yard pass from Hogan to Michael Rector in a flea-flicker that ignited a 31-point Cardinal explosion.

Turnovers, or "takeaways," as the Stanford coaching staff refers to them, is a point of emphasis this year. Against UCF, Stanford had two takeaways after none in a 16-6 season-opening loss at Northwestern.

"We have what we call a 'turnover circuit' that we do in practice every week, sometimes multiple times," Shaw said. "With one-on-one tackling, we work on securing the tackle and going for the strip. It's not just poking at the ball. If I'm on the tackle, I'm staying on the tackle. If I'm the second guy in, I'm going after the ball.

"We never sacrifice the tackle for the ball. We need to get the tackle first. But it's that mentality of practicing those situations so that they're ready to take advantage of them."

Bryce Love is part of a group of young and fast Cardinal. Love is one of those burners, as is sophomore McCaffrey, sophomore receiver Isaiah Brandt-Sims (a Stanford sprinter and eight-time Washington state high school sprint champ), and junior receiver Francis Owusu.

Love's burst was accompanied by a change of direction that left UCF defenders flailing. Cardinal fifth-year cornerback Ronnie Harris calls Love, "Sweet Feet."

"He's got something different about him," Harris said. "He's definitely got a good change of gear, but the best thing he does is put himself in the defensive player's heads. When he sets up his move, I think he always has a counter to it.

"He has quick feet, so when he steps one direction, he always has the next foot coming, so you never know exactly which way he's coming. He's sort of close to (senior running back) Barry Sanders. They have a great inside-out move."

Breaking up easy to do

Harris was in his first season of eligibility in 2012 when he made a play against No. 2 USC that proved crucial in Stanford's 21-14 victory in the third game of the season. Stanford would use that game to springboard to its first Rose Bowl appearance in 13 years.

One on crucial third-quarter play with the Trojans holding a 14-7 lead, USC went for it on a fourth-and-2 from the Stanford 13. But quarterback Matt Barkley's pass to the hands of Soma Vainuku in the end zone was broken up by Harris.

"That play cemented my Stanford football experience," Harris said. "My eyes were supposed to be on the tight end. I took my key, he went out for a pass. I just told myself, no matter what, if we go down to the ground, I can't let him get that ball out. I had 10 other guys counting on me. That ball was able to come out.

"It was a great feeling."

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