Sports

Success on the field is earning a load of accolades off it

 

Sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey exploded on the national scene last week by rushing for a school-record 243 yards against UCLA and leads the nation in all-purpose yardage, averaging 253.0/game. His 369 all-purpose yards were the most by any FBS player this season.

This week, McCaffrey was named Pac-12 Conference Offensive Player of the Week, Maxwell Award Player of the Week, picked to the SI.com Midseason All-America first team as an all-purpose back, and was the Rose Bowl Game Player of the Week. McCaffrey also found a spot on the Hornung Award Honor Roll.

Two Cardinal teammates were also honored. Senior offensive guard Joshua Garnett made the SI.com Midseason All-America first team, while senior inside linebacker Blake Martinez was a second-team selection.

McCaffrey, Martinez and Garnett each were named to ESPN.com's Midseason All-America team.

Furthermore, head coach David Shaw was selected to the Paul "Bear'' Bryant and Bobby Dodd Award watch lists.

Special teams are special

Entering the 2015 football season, Stanford special teams coordinator Pete Alamar didn't know what to expect from his six units. He lost his kicker (Jordan Williamson), punter (Ben Rhyne) leading returner (Ty Montgomery) and several key coverage personnel to graduation.

Alamar, now in his 31st year of coaching and fourth on The Farm, didn't panic. He had capable replacements, but they lacked experience.

Halfway into the campaign, the group is holding its own. Senior kicker Conrad Ukropina is 7 of 8 in field goals, made a career-best 52 yarder against UCF, and leads the Cardinal in scoring with 51 points. Junior punter Alex Robinson averages 42.5 yards/attempt, topped by a 58-yarder, and eight of his 19 boots have been downed inside the 20-yard-line. And freshman Jake Bailey has done well with kickoffs, booming nine for touchbacks.

The explosive McCaffrey averages 30.0 yards on kickoff returns and boasted a 96-yard return against UCLA. The coverage teams have been solid, Stanford allowing 20.7 yards on kickoffs and 5.7 yards on punts.

"We're getting a little better every week," said Alamar, who is hoping for more of the same Saturday night when 10th-ranked Stanford (5-1 overall, 4-0 Pac-12) plays host to Washington (3-3, 1-2) at 7:30 p.m., in front of a Reunion Homecoming crowd and ESPN cameras. "I think the guys realize that by no stretch of the imagination have we arrived. We've done some good things and there's some things we can get better at."

Alamar has no complaints about the effort. Unlike some programs, who focus on special teams at the end of practice, Stanford works on them from start to finish.

The strong emphasis makes every participant feel like an important contributor to the team's success and provides a big opportunity for young players to make an immediate impact and prove themselves.

"It's been great," said freshman cornerback Quenton Meeks of his special teams experience. "In high school, I really didn't play much special teams. I played kick return and punt return, and was used to having the ball in my hands.

"Coming to college as a young guy, especially if you want to get on the field and make an impact on offense or defense, you have to first make it on special teams. That's where you make your mark. It was a challenge for me but I knew I wanted to do it."

Meeks plays on the punt return, kickoff return and kickoff teams. He made two solo tackles in his collegiate debut at Northwestern and made three last week against UCLA.

"I'm just trying to perfect my technique and do everything Coach Alamar asks me to do," he said. "In my opinion, he's one of the hardest working coaches on the staff because he has to know six phases of special teams at every position. I have a ton of respect for him and he makes you want to play hard."

Meeks has been one of many standouts.

"He's helped us on a couple units," said Alamar. "Alameen Murphy had a huge week for us last week on kickoff and kickoff coverage. Mustafa Branch, Terrence Alexander, Brandon Simmons -- the good news is we started the year really young, they're still young, but they' gained a ton experience and they've all done a nice job."

They have teamed nicely with senior Craig Jones and junior Peter Kalambayi.

"You take the youth and exuberance, throw in a little veteran leadership and knowledge, and you hope it blends and works out well," Alamar said.

Ukoprina and Jones earned scholarships this season, much to the delight of their teammates.

"I'm pleased with Conrad for the job he is doing because he has worked very hard to put himself in this position," said Alamar. "And then to take advantage of the opportunity is really cool.

"Alex the same way. He's been with us a couple years and literally from his first fall camp, starting at ground zero, to where he is today is really cool. And you've got a young guy like Jake Bailey who has a ton of talent in his leg that is learning the game from those guys and helping us with those kickoffs so we don't have to put too much pressure on Conrad and can keep his leg fresh for field goals. It's been a nice combination."

Meeks said there is nothing like the rush of sprinting downfield to cover a kickoff.

"It's unbelievable," said Meeks, a four-star recruit, who holds the school record at Del Norte High for single-season touchdowns with 13. "It's real fun going full speed and tackling somebody or trying to make somebody miss. That's where all your juices get flowing, especially if it's the opening kickoff. It's always fun to wreak havoc."

Alamar said having McCaffrey fielding kickoffs and punts gives players added incentive to do their jobs knowing all he needs is a crease to break big returns.

"If you can get him loose early, all of a sudden everybody knows we've got a chance with this guy," said Alamar. "There's no doubt that the confidence that comes with knowing you've got a guy like who has had success, you come out there thinking, 'Hey, if I work just a little bit harder, wow, let's see what we can do.' That's what we talk about, get a hat on a hat and let that guy work."

Extra Points

Stanford's top 10 ranking is the 83rd all-time and 45th since 2010 . . . For the first time in school history, the Cardinal has rushed for 300 or more yards in three consecutive games . . . Stanford has won a nation-best 25-straight night games at home . . . In the past 21 games, Stanford has allowed only four touchdowns in the third quarter and four scoring drives this season. Conversely, Washington has outscored opponents 76-14 in the third quarter this season.

Quotable

"Lately, we've been running down the field quite a bit because we've been scoring a lot of points." -- Quenton Meeks, on the opportunities he gets covering kickoffs with the success of Stanford's high-scoring offense.

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