The fade pass from Ryan Burns to JJ Arcega-Whiteside for the go-ahead score with 24 seconds left in Stanford's 22-13 victory over UCLA on Saturday was at least a year in the making.
"All year on the scout team last year, it was Ryan Burns to JJ in the red zone," said David Shaw, Stanford's Director of Football. "They did it so many times, I can't tell you how many."
On the crucial play, Stanford trailed 13-9 when Burns called a play in the huddle for a double fade. Arcega-Whiteside took a look at his quarterback, nodded, and Burns nodded back.
"The mechanics and the way the play went … nothing was different," Arcega-Whiteside said. "We practiced it all last year, all this year, for the games. When it actually gets called, it's almost like it's natural to us. Endless repetitions."
Said Shaw, "JJ's size and athletic ability and his range – his catch radius – is very impressive. JJ's got a chance to be special. He's tough to defend down there."
Arcega-Whiteside was first discovered by running backs coach Lance Taylor, who showed Shaw some video of the Inman, South Carolina, product.
"With high school film, you never know," Shaw said.
But Taylor was persistent.
"This guy makes plays every single time," Taylor told him.
The coaching staff convinced him to come to a camp. Arcega-Whiteside didn't need much convincing. While watching the 2014 Rose Bowl as a high school sophomore, Arcega-Whiteside told his father that he wanted to play for one of those two schools.
Indeed, Stanford and Michigan State were the only schools outside of the Eastern seaboard to offer him a scholarship.
"In the back of my mind, I knew I was going to Stanford," he said. "They had a lot more to offer. I love the people. I love my teammates. I love the coaching staff. I knew this was a genuine place."
Some background on Arcega-Whiteside, his parents met while playing pro basketball in Spain. Valorie Whiteside was a star at Appalachian State before heading to Europe in the days before the WNBA. Joaquin Arcega played basketball for a variety of clubs in Spain and Portugal.
When JJ, given name Jose Joaquin Arcega-Whiteside, was learning to speak, no one could understand him. His mother spoke English, his father Spanish, and he was living in Portugal. His speech was a mixture of all three languages.
Though Arcega-Whiteside, a sophomore, had not caught a pass until Saturday, he already had made an impression on his teammates.
"He's one of the hardest workers on the team," linebacker Joey Alfieri said. "That whole drive, I was thinking of him, in the summer, coming in extra hours, running routes on his own time, before we had runs and lifts. He's a guy who puts in all this extra work. I was glad to see it all finally pay off."
Those extra yards
Christian McCaffrey rushed for 138 yards on 26 carries against UCLA, good for a 5.3-yard average, and had 165 all-purpose yards. His four-yard pickup on a third-and-3 play in the final minute was crucial to Stanford's victory.
However, when Shaw was asked by a reporter about how McCaffrey was "bottled up" by the Bruins, the coach was understandably bewildered.
"We are unbelievably spoiled," Shaw said. "That when this kid doesn't get 300 yards in total offense, we say he got 'bottled up.' He was phenomenal. Those 2-yard runs became 7-yard runs. Those 8-yard runs became 12-yard runs. He finds those hidden yards on every single play. It's uncanny."
UCLA coach Jim Mora seconded Shaw's premise.
"I thought that we did a good job, but he is a heck of a player. He just finds yards that other people don’t find," Mora said. "He’s so explosive and strong. He’s physical for his size. He’s a great player.”
McCaffrey is effective running between the tackles as he is elusive in the open.
"The tackles he bounced off, the tackles he ran through, the guys he made miss … He didn't have the signature 80-yard run, but at the same time, this kid played one whale of a game," Shaw said. "We have a different standard for him than everybody else."