It’s 8 a.m. on a sunny, brisk Monday morning in mid-July.
Most of the Stanford campus is fast asleep at this time of the morning during the school year. In the summer, it’s eerily silent. But on the practice football field, redshirt freshman outside linebacker Kevin Anderson is already an hour into the team run, with half an hour still remaining.
Immediately following the run, he and his Cardinal teammates dive straight into a weight lifting session that lasts for another hour and a half. It’s barely 10 a.m. and Anderson has already completed three hours of conditioning on the day.
After lunch he gets a little bit of time to unwind, maybe sneak in a quick nap if he is lucky. He returns to the weight room at four, in time for another lift workout. This one is optional, but Anderson rarely skips. By the time he is done, he will have just enough time to grab dinner before heading out back onto the field at seven for the two-hour captain’s practice. Held twice a week, these pad-less practices are meant for the players to hone their on-field skills and run the playbook to perfection. The focus is on repetition with precision.
At 9 p.m., Anderson is finally done for the day, after six and a half hours of training. He goes back to his home in Palo Alto with his teammates, classmates and close friends J.B. Salem and Anthony Hayes, who are staying with him over the summer. They are tired, sore and fully aware that they will have to wake up in time for tomorrow’s 7 a.m. team run yet again.
This grueling daily summer routine is nothing new for the Palo Alto native, who went through a similar schedule at last year’s preseason conditioning as an incoming freshman. But while the practices may not have changed all that much, he knows that this upcoming season will be very different for one important reason: no longer redshirting, Anderson will finally have a chance to make an impact on game day.
The experience that a player gains from redshirting might be one of the most overlooked and underappreciated aspects of college football. Because redshirts are not eligible to compete in games, they are virtually unmentioned in media coverage during the season. But for Anderson, his past redshirt season was critical in terms of maturing both on and off the field.
“A lot of people think of redshirt as time off, but it really ends up being working extra hard,” said Anderson. “Because you’re not playing in games, you can get in three lifts per day sometimes. There’s more practicing and scrimmaging to get bigger, faster and stronger. It’s a lot of work, but it’s definitely worthwhile redshirting.”
Much of Anderson’s progress in improving his physical abilities and on-field skill set has come under the steady guidance of outside linebacker coach Lance Anderson, who was named the 2012 National Recruiter of the Year for his huge role in landing four five-star prospects in Stanford’s best recruiting class of all time. The player credits his coach with helping him greatly improve his footwork as well as develop his coverage skills.
Given Anderson’s rapid development as an outside linebacker, it might come as a surprise that he played defensive end during his remarkable high school career.
Anderson became a local superstar at Palo Alto High School, where his ability to elude blockers and wreak havoc in the backfield propelled him to monster junior and senior seasons. He ended his breakout junior year with 68 tackles—18 of which were for a loss—along with 6.5 sacks and was named Santa Clara Valley Athletic League’s Defensive Lineman of the Year. After receiving a considerable amount of attention from college recruiters, he followed through with an even more impressive senior campaign that saw him garner first-team all-state honors and record 113 tackles with 11.5 sacks.
The most important accomplishment for Anderson wasn’t his individual accolades or statistics, though. He will be the first to tell you that the most memorable moment was playing a key role in his team’s improbable state title run. Prior to his senior season, the Vikings were not considered to be in contention for the league and section crowns, much less the state championship. But Anderson’s leadership on both the offensive and defensive line helped Paly find a way to win week after week all the way to the state championship, where the Vikings upset powerhouse Centennial 15-13 and secured their first perfect season in school history.
Yet despite his success playing defensive end in high school, Anderson constantly had to force himself to gain the weight needed to meet the physical demands of playing on the defensive line. When he arrived on the Farm, he knew something had to change.
“I came in last summer as a defensive end,” he explained. “[The coaches] wanted me to gain a lot of weight, but I can’t gain weight very well. So they put me in as outside linebacker at last year’s preseason camp, and I played well. I’ve stayed there ever since then. I don’t have to force myself to gain weight now; I just need to get stronger and faster. At that position, it’s kind of like being a glorified pass rusher. I drop back a third of the time, but I pass rush the rest of the time. I love playing at the outside linebacker position.”
Even after the position switch, Anderson’s 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame still isn’t considered imposing for an outside linebacker in college football. With size as a possible disadvantage, technique and speed—two aspects of his game that Anderson constantly emphasizes in practice—become all the more important.
“If you lack size [as a defender], you have to make it up in speed,” he said. “On some plays I’m not going to be able to overpower someone, which means I’ll have to run around them. You have to have your strengths overshadow your weaknesses.”
Anderson’s redshirt season was not an easy road by any means.
Despite his status as a local star in the Bay Area, Anderson was a three-star recruit, not as heavily recruited as some of the other prospects in the nation. Yet none of it deterred him from working as hard as the next guy, whether it was on the practice field or in the weight room. Anderson gave it his all starting from day one.
“I just felt like I had something to prove to myself because I wasn’t coming in as a highly touted recruit,” said Anderson. “I felt like I had a chip on my shoulder. There’s a lot of politics that go into the recruit rankings. But for me, I just want to play football. Once you’re at the college level, it doesn’t matter who’s a five-star recruit and who’s not. If I can outwork them, it doesn’t matter. That’s my philosophy.”
As Stanford ended its season with a loss in the Fiesta Bowl, Anderson faced yet another obstacle, albeit a completely different one. He suffered a bone spur injury in his ankle that forced him to undergo surgery in late January. The operation sidelined him for two months, during which the team was going through conditioning workouts in preparation for spring ball.
“The overgrowth of the bone affected my ankle ability,” said Anderson. “After the season was done, I had surgery to have them removed. And then there was rehab and a lot of physical therapy. That set me back a little bit, but it wasn’t too bad.”
Despite missing a month and a half of runs and another two weeks of spring ball, Anderson saw a sizable chunk of playing time at Stanford’s Cardinal and White Spring Game in mid-April. His steady performance over three quarters caught the attention of both the coaching staff and the media.
“It was nice knowing that the hard work finally paid off and helped the team, especially after recovering from my injury.” said Anderson. “Hopefully it’ll help the team in the fall as well.”
Stanford will have one of the top defensive front sevens in the nation for the upcoming season. With departures of key offensive pieces that included Andrew Luck, David DeCastro, Coby Fleener and Jonathan Martin, the Cardinal will must rely even more on the ability of its defense to shut down opponents and force turnovers. Between the fearsome trio of Shayne Skov, Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy at the linebacker positions and the pass rushing attack of Ben Gardner and incoming five-star recruit Aziz Shittu in the trenches, the team’s strong defensive core has a great chance of living up to those high expectations.
With last year’s starters Thomas and Murphy returning at the outside linebacker slots, Anderson understands that he will not be a starter right away. But that is the least of the redshirt freshman’s concerns; instead, he relishes the chance of seeing some playing time on the field. The last time he competed in an official game, he was in the green and white uniform of his high school team. With the Aug. 31 season opener against San Jose State less than a month away, he will soon be finally donning cardinal and white.
Anderson is currently enjoying some time off in Hawaii with his family, during one of the only four to five weeks that football players have off each year. When he returns from his vacation, preseason camp will begin in earnest on Aug. 5—this time, practices will be in full pads and full contact. There is no doubt that the intensity level will be cranked up a notch as the season opener draws closer. Anderson knows that the atmosphere will be different than last year’s with his chance to be out there on the field on game day finally arriving.
But Anderson fully embraces the intensity. Given his relentless work ethic, preseason camp will just be another stepping-stone for him as he keeps on trying to improve and contribute to his team’s success in any way that he can. It’s a process of preparation that he is all too familiar with.
“My ability to keep going and never stopping,” said Anderson. “That’s my strongest attribute as a player. My motor.”
With his redshirt season behind him at last, Anderson’s motor has been fully fueled and shifted to an even higher gear. Soon he’ll be given the opportunity to expand upon his successes and prove himself on the collegiate level.
“I’m excited to have the chance to play after sitting out for so long,” he said. “I haven’t played in an official game since the high school state championship. I’m excited to just go out and play the game.”