STANFORD — Kodi Whitfield made one of the most incredible touchdown catches in college football last season in a win over UCLA that kept Stanford on track for a second straight Pac-12 Conference championship.
If Whitfield has his way, he’ll be breaking up catches like that next season.
Whitfield is trying to transition from wide receiver to free safety this spring. Stanford is loaded at receiver but short one spot in the secondary, with first-team Pac-12 safety Ed Reynolds headed to the NFL draft.
After losing the Rose Bowl to Michigan State on Jan. 1, Cardinal coach David Shaw began examining his roster for players who could fill Reynolds’ role. He kept coming back to Whitfield, who played safety at Loyola High School in Los Angeles and is known as “Sweet Feet” by teammates for his smooth route running.
“I gave Kodi the option: the chance to compete for a starting spot at free safety or stay in the competition at receiver and still play,” Shaw said. “It was not a decision made by me. It was a decision made by Kodi. I presented both options to him. If he wanted to stay at receiver, he’d stay and he’d make plays for us. But he saw there’s an open spot, he’s got a chance to compete for it and he’s excited about it.”
Whitfield said he consulted with his father, former NFL offensive lineman Bob Whitfield, before making the move. But the decision was an easy one.
“I pretty much jumped on it,” Whitfield said. “I knew I could contribute right away. I feel comfortable at safety already, just grasping from high school knowledge and experience. It’s really just a good opportunity.”
Stanford players shifting positions has not been that uncommon in recent seasons.
Dallas Lloyd, who ran some read-options as a backup quarterback last season, moved to safety in December and is among those competing with Whitfield this spring. Luke Kaumatule transitioned from defensive end to tight end — and back. And perhaps most famously, Richard Sherman shifted from wide receiver to cornerback, a position where he has become among the NFL’s best for the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.
Now Whitfield is trying to make a similar switch.
The 6-foot-2, 196-pound Whitfield played sparingly as a freshman and made 16 catches for 170 yards and a touchdown as a sophomore last season. But he showed off his big-play ability with that lone score.
While running to his right on a deep route, Whitfield leaped in the air off his left foot and reached up to make a backhanded catch with his right hand between two defenders. The point of the ball stuck to his palm, and he hauled in the 30-yard TD reception to put Stanford up 10-3 in the third quarter of an eventual 24-10 win against UCLA on Oct. 19.
Shaw said there’s a chance Whitfield could someday play on both sides of the ball. He also could keep returning punts, a job he shared with Barry Sanders most of last season, or go back to receiver.
For now, he wants Whitfield focused on safety and learning all the defensive calls — which he’s been studying with strong safety Jordan Richards since the Rose Bowl.
“It’s pretty difficult, just because you’re more vocal on defense,” Whitfield said. “There’s a lot of on-the-fly adjustments you got to make, adjusting where the offense lines up, stuff like that. It’s been a little bit difficult, just fast-paced, but I’ll get a hold of it.”
The other thing Whitfield still needs to figure out is his new number.
When the first half of Stanford’s split spring practice schedule began Monday, Whitfield was wearing his usual No. 9 — but in Cardinal red, which defensive players usually sport.
The problem? Linebacker James Vaughters already wears No. 9, and players on the same side of the ball can’t have the same number, so Whitfield will have to find a new number if he sticks at safety.
Most teammates are still just trying to adjust to Whitfield not wearing white with the offense in practice anymore.
“You definitely miss him,” quarterback Kevin Hogan said. “But I know he’s going to do great over there and definitely help the team.”
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP