Back in eighth grade, Willie Harts and his best friends were just 7-on-7 competitors having the time of their lives playing in California Memorial Stadium. The home of “The Play,” he’ll return to the same field where John Elway’s Stanford Cardinal watched Cal do the improbable with a handful of laterals that led to Kevin Moen’s game-winning touchdown through the Stanford band. Harts won’t be there to enshrine himself in the legacy of college football, Friday will be about creating the first page in the storybook of himself.
The true freshman safety from Pittsburg, California — a little over 30 miles away from Berkeley — Harts will don his number three jersey for the fifth time in his career for the Sun Devils matchup with No. 15 Cal. This time however, he’ll have a bigger role.
Harts, baring an incredible recovery from Cam Phillips, is slotted to be the primary ranger safety against the Golden Bears on Friday night. The opportunity presented to him due to a dislocated elbow Phillips suffered in the loss to Colorado. With an attitude toward success, Harts wants to make the most of the chance given.
“It’s just a blessing from God,” Harts said. “And it’s just going to be exciting. It’s going to be fun, family is going to be out there.”
Without an exact estimation of the amount of friends and family in attendance, Harts says he’s expecting “a lot,” of people. And with the game being on Friday, he has plenty of other friends attempting to stream and listen to the contest after their own high school football responsibilities.
The hometown return has its faults as well as defensive backs coach Tony White describes.
“We’re playing a really good football team, he’s got no time to waste thinking about how many family and friends (will be there), and going back home,” White said. “That type of distraction is something you don’t need. But he’s doing well, he’s had a couple good practices.”
Harts, paired alongside Aashari Crosswell in the backend of the secondary, has used the sophomore teammate as a mentor. Gained knowledge from his own mistakes as a freshman, Crosswell has been hands-on with Harts. One practice Harts’ footwork was off, Crosswell gave the tip to lean more on his right foot than his left to ease the transition. The note taken by Harts led to an interception in practice.
“Willie, that’s my guy,” Crosswell said. “I put my trust in him. I feel like he’s young, but he knows what he’s doing...I feel like he’s going to go out there and he’s going to show everybody what he’s capable of doing.
“I just be telling him you’ve been doing this your whole life, ain’t nothing new. You’re just in college now, just go out there and have that mindset like ‘I just want to play football,’ and you’re going to do good.”
Phillips and Harts have also had conversations every practice even before the injury. Harts is grateful for the advice and guidance from Phillips that has led into Friday.
“I just thank him,” Harts said. “He believes in me and hypes me up for this game, telling me it’s personal. I’m going to do this for Cam.”
What will the transition from Phillips to Harts be like according to the Sun Devil coaching staff? Smooth in their opinion. White feels to the two share similar qualities, each can run, hit, have loose hips and neither lacks confidence. Although the biggest difference between the two from White’s perspective is Harts is a more natural ranger safety than Phillips, who took time to feel comfortable at the position.
White isn’t the only one encouraged by the idea having Harts just slide right in for Phillips.
“Willie Harts is equally as talented as Cam Phillips,” defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales said. “He hasn’t played. In the first four games, he probably has 60 snaps total. (Phillips) has played at a really high level in play. He’s probably been, play-for-play our most productive player as far as tackles, pass breakups, being in coverage, doing the right things. So, it’ll definitely hurt not having him out there on Friday. Willie is very talented and smart so he’ll be in a lot of the same places. So can he perform under the light? We’ll find out.”
At this point, Sun Devil fans shouldn’t worry about freshmen and the speed of the game because of the high amount used on the team. Harts makes it even easier to trust as a guy that played varsity football as a freshman in high school.
White and everyone else saw enough from Harts in the preseason to trust him and allow him to be in this position to start if called upon. Despite all the added noise around the Friday night matchup and Harts, he’ll just treat it in the way he told White.
“It’s going to be another football game.”