Cardinal youngsters learning on the job

This is not how Jarek Lancaster wanted to get more playing time. Or A.J. Tarpley, or Devon Carrington or Jordan Richards. But hey, that's football. Next man up.

These four pups in particular have had to grow up on the job sooner than they, or the coaching staff, probably wanted or expected.

So be it.

With a season-ending injury to linebacker Shayne Skov, Lancaster and Tarpley went from being backups and regular special teams contributors to spotlight players on one of the best run defenses in the country. With safety Delano Howell expected to miss his second straight game with a hand injury, Carrington and Richards are center stage once again.

"We've all been preparing for this opportunity," Carrington said. "It's unfortunate that it has come the way it has, but we're ready to step in and take the coaching. Guys like Shayne and Delano are in our ears and telling us to play better. It was a little overwhelming at first, but we're all trying to get better and make the most of the opportunity."

Before the season even started, head coach David Shaw was touting the depth his team had. Now we're seeing firsthand exactly what he was talking about.

Richards, for example, had eight tackles all season heading into last week's game against Washington. He had nine stops against the Huskies. Lancaster is now tied for the team lead in tackles with 33 and Tarpley isn't too far behind with 24.

To say the Cardinal haven't missed a beat would be misleading. They have. And it makes you wonder on some of Chris Polk's big runs last week for Washington whether Skov would have made the play at the line of scrimmage, or Howell would have made the stop at the second level.

But it's not worth asking those questions. All they are focused on is getting better and moving forward.

"I don't think I played very well in the first half last week," said Richards, a true freshman. "I had some missed alignments and some missed tackles and I was playing too fast. But things slowed down in the second half and I got back to playing within the system and just playing football."

And that's why veterans are veterans and rookies are rookies. It all comes down to game experience.

"As many times as you can practice something and for as many times as the coaches will say it's going to be faster, you can't get that full effect until you get in there," Tarpley said. "Mentally, I think I was ready, but with the speed and physicality, there is nothing that can simulate a game. But I would say over the course of the season I've gotten better."

Given the circumstances that thrust those four into the game, Shaw said he's been relatively pleased with the results.

"The big thing is we trust them," Shaw said. "We let them know that we trust them. And we tell them just to do their jobs. They don't have to make every play. But they have to make the plays that they are supposed to make, and those guys have been doing a good job of that."

As with any young player, there are going to be mistakes. Carrington saw time in seven games last season, but it was very limited. He's one of the brightest up-and-coming safeties in the conference, but he still has some bad habits he's trying to shake -- like going for the big hit rather than wrapping up.

"It's something I have to work on," Carrington said. "You can't miss tackles or have tackling issues. That's the No. 1 thing of the job. I've been working hard and spending extra time on it. I'll have it cleaned up. I know it's something I need to correct to help this team out."

The veteran leadership has also been critical for helping the younger players learn on the fly.

"If you are in practice and you mess it up, they will make sure you get it right the next play," Lancaster said. "They don't let anything slide. We lean on those guys a ton. We put a lot of responsibility on their shoulders and as a younger guy you want to show that you belong and take some of that pressure off of them so they can trust you. That's where we are at right now with everyone trusting each other."