STANFORD -- While Stanford's players took summer classes, the Cardinal coaching staff went back to school, in a manner of speaking.
Coach David Shaw and his offensive assistants visited with the Atlanta Falcons while defensive coordinator Derek Mason and his staff spent time with the Pittsburgh Steelers' renowned Dick LeBeau.
"It was like the first day of class," Mason said Thursday.
It's common practice for college coaches to visit their NFL counterparts for an information exchange, but Stanford's success the past three years (35 wins and three Bowl Championship Series appearances) would seem to indicate that the staff has little left to learn.
Not so, Shaw said.
"Sometimes it reaffirms what you do," Shaw said. "Sometimes, you come back and take another look at things."
"The NFL is so different that we don't take anything they do and apply it straightforward. But, philosophically, there are similarities."
The Steelers and Falcons were selected because of existing relationships and shared beliefs.
Shaw is close with several members of the Falcons staff, and Cardinal quarterbacks/receivers coach Mike Sanford played for Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter at Boise State.
The teams are similar in the structure of their running games, blocking schemes and use of tight ends. (Atlanta rookie Levine Toilolo played for the Cardinal before turning pro after last season.)
Mason is friendly with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin but also sat at the feet of the master, LeBeau, the creator of the zone blitz.
Both teams use the 3-4 alignment.
"We talked philosophy," Mason said. "But he also talked about coaching players -- guys like Troy Polamalu -- and understanding who they are and how to get the most out of the tools they have."
Khalil Wilkes will start at center with Conor McFadden as the backup.
James Vaughters beat out Blake Lueders for the outside linebacker position formerly manned by Chase Thomas.
Wayne Lyons won the three-man cornerback competition over Barry Browning and Devon Carrington. (Alex Carter will start on the other side.)
The Cardinal did not name a starting tailback -- and won't. Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson will share the job.
"It depends on the first play," Shaw said. "We have two lead dogs."
All four are seniors, although Yankey has another year of eligibility because of an injury his rookie season.
"We get to see other people have their first-game jitters, maybe lose some games that they shouldn't lose because of turnovers, penalties and being sloppy," Shaw said. "Hopefully, we can learn a lesson from watching other people."
sept. 7 opener
San Jose State at Stanford,
8 p.m. Pac-12 Network