Triple Threat: After joining Cal football as a wide receiver, Griffin Piatt is thriving at safety

Michael Drummond/Senior Staff

O
ne.
The quarterback stands tall, looking downfield. He sets his receivers into motion. The ball is snapped, and he adjusts his feet. He looks left. He looks right. He sees that, along the right side of the field, he has a receiver running a corner route — breaking to the sideline — who looks open. It would be just what the team needs to move the chains on 3rd-and-11, losing 17-0.

The moment Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian lofts the ball in the air — too much air — the defense, which is in man-to-man coverage, reacts. Almost out of nowhere, a player in a white uniform lays out, grabbing the ball. The ESPN commentators go nuts.

“That pass is picked off! Wow, what a grab, closing speed by (Griffin) Piatt!” play-by-play commentator Mark Jones yells.

“That, that is a huge play,” Rod Gilmore, an ESPN analyst, says. “He came from the middle of the field, and this was a duck. This ball hung out there forever. Look at that ball hang out there, look at that move.”

The play marks quite a debut for Griffin Piatt, coming into the season opener against Northwestern on only his third play as a collegiate athlete. But it won’t be his last big play. Piatt was a wide receiver until this year but is making a name for himself as a safety this season, and he wants more. He likes that feeling of having the ball in his hands.

T
wo.

Sac State has struggled to put points on the board all game, but Cal has fumbled a punt, and the Hornets have the ball on the Cal 8-yard line.

The quarterback gets low under center and calls the play. He takes the snap, plants and releases the ball quickly. Too quickly. He throws the ball behind the tight end, and Piatt breaks in front of him.

“Endzone. Lofted ball picked by Piatt!” yells play-by-play commentator JB Long.

Piatt says, “I think because I started outside, (the quarterback) probably thought I was playing a different coverage or not focusing on the tight end. And so he threw it to the tight end, so I came off and jumped in front of it that way.”

Griffin-Piatt6-Money-shot

Mike Pawlawski, the Pac-12 Networks color commentator says, “He was going to get one today. The way that he’s been playing the ball in the air, he was going to get one today.”

T
hree.

Scoring has been a problem for Arizona in the first half. But all of that could change right now. While Arizona is trailing 28-6, if the Wildcats get a touchdown on this play, 3rd-and-2 on the Cal 9-yard line with 55 seconds left in the half, the score becomes much more manageable. If the Wildcats get a touchdown on this play, they can go into the half with something positive. If they get a touchdown on this play …

The quarterback fakes a handoff. He rolls out and pump fakes. He looks to throw to the near side where his receiver has run a wheel route — out and up — and is right near the goal line.

“And it’s intercepted! California has possession of the football, Griffin Piatt steps up and picks it off as the ball sailed right into his hands,” says play-by-play commentator Joe Starkey.

Piatt says, “I had pretty good positioning on that one, and I think there was a little miscommunication between the quarterback and the receiver, and the quarterback threw it outside, and the receiver was inside. So I think that, once again, I was in the right spot at the right time.”

Maybe the first time it’s a case of just being in the right spot at the same time. Maybe even the second time. But the third time? That’s got to mean something.

P
iatt, a redshirt sophomore, is currently the Pac-12 leader in interceptions, with three, and passes defended, with six. He’s tied for fourth in the nation with those three interceptions.

It’s hard to imagine Piatt’s career taking a different path after how successful he’s been to start this year. But when he first came to UC Berkeley, he didn’t even know whether he’d be a part of the team. He wasn’t recruited out of high school — an injury his junior year kept him from putting together the necessary tapes and from attending camps with scouts — so he originally thought about dropping the sport. But he loved football too much.

His choice of colleges came down to UC Berkeley and UCLA, but UC Berkeley had an advantage because of Piatt’s family connections to the school. His grandpa was an athlete at UC Berkeley, and his dad went to UC Berkeley for a couple of years. Plus, because Piatt grew up in nearby Moraga, California, Cal was the closest college team.

In high school, Piatt played on both sides of the ball as a wide receiver and as a safety, but says he preferred playing on offense.

“I think I gave a little more priority to the offense side just ’cause, you know, scoring points,” Piatt says. “I think I paid a little more attention to being a receiver, and safety just came a little more naturally, I guess.”

He made the Cal team as a wide receiver, but he spent his first year on the scout team.

“What people don’t think of as really important is your positioning related to the cornerbacks, so you really kind of have to use your body to stem them in on routes,” Piatt says. “The best receivers, you’ll see them using their body, not just their hands, to make plays, so they’ll stem somebody in to the inside and break out for a fade. That’s something that I really had to pay attention to.”

His routes did improve under college coaches — wide receivers coach Rob Likens once gave him a hard time for running “High School Harry routes,” meaning Piatt’s routes weren’t crisp enough — so Piatt put in the time to really clean up his breaks.

His sophomore year was going to be better. He was going to have more of a chance to prove himself. But then, he tore his ACL.

“During that season, we were pretty low when guys started getting injured,” Piatt says. “It was a rough season, not a lot of depth.”

Griffin-Piatt4

Midseason, he was told to go meet with head coach Sonny Dykes in Dykes’ office. Piatt was told that Cal already had a lot of good receivers, so the coaches had decided to move Piatt to safety.

“I said, ‘All right, let’s try it out.’ ”

A
t 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, Piatt fits the stereotypical mold of a safety. But most guys who make a switch from offense to defense tend to do so on the line or do so from wide receiver to cornerback, like Richard Sherman did.

“I’m not particularly quick,” Piatt says. “Cornerbacks are really quick, able to break really fast on things — not saying I can’t break fast on things — but I do think my skill set fits a little bit better at safety: Being kind of taller, being able to cover more space, so being able to break and having everything in front of me is something that helps me. As a safety, you have everything in front of you, and then you make a read, whereas corners are often in one-on-one coverage and things, so it’s more reacting to one person, where as a safety I’m having to react to multiple people.”

He’ll admit that it was a tough transition, making a very different kind of read on the field. It was also challenging having to learn all the defensive schemes and coverages. Piatt credits new defensive coordinator Art Kaufman with creating a relatively simple defense that allows the Bears to react quickly to the opposing offense.

He does admit that Cal’s defense has to put together four solid quarters of football, especially coming off last week’s torturous loss to Arizona, where the Bears gave up 36 points in the final quarter, including 19 in the final five minutes.

To be stronger, Piatt says the team needs to be more prepared mentally.

“You have to make up for your lack of burst in the fourth quarter by having that edge mentally,” Piatt says. “It’s just a given that you’re going to break down physically, but mentally, you have to stay sharper than ever.”

D
espite being one of the breakout stars of this year’s team, Piatt is humble when it comes to his accomplishments on the field, preferring instead to say the opposing quarterback made a mistake or that he was “lucky” enough to just be in the right place. He loves being able to contribute to the team and be a playmaker but says he doesn’t want to get too focused on interceptions.

“You don’t want to try to make the big play if it’s not there, because that’s when the breakdowns happen, when big plays happen for the offense,” Piatt says. “My role changes with every game. Game plans change, and so I’ve got to just keep playing my assignments, and whatever happens after that happens.”

He doesn’t like to talk too much about himself, preferring to talk about how he loves being part of such a great team and how much he’s learned from the coaches.

He lets his play speak for itself.

And it has. In the previous three games, there’s been a clear starting free safety listed on the depth charts, Stefan McClure. Now, for this game, Piatt’s name is up there with an “or.” After McClure pulled a calf muscle last week in warm-ups, he’s uncertain for the game against Colorado, but Piatt has proven himself up to the task. But he still doesn’t want to talk too much about that.

“I’m just enjoying it, I’m enjoying the process, I’m learning new things every game, every week of practice,” Piatt says.

But sometimes it’s hard to remember that he’s no longer a wide receiver.

“I miss it a little bit, just ’cause, as a receiver, you’re always thinking you’re going to get the ball, and being able to score touchdowns — that’s the offensive mindset,” Piatt says. “But I definitely love being a safety right now.”

Who knows, maybe his next interception will be a pick six.

“Oh, man, I didn’t ever have a touchdown dance,” Piatt says. “I just flipped it to the ref. Maybe I’ll get one.”

So, four?

Shannon Carroll covers football. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @scarroll43.