Stanford Moving Forward: Secondary

Wayne Lyons: Role expanding

Here's Part 7 of our series examining the future of every single Stanford position group. This piece examines the complex situation in Stanford's rebuilding secondary, which must find a way to overcome the departures of several players. It's certainly a good time for regarded DB coach Duane Akina.



The Bootleg's full seven-part series detailing the future of each and every Stanford position group is complete with this piece on the secondary. Here are links to the first six installments of the series along with the first projected 2014 depth chart.

Stanford Moving Forward: Quarterback (Pt. 1)
Stanford Moving Forward: Running Back (Pt. 2)
Stanford Moving Forward: Wide Receiver/Tight End (Pt. 3)
Stanford Moving Forward: Offensive Line (Pt. 4)
Stanford Moving Forward: Defensive Line (Pt. 5)
Stanford Moving Forward: Linebacker (Pt. 6)

Akina Comes in Time of Need

David Shaw made a massive splash with his hire of former Texas defensive backs coach Duane Akina, who developed a staggering 28 players into NFL-ready talents during his time at Austin.

"Duane's combination of experience and expertise comes when we need it," Shaw said.

He's right: Stanford's secondary is in a state of flux following several key departures and an earlier medical retirement that a threw a wrench into the succession plan at free safety. Ed Reynolds, Usua Amanam, Devon Carrington, and Barry Browning are all gone, while Drew Madhu -- once considered Reynolds' heir apparent -- quit football due to concussion-related related problems before the 2013 season.

So Akina comes to Stanford while the Farm Boys are in the midst of trying to prepare quarterback Dallas Lloyd and wide receiver Kodi Whitfield to play free safety. They're simultaneously looking to make a seamless transition away from the graduating Usua Amanam at nickel back, and early indications suggest that they'll try to do so by shifting Wayne Lyons over to that spot on passing downs.

Akina's job becomes doubly interesting when the very promising young crop of incoming defensive backs is considered. A year after signing only speedster Taijuan Thomas to the position group, Shaw inked a formidable 2014 haul featuring Alijah Holder, Denzel Franklin, Alameen Murphy, Terrence Alexander, and Brandon Simmons.

The Stanford secondary is clearly reloading with impressive talent. It will be Akina's job to build a bridge between past success and this promising future in 2014. There can be no significant regression this season; the Cardinal must find a way to maintain defensive effectiveness on the back level if they intend to compete for a spot in college football's inaugural four-team playoff.

The Cornerback Position: Setting a Physical Edge
Last season, it was clear that opponents made a concerted effort to attack Stanford with a shorter passing game to the perimeter. A year after Reynolds nearly broke the national pick six record and the Cardinal led all of college football in sacks, opponents attempted to adjust: Many strayed away from a conventional drop-back passing game and chose to attack the Farm Boys with quickness to the edge instead. Statistics reflected this change, and they're illustrated in the table below: Facing fewer aggressive throws downfield, the Cardinal didn't have as many chances to break up and intercept passes, but they still gave up roughly the same amount of yardage per pass attempt as they did in 2012.

Stanford Secondary Production: Through the Years
Year
INT
Pass Break-Ups
Passes Defended
Opp. Passing Yards Per Attempt
% of Passes Defended
2007
11
38
49
7.6
11.8%
2008
7
29
36
7.1
9.4%
2009
8
44
52
7.6
11.4%
2010
18
50
68
6.2
16%
2011
7
48
55
7.1
12.2%
2012
15
69
84
6.1
15.3%
2013
12
43
55
6.2
10.6%

Utah, for one, badly wounded Stanford with the quick pass strategy. Derek Mason's defense ultimately adjusted by countering with rigidity on the edges. Defensive backs swallowed blocks and suffocated daylight along the perimeter, ultimately leading to a Stanford defensive statement down the stretch. Maintaining that presence will be of paramount importance in 2014. Alex Carter will be counted on to lead the charge, but the secondary will also be dependent on Lyons to perform well in his dual corner-nickel back role.

"When I play nickel, I line up closer to the ball," Lyons said. "It forces me to be even more physical."
 
Lyons' anticipated shift inside on passing downs will make Ronnie Harris especially important next year. The senior, who started 2013 as the Cardinal's reserve nickel back, thrilled the coaching staff with his contributions at corner down the stretch, and Shaw has indicated he'll be needed there in an even greater capacity come Fall.

"Ronnie has been outstanding," he raved. "He's been more of a leader than we've anticipated as far as the defensive backs go. The energy and enthusiasm that he brings has been awesome."

Other players are duking it out this offseason to earn playing time in the Stanford cornerback rotation. Since Carter is expected to miss all of spring and since Harris is currently limited with a minor injury, Thomas, Ra'Chard Pippens, and walk-on Chandler Dorrell have all seen considerable action with either the first or second teams in the past couple of weeks. Competition will further intensify this summer when the true freshmen crop arrives on campus. It's possible the newcomers will need a year to physically ready themselves to seriously enter the mix, but Stanford's emphasis on recruiting physical defensive backs may mean that at least one of them will be ready to make his mark immediately after arrival on campus.

More on the Safety Situation
The staff likes Lloyd for his rugged physicality (at 6-foot-3, 212 pounds, he brings imposing size) and Whitfield for his natural athletic ability at the position. Both players played free safety well in high school, and both passed Willie Shaw's eye test on the first day of spring practice (David Shaw's father was formerly a defensive backs coach). Neither is in the current lead to grab the free safety spot, however. Senior Kyle Olugbode, who currently has a better grasp of the playbook after moving over from strong safety during spring practice, is the top dog there right now. All Stanford safeties are required to learn both the free and strong positions, so the Cardinal will enjoy positional flexibility as they work to fill Reynolds' void.

Shaw has emphasized that this position battle is still in its infancy. Once Whitfield and Lloyd finish playbook catch-up, Zach Hoffpauir should also be back from the baseball diamond, and competition will reach full throttle. Hoffpauir found a comfortable home as Stanford's larger nickel back late last season, but Shaw anticipates that he'll provide options for the Cardinal at safety (his original spot) as well.

Jordan Richards, of course, is assumed to have a lock on the strong safety spot. Fifth year man John Flacco has played well for the second unit in spring, while walk-on Calvin Chandler has also enjoyed time in Stanford scrimmage action.

With the starting offensive line virtually set and the running back position likely to be handled by a committee of bodies, the Cardinal's shuffling in the secondary may well end up as the most intriguing development of this offseason. The team will explore several options, and they're certainly happy to have a signed a coach as reputable as Akina to manage and develop those possibilities.

Stanford Moving Forward: Quarterback (Pt. 1)
Stanford Moving Forward: Running Back (Pt. 2)
Stanford Moving Forward: Wide Receiver/Tight End (Pt. 3)
Stanford Moving Forward: Offensive Line (Pt. 4)
Stanford Moving Forward: Defensive Line (Pt. 5)
Stanford Moving Forward: Linebacker (Pt. 6)






David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.

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