Stanford Secondary: Stopping the Slip
The numbers below suggest two important points: 1) Stanford's pass defense, though still solid, regressed in 2013; 2) Opposing offenses changed the way they attacked the Cardinal last year. Those two points, in turn, lead to a key takeaway: For this upcoming 2014 campaign to end in defensive success, Stanford's secondary must continue what they did well around midseason in 2013. They must successfully counter-adjust to rapidly progressing Pac-12 opposition.
To elaborate, let's examine the ebb and flow of last year in a nutshell (the podcast embedded above discusses this in even further detail):
As a direct result of the Cardinal's dominant pass rush in 2012 (see Table 2; the team led the nation in sacks and tackles for loss, creating pressure which set the table for a flurry of Ed Reynolds interceptions on the back end), it seemed that opposing offenses countered with a shorter passing game in 2013 that was predicated on quick throws. The fallout: Stanford's rush didn't have as much time to get home (lowered sack numbers in Table 2 below suggest this), while the secondary had significantly fewer chances to defend downfield throws (see Table 1). Quick outlet passes, after all, are generally harder to break up than riskier downfield throws (but don't tell that to Trent Murphy).
Fairly early in the season, Washington and Utah both had significant success using this quick swing pass game against the Cardinal. Stanford successfully counter-adjusted by the second half of its loss in Salt Lake City, and they impressively shut down UCLA the following week by bringing extra physicality to fight through blocks on the edges (Brett Hundley managed only a measly 4.9 yards per attempt).
Early in the season, Stanford's defensive backs were caught off guard; soft perimeter defense allowed the Utes and Huskies chunks of free yardage after quick passes to the outside. So more rigid play on the outside, helped in large part by the introduction of Joe Hemschoot's sturdy 'big nickel' position, fixed this leak for the Cardinal as the campaign progressed.
Stanford enjoyed generally strong secondary play past mid-October, with the exception of disciplinary breakdowns early against USC and late in the Rose Bowl against Michigan State. In totality, after a campaign filled with adjustments and counter-adjustments, the final numbers paint the overall picture: Opponents' passes averaged 6.4 yards against Stanford in 2013, up from 6.1 yards in 2013. So the Cardinal's statistical erosion wasn't horrible, but it's certainly an area of potential improvement in 2014.
Table 1 - Stanford Secondary Production: Through the Years
||Opp. Average Per Pass
||% of Passes Defended
||DL Passes Defended
2014 Personnel: The Secondary
Reynolds is now in the NFL, while nickel back Usua Amanam has also graduated. Fifth year senior Kyle Olugbode and recent receiver convert Kodi Whitfield will split time succeeding Reynolds at free safety, while Zach Hoffpauir looks primed to take over nickel back duties. Those are Stanford's obvious replacement question marks.
For the Cardinal, the surefire good news comes on the outside, where both Alex Carter and Wayne Lyons have further strengthened their bodies over the offseason (Carter has also fully recovered from the lower body injury that nagged him throughout the offseason, while defensive coordinator Lance Anderson says Lyons has added significant consistency to his game). The pair might have already been the most physical cornerback duo in the Pac-12 last season, and continued bruising play on the outside is critical for Stanford, especially assuming opponents attack the team in the same perimeter-oriented way.
A nugget worth repeating: This actually may be the first time ever that the Cardinal has entered the season with significant question marks everywhere except cornerback and wide receiver.
Physical safety support is also essential to this system's success, and the Cardinal obviously feel good about the strong safety position with Jordan Richards, one of the team's senior captains, locking that position down. That leaves the free safety spot as a potential pivot point, and the hope is that Olugbode and Whitfield provide disciplined play there that can go blow-for-blow with the Pac-12's extremely talented bevy of quarterbacks. That may prove to be the glue of this 2014 pass defense.
By all accounts, new secondary coach Duane Akina has had a positive effect on his unit. The Cardinal is developing serious depth in its defensive backfield. While the fruits of much of this labor may not be immediately ready to enjoy (the true freshman class featuring Terrence Alexander, Alijah Holder, Alameen Murphy, Brandon Simmons, and Denzel Franklin may need a full season of strengthening -- though they did turn heads playing with the reserves in camp), there have been plentiful veteran bright spots this offseason. Whitfield's quick development may be the most notable, while the continued improvement of senior Ronnie Harris as cornerback gives the Cardinal another reliable body there. Six-foot-two senior Ra'Chard Pippens also made his share of plays this past offseason, while speedy sophomore Taijuan Thomas can potentially enter the mix with Hoffpauir at nickel back. Offensive convert Dallas Lloyd is now listed as a strong safety, and he'll likely be a top candidate to replace Richards next season.
Stanford features talent and quality coaching in the defensive backfield. As usual, the secondary's play can benefit from a strong symbiotic relationship with the team's pass rush. The unit's success also hinges on how well it performs in the chess match against increasingly sophisticated Pac-12 quarterbacks. That mental battle may be the most interesting one to watch here this year, especially with Reynolds no longer around. That Cardinal's ultimate statistical goal should be to bring opponents back down to about six yards gained per passing attempt. That would, in all likelihood, be reflective of a successful year for the Stanford secondary.
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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