The 2012 Stanford football season was a wild ride for Cardinal fans, as they were faced with an incredibly daunting stretch of finishing the season needing 5 straight wins against ranked teams to secure the first conference championship since 1999.
What made that run even more amazing is that Stanford's defense lead the way, which is difficult for many to accept given the school's history of having to win high-scoring shootouts. Expectations have never been higher for Stanford football as many experts are predicting a top 5 preseason ranking due to the returning talent from a Rose Bowl champion roster, and some optimistic fans are quietly talking about national championship possibilities.
If the 2013 Cardinal are going to have a chance at the final BCS title, the defense is going to have to continue the dominance it showed late last season - and the good news is that the pieces are in place to do just that.
Defensive Coordinator (or should I say Willie Shaw Director of Defense) Derek Mason is entering his fourth year on the Stanford staff and his third as the man calling the defensive shots. He fits the Shaw mold of assistant perfectly - he's a young, experienced, and energetic coach who possesses a great ability to teach the fundamentals of the secondary positions. The results speak for themselves, as Stanford comes into 2013 with the best secondary in this history of the program. Athleticism, experience, instincts, and great tackling ability all make the group as feared a unit in the conference and maybe the country.
- Alex Carter came on in the middle of last season and quickly showed why he was such a highly ranked high school player. His fumble-forcing hits against Notre Dame and Colorado were perfect examples of how he combines prototypical size and strength with form tackling.
His cover skills also make him difficult to target on the deep ball because he has outstanding recovery speed and the ability to play the ball in the air. He's effective in man-to-man, he can bump at the line of scrimmage, he can sit back in cover 3 and drive on anything in front of him because of his quickness, and he showed the big hit ability in cover 2 where he is responsible as the flat defender and run supporter.
The bottom line: all of those attributes mean the 6-foot, 205-pound true sophomore has the potential to be Stanford's first NFL CB to be drafted in the first round since Darrien Gordon in 1993. The preseason accolades of safeties Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards should also bring some attention to him and allow him to be a real breakout star in 2013.
- Before Alex Carter arrived on the Farm, Wayne Lyons was one of the most heralded DB recruits in Stanford history. The 5-star safety/corner from Florida showed up on campus and had fans drooling over his potential - he combined size and speed at what has historically been a position of weakness for the Cardinal.
I still remember a play he made at Duke that stunned me because of his change of direction and closing speed. However, a foot injury derailed his freshman year and he was a little lost in the shuffle in 2012 because of the great play of Brown, Browning, and Carter. However, a healthy offseason and a Barry Browning injury (which kept him out of spring practice) has allowed Lyons to made big strides in his development and feel more comfortable at the position.
Although he hasn't gotten much playing time, the one thing that Lyons hasn't shown is the quick recognition of route combinations, but I am expecting more offseason experience will translate into confidence and allow him to improve. Once he is able to put it all together, Lyons should be able to reach his potential that made him the 5-star high school player a few years ago.
- How deep is Stanford's secondary? The most experienced CB on the roster in Barry Browning (11 starts, 31 game appearances, 2 career INTs) is going to have to battle for playing time in 2013. Browning was forced to sit out of spring ball because of an injury, but he should be back and healthy when fall camp starts, and the competition for the starting spot will be one to watch. Browning is a little leaner that Lyons and Carter, but his long arms, quick feet, and great instincts make him a difficult matchup for any receiver. He is also solid in run support and a sure tackler, another sign that this group is incredibly well-coached.
- One of the most impressive qualities of David Shaw's coaching staff has been the ability to recognize where a player can excel and then giving them the opportunities to make plays. Bay Area native Usua Amanam (from Bellarmine High School in San Jose) has had a tumultuous Stanford career, bouncing between offensive and defensive positions before he settled in as the Nickelback and became one of the most dangerous players on the field in 2012.
He finished last season with 42 Tackles, 10.5 TFL, 3 fumble recoveries, and an INT that will resonate with Stanford fans forever because it sealed the Rose Bowl victory. While many thought the nickel position could be a position of weakness for Stanford after the departure of playmaker Michael Thomas, Usua quickly showed that all he needed was an opportunity. After all, he had 2 sacks and 4 TFL in his very first start against SJSU.
Amanam possesses a Shayne-Skov type ability to disguise his blitzes and time the snap count perfectly, which allows him to get around the edge before the offense can react. He also improved his coverage abilities as the season went along and was one of the more confident players throughout spring practice. The bad news for Amanam is that he is not going to surprise anyone after an impressive 2012, but he is no stranger to overcoming challenges in his Stanford career.
- A big question mark heading into the 2012 season was the safety position and how the Cardinal would try to replace not only the productivity, but also the leadership of Delano Howell and Michael Thomas. How much difference can one year make? Stanford enters the 2013 season with one of the most decorated and feared safety duos in the entire country: Jordan Richards and Ed Reynolds.
Derek Mason has done a remarkable job of teaching the fundamentals and technique of the position, but at the same time enabling the entire secondary to play freely and rely on instincts and recognition. Richards and Reynolds embody that confidence as they always seem to be there to make the big hit or step in front of the deep pass. Stanford has had some talents roam the deep third over the years (Tim Smith, John Lynch, Tank Williams) but I don't think there has been a more complete tandem in the defensive backfield than Richards and Reynolds.
- Jordan Richards was able to get onto the field as a true freshman in 2011 because of his size and speed, but he was still raw from the standpoint of understanding defensive concepts and offensive tactics. The 2012 version was a much more polished player and he demonstrated both the big play ability (12 passes broken up, one sack, 3 INTs) and the sure tackling (69 tackles, 7 TFL) that are the marks of all great safeties.
However, those great stats don't show reputation, and Richards earned one as he became one of the conference's hardest hitters - I'm sure receivers running towards the middle of the field will have images of his Rose Bowl hit on Chase Hammond in their minds.
It was also telling that Mason turned to Richards to shut down UCLA tight end Joseph Fauria after he torched the Stanford secondary in the first of their back-to-back matchups at the end of last season (In the first game, Fauria had 4 catches for 66 yards and a TD, but in the second game Richards held him to two catches for just 34 yards). If he continues to improve, NFL scouts will be looking for Richards to enter the draft after his junior season, which is becoming a theme for this 2013 Stanford secondary unit.
- It isn't often than a team's biggest playmaker can be found on the defensive side of the ball, but that is the case with Ed Reynolds. In fact, Ed had more touchdowns in 2012 than any other returning Stanford offensive player (he had three).
While Stanford will not necessarily be counting on that type of production in 2013, Reynolds will need to continue to come up with big plays at crucial times, like he did with the game changing interception against UCLA in the Pac-12 championship game. What stands out more than any physical attribute is Reynolds' ability to recognize the route and anticipate the quarterback's target. His timing was simply incredible - he was able to step in front of the intended receivers time and time again, and actually missed out on another 2 or 3 opportunities because the ball went right through his hands.
Once he got his hands on the ball, Reynolds was tough to bring down - he racked up 301 return yards off interceptions, which plays out to a cool average of 50 yards per return. The one area Reynolds can improve upon is playing the ball at the highest point on passes to the corner in Cover 2, but that is certainly a nitpick. He's showed all of the physical and mental tools needed to be one of the best safeties in the country, and he did it in just his first season as starter. There's no telling how good Reynolds could be in 2013.
One of the most intriguing questions about the secondary in general is "how much better can they get"? They were able to achieve so much is such a short period of time that one could worry about levels of improvement in 2013. The good news for Stanford fans is Derek Mason is back as their coach, and with him leading the most talented group in school history, I am expecting to see an even more complete and productive group this season.