Most Improved Unit
It's time to toss the front's staggering 57 sacks and 120 tackles
for loss aside for a moment. Stanford's secondary was the team's
most improved unit in its 2012 Rose Bowl run. A year after injuries
to Delano Howell, Ed Reynolds, Wayne Lyons and Barry Browning threw
raw youngsters into the fire, health and reinforcements arrived to
fortify the back end of the defense.
Jordan Richards, who struggled mightily as a true freshman replacing
Howell in 2012, appeared a different player in 2013. His game-defining,
ball-dislodging hit rattled Wisconsin receiver Chase Hammond in the Rose Bowl. Meanwhile, the junior Reynolds returned from
an ACL tear to patrol the free safety position opposite Richards to
record-setting effectiveness. His four interception returns for
touchdowns and 302 interception return yards both matched NCAA
records. (We're purposely ignoring the blatant blown call that marked
Reynolds short of the goal line in the Pac-12 title game, which technically cost him both of those records; Reynolds finished one pick six and one yard short of both of them)
In the end, the secondary racked up 15 interceptions on
the season, more than double 2011's paltry total of six. The unit
defensed 84 passes, up from 55 in 2011, and broke up 69 -- an
improvement of 21.
Aside from Richards' and Reynolds' emergence in the middle of the
field, the complexion of the cornerback position changed drastically
with the arrival of freshman Alex Carter. No. 25 arrived on campus
with the physicality to excel in run support and the speed to
develop in pass coverage. Though he experienced his growing pains
guarding the throw (see Arizona's 491-yard passing frenzy), he
seized one starting cornerback spot with his marked early
Senior Terrence Brown held his lock on the other side, turning in a
fine season that validated Stanford's offseason obsession with
open-field tackling. A year after being slipped silly in the second
level by Oregon's blur attack and Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon
in the Fiesta Bowl, the Cardinal resolved to tighten loose screws
and not be torched again athletically. Brown was excellent
corralling ballcarriers in space.
Usua Amanam (Rose Bowl defensive player of the game) and Ronnie Harris both made their share of plays at the hybrid nickel back position. Amanam -- who bookended the season with spectacular performances at his position against San Jose State and Wisconsin -- will almost certainly stay put in 2013, but there are rumblings that Harris, who will be a junior, may thrown in the mix at cornerback. Spring practice may hold more answers.
Stanford's back-end tackling improvements, though, may have been
best embodied by a second-string player. Junior safety Devon Carrington saw plenty of disappointing moments in 2011. But his
blazing speed, so heavily touted out of high school, was on full
display during one of the season's pivotal moments at Oregon. Officially announcing the arrival of elite back-end
athleticism to the Stanford defense (an ingredient sorely
lacking in the past), Carrington ran down the
Ducks' Marcus Mariota on a diagonal across the entire Autzen Stadium
field to save a touchdown, and quite possibly the game.
Reserves will have a say in the lineup complexion of 2013,
particularly with Brown moving onto the NFL Draft. Browning and
Lyons will compete for the cornerback spot opposite Carter.
Meanwhile, Ra'Chard Pippens will enter his junior season, the year in which
a move for more playing time must be made per defensive coordinator Derek Mason. Mason has expressed
desire to see more physicality out of all these players so that
Stanford doesn't skip a beat when it comes to 2013 perimeter run
The Young Up-and-Comers
Freshman safeties Zach Hoffpauir and Drew Madhu made a sizable impact in
their first seasons on The Farm and now look to be candidates for
playing time next season.
"There's a reason why Zach saw the field so early," Mason said. "He
competes in practice. He's physical."
Coaches say the Arizona native, who flipped from Cal to
Stanford late in the recruiting game, has opened eyes with his raw hitting
instincts in practice. That much was on public display in the
Cardinal's final open preseason scrimmage, when he leveled fellow
freshman Barry J. Sanders near the goal line.
Hoffpauir will play baseball for Mark Marquess' squad this spring,
while his Floridian counterpart Madhu will be "diving into the
playbook" over the offseason. While Hoffpauir has raised eyebrows
with his physicality, Madhu has impressed with his nifty ball
skills. Outside of mop-up duty, he saw action only on special teams
"Drew Madhu is going to be outstanding," Mason said. "He's done what
Jordan Richards and Ed Reynolds did: He didn't redshirt and he got
spot time. He's poised for a breakout spring. He's got size, speed,
great instincts, and awareness. His hands are unbelievable. He and
Ed Reynolds probably have the best hands in the secondary."
The competition for playing time restarts February 25, when spring
For earlier pieces in this three-part series, see Defensive
Development Report, Pt. 1: Interior Defensive Line and
Development Report, Pt. 2: Defensive Ends, Linebackers
David Lombardi is the Stanford
Football Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him
out at www.davidlombardisports.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @DavidMLombardi.
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