By Joseph Beyda
As offseasons go, you’d think this one would be fairly stable for the Cardinal’s defensive backs. Stanford returns three starters with a combined 67 career starts, has a fifth-year senior ready to fill in at the vacant safety spot and despite losing defensive coordinator and secondary guru Derek Mason, it will go forward with the same defensive system after the internal promotion of Lance Anderson.
Enter Duane Akina, the heralded defensive backs coach who, even after 35 years on the job, is a master of keeping his players on their toes.
“He’s real energetic,” said fifth-year senior free safety Kyle Olugbode. “He’s really come in and helped us see things in a different way.”
For proof of that, look no further than a recent Pac-12 Networks video that showed Akina mic’d up during practice. “It’s hard when you’ve taken French,” he joked to his players at one point, “and we’re trying to teach you Chinese.”
Asked about that quote, Akina said that a lot of little things were changing this offseason, even with the Cardinal’s continuity scheme-wise.
“We’re trying to change some attitudes and maybe some fundamental techniques,” he said. “Maybe some of the language they’ve spoken in the past, we’re shifting that a little bit to try to be a little more concise.”
But Akina is anything but concise in his praise for the three starters returning to Stanford’s secondary. His assessment of senior strong safety Jordan Richards, who has made 28 consecutive starts and picked off six passes over the last two years, is particularly glowing. Akina has no problem mentioning Richards’ name among the bevy of Pro Bowl safeties he’s coached, from 1980s University of Arizona stud Chuck Cecil to 2014 Super Bowl champion Earl Thomas.
“I would throw Jordan right in that category with those guys,” Akina said. “He’s as smart of a football player as I’ve ever been around, very productive, he gets his hands on balls. He’s played in a lot of big games and he’s performed well in big games.”
For example, Richards has performed particularly well against preseason No. 7 UCLA, the final bump in Stanford’s incredibly rocky 2014 road schedule and a likely opponent in the Pac-12 Title Game (if the Cardinal gets that far). In three games against the Bruins over the last two seasons, Richards has led Stanford in tackles twice and recorded three interceptions, including a late pick that helped the Cardinal seal a 24-10 win last year.
Akina also said that he’s seen a lot of strides from both of the Cardinal’s returning corners. Senior Wayne Lyons has been improving in man-press coverage since Akina arrived in the spring, and junior Alex Carter has been focused on his eye control.
Carter is fresh off a hip injury that kept him out of spring practice, but was recently cleared to play by the coaching staff after a recovery that head coach David Shaw called “mind-blowing.”
“Between his work ethic, his maturity and the body that he’s been blessed with, for whatever reason, he’s come back ridiculously fast,” Shaw said. “And we haven’t rushed him. It’s just his body. He hit every checkmark, way ahead of when he should.”
That athleticism pays dividends on the playing field as well, but Akina still framed Carter as an undeveloped talent, even with a year and a half of starting experience under his belt.
“I really think [Carter’s] got a chance to be an outstanding player if we just really keep working hard at his craft,” Akina said. “What I’ve seen out of him this camp, I’m really excited…I don’t think we’ve seen that on tape yet. I think there’s more production in there, and I think he’s not close to the final product. Neither [corner], him nor Wayne, is close to the final product.”
A capable backup for that duo has also emerged in senior Ronnie Harris, who has earned praise from Shaw throughout training camp and made a speech to the team after Thursday’s practice. Harris’ strong play this summer has likely contributed to the coaching staff’s ability to have Lyons take reps at nickelback, versatility that Akina said will prove valuable on tape for Lyons in the future.
The biggest question mark in the Stanford defensive backfield this season is at free safety, a position manned by Eagles fifth-round draft pick Ed Reynolds for the last two years. The presumptive starter is Olugbode, but converted receiver Kodi Whitfield and quarterback Dallas Lloyd are also contending for playing time.
Since that junior duo’s transition to the defensive side of the ball in February, there was some speculation that Lloyd would be ready to play first, as he spent some time as a safety late last season and has 10 pounds of bulk (and an inch of height) on Whitfield. But it was Whitfield who played with the second-team defense in Saturday’s open scrimmage, and Shaw said afterward that he was Olugbode’s main competitor.
“Who starts the game, I don’t really care; they’re probably both going to play about the same amount,” Shaw said of Olugbode and Whitfield. “You’ll see Kodi rotate in there with the ones and play great with the ones. I think he’s got a chance to be a phenomenal football player.”
Another horse in the race is junior Zach Hoffpauir, who made a couple impressive plays in the run game on Saturday and, similarly, stopped ASU running back De’Marieya Nelson on a key fourth-and-goal in last year’s Pac-12 Title Game.
Hoffpauir, a two-sport athlete, missed the spring session because of baseball, but it’s taken just a couple weeks of camp for him to impress his new position coach.
“He’s a really instinctive player,” Akina said. “Not having spring, you would think maybe set him back, but he’s a very quick study. He learns the game quickly, and what’s more important, he sees the game quickly.”
“I’ve always said, it doesn’t matter what you run on paper,” he added. “[It’s] how fast you play.”
That’s especially true in today’s Pac-12, a league of quick-strike, spread offenses that the Cardinal have more or less shut down over the last two seasons; Stanford hasn’t allowed 30 or more points in a game since a 54-48 shootout win against Arizona in 2012. A big part of that success has been the speed of the Cardinal’s defensive backs, whether it came in the form of a Richards pass breakup, a Reynolds interception return or a Devon Carrington touchdown-saving tackle.
Of all the little things Duane Akina is changing this training camp, that won’t be one of them.
Contact Joseph Beyda at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu.
2014 Stanford Football Preview Series