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 improvement.
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 support.
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 in 2012.
"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 practice begins.
For earlier pieces in this three-part series, see Defensive Development Report, Pt. 1: Interior Defensive Line and Defensive 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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