Losses to the secondary have a trickle-down effect
Defensive backs coach Duane Akina actually thinks his secondary covered pretty well against Jake Browning and the Huskies on Friday – but losing Alijah Holder and Quenton Meeks really limited what he was able to do with his combination coverages and reads, and, well, Jake Browning played out of his mind.
“Last week was a product of it’s a very good football team executing at a very high level,” Akina said. “There was no margin for error. There were a couple of throws where – like the first fade to Alameen – there was good coverage and that’s just going to happen to anyone.”
Akina noted that it wasn’t necessarily the case that there were lapses in coverage – lots of times, Washington receivers caught the ball while surrounded by defenders. But Browning released the ball quickly and, more importantly, was very accurate, making him impossible to beat without pressure up front.
And yeah, about that (nonexistent) pressure – before people start blaming the secondary, keep in mind that many of the completions were Browning going through his reads because, well, he had time to, unlike Ryan Burns.
“They just out-executed us,” Akina said. “They threw a better ball than the coverage, and many times, the ball can beat the coverage.”
Akina was actually quite happy with how Frank Buncom played in his first real action of the season. The plan was always to start giving Buncom more looks at corner as the season progressed, and that timeline might have become accelerated a bit by the injuries – but Buncom didn’t show it.
According to Akina, Buncom is around where Holder and Meeks were at this point last year, but with one key distinction from Meeks: The team has stopped working Buncom out at nickel because they see a lot of potential for him to become a good press corner moving forward and want him to focus his work entirely on that.
“Now, we’ll just see if he’ll develop as rapidly as those two did, because they really developed quickly as the season went on last year,” Akina said.
Despite how well Buncom played in the two starters’ absence, Akina did say that the losses to Holder and Meeks were more significant because their experience allowed him to do things that he doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable doing with the other guys.
“In actual snaps and ballgame IQ, they’ve been through a lot, so we were able to do a lot more things with them,” Akina said.
He also noted that guys like Alexander and Buncom might be dealing with a lot on their plates because they’re also significant contributors on special teams as well, to which they’re now adding to starting duties in the secondary.
He was concerned about the tackling, though – Stanford did miss more tackles against Washington than they had, seemingly, in the last six years – and with Washington State coming up, open-field tackling will win or lose you the game.
“We’ve got to be able to get off blocks,” Akina said. “Against Washington, it’s kind of a different deal – you have to get off of a block and be able to attack a hip. This game will be ball caught, one-on-one open-field tackle.”
It’s all about leverage and becomes more of a mental game. Akina noted that Luke Falk’s specialty is really in seeing zone coverage well and going through his checkdowns, and with Washington State’s route packages, someone will always be open. He’s trying to make sure his players make smart angles and force the receivers towards where defensive help is waiting – but of course, that’s much easier said than done.
With that in mind, the secondary is also focusing on taking away Falk’s primary targets early in the play’s progression so that the defensive might have more time for the pass rush to hit home.
“When there’s zone coverage, there’s always somebody open, but you’re hoping there’s a progression and you can get to him before he can get to four, and we always talk about that we’ve got to win early and we’ve got to get him to the second and third look.”
They’re going to need some help from the front seven for that – because if there’s no pressure up front, Falk is good enough to make Stanford pay.
Fanaika did well in practice on Wednesday but the coaches aren’t yet ready to give him a full green light on Saturday. They’re considering playing him in certain spots if he’s not completely healthy by then, and what’s looking like the top option right now is Bright moving over to right tackle and Fanaika splitting time with Nate Herbig at left guard.
“[We’re] very comfortable [playing Herbig],” Shaw said. “If you put a young guy in there, we know what he’s good at, we know what he knows, and we’ll stay within that.”
“I don’t know if he’s ready to play, but he participated in a little bit of practice today,” Shaw said. “Not completely full go yet.”
Shaw said that Tucker is “very unlikely” to play on Saturday.
Both Holder and Meeks participated in practice on Wednesday. Shaw said that they’re “unlikely” to play on Saturday against Washington State but “not that far away” and that there’s a better chance of them playing next week.
Shaw said that “it may be slightly difficult” for Marx to even play next week, so keep an eye on him as an injury that might be longer-term.
Owusu feels great and Shaw is hopeful that he can play next week. He started running today and “broke a sweat” for the first time but didn’t practice.
“If you’re looking for an excuse, you’ll always find one. We’re just looking for reasons. It’s a great opportunity for these guys to play, and we’re going to step up even if there’s only two of them. Those two will play the whole game and we’ll be fine. That’s got to be the attitude we have towards it.” - Akina