Quenton Meeks’ tireless preparation headlines Stanford defense’s turnover-oriented mindset
Need a big play on defense? Give Quenton Meeks a call.
Without his two interceptions in Pullman last season, Stanford doesn’t claw its way back for an impossible win and head to the Rose Bowl. His pick-six in said Rose Bowl last season put Iowa away for good. And without his pick-six in South Bend on Saturday – well, who even knows where Stanford would be?
The Cardinal currently sit at -4 in turnover margin this season, 112nd of 128 teams in the FBS, despite defensive coordinator Lance Anderson’s stated emphasis over the last season or so on getting more turnovers and scoring more points on defense.
“We’ve got to score on defense, because all of the good defenses do,” Shaw said. “For us to be the defense we want to be, those are things that you do. It’s been something that we’ve been preaching and working on, nonstop, since the end of last year, as something that’s been imperative for us to be successful.”
But obviously it’s not that easy – you can’t just flip a switch and suddenly, poof, more turnovers appear.
According to DBs coach Duane Akina, coaching more turnovers is all about preparation in game week. From Stanford adding an increased emphasis on ball drills while in “conflict situations” – getting bumped or getting turned around to focusing more on strip tackles, the coaching staff is absolutely trying to do more physically to make those momentum-changing turnovers more of a reality.
But there’s only so much that can do – outside of that, you have to be prepared and have good instincts, particularly as a DB, and there’s no better example of that on Stanford’s team than Quenton Meeks.
My favorite Quenton Meeks memory is from last year’s Rose Bowl media days.
Let me build this image for those of you that might not have seen or heard about what happens at those Media Days: For the first time all season, the entire Stanford roster is made available at once for an hour (a big ‘ol timer on the wall makes sure this doesn’t go on a nanosecond longer than absolutely necessary), without media members having to go through the media relations staff to talk to a player, which is usually a necessity.
So all this happens in a big ballroom at the media hotel, with all of the players in uniform sitting around tables, waiting to see if any media members want to talk to them. Most of these guys will just be on their phones or chatting with each other or taking advantage of the photobooth or whatever gimmick it is in the corner that they have that year.
Not Quenton Meeks. Alone of all the players on Stanford’s team, he had his team-issued iPad with him, head down, replaying Iowa’s tape over and over again, obsessively studying the tendencies of Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard and the Hawkeyes offense in one of the rare moments that week when the players are allowed to take their minds off of preparation for the upcoming game.
QM is a guy that has always played with a huge chip on his shoulder, because despite his size, his lack of outstanding speed caused a few schools to take a hard pass on him – particularly USC. (“The rival I’m most looking forward to playing is USC because they pretty much told me to my face that I couldn’t play Division I football.”)
So as a manifestation of that, he obsessively prepares and studies film before games with a work ethic that is quickly approaching the levels of some of the most intelligent players Akina has coached in his long, long career, like Michael Huff, Chuck Cecil, Earl Thomas and, most recently, Jordan Richards.
“Quenton and Jordan Richards, while I was here, was another one that may not run 4.4 but because he saw the game so quickly and understood releases, he played 4.4,” Akina said. “That's still the bottom line -- how fast you play on tape, not on paper.”
And, like I mentioned earlier, that obsessive preparation has clearly paid off in game situations.
Lots has been made, of course, of the fact that he pretty much knew where C.J. Beathard’s ball was going to be placed before he even released it on that Rose Bowl pick-six last year. He saw the formation, he saw the one-step drop and he immediately knew to jump the route.
Same for that Washington State game last year, really. His second pick (the truly pivotal one) was a formation alert, and he saw the positioning of the X receiver on his side and the down and distance, and immediately knew exactly where the receiver was going and where he needed to be to pick the pass off.
Against Notre Dame on Saturday, the Cardinal had placed a special emphasis on recognizing and stopping the skinny post to Equanimeous St. Brown after seeing it on tape – and they knew that it was coming this time, letting Meeks undercut the route and take it to the house.
Of course, knowing where those receivers are going to be doesn’t necessarily mean you can make the play – you need to make this read and react almost immediately, within one or two seconds – but Akina says that Meeks has that instinctive ability as well, which makes him so dangerous.
“That's a gift, too, that he understands that, and then he can take the classroom to the field,” Akina said. “Some computers don't work as fast as others. His is beautiful."
Obviously, a lot of other pieces need to come together to create takeaways – more pressure up front, for one. But preparation like this is crucial, and having Quenton Meeks back on the field is a huge boon for Stanford’s defense because of it.
Burns didn’t play well at ND, but he’s still the man
No, the quarterbacks rotation (Chryst on the third drive of every game) isn’t going away, so don’t ask. According to QB coach Tavita Pritchard, it’s Shaw’s decision – and we all, of course, know that he doesn’t change his mind lightly.
That said, Burns’ job or his larger stake in the quarterbacking “balance” isn’t in jeopardy in the slightest, either, even after a forgettable outing at Notre Dame that both Shaw and Tavita admitted was more of a clunker than even some of the other performances over the last few weeks.
"I think he can play much better,” Shaw said. “I've seen him play better. He's had, so far, two days of practice, a really good week of practice. I've challenged him, as I've challenged the entire offense, to continue to progress.”
The coaches really did like how Burns played in the first three weeks of the season, but have seen him regress, at least in part due to the offensive line’s inability to protect the guy for a stretch. They’re being patient with him because they know he came into the season with no experience, but half a season in, some of those things – throws into contested pockets while ignoring open receivers or a lack of pocket presence – need to improve.
That said, it really doesn’t seem to this point like Chryst is much better – if he really were a breath of fresh air in practice or preparation or whatever, you’d think he’d get an extended look – which is why people calling for Burns’ head on Twitter and such need to relax.
“He’s the starter,” Pritchard said. He’s definitely deserved to be in there the first snap, and he’ll continue to be the starter. He’ll continue to be in there first, and we’ve got to win games with him.”
Speaking of the quarterback rotation, I don’t get the sense that even Pritchard and Shaw know whether the “rotate Chryst in for the third drive” experiment – quite unlike any other in the country – is even working or not.
As has been stated ad nauseam, the whole point of the rotation is to give both quarterbacks “meaningful snaps” in game situations, but when pressed further, Pritchard couldn’t necessarily say that the looks that Chryst has been getting have been “meaningful” – which is kind of against the point, no?
“It is game time and it is live reps, but it’s not the same going in during the fourth quarter when the game’s in hand, one way or the other,” Pritchard admitted. “It is different being in that game when it ‘matters’ and the game is still in the balance. I think it is different as a quarterback.”
He did say that in general, he thought the fuss about the quarterbacking rotation was more of a reflection of the state of the offense in general (“if we’re performing better as an offense and we’re talking about this situation, it’s a completely different conversation”) but I’m honestly not too sure about that.
He also kind of avoided questions about whether being out for the third drive of every game disrupts Burns’ feel for the game or whether Chryst has actually benefited from these looks or not, so I get the sense that this whole rotation is either not going according to plan or being rethought.
Either way, my stance is the same as it’s always been: Stick to one guy (Burns) and ride him, for better or for worse, and get him as many looks as possible, even on the third drives of games. If Chryst truly does deserve to play, his time will come. But that time’s clearly not now.
Malik Antoine’s family needs assistance
The media relations staff told me last week that none of the players’ families or homes were too seriously impacted by Hurricane Matthew, as far as they know.
In an unrelated situation, though, a fundraiser has circulated around the Stanford community over the last few days trying to raise money for freshman defensive back Malik Anoine, whose longtime family home suffered devastating damage in August from the terrible flooding in Louisiana.
Though his family is safe, they haven’t necessarily had the financial means or resources to kick-start the rebuilding process, especially since homeowner’s insurance is being denied and such for a lot of the families in the area.
As a result, Stanford filed for an NCAA and Pac-12 waiver to allow Antoine to start a fundraiser for his family – and that request was approved in a rare move on the NCAA’s part.
“We come to Stanford, and the people here at Stanford want you to be successful,” Shaw said. “They want to take care of you, they want you to be able to thrive. In your darkest hour, they’re going to come help you.
“That’s what that’s been indicative of. I haven’t been surprised one bit. I’ve been very excited about the fact that this was okayed by the NCAA and the Pac-12 Conference, and I’m excited about the outpouring of support for Malik and his family.”
The ongoing fundraiser has already raised $101,094 as of the time this article was written. You can contribute to the fund here.
Jameis Winston is a man of regrets
The former Florida State quarterback told reporters on Wednesday that he regretted not choosing Stanford when he had the chance to do so – even after winning a national championship in Tallahassee and getting taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft.
Shaw said that he saw the comments and appreciates them. Even though Shaw and Winston maintain a great relationship, he said that Winston had not expressed these sentiments to him before he heard of the news today.
"I saw him during Super Bowl week this past year,” Shaw said. “We talked about a bunch of things. As the interview said, he's still friends with a lot of guys -- some guys are still on the team, others have graduated. They're a good group. They got pretty close during that recruitment process. I don't take anything more from it than that. I firmly believe, as Jameis said, that Stanford's a special place. I appreciate those words.
“I understand those sentiments. I think he's done extremely well with the decisions that he's made. I've been able to see him a few times and have a fondness for Jameis. I always will. I appreciate those sentiments, but that's all in the past, and I'm excited for what he can do in his NFL career."
McCaffrey was back at it on Wednesday, participating in some individual work and some practice drills at full speed. He wasn’t in action for the whole practice, however, and the team will wait to really push him until Friday and Saturday, when he should be another game time decision.
“If we have to back off, then we'll back off,” Shaw said. “He passed the first test today, which was good."
According to Shaw, Daniel Marx is still a few weeks away from returning, and his hope is that the team can have its fullback on the field for the “last month or so of the season,” which would put his return maybe two or three weeks from now at the earliest.
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“We've been very, very smart with how we've done it without pushing him to come back,” Shaw said. “It's just been slower than we had hoped. We're not going to rush it. It will happen when it happens.”