Secondary a Primary Concern?

Just based on the graduation losses and depth (or lack thereof) in the replacements, we knew that the most obvious spot where Stanford might find weakness on this 2005 defense would come in the back end. T.J. Rushing is a bigtime playmaking athlete, with lots of tools and experience, but the rest of the secondary was scorched a little too much for comfort last Saturday...

In last weekend's season opener, Stanford allowed 248 yards passing on 29 attempts by Navy.  For comparison's sake, the Cardinal mustered just 235 yards through the air on 33 passes from Trent Edwards.  One team fielded a former #1 quarterback recruit in the nation, with prep All-Americans both blocking and receiving for him.  The other was comprised of athletes unwanted by the rest of the Division I-A nation, necessitating an option offense borrowed from antiquity.  For the latter to outperform the former in the air should not go unnoticed by Cardinalmaniacs™.

The question is if we should be concerned already about Stanford's defensive secondary, or if that first game was an anomaly.  There are reasons we can support the latter.  The Cardinal were operating in their season opener against a team whose entire offense is predicated upon execution, and they were assured of improved precision as they played in their second game of the season.  More crippling for the Card was the wave of injuries that washed over the defensive backfield right off the bat in Annapolis.

"The problem we had in our secondary is that we had three safeties go out in the first 15 plays," explains defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator Tom Hayes.  "I didn't know what I was going to do.  I had two walk-on safeties I was ready to play."

Starting free safety Trevor Hooper dislocated his shoulder in the first quarter and was lost for the game and a probable six weeks of action.  That pulled converted quarterback/wide receiver David Lofton into the game at the position, though he started cramping early - a problem that persisted throughout the game.  Starting strong safety Brandon Harrison suffered a neck injury, which pulled him out of the lineup, though he later returned.

Hayes did have to dip to one of his walk-on safeties, redshirt sophomore Peter Griffin, who actually acquitted himself reasonably well.  The next safety on the depth chart was redshirt freshman Aaron Smith, who spent every moment of practice leading up to the Navy game as Stanford's scout option quarterback.

Lofton was thrust into an unexpected role last Saturday, playing more than three quarters.  However, heading into the game, Hayes had planned on rotating him into the game at the start of the second quarter for a taste of duty.  But Lofton instead was plunged head first into the full fray.

"The game moves at a different speed," the 6'4" safety admits.  "The cut block drills we had seen in practice were nothing like what came at you in the game."

Adjustments had to be made for Lofton's first taste of first team defensive action, but the overriding concern he had that evening was the cramping.  He spent much of the week leading up to the game drinking fluids to stay hydrated, but on game day, he made one lapse in judgment.

"Instead of staying hydrated, I took a nap to stay rested," he shares.  "That caught up with me.  I'll definitely try to get a little more fluids next time, even though we may not have as much humidity or heat."

The safety shuffle was an unexpected hurdle, but there were mental lapses from all positions in the secondary, particularly in the second half of the game, that allowed Navy to mount a comeback.  For a team that had spent eight-plus months of physical and mental conditioning to be their strongest in the fourth quarter, that was unacceptable to see.

"As a team, we need to learn how to close, how to finish a game," Hayes charges.  "We had played well against their offense - bottled up the quarterback and the pitch.  A couple sweeps got away from us when we overplayed the fullback.  Give Navy credit on those playcalls."

But when Stanford coverage personnel were caught napping on their receivers, too many wide open targets gave Navy big gainers.  A primary offender was redshirt sophomore cornerback Nick Sanchez, in his first collegiate start.  He left his eyes in the offensive backfield too many times and left himself out of position.  Even though he recorded a key fourth-quarter interception to help stave a late Navy surge, he was out of position on the play.  His man would have been open if the ball had been thrown to the right spot.

"It's a wake-up to our guys, especially the less experienced guys" says Hayes in reference to Sanchez.  "He will have to keep working on it or eventually we will have to put somebody in there who will do it our way.  He's been exposed, and now he needs to respond."

While most Stanford fans will look at tonight's game against UC Davis as a soft or non-existent test, they throw the ball a lot and have a strong, time-tested passing game.  The athletes for the Aggies may not be USC, or even Washington State, but it will be something we watch closely.  Navy was an option team who passed by deception, which leaves us unsure how to measure the performance by Sanchez, Lofton and others in the defensive backfield.  There is at least an initial concern that mental mistakes could be costly for the Cardinal in the back end of the defense, and good teams with balanced offenses will be able to exploit that even better than Navy.

"It only takes two or three plays back there to change the entire game," Hayes warns.  We will heed his caution and concern for now.

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