STANFORD, Calif. -- Stanford's defense went from mediocre-to-lousy in 2009 to darn-close-to-dominant in 2010. New Cardinal defensive coordinator Derek Mason, who oversaw the secondary last season, is quick to give credit where it is due for what he calls "a complete metamorphosis."
"Vic [Fangio] brought in a sense of accomplishment, stability and experience," said Mason of the coordinator who followed former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh to the San Francisco 49ers. "Guys bought in to what he was selling."
Considering how much better the Stanford secondary was in 2010, Mason certainly deserves his share of credit. The pass efficiency defense improved from 98th in the nation to 16th in one year with Mason.
Mason believes there's no reason for regression in 2011, even though Fangio and five key starters are gone, including nose tackle Sione Fua, who made the Cardinal's new 3-4 look work by anchoring the middle of the line and keeping the linebackers free to roam in space.
"The biggest component was confidence," Mason said. "When you have some success, it starts to breed confidence."
Some notes from our chat:
The general gist from Mason: There's good depth at linebacker, good competition in the secondary and maybe some concerns up front. Replacing Fua -- perhaps the most underrated player in the Pac-10 last year -- isn't going to be easy. "We're going to do it by committee," Mason said. "There is no player right now that we can say, he's the guy."
As for that D-line, Matt Masifilo is back at one end. Ben Gardner probably is tops at the other end. Terrence Stephens, David Parry and Henry Anderson are options inside at nose tackle. Mason also mentioned Eddie Plantaric as an option. Mason called Anderson, a redshirt freshman, a "swing guy" who could play inside our outside: "When we look at who has come the furthest in the shortest amount of time, it's Henry Anderson."
Mason also admitted -- after a certain sports writer whined about the multiplicity of looks from the Stanford D -- that the the Cardinal defense is more of a hybrid 3-4 than a pure 3-4. There were plenty of times last fall when four defenders put their hands on the ground in a 4-3 look. It's about matchups, he said. And if it's clear there's more talent at linebacker, which appears to be the case, "We could take a defensive end out and put another linebacker in. We're going to get the best athletes in."
Mason repeatedly talked about incoming freshman, particularly linebacker James Vaughters, who by most accounts will be too good to redshirt, as well as a defensive backs Wayne Lyons, Ra'Chard Pippens and Ronnie Harris. "We're not afraid to play true freshmen," he said.
Inside linebacker Shayne Skov and outside linebacker Chase Thomas are All-Pac-12 talents. As for the two vacancies at linebacker, two sophomores, Blake Lueders and Trent Murphy, are battling outside and senior Max Bergen and sophomore Jarek Lancaster are competing inside. Alex Debniak also is in the mix outside -- Mason included him with Lancaster and Lueders when he said, "Those three guys have probably come the furthest in the shortest period of time." And Vaughters, well, he's got great high school video and could help inside or out.
Linebacker? "We are a very athletic group across the board," Mason gushed.
As for the secondary, the question is not only Richard Sherman's former sport at cornerback. Said Mason, "Richard's spot is up for grabs. Both corners are up for grabs. I'll say this. There's not a position in the secondary that isn't up for grabs." That includes both returning starters at safety, Mike Thomas and Delano Howell (here's a guess Mason was mostly making a point about competition -- "We're always going to keep pushing the envelope" -- Thomas and Howell are almost certain to start). At corner, Barry Browning, Johnson Bademosi and sophomore Terrence Brown are in the mix. Sophomore safety Devon Carrington also has caught Mason's eye.
Interesting quote from Mason: "We probably played as much man coverage as any team in the country [in 2010]."
The Stanford defense finished ranked in the nation's top 1o in scoring, which is more remarkable when you consider it gave up 52 points at Oregon. That ill-fated trip is something that Mason seems to recall as vividly and often as the fancy, positive stats. It's clear he has -- and likely his staff and players have -- spent plenty of time thinking about the Ducks, who handed Stanford its only loss. Said Mason, "The team we have to go get is the Oregon Ducks. Oregon is king of the hill."