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Planning for success: Stanford Cardinal

10/7/2014

While legendary coach Don James and Warren Moon led Washington to the 1978 Rose Bowl championship, a back-up quarterback named Duane Akina began absorbing the bits and pieces of wisdom that would forge his coaching career.

Now, 36 years later, Akina's a man credited with developing 28 college defensive backs into NFL players (Earl Thomas, Michael Huff, and Quentin Jammer are among his list of former pupils), and he's suddenly at Stanford, presiding over the nation's leading secondary and biking around the pristine campus in the Bay Area sun with headphones on, seemingly riding without a worry in the world.

"So many things lured me here," Akina smiles. "The campus, the weather, it's beautiful."

The story of how one of the nation's most respected defensive backs coaches ended up on the Farm is simple but indicative of Stanford's relatively newfound clout in the college football world. It's timely now, too, especially since his Cardinal secondary is about to square off with Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday, who's likely in between breaking the NCAA single game passing record (734 yards last Saturday) and the single-season mark.

The Akina transition

After spending nearly a quarter century coaching fabled secondaries under Dick Tomey at Arizona (think "Desert Swarm") and Mack Brown at Texas (think "DBU"). Akina and the Longhorns split ways after Charlie Strong took over in Austin this past offseason.

It didn't take long for David Shaw to beckon from Palo Alto, and that set the table for the present situation, one that has allowed Akina to bring his fiery drive back to the Pac-12.

It's not uncommon to see Akina hustling out on the field, firing dart after dart to his Cardinal defensive backs in periods of extra post-practice work while showing off his former college quarterback's arm in the process.

"A year ago at this time, I would not have guessed that I'd be here," Akina shakes his head. "But from afar, I'd always admired what Stanford had done defensively. I believed they'd cracked a code. They took that competitive spirit in the classroom and they brought it to the grass."

Since his arrival, Akina has worked to put his own stamp on that successful Stanford defensive code, teaming with new defensive coordinator Lance Anderson to develop a more "concise" defensive scheme that allows players to attack as quickly as possible without developing confusion in the heat of the moment (The Pac-12 Network captured Akina speaking to his defensive backs on video: "It's hard when you've taken French and we're trying to teach you Chinese").

Early success, but then a hiccup and now a Wazzu test

So far, results of Akina's shift have been promising. After some struggles in the 2013 stretch run, Stanford is allowing only 4.4 yards per opposing pass attempt, the best figure in the nation. The secondary has only surrendered over 100 passing yards in two of five games so far.

"[Akina's] energetic," cornerback Ronnie Harris said. "He helps us see things differently and understand how to use our body types in the most effective way possible."

Akina continues to harp on the theme of physicality along the perimeter, a commitment that's helped the Stanford defense snuff out action on the ground along the edges. As a whole, the numbers through five games are suffocating: The Cardinal has only allowed a nation-best 7.2 points per game.

That's not to say that Stanford's performance on the back end has been bump-free: In last Saturday's 17-14 loss to Notre Dame, cornerback Wayne Lyons struggled down the stretch, and a blown coverage on fourth-and-11 gave Notre Dame's Everett Golson an opening to throw the winning touchdown with a minute left.

That late breakdown presents obvious concerns before Washington State's visit, setting up what may be Akina's most important week yet as Stanford's defensive backs coach. During his record-smashing performance last week, Halliday threw six touchdowns to accompany his 734 yards. He did not turn the ball over. The Cougars' quarterback has reached the 3,000-yard plateau faster than anyone in NCAA history, and his current tally of 3,052 yards is nearly 900 yards ahead of second place.

The Cardinal have again established themselves as the Pac-12's premiere defensive team, and on Friday, they'll be tested by the nation's most statistically gaudy passing offense. Akina's secondary will obviously have massive say in this matchup. So this week, the coach is tasked with ensuring Lyons rebounds and the rest of his stable executes to slow Mike Leach's air raid.

Cornerback Alex Carter and safety Jordan Richards both thrived in a 55-17 win against the Cougars in 2013, but this is a new season. Akina's at the helm this time, looking to tack on yet another line to his already-illustrious resume. So if his unit can shut down the nation's most statistically eye-popping offense, Akina will be well on his way to adding another top-notch chapter to his book.