Derek Mason had quite the debut season as Stanford's sole defensive coordinator. After sharing duties with Jason Tarver in 2011, Mason led the Cardinal defense to one of its best season ever in program history this year.
Despite playing in the wide-open Pac-12, Stanford held opponents to under 18 points per game, ranked first by a wide margin in tackles for loss, and was third in rush defense.
"It's been a fun ride," Mason said. "It's been a great time coaching these kids. I think as long as you're seeing growth for these guys, for what they do, it's a blessing and this year has been as fun as any to coach a group that's probably in a lot of people's eyes overachieved to a certain degree, so I'm thankful."
There's perhaps no greater reason for the defense's improvement than the performance of the Cardinal secondary. What was expected to be a weak link has, with a few exceptions, held opposing passing offenses in check.
"This is really the second group of guys to come through," Mason said. "You had Richard Sherman, Delano Howell, Michael Thomas and Johnson Bademosi, who were actually the foundation of the first wave. These guys are guys who played behind those guys, so really, they saw it being done, they were able to emulate the process and try to build on it."
Perhaps the most encouraging part of the secondary's success? All four cornerbacks who received significant playing time and both starting safeties should be back next season.
"I think they played well, they gave us a chance and I think it's a great group and they're going to continue to get better," Mason said.
Stanford two true first-year safeties - Drew Madhu and Zach Hoffpauir - didn't have a chance to learn from the aforementioned NFL quartet, but did accrue valuable experience in 2012.
"I think when you play young guys, you're looking to get them experience so when they come off that first season they understand how important the weight room is, so moving into the spring it's not new for them anymore," Mason said. "It's old hat, their bodies are hopefully physically better, and now they're able to process the information fast and play fast."
Several of those younger players have shown flashes during the first few weeks of bowl practices, Mason said.
"I tell you what, more than half of our young defensive players (have stood out)," Mason said. "Whether you talk about an Ikenna (Nwafor), whether you talk about a Blake Martinez, whether you talk about a Drew Madhu, who had to sit out but I saw a couple of flashes in his movement... You look at guys like Blake Lueders, who was off this season, but for the first time we're having a chance to touch him a little bit. You look at what's happening inside with some of those young guys, whether you're talking about Jordan Watkins, whether you're talking about Anthony Hayes coming along. To see those guys in scrimmage situations, you say okay, we have a chance to lock and reload."
Competition for a spot in the two-deep at nose tackle - which should involve Nwafor and Hayes, among others - will be wide open heading into the spring.
"All of those guys will be in the mix," Mason said. "And I'll tell you what you do: You have one spot. You put five guys into one spot, and I'll tell you what - everybody wants to play, so all you have to do is create a competitive situation and let those guys figure it out."
But for now, Mason and the Cardinal are focused squarely on the upcoming task, stopping Wisconsin running back Montee Ball and the Badgers in the upcoming Rose Bowl. Though Mason downplayed the notion that familiarity with a pro-style attack could provide a significant advantage to defenses, he did admit that the Card won't mind facing a more conventional attack.
"To be honest, they look familiar, but we don't play our offense," Mason said. "The difference is we see our offense in spring ball, we see our offense in fall camp. Other than that we never really play our offense. But it is good to see conventional football we have a pretty good idea what they're going to do. They have a pretty good idea of what we're going to do. So you know what, it's like Coach Shaw said already -- it's going to be two freight trains going 100 miles an hour at each other. Let's see what happens."