Widely regarded as one of the top defensive backs gurus in all of football, Stanford DB's coach Duane Akina has coached numerous college and NFL stars in his three-plus decades in the profession. From Chuck Cecil to Earl Thomas and dozens of standout players in between, Akina knows secondary talent.
So it was quite the statement when Akina mentioned yesterday that current Cardinal safety Jordan Richards is up there with some of the best Akina has ever coached.
"I've dealt with a lot of great safeties over the years all the way back to my years at Arizona when I had Chuck Cecil there, who was a great player, and the McAlister's, all the way through to the safeties you see in the NFL now, Earl Thomas, Kenny Vaccaro, A.J. (Aaron) Williams, all these guys," Akina said. "And Jordan Richards is right there in my humble opinion with those guys, where we are today.
"I mean, he is a top-flight college safety. My standard for great mental players has been Chuck Cecil, who has been an NFL defensive coordinator, Michael Huff, who was absolutely brilliant. When I say the high standard, Jordan Richards is in the group of Chuck Cecil and Michael Huff when it comes to that level of intelligence and ability. We're going to give him a lot of different hats to wear. We'll get him down, give him an opportunity to play nickel, he can play dime, he can play corner, so he has a lot of position flexibility. We will ask him to do maybe more things than have been asked in the past."
Richards is not Stanford's only defensive back who has the versatility to play multiple positions, however.
"I think Alex Carter has a tremendous amount of ability," Akina said. "I think there's more in there than what he has put on film and I'm out to go get it all. Wayne Lyons, I see him as really an outstanding corner that has a lot of position flexibility… I see a lot of flexibility where guys can play corner, they can come in and play nickel. Not only can they play those positions physically, they can play them mentally, too. Sometimes a great safety that knows all the positions mentally, he doesn't have the athletic ability to go out and play corner. Or a great corner that has great athletic ability can't learn all the concepts that a safety has to learn or a nickel or the different calls. But we have guys here that can learn them mentally and play them physically. So I'm excited to get started with them."
Akina is also bullish on the prospects Stanford's five true freshmen in the secondary: Brandon Simmons, Terrence Alexander, Alameen Murphy, Alijah Holder and Denzel Franklin.
"All of them (have shown me something)," Akina said. "I think we've guessed right on all of them. I think they're all going to be players. I think there's enough athletic ability there. Alijah (Holder) and Alameen (Murphy) have great length. Terrence (Alexander) has shown great foot speed, great quickness. (Brandon) Simmons I've known about since he was from Texas. Good football player, and so is Denzel. I think those guys will have a bright future and the best thing for them is they have great models in the room with Ronnie Harris and Alex Carter and Wayne Lyons and Jordan and Kyle Olugbode. They are just great models for them on how to prepare and how to practice."
Several of Stanford's veterans are candidates to fill the nickelback position. Lyons is currently the leader in the clubhouse for the role, but Akina is also considering Ronnie Harris, Jordan Richards and Zach Hoffpauir, among others.
"We can go a lot of different directions (at nickel) but right now Wayne Lyons would probably be the first one that would go in there," Akina said. "But I'm teaching Jordan to be a nickel also. I really believe what's helped safeties in the past is to be able to put on film that you can (cover) that slot receiver and play man to man, and he has the ability to do that. Ronnie Harris can go in there. Hoffpauir, who I didn't get a chance to work with in the spring because he was busy going yard over there (at Sunken Diamond), I'm really excited to get a chance to work with Hoffpauir. I think he brings a lot of energy to the table, much like Ronnie Harris. They just have some personality about them and he's a quick study, can make plays, and he has position flexibility that he can fall into the nickel.
"What we've done in the past is there's a big nickel, there's a small nickel. So if it's a quick, Wes Welker (type of player), you can bring Ronnie Harris in there to match up on a quicker, slot receiver. So we're building a lot of flexibility into the package and the players are able to do that because they can learn it mentally, and like I said, physically."
Before Stanford coach David Shaw hired Akina as his defensive backs coach, Shaw had extended conversations with former Texas coach Mack Brown about Akina.
"Mack and I had multiple long conversations about him," Shaw said. "Mack has coached a lot of football and he said he's one of the best football coaches he has ever been around. He's passionate. He's family-oriented. You see him running around. He's never in the same spot twice. He's all over the place. The guys feel his energy. It's very similar to Derek Mason - the guys know that he cares about their success. He wants them to be good. So it's a cajoling, it's a pushing because, 'I know you can do so much better,' and they feel that passion and energy from him."
Receiver Ty Montgomery might not be completely recovered from the shoulder injury that has limited his participation in practice, but any lingering health issues have not noticeably hindered his performance.
"Ty Montgomery was phenomenal (on Wednesday)," Shaw said. "(He's) looking great. He still has the yellow jersey so he's not getting jostled too much, but we're still pressing him and being physical with him at the line. He's up to 220 pounds, over 220, at four percent body fat. That makes no sense to me. And he's fast and explosive and feels great. So we'll see. Hopefully we can get the clearance from the doctors but we'll do what's smart for him early in the season."
Several offensive linemen also caught Shaw's attention for their strong play through the first few days of training camp.
"I think Johnny Caspers has done extremely well along with Josh Garnett," Shaw said. "The two guys that are in kind of new roles and had decent springs, but not great springs. Josh had a good spring. Both have started off like gangbusters. They're confident, they know what they're doing. We started out power scheme today and both guys pulled great, (they have a) great understanding. Kyle Murphy has been great. Andrus has had to miss sometime because of class so Kyle has been able to flip right tackle and left tackle and both have been seamless. It's great to see that versatility. As time goes they'll gel into a unit but, that's been really positive."
Thus far, despite a strong start to camp, the Cardinal offensive line has struggled to contain fifth-year senior defensive end Henry Anderson. That's to be expected - Anderson has one of the best defensive linemen in the conference for several years - but the Georgia native has seemingly elevated his play to an even higher level.
"We can't block him still," Shaw said. "We can't block him. And I think we're playing well up front - he's on another level right now. I'm really excited for somebody else to try to block him."
Still, despite the return of Anderson and fellow fifth-year seniors Blake Lueders and David Parry, and the emergence of Aziz Shittu - Stanford's defensive line depth remains a major unknown.
"That's been my question," Shaw said. "That's exactly been my question. I don't have the answer just yet. It's a good cast of characters right now. David Parry and Henry Anderson and Aziz and Blake Lueders are known commodities right now. I feel extremely good about those guys. Jordan Watkins got dinged up today but he'll be back in a few days or so. He's fine, but we're seeing what he's going to do. Luke Kaumatule has come on really strong. He's already started better now than he finished in spring. He's in that conversation. Nate Lohn has been doing very well. Our two young guys, once they figure it out, are dynamic athletes. I think Solomon Thomas has a chance, but we'll see. There's still a lot of learning .We do a lot of stuff. Same with Harrison Phillips. Both of those guys are going to be difference makers. Can they learn it enough to do it this year? We'll have to see."
Ryan Hewitt's departure to the NFL hasn't left the cupboard bare at fullback. Fifth-year senior Lee Ward is a dominant blocker, and redshirt junior Patrick Skov has shown his physicality as a key special teams player for the Cardinal.
"We rotated Lee in last year for certain plays and he was outstanding. He was awesome against Notre Dame. He was awesome against Cal. There were certain games where he was just unbelievable. So we feel extremely comfortable. I think Pat Skov has grown a lot as far as his comprehension. He's a different athlete than Lee, I believe, so there are different things we can do with both of them, but we have all the confidence in both of them right now to do everything in our offense.
Though neither Ward nor Skov have Hewitt's pedigree as a pass catcher, Stanford won't shy away from involving their fullbacks in the passing game this year.
"I think they can both do it," Shaw said. "Ryan was a tight end playing fullback so it was so natural for him and he was amazing at it. But I think the two guys that we have do a good job also. So we're not going to shy away from that stuff. It's still going to be a part of what we do."
Redshirt junior running back Remound Wright is expected to rejoin the team in the next week-and-a-half. Wright missed the second session of spring practice and the early portion of training camp due to a disciplinary issue.
The Cardinal's first practice in full pads will be held on Friday.
Stanford will hold its first open practice of training camp at 9 a.m. on Saturday.