In part two (read part one here) of our two-part exclusive interview with Stanford DB coach Duane Akina, the Hawaii native talks Vince Young, his lengthy coaching career, what it was like to coach in the 2006 Rose Bowl and a whole lot more.
JM: You coached Earl Thomas as well. Is he one of the better safeties to ever play the game?
DA: I’ve had a lot of great safeties going all the way back to Chuck Cecil. I’ve truly had the opportunity to coach some incredible players. Earl’s biggest thing was his top end speed. He’s so fast and his speed is so pure. He’s extremely competitive. When he sees it, he just has another gear. He has a real gift that helps him find the ball. The ball always seems to find Earl Thomas. Some guys are just like that. The ball bounces on the ground and it just so happens to bounce towards Earl (laughs). Some guys just have a gift that way.
He’s as talented as a guy I’ve ever been around. He turned into a real student of the game. That’s a big thing for me. There’s a lot of great athletes but it doesn’t always equate to great defensive backs. There’s a lot of factors that play a role in being a great football player. Part of that is you have to have a God given gift. You have to have a real drive to be great. There’s footwoork and lifting and all that stuff but there’s the mental aspect as well. You have to be a student of the game. To me, that’s what separates the good ones from the greats. Earl really bought into that. Michael Huff was like that as well. He was a real student also. I don’t know if they’re still like that, but I know that’s how they were when they were with me. I hope they continued that way. I listen to their interviews and they still talk about some of those things. It’s important for the young defensive backs to hear that and really take that in.
DA: Michael was another guy that was a very flexible player who had a lot of talent. When I first recruited him, I was thinking about recruiting him as a cornerback. We had a very talented secondary at that point. I’d argue that our 2005 secondary and Miami’s 2001 secondary are the two best college secondaries of all time. You could have some good discussions about that. When you add up all of the draft choices, they both come out to ten. We had three first round picks, a second round pick and a fifth round pick. That 2001 Miami secondary that featured Ed Reed had four first round picks and a sixth rounder as well. Everybody else is behind those two secondaries in my opinion.
Michael Griffin was such a smart, physical football player. He had great ball-skills. He could do a lot of things. He could play man coverage. He was a great zone player and he was a great blitzer as well. He was all of the above. I wasn’t surprised that he went on to have such a successful NFL career. I’ll tell you something a lot of people don’t realize about Michael Griffin. He blocked 8 punts for me. I was running the punt team at that time and he blocked 8 punts at Texas.
JM: Wow. That’s a lot of blocked punts.
DA: It’s the second most in the history of college football. He was phenomenal.
JM: You coached in what many would agree was the most exciting college football game of all time. Of course I’m talking about the 2006 Rose Bowl. Describe what your emotions were like throughout that game.
DA: I think what made that game such a great game was that first of all, it lived up to the billing. Those were two great football teams. I think there was somewhere between 44 and 48 players in that game that ended up playing in the NFL when you the count the redshirt freshmens and seniors. Those were two NFL teams doing battle. It lived up to the expectations of what a great game it would be. All the good players performed at a high level. That helped make it a great game.
It had all the momentum shifts within a game. USC had it going, the crowd was going nuts for them but then we got it going and I swear we had the crowd cheering at that point. It just kept shifting until finally at the end there. It came down to the last play of the game.
I used to go speak at these Longhorn functions. They always used to say, “coach, tell us about the fourth down play.” I would always say well it’s fourth-and-2, they take Reggie Bush out of the game and we haven’t stopped the power run with LenDale White the entire second half. We’re anticipating that and Michael Huff sees it and he blitzes the C-gap and goes head-to-head with the pulling guard Fred Matua. We tackle him from behind and get off the field. The entire crowd looks at me and goes, “No! No! The Vince Young play, coach” (laughs). There is no Vince Young if Michael Huff doesn’t make that stop on fourth down.
I talk about that a lot because everything that happened played a role at the end of the game. The defense had to come up big for us. The offense had to go out and come up big. Special teams had to get the kickoff and cover. We had to go back out and nail the game down and finish it off. It was certainly a very emotional game. Michael [Huff] had one of the biggest plays in that game, an interception before half that took points off the board.
JM: I love that answer. I knew I could count on you to somehow shift the paradigm from the Vince Young performance to one of the defensive backs instead (laughs).
DA: I’m gonna talk defensive backs all the way (laughs).
JM: Regarding Vince, he’s a bit of a touchy subject with Titans fans. I think time has sort of healed that wound so to speak and the fanbase has welcomed him back with open arms. He announced one of their draft picks last year, he got a standing ovation and he was at their homecoming weekend as well. What do you make of his NFL career? Were you surprised or disappointed it didn’t go a little bit better?
DA: I was. I thought he was a very unique talent. As a college player with us, the biggest thing with VY was that he really raised the confidence level of those around him. We had so much faith in him. He was a great player that we knew could get it done. We watched him get it done so many different times in so many different ways. I’m not sure what happened in the NFL. From what I remember, I thought he had some good years in Tennessee. I believe he won Rookie of the Year and went to the Pro Bowl that year as well.
I don’t know what happened there but I know as far as when I lined up with him at Texas, you could argue he was one of the greatest college football players of all time. He was dynamic.
JM: I’d agree. His performance in the Rose Bowl was possibly one of the greatest college football performances I’ve ever witnessed. That performance is forever cemented in history.
DA: That was the thing about him. When there was a big game, VY showed up. That’s something you can say about all the greats. When it counted, Vince Young showed up. I still remember that Kansas game. It didn’t look good for us. It sure looked like Kansas was gonna pull off the upset. That would have knocked us out of the Rose Bowl to go to Michigan. It’s fourth-and-17, we’re on the road and they’re standing on their feet. We drop back to pass and nobody’s open. VY scrambles and takes off for a 19 yard gain. He goes on to throw the winning touchdown with eleven seconds left. That’s a hidden game within that whole Rose Bowl conversation. After that, that’s when we kinda lobbied and made our argument to get into the Rose Bowl over Cal who had Aaron Rodgers of course. USC went to the National Championship game and they picked us over Cal. Vince told us we’d be back the next year after another phenomenal game against Michigan. He was right, we went to the National Championship game.
JM: That’s truly incredible. We’ve talked a lot about your time at Texas, but you’re currently at Stanford and you had yet another draft pick this past season. I’m talking about safety Justin Reid who’s having a really good rookie season for the Houston Texans. Were you surprised he didn’t go a little earlier?
DA: I was very surprised that he wasn’t drafted earlier than he was. I speak with him quite frequently. I think I’ve had 7 or 8 first round picks and I thought he was a first round talent. He was ready to play at the next level. What I didn’t realize, something I may have anticipated differently was that I thought Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen were gonna be the two quarterbacks. If I knew there was gonna be five quarterbacks selected in the first round, that screws up a draft and pushes some other players back. Any team that thinks they might need one is reaching for one now. That really messes with a draft. It was a very deep draft last year. I felt like Derwin James and Minkah Fitzpatrick were going to be the first two safeties off the board.
I knew what Justin Reid was all about. He had the mental side down to a tee and he’s extremely passionate. He loves football. I’m not surprised that he’s been successful thus far. Some of the Stanford kids can really play. They can memorize chapter 5 but Justin is brilliant within the football side of things. He’s played corner for me, nickel, dime and both safety positions. You have players that can learn all these positions but can’t physically play them. And then you get players that can play all these positions physically but can’t learn them all. It’s a very small amount of guys that can do both. Justin is one of those guys. You had to stimulate him to keep him interested. He’d be bored to death if I didn’t switch it up (laughs). Whatever I told him, he was all about it. Go play corner now, Justin. “Ok coach, let’s go.” He was that type of guy.
He’s another Pro Bowl level guy. Him, Kenny Vaccaro, Earl Thomas, Michael Huff, Michael Griffin, Chuck Cecil, Chris McAlister, Nathan Vasher, Quentin Jammer. I knew all of those guys had chances to be great when they left me. There’s many others as well. I coached Daryll Lewis as well, former Houston Oiler. I’ve been blessed to have coached so many great players over the years.
JM: That list speaks for itself. For my final question, you’ve approaching 40 years in this business. That’s truly an incredible accomplishment. You’re on the road recruiting as we speak. How do you look back on it all?
DA: I’ll tell you what, I’ve been blessed because I’ve really only coached at three different places. I started at the University of Hawaii but then I spent 15 years at Arizona, 14 at Texas and now five here at Stanford. I haven’t had to move around a whole lot. My biggest joy is that I’ve been with really good people, coaches and players. I started at Hawaii when I was just growing up and learning the game. I was at Arizona when my young family was growing up. I had so many opportunities there and made a lot of friends. It’s more about that than the dollars for me. It’s all about the people I’m lining up with. I had the same experience with the staff at Texas and now here at Stanford. This can be a tough business if you’re not with the right people, but it’s a great business when you’re lining up with the right people.
I’ve been blessed to have great people at every stop. I played for Don James, I’ve coached for Dick Tomey, Mack Brown and David Shaw. Those are just four of the great coaches I’ve been blessed to be around. At the times I was there, whether it was my playing career at the University of Washington or coaching at Hawaii, Arizona, Texas or Stanford, the programs have been headed by great people. When you look at it from a football standpoint, those were great era’s for every single one of those programs. We won a lot of games and had a lot of success.
I’ve been blessed to win a lot of games with a lot of cool people.