A smart man's money never goes against Stanford's defense — until this year, because maybe this could be the year that the secondary takes a hit. Their exceptional starting cornerback tandem is gone, and so are three key players at safety, Jordan Richards, Zach Hoffpauir, and Kyle Olugbode. And their most experienced defensive back, Ronnie Harris, missed all of spring practice. Cue the national media throwing up the white flag on Stanford's season.
If you think the national perception is always right about Stanford, think again. Remember when Shayne Skov left and the defense was supposed to be in shambles? Stanford was supposed to go back to its rightful place, the cupcake store, for Pac-12 teams to feast on.
Stanford's secondary won't regress back to cupcake-dom for many reasons, but defensive backs coach Duane Akina is a big part of that. There's a reason they plucked him from Texas last year — he has garnered an impeccable reputation for developing defensive backs, including two Thorpe award winners while with the Longhorns.
Another big accomplishment of Akina's— keeping Stanford's inept offense in games last season. Last year, Stanford was college football's equivalent of the New York Mets, very good at keeping opponents — and themselves— off the board. Akina's pass defense, second in the nation in yards per attempt, was a big reason Stanford wasn't a bottom feeder in the Pac-12 North for most of the season. Have faith in one of the best coaches in the nation's ability to create a great defensive system, and don't expect him to miss with the stable of talented, but inexperienced backs he has in his arsenal.
Akina will probably spend a lot of time with the tandem of Dallas Lloyd and Kodi Whitfield at the two safety spots, because quite simply, they haven't played the position much. Sure, they did combine to play in 21 games last season, but both came over from offensive positions just a year ago. Certainly, there will be some growing pains for this duo, but they have lots of potential.
With all of his athleticism, Lloyd has the potential to stop the run and prevent big plays from the strong safety position. Whitfield clearly knows how to make big plays on the ball, as we saw with that ridiculous one-handed catch against UCLA two years ago, but whether he can become a ball-hawking free safety remains to be seen. With a fair amount of uncertainty surrounding both of these safeties, it's a fair conclusion to say that this pair needs to step up if Stanford wants to be a major force against the pass like they were last season. They won't have Richards as an invaluable leader and safety net (No pun intended) past the first line of defenders, but Lloyd and Whitfield's talent could make Cardinal fans forget about Richards in a hurry. The defensive line looks very strong, and could take some pressure off these two.
Even though they're thought of as unseasoned and brittle, I think Stanford's cornerback unit will be one of the best in the conference. Ronnie Harris earned starts late last season, out-playing Lyons at corner and forcing Shaw's hand. He's a fifth year senior that will have to cover opposing teams' number-one wideouts, assuming Carter's role from last season. According to KZSU's Michael Peterson, Blake Martinez spoke very highly of Harris' leadership skills:
""[Harris] is going to step in and hype us up when we need it. I know all the young secondary guys look at him for film work or for extra things on the field...They look at him and say, ‘What can I do next to get better?'"
Harris looks set to anchor a unit that is chock full of talent. Terrence Alexander is the only one with game experience and will probably lock down the nickel spot. A four-star recruit out of high school, he made big plays as a true freshman last season, including a big 46-yard interception return in the Big Game last season. Hate on that team from Berkeley all you want, but Jared Goff is hard to pick off.
Alexander ran a 4.45 40-yard dash in high school, so he has the tools to keep up with the big boys, like Cayleb Jones. He still needs to work on his reads— and that's where Akina's exceptional coaching comes in. He'll probably need some time to adjust to starting at the college level, but playing Northwestern and UCF before having to go to the Coliseum can't hurt in smoothing that transition.
Beyond these two guys, there's a lot of talent, but none of them have actually played a college down before. Junior Taijaun Thomas, and sophomores Alameen Murphy and Alijah Holder will all push Alexander and each other in open competition for playing time and the third corner spot. Expect Shaw to play the hot hand in the early going, even if Alexander is listed as the starter.
Don't expect a no-flight zone secondary like last season, or you will be disappointed, but this unit should be able to hold its own. Akina will have this young group well-prepared to succeed. Four of the main backs have seen a significant amount of time on a college field, and will not need to adjust to the speed of the game as much as we've feared. Have faith in a young secondary that could be exceptional next year, and pretty good this year.