A year ago, promising experience gave way to a disappointing 2011 for Stanford’s defensive backs. Things couldn’t be more different this preseason.
Out are seniors Delano Howell, Michael Thomas and Johnson Bademosi, all of them multi-year starters. In are two junior corners and two sophomore safeties with a combined 15 starts in cardinal and white. Remaining is the nation’s best passing conference to defend, so nobody outside the program is expecting much from the Cardinal’s untested group, and understandably so.
But for a secondary that, in four of the last five seasons, has ranked seventh or worse in the conference in both passing yards allowed and interceptions per game, maybe cleaning house will be a chance to erase those conceptions.
“Usually in the past the Stanford secondary hasn’t been that great,” admitted redshirt junior cornerback Terrence Brown. “We really want to…open everybody’s eyes to how athletic and how talented our secondary is, and how we’re able to make plays and how we’re able to help out our defense.”
Helping out was not always the defensive backs’ tendency last season. Stanford’s poor open-field tackling went from challenge to nagging concern to epidemic in 2011, and became even more of a priority for the coaching staff this offseason.
“We’ve stressed it; I’ve told the safeties the two best tacklers will play,” said head coach David Shaw. “Forget about everything else. Guys that can tackle in space will play safety.”
That attitude translated to the depth chart, where sophomore Jordan Richards beat out fifth-year senior Harold Bernard at strong safety and redshirt sophomore Ed Reynolds—who missed all of last season with a knee injury—won the free safety spot with strong camp performances in both the spring and summer.
Stanford will miss out on the unique perspectives of former safeties Howell and Thomas, who both started out on offense before switching to the secondary, but perhaps the current group, which is full of former top defensive recruits, will boast more effective stoppers. Richards emphasizes the secondary’s focus on tackling while downplaying its relative lack of playing time.
“We’re young but we’re not totally inexperienced,” he said. “People may think we’re young and we don’t know what we’re doing, but we’re all right. [Defensive coordinator Derek] Mason drives us hard and we’re prepared.”
Being prepared will never be more important than this season. Stanford’s dominant front seven will force teams to throw early and often, shifting the pressure to a defensive backfield that couldn’t seem to handle it last year.
“We know the focus is going to be on us, and that’s how we want it,” Richards said. “We want to be able to play meaningful games and just step up as a secondary.”
Where the Cardinal’s improved tackling at safety will throw opponents for a loop, its starting cornerbacks’ names may achieve a similar effect; Brown and junior Barry Browning are likely to cause many a film-session headache in the coming months.
That conundrum may be short-lived, however, as highly touted sophomore Wayne Lyons is expected to start once he returns to the form he exhibited before breaking his foot last year. Shaw put Lyons in the spotlight in the spring by saying he would be one of the nation’s best defensive backs by the time he graduated, and Lyons is beginning to practice like he just might back his coach’s statement up.
“He is 100 percent healthy but still trying to get back that explosion he had a year ago,” Shaw said earlier in camp. “It’s coming back. He’s getting more confident.”
True freshman Alex Carter, rated the fourth best safety prospect in the nation, has also impressed since transitioning to cornerback and could contribute often this season.
For Shaw, all comparisons are off between last year’s secondary and this year’s group, at least until the latter has proven itself on game day. But in terms of athleticism, the Cardinal may be fielding a better secondary this season.
“We’re at least there, if not more athletic, as a total unit right now,” Shaw said.
Despite the inconsistent play that has often plagued the Stanford secondary in the past, this year’s unit has shown that it at least deserves the chance to prove itself. After all, trends are made to be broken.
Previous installments in The Stanford Daily’s 2012 football preview series: