This is the 10th of a 12-part preview of the 2016 football season. Part 1 focused on the running backs and fullbacks. Part 2 featured a roundtable on the offense. Part 3 focused on the tight ends and receivers. Part 4 focused on the offensive line. Part 5 focused on the quarterback. Part 6 featured a roundtable on the defense. Part 7 discussed the defensive line. Part 8 focused on the linebackers. Part 9 featured a roundtable on possible breakout players.
In a nutshell
If you had to pick the Stanford position group getting the most hype in the preseason, it just might be the secondary. Sure, the running backs (one in particular) are receiving a lot of attention, but the combination of talent and depth, both young and old, could make this year’s secondary the best one to take the field for Stanford in a long time.
In head coach David Shaw’s opinion, however, the important thing to stress is that this group hasn’t taken the field yet.
“There’s been a lot of talk about how great they’re going to be and how deep they are, and you know, we haven’t played a game yet this year,” Shaw said.
And while the level-headed Shaw is justified in his decision to not hype up his young players, the sheer number of skilled defensive backs make it tough for others to do the same.
The proof is in the roster: Junior Alijah Holder and sophomore Quenton Meeks are poised to be a double-headed monster for quarterbacks after breakout campaigns last season. Fifth-year seniors Dallas Lloyd and Zach Hoffpauir are back to bring some age and leadership to an otherwise young group. Juniors Alameen Murphy and Terrence Alexander, sophomore Justin Reid, and many others are certain to get plenty of playing time. Secondary coach Duane Akina has an insane number of combinations at his disposal, something that will make things tough for opposing offenses.
Last year, when the Stanford secondary struggled, it was a result of the big play. Games against Oregon and Notre Dame, in particular, had plenty of moments where a missed tackle or blown coverage resulted in a huge gain. And one way to eliminate those chances for other teams, or at least minimize the risks, is to be able to bring in fresh legs late into the game. That’s where the secondary gains an upper hand.
The depth will be crucial as the season goes along. The Cardinal will face plenty of uptempo teams this year, and a week two bye will mean that rest will be hard to come by later in the year. But by being two or three deep at every position in the secondary, these young defensive backs will surely be able to stay ready.
So while Shaw is right to be reserved in his expectations for the group, he also is right to give them plenty of praise.
“Coach Akina’s done a great job of training these guys and pushing these guys but also having these guys keep their heads down,” Shaw said. “These guys are humble, these guys are hungry, and hopefully they’re going to play really well together.”
Alijah Holder (CB) — If you wanted to bet on someone in the secondary having a really, really good year, Holder might be the best pick you could make. The junior played quality defense for Stanford last year, most notably returning a Josh Rosen interception for a touchdown against UCLA. He can line up with just about any wideout in the conference, and he’ll certainly be put to the test against the likes of Juju Smith-Schuster, Gabe Marks and other Pac-12 WR1’s. After a year of starting, Holder is poised to make the jump to an elite corner.
Quenton Meeks (CB/NB) — For all the promise that Holder brings, Meeks brings just as much and does so while being a year younger. The sophomore led the Cardinal with three interceptions last season, and all three were huge. His two against Washington State pretty much won Stanford the game, while the early pick-six in the Rose Bowl all but ended Iowa’s hopes to come back. All three picks also exemplify what Meeks does so well: reading defenses seamlessly, timing great jumps and finishing with truly spectacular plays. Also, his play at nickel allows Stanford to bring another corner in and makes them very flexible.
Dallas Lloyd (S) — It’s been a long road for Lloyd, a fifth-year senior who came to Stanford as a quarterback but transitioned to defense after two years. As one of the six captains of the team this year, Lloyd brings phenomenal leadership to the young secondary, not to mention a year’s worth of starting experience. He knows the position very well and does an excellent job of making calls.
Zach Hoffpauir (S/NB) — The news that Hoffpauir, who had just finished a stint in minor league baseball, would return to Stanford for his final season of eligibility was huge for the Cardinal. His physicality is unquestionable, and both Shaw and Akina have effusively praised his ability to come back seamlessly into Stanford’s complex system. Much like Meeks, Hoffpauir is flexible position-wise, and moving him to nickel would accommodate for the emerging Justin Reid at free safety. But wherever he ends up playing, Hoffpauir will be a huge asset to this team.
Alameen Murphy (CB) — Murphy doesn’t seem to be talked about as much as some of his fellow defensive backs, but he’s also someone who will meaningfully contribute this season. The junior stepped in to the rotation last season, and factored quite heavily during Ronnie Harris’ injury, recording 44 tackles and playing in all of Stanford’s games. Akina has praised Murphy’s development over the past year, and he should figure to compete for the second cornerback spot (or third depending on where Meeks is playing).
Terrence Alexander (CB/NB) — Alexander will be the one with whom Murphy will compete for that corner spot, and he brings just as much experience to the table. He too played in all of Stanford’s games last year as a sophomore, and now back for his junior season, Alexander will give the defense another solid player at both corner and nickel. Although he is a bit undersized compared to some of the team’s other corner options, Akina believes Alexander makes up for it with “great flexibility,” adding that he “sees the game very well.”
Justin Reid (S) — The fact that Hoffpauir is not starting at safety alongside Lloyd speaks volumes of how highly Stanford thinks of Reid, a sophomore. In fact, defensive coordinator Lance Anderson went as far as to call Reid “the most athletic of the group,” per a report from Rivals’ Andy Drukarev. This year will be his first as a key piece in the safety rotation, and his announcement as starter on Sunday came as a surprise to many. He’s poised to make a big jump this season, and given the offseason he appears to have had, it should be a good one.
Newcomers to watch for
With so much depth in the secondary this year, Stanford is not poised to start, or even really play, any true freshmen in the secondary this year, although the incoming freshmen are a talented group. For this reason, there aren’t really any newcomers to watch out for, although Hoffpauir’s return could technically classify him as one.
Ronnie Harris (CB) — It’s pretty much impossible to replace someone like Ronnie Harris, who captained the team last year and was instrumental in helping the otherwise young core of corners develop. While he was famously identified as the player that helped Shaw start showing more emotion on the field, he did so much as Stanford’s number-one cornerback last year. The Cardinal are fortunate enough to have more talent at the position compared to last year, but Harris will be missed as one of the biggest impact players and one of the loudest voices on the team.
Kodi Whitfield (FS) — Whitfield brought another strong veteran presence to the secondary, and along with Lloyd, he played well as Stanford’s free safety last season. Hoffpauir’s return and Reid’s emergence make the loss of Whitfield easier for the Cardinal, but having to replace a starter is never easy. Whitfield had 53 tackles and 1 interception last season while starting in all of the Cardinal’s games.
Depth chart for Kansas State (released Sunday, Aug. 28)
Others: Malik Antoine, Ryan Gaertner, Obi Eboh, J.J. Parson, Treyjohn Butler, Brandon Simmons, Calvin Chandler, Andrew Pryts
Contact Sandip Srinivas at sandip ‘at’ stanford.edu.