In a nutshell
Stanford football’s defensive unit has been known, at least in the past decade, for its gritty front seven that boasts “intellectual brutality.” This year the strongest component of the defense might be the secondary, as defensive backs coach Duane Akina has put together a group so deep you can hardly see the bottom.
In a pass-happy Pac-12, being able to cycle in fresh legs could be a key to success this season. Headlining the talented secondary are junior Quenton Meeks and senior Alijah Holder, both of whom were unable to reach their full potential last season because of injuries but are being touted as one of the best pairs of cornerbacks in the nation.
“This is the smartest defense we’ve had since I’ve been here,” senior safety Justin Reid said to ESPN’s David Lombardi. “Our mental capabilities have never been where they are now. It’s exciting to see.”
Vital to the development of the secondary has been Akina’s tenure on the coaching staff. Now in his fourth year in the position, Akina has recruited well and instilled his strategic game plan into every member of the squad.
“He’s outstanding and phenomenal,” head coach David Shaw said. “He’s attracted a lot of the guys that have come because of his ability to get the most out of the guys that he’s coached.”
Although last year’s secondary also ran deep, three starters’ injuries forced the Cardinal to ask much more of players at unexpected times, rather than methodically adding them into the mix to the defense’s advantage. If Stanford can avoid such bad fortune this time around, the nine defensive backs listed in the depth chart — and others on the brink — will have a healthy competition for playing time.
“We can take it game by game, who starts at safety, who starts at nickel,” Shaw said to SF Gate. “It’s a great competition there.”
Quenton Meeks (CB) — Meeks has built his career on making big plays at crucial moments in games. As a true freshman starter in 2015-2016, he led the team with three interceptions, including a late-game save against Washington State that set up a game-winning field goal and a 66-yard pick-six in the Rose Bowl. Last season, after getting pummeled by both Washington schools the two weeks prior, Stanford seemed to be spiraling into mediocrity. Meeks, who had been out both games with an injury, had different plans as he returned a DeShone Kizer pass 50 yards for a touchdown at Notre Dame, giving just the spark the lifeless Cardinal needed to come back and win. If the junior can stay healthy in 2017, he could be even more dangerous with another year of experience under his belt.
Alijah Holder (CB) — An injury-ridden season held back Holder last year, who missed nine games with multiple injuries. The junior is healthy this time around and makes up the second piece of what is being billed as a nation-leading cornerback duo. He could be the answer against speedy wide receivers in the conference that broke holes in the Cardinal defense in 2016.
Justin Reid (S) — Tackling, reading defenses, timing pass breakups and picks — Reid can do it all. In a wild ending to the UCLA game last year, Reid’s defense on a long Josh Rosen pass prevented a Bruin victory. The rock-solid strong safety looks to continue to be a huge play-stopper in his junior year. Beyond his individual contributions, he is poised to be a vocal leader “I feel I’m mentally stronger understanding the positions around me,” Reid said. “Cornerback, nickel back, dime, X, outside linebacker — even defensive line, I’m understanding their stunts, the run scheme and how their gaps are supposed to fit out.”
Brandon Simmons (S) —Akina seems to value experience in his defensive back unit, giving the senior the start over junior Frank Buncom. Playing in all but one game the past two seasons, Simmons notched 12 solo tackles last year and was given an All-Pac-12 honorable mention for his role on special teams.
Alameen Murphy (CB) — Murphy has been instrumental in rotating in at cornerback and shaking up an offense’s rhythm the past two years. Last year, he broke up seven passes and contributed 36 tackles. A team captain, the senior brings loads of experience to the field and would be a starter at most other schools.
Terrence Alexander (CB) — Another veteran that can be put in as relief for the starters, Alexander has played in every game the past three seasons. Although physically not as long as the rest of the secondary, the senior is quick — he even filled in for an injured McCaffrey on kick returns — and knows the Cardinal defense better than any.
Frank Buncom (S) — Though a good amount of the stadium had cleared by then, when the secondary was most beat up last year, Buncom came in to contribute a 26-yard pick-six against Washington State that put the game within striking distance. If he is mixed into the rotation, the free safety will certainly capitalize on the opportunity to deliver more reinvigorating plays.
Ben Edwards (S) — Yet another defensive back with two seasons of experience to build on, the junior has been a consistent threat against any team’s passing game. Edwards recorded 18 solo tackles, three pass breakups and his first career interception in 2016. Even an equal stat line would make a sizable impact this year given all the talent at safety.
Newcomers to watch for
Malik Antoine (CB) — After redshirting his freshman year and working hard in the offseason, Antoine will be the youngster amid this veteran squad. Defensive coordinator Lance Anderson has said he expects him to get snaps at nickel. Beating out Obi Eboh who received praise at training camp, the cornerback will look to make a mark whenever he sees the field.
Dallas Lloyd (S) — Replacing the two-time starting safety will not be easy. Lloyd’s 61 tackles last year were second only to Solomon Thomas’ 62, as the 25-year-old provided a physical and mental example to the younger contingent of the secondary. Leading the team in interceptions with five, Lloyd capped off his Cardinal career with two picks in the Sun Bowl, the latter of which he returned for a touchdown to put Stanford ahead in the fourth quarter.
Zach Hoffpauir (S) — After returning from a stint in minor league baseball, Hoffpauir recorded 26 solo tackles in 10 games last season. It remains to be seen whether Antoine can fill the same physical role Hoffpauir played at nickel. The flex safety will definitely be missed.
Depth Chart for opener against Rice
-or- Malik Antoine
Others: Obi Eboh, J.J. Parson, Paulson Adebo, Noah Williams, Denzel Franklin, Andrew Pryts, Stuart Head, Treyjohn Butler, Joe McGrath
Contact Tristan Vanech at tvanech ‘at’ stanford.edu.