Richard Mackson/USA Today

Previewing the 2016 Stanford Cardinal Defensive Backfield

Stanford returns no shortage of talent in its secondary. How can it improve on its 2015 campaign and who will lead the way?

After his first nine passes against Stanford last November, Vernon Adams, Jr. had a quarterback ranking of 353.6.  That number has been seared into my head (Honor Code:  I didn’t look it up).  “Scorched Earth” was the only way to describe what Adams, Jr. did to the Cardinal secondary last year, and though few others were able to hurt them as dramatically as the Duck quarterback, this still stands as a group poised to take a giant step forward in 2016.

To be sure, Adams’ exploits aside, Stanford’s pass defense overall wasn’t terrible.  Also, let’s clear out the caveat that when discussing pass defense, the defensive line and linebackers both play significant roles as well.  That being said, Stanford finished in a three-way tie for fourth in the Pac-12 in yards per attempt at 6.8.  How is that number trending from the previous few seasons?  

In 2014, Stanford allowed the fewest yards per attempt in the league at 5.4.  In 2013, that number was 6.4, good for fourth in the Pac-12.  A three-way tie for fourth is essentially saying that six other teams were as good or better than Stanford, so it seems fair that this group should be held accountable for an uptick in 2016.

One area where Stanford has never been great is intercepting the opposing quarterback.  The Cardinal had only 8 INT’s last season, tied for lowest in the Pac-12 with Oregon State, and you don’t want to be tied with Oregon State in any category at this point.   Stanford’s 12 interceptions in 2014 left it in a three-way tie for sixth, and its 13 in 2013 was good for ninth.  The good news is that Quentin Meeks’ Pick Six in the Rose Bowl is also seared in my head, and stands as anecdotal evidence that the personnel is in place Stanford’s pass defense to reach some higher ground this season.

Showtime leads a promising, young, but more experienced group out onto the field to comprise Stanford’s last level of defense. Meeks led the team with 3 interceptions, and Alijah Holder led the secondary with 7 passes broken up.  These two project as your “starting” corners, but in the Pac-12, we know that two corners are rarely on the field without a third or fourth.  Terrance Alexander (4 PBU’s, tied with Meeks) and Alameen Murphy return to bolster a young and talented cornerback corps.  Both Alexander and Murphy lack the size of Holder and Meeks (both 6’2”) so expected the early testing of the Cardinal secondary to focus on Alexander and Murphy.

Safety is where things get interesting for the Cardinal. Dallas Lloyd’s decision to return as well as the return of Zach Hoffpauir gives the Cardinal some intriguing options at strong safety.  Coach Shaw spoke glowingly of the energizing Hoffpauir, and how his presence was already impacting the energy of the team. Hoffpauir will undoubtedly end up playing his “hybrid” role, providing uncommon run support for a DB while also sharing coverage responsibilities.

Someone has to take Kodi Whitfield’s job at Free Safety, and Stanford has three talented players vying to do just that. Brandon Simmons, Ben Edwards, and Justin Reid (listed as a Strong Safety) are going to be difficult to keep off the field this season.  Hoffpauir is listed as a Free Safety, but you’d think Simmons and Edwards would have a shot at that Centerfield slot in the Stanford defense.  It’s a spot where Stanford could definitely improve.  Whitfield had 2 PBU’s, an interception and a forced fumble last year (as well as a monster tackle on a vital 2-point conversion attempt in Pullman) but he only got one year at the position.  In 2016 the Cardinal is stocked with players who have played nothing but safety in their college careers.

Last year, the advanced numbers revealed some interesting facts about the Cardinal pass defense. It actually got better on passing downs than it was on standard downs. On standard downs it was S&P ranked 54th in the country, but on passing downs it improved to 39th.  Second down was the worst down by far.  The Cardinal ranked 70th in the country on second down vs. 31st on both 1st and 3rd down.

Again, those numbers are the product of the defensive linemen and linebackers on the field as well as the secondary. It should be noted that the departure of Ronnie Harris is not a small one. Harris' leadership in many ways will reveal itself by what we see on the field this season, now that he's gone.

  Regardless, secondary is without question the deepest, most experienced, and most talented level of the 2016 Stanford defense.  That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily gonna be the best, but it stands to say that nobody should be surprised if this group doesn’t spearhead a resurgence by the defense as a whole.

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