In 2006, Stanford's secondary was so loaded at the safety positions that 22-game consecutive starter Brandon Harrison moved to cornerback. The Cardinal graduated three safeties at the end of the season who combined in college for 73 starts. Those three safeties are all in the NFL today.
One year later, the Cardinal have a markedly different outlook in the defensive backfield. Three cornerbacks are fourth- or fifth-year players, with a combined 29 starts coming into this season. But the safety positions are now woefully inexperienced. One player on the roster has recorded a start in the Stanford secondary, and he is on the sideline to start training camp today.
Redshirt sophomore Bo McNally is relatively inexperienced, but he did play extensively in the Cardinal's frequently employed "Magic" defensive package last year, in addition to recording a start at Washington. In Seattle, McNally recorded a pair of solo tackles on top of two memorable interceptions, one of which he ran back for a touchdown in Stanford's 20-3 win.
On July 19, McNally broke his hand when it was kicked during a punt block drill during a summer practice. Stanford's starting strong safety had surgery on July 23 to insert a pin into his hand and wrap it in a cast. Doctors have given a return timeframe of four to six weeks, which brings into question McNally's availability for the September 1 season opener.
"He's a playmaker," offers fifth-year senior cornerback Nick Sanchez. "He has a nose for the ball. He hits hard. He comes up and isn't scared to get in there and lay the lumber. Also, he's the most proven guy... Bo had the Washington game where he had two picks, and he made a few big hits during the season. I feel like he brings playmaking ability and also some experience to the table that we're going to miss. He's also a really smart kid who runs the defense well. The safeties are always involved in making the call because they have a better view than every other position on the field, so we're going to miss that."
"It's tough having Bo out right now. But he was in most of the summer," Sanchez adds. "He got his work in, and they say he should be back by the first game - at the very least the second game. He's one of our better players. He's going to do a lot for us this year."
"He's an active, good tackler. He has a really good understanding of our defense," Harbaugh echoes. "But I have a lot of confidence in Carlos McFall, too. He was a guy who we really liked in the spring. It's unfortunate, but we keep going."
McFall, a redshirt junior, played on special teams and as a reserve safety in 2006. He was slotted to compete with sophomore Austin Yancy for the open free safety position. That was the easily the biggest question mark in the Stanford secondary, which as a unit is already questioned enough to be ranked 10th in the Pac-10 by CollegeFootballNews. Now McFall moves to strong safety while Yancy sticks at free safety, and the question marks double. Two players previously planned to compete for one job suddenly become presumptive starters. Both safety positions are now wholly untested.
Yancy is new to the defense after playing wide receiver last year as a true freshman, and the rest of the depth at the safety positions will be filled out by a cadre of inexperienced players. Redshirt sophomore Blaise Johnson is moving inside from cornerback. Redshirt junior Thaddeus Chase is a walk-on, as is redshirt freshman Jerome Jackson. Marcus Rance is a redshirt freshman who switched from wide receiver late in the spring. Plus, a pair of true freshmen are added to the mix in Taylor Skaufel and Kellen Kiilsgaard, the latter newly switched to safety only late last month.
The depth may be frightfully unproven, but teammates and coaches alike are rallying behind McFall, regardless of which safety position he has to play this month or the next for the Cardinal.
"I think Carlos is one of those swing guys who probably can play either one," says Sanchez. "Carlos has been here. He also had some experience last year, and he knows what to do. He knows the calls. We're definitely going to lose something with Bo, but it's going to help us in the long run getting Carlos and Yancy ready to play, as opposed to one of them taking the rep's."
"I think it's almost a blessing in disguise," comments the cornerback. "I think it gives Yancy and Carlos more opportunities to take the first-team rep's in fall camp, that one of them would obviously miss out on if Bo was still here. So I think it's going to give them a lot of good experience leading up to the first game. Then we'll have three guys who will be capable and ready to play."
That indeed is just about the best smiling face one can put onto the Cardinal's crisis in the safety ranks. How close to reality it proves to be, we will only know after the next few weeks watching Stanford's preseason training camp. First practice is tonight from 7:00-9:00pm, and stay tuned for our early observations on the two safety positions, along with many other spots on the Stanford roster.
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