I'll start with the seniors.
#22 Bo McNally - McNally has been one of the staples of this Stanford defense for the last three years. His experience, leadership, and playmaking ability have been a big part of Stanford's success over the past few years. McNally has started every game for the past three years, and has been the leader of this secondary for the past two seasons. McNally finished the season second on the team in tackles with 72 and added one interception to bump his career mark up to nine. McNally was the most consistent player in this year's defensive backfield that's biggest problem was, in fact, consistency. His biggest problems this year were playing out of control and missing tackles. I believe Bo was trying to do too much at times, and not playing within himself and his abilities. Another area for Bo to improve on to further his career is his man-to-man coverage. McNally will get a chance to play in the NFL and I wish him the best.
#24 Kris Evans - A fifth-year senior cornerback who has provided Stanford with 17 starts, four interceptions, and 139 tackles over the past three seasons. Kris Evans' playing time was decreased this year after being hampered by various injuries in the offseason and during the season. Although an inconsistent tackler at times, Evans was able to produce four pass breakups, one fumble recovery, and two forced fumbles this year in nine games. Referred to as "Gramps" by his teammates, Kris has provided valuable knowledge to his younger and less experienced position mates. Evans' experience and leadership will certainly be missed at the cornerback position.
Now for our returning players:
#26 Delano Howell - Howell made an impressive debut to his defensive career, starting 10 games for the Cardinal this season. He led the team in tackles with 76 and tied for the team lead in interceptions with two. This is a very promising start for a second-year player who spent his first year on the farm playing on the offensive side of the ball. Howell's biggest skill at this point in his career is his ability to change the game with bone-crushing hits. He has a knack for being around the ball and is very solid in open-field tackling. He is a true strong safety who is most comfortable in and around the box in run support. To be a more complete safety, Howell must work on his coverage skills in both man-to-man and zone coverage. Right now, Howell is a gifted athlete who is able to make plays based on his instincts and athletic ability. During this offseason, He needs to improve his footwork as well as his understanding of zone coverage and his overall knowledge of the defense. Howell should spend as much time as he can with defensive coordinator Ron Lynn in the film room, to learn as much as he can about this defense and what opponents will try to do to attack it. With McNally ending his Stanford career, someone needs to take over as leader of this secondary. Howell looks to be one of the leading candidates to assume this role. With improved coverage skills and a year of experience under his belt, Howell has potential to become an elite safety in the Pac-10.
#23 Austin Yancy - Yancy started one game this year, filling in for injured teammate Delano Howell. In limited duty, Yancy turned in 17 tackles this year. He spent most of the year playing special teams and backing up Howell. Late in the year, we saw Yancy enter the game on passing downs in certain packages. Yancy missed the entire 2008 season after starting all 12 games at strong safety in 2007. At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, Austin Yancy has an impressive combination of size and speed for the safety position. Like his fellow DBs Delano Howell and Richard Sherman, Yancy played his true freshman season on the offensive side of the ball. His strengths as a DB are his range and athleticism. He is best playing "centerfield" and using his natural instincts to break on the ball and make plays. Yancy's biggest weakness has been his ability to make tackles in the open field. This is something that he has seemed to improve on in the limited action we saw this year. With an opening in the starting lineup, I would have to say right now that Yancy is probably the frontrunner to step in for Bo McNally. He has a full year of starting experience and his skills at the free safety position could complement Delano Howell's skills at the strong safety position nicely. Yancy will have to prove to the coaching staff over the off season and spring practices that he can be consistent enough to be relied upon as an every-down starter in the defensive backfield.
#40 Taylor Skaufel - According to the stat sheet, Skaufel saw action in nine games and got credit for starting one contest this season. Skaufel spent most of the season as a valuable member of the special teams unit. With the emergence of Delano Howell, Skaufel saw significantly less playing time this season than he has seen in the past two seasons. Skaufel has a similar size and skill set to departing senior Bo McNally, though Skaufel has yet to show McNally's knack for making the big play. Skaufel is a high motor guy who seems to be around the ball a lot and is a very solid tackler in the open field. As a true freshman in 2007, Skaufel saw significant action down the stretch, sharing time with starter Austin Yancy at the strong safety position. Skaufel does not possess great size or speed, but he is a consistent ball player. Basically, Skaufel and Yancy have a contrasting skill set: Skaufel is a better tackler, and Yancy has more range and athleticism in pass coverage. I expect competition to be very high between Skaufel and Yancy for the starting free safety spot alongside Delano Howell. (In my opinion, Skaufel is also more of a strong safety, as he is known more for his ability to tackle than his pass coverage skills.) But with Delano Howell holding down the strong safety spot, Stanford will try to get its best four DBs on the field. Skaufel must prove to the coaches that he can play the free safety position by showing that he can be not only a factor but a playmaker in pass coverage for the Stanford defense.
#28 Harold Bernard - Saw action in 12 games this season, almost entirely on special teams. Although we did not see much of Bernard this year, I expect him to get a legitimate chance in the offseason to prove himself as a potential starter alongside Delano Howell. This staff has seen both Yancy and Skaufel play already, and they will let Bernard show them what he has to offer this spring. I have not seen Bernard enough to comment on his specific skill set, but I am excited to see what he has to bring to the table for next season.
I expect to see Delano Howell hold down his strong safety spot, with Austin Yancy, Taylor Skaufel, and Harold Bernard competing for time at the free safety position. Between Howell, Yancy, and Skaufel we have a significant amount of experience, now we just need to see more consistency and leadership from this group.
#9 Richard Sherman - Sherman was credited for starting 11 of 12 contests at cornerback this season. As we all know, this was Sherman's first season on the defensive side of the ball after spending the previous three on offense. Believe it or not, Sherman ended the year as our most consistent player at the corner position this season. Sherman tied for the team lead with two interceptions, and led the team with seven pass breakups. Sherman is a very raw athlete who, like many inexperienced corners, relies more on athletic ability than technique. He has shown to be pretty effective in press coverage, using his long arms and foot speed to his advantage. He has been much less effective in off-coverage where he has to rely more on his backpedal than just turning and running with WRs from the start. Although not known for his big hits, he showed more promise in the run game then I expected from the former wideout. Sherman's biggest needs for improvement will be in sharpening up his footwork and improving his knowledge of the game. Coach Lynn and Coach White should spend a lot of time with Sherman and get him to understand what offenses like to do in specific situations. Things such as playing the "sticks" on third down, playing tighter in the red zone and knowing when opponents like to go deep will benefit Sherman a lot for next year. Based on performance and playing time, I've got to assume Sherman will be a frontrunner for a starting corner position next year.
#2 Corey Gatewood - Gatewood started six games this season at corner for the Cardinal and provided his biggest highlight with a 23-yard "pick six" against San Jose State. Durability has been a problem for Gatewood, as he missed all but one game in the 2008 season, and was sidelined with the latter part of this season with injuries. Gatewood is an explosive athlete who has seen time at running back, kick returner, and cornerback for Stanford during his career. Gatewood's strength as a corner is his speed and athleticism. Like Sherman, he is a very raw player, who has the skill set to be an impressive corner. He will have to work hard on the fundamentals of the corner position during this offseason to prove to the coaches that he can be trusted as a reliable contributor and/or starter for this defense. Also, he will have to work hard in the weight room and with the training staff to become durable enough to get through an entire Pac-10 season. Although next year will be Gatewood's fourth year on the Farm, he is still very young as far as playing time at the corner position is concerned.
#27 Johnson Bademosi - Bademosi emerged as a player for this year's Cardinal defense, starting the last five contests of the season. Bademosi showed flashes of greatness at times, but also let his inexperience show with inconsistent play. Bademosi showed the ability to provide tight coverage, make plays on the ball, and make hard, physical tackles in the run game. I would like to see him work on his ball skills over the offseason to be able to come up with more interceptions next season. I really like the skill set of this young player. He shows a physicality that few of our other corners possess; in fact, I think that he can also work at some safety this spring to see where we need him the most. His weaknesses, like many of his position mates, are his inexperience and lack of fundamental knowledge of the cornerback position. Bademosi's inconsistent play this year showed up in the form of blown coverages and failure to keep contain on the perimeter of our defense. These are cardinal sins in the secondary, and can be the fastest way to lose the trust of your coaches and teammates. That being said, Bademosi's future looks extremely bright. If he can grow as a player and become more consistent, he will have a very good chance at starting next year for the Cardinal secondary.
#33 Quinn Evans - Evans showed a lot of promise in his first and only game as a starter this year against ASU. Unfortunately, an injury kept Evans out of the lineup for the rest of the season. Evans showed the ability to provide tight coverage against experienced Pac-10 receivers. One thing I would like to see Evans work on is his physicality. He allowed WRs to push off at times to create the separation needed to make receptions. Evans can gain strength in the weight room, as well as aggression and competitiveness on the practice field to improve his physicality for next season. He gained some valuable experience in his one start, which will benefit him going in to the offseason and spring ball.
#3 Michael Thomas - Thomas sees almost all of his playing time at the nickelback position. Although not technically a starter, he has basically started the last two seasons at nickelback. He improves each and every week, and by the end of the season I could tell that Thomas had become very comfortable at his position. He has a very good understanding of his zone responsibilities, and has begun to learn what opponents will do to attack the defense. MT3 is a very intriguing player who could possibly see time on the offensive side of the ball in the future. Thomas' strengths include his quick feet, loose hips, and natural football instincts. Like Bademosi, I would like to see Thomas work on his ball skills and attempt to make more interceptions when he is in position to make a play. This could help take his game to the next level. Thomas' weakness appears to be his size and his inability to make the conversion from a nickelback to a cornerback. The coaches seem reluctant to let him play on the outside and appear content using him over the slot in our nickel package. With his athleticism and playmaking ability, I expect to see the coaches figure out a way to use him more next year -- whether it be on offense or defense.
At the corner position, we have a ton of athleticism, but no real polished corners. To progress at this position, we need someone to step up and be a leader, and all of our corners must improve their technique and fundamental knowledge of the position. Competition should be fierce with four corners who saw starting experience this year competing for two starting spots for next season.
My Projected Starters:
These projections are based solely on performance and playing time during this season.
I predict Delano Howell to start at strong safety, with Austin Yancy accompanying him at the free safety position. I expect the coaches to keep a close eye on Yancy and have Skaufel waiting to replace him if the coaches don't see enough out of Yancy. Also, I wouldn't be surprised to see a freshman and/or Johnson Bademosi in the mix at the free safety position.
I expect Richard Sherman and Johnson Bademosi to hold on to the starting jobs they earned at the end of this season. I also expect to see Gatewood and Q. Evans rotating in with the two starters. There will be a lot of competition this offseason and spring until someone separates from the pack. Assuming Michael Thomas is still on defense, he will start at his usual spot in the nickel package.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our award-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up)!